After the church gig, the sex change, the freak show and the bear costume, NYC’s Baby Dee is at last recognized for her intense and original talent
Let’s get this straight right away—Baby Dee is not your average girl. For starters, she came into the world sporting male genitals, long ago tossed into some medical waste bin somewhere, and launched her post-religious musical career as a transgendered street performer playing flawless harp in New York’s Central Park, all dressed up in a bear costume. Moreover, she’s worked as a freak in various sideshows around the world, including one lengthy stretch at Coney Island where, as the “Bilateral Hermaphrodite,” she’d judge the success of her performances by how angry her audiences became when she’d ultimately choose not to show them her “complete package” after all.
But forget all this fakir-esque stuff for a second. Baby Dee is a uniquely talented, classically trained songwriter/musician in what is probably best described as the, uh, “what the fuck!?” tradition. Okay, to elaborate a tad, maybe think Antony and the Johnsons with some neo-vaudevillian Nick Cave, Marc Almond, John Cale, Tom Waits, and, uh, perhaps even some Harpo Marx thrown in for good measure. Yet however lamely one chooses to label Baby Dee’s sound, there’s simply no question her new album, Safe Inside the Day, is a brilliant piece of work from a serious musical artist—one who also happens to hold one beautifully wicked sense of humour.
Mirror: Marc Almond is one of your top MySpace friends. Have you ever worked together on anything?
Baby Dee: Yes, last spring, after he’d recovered from his horrendous motorcycle accident, we finally got to play together and he covered a couple of my songs. Marc has been unimaginably kind to me and it’s a dream come true to have somebody with a voice like that sing my stuff. People say I’ve got one of those voices you either love or hate—and I hate it. So it means a lot to hear my songs sung by somebody with an indisputably magnificent voice like his. I adore and worship Marc Almond.
M: Has your sexual transformation affected you creatively? You’ve said the experience can “embitter” a person.
BD: That was a misunderstanding. I was absolutely over-the-moon happy about my transformation. The bitter part for trannies happens on the street. It comes from being misunderstood on a regular basis—like every minute of the day. I hate to even talk about it. I’m not bitter and I was never completely bitter. I had a few bad years, it happens to everybody. It is so too bad that people can go through hard times and not be made compassionate by it. They can go the wrong way, and the terrible, appalling truth is that becoming bitter is more natural. It’s a real fight to forgive and love. So when I meet a person, a tranny or somebody who’s had to go through this sort of thing and hasn’t become embittered by the experience, I know I’m in the presence of a real, honest-to-goodness saint.
M: Saint or not, it’s hard to imagine that starring in a Coney Island freak show wouldn’t make most people kind of bitter about the world.
BD: Yes and no. The jobs themselves weren’t embittering at all. But maybe you have to be a little bit bitter to want the job in the first place. And you know, there’s a wonderful friendliness and safety on the inside of that world. That act enabled me to turn the table on a world that had been particularly unkind to me, so I made the most of it and ended up having a lot of fun. If you’re going to be embittered, and really want to embrace your bitterness, then a freak show is a lovely place to do it. There’s a humour and a playfulness about it that’s darkly redeeming.
M: Why did you choose to leave your former career playing religious music in a church, way up in the Bronx?
BD: Well, come on, after my transition it was, like… (pauses) Listen, I once knew a tranny who was a motorcycle cop in Hoboken, who wanted to transition on the job and, poor baby, my heart goes out to her. Good lord, it’s hard enough without making it even harder. I loved my gig up there. I loved the children. I loved the people. I loved my boss, everything about it. But I didn’t want to turn their world upside down. Life is tough enough in the South Bronx without any extra contributions from me.