Van has since returned to the Midwest empowered, “edumacated,” and embracing her country girl roots. She now resides just outside St. Louis, where she has carved out a niche for herself through her artistry.
Van picks, purchases, and sells furniture and decor to designers, dealers, decorators and collectors mostly from the East and West coasts. She scours flea markets, junk stores and backwater hoards for hidden treasures. Her refined aesthetic and sophisticated eye are sought after internationally. “I realized that I either needed to go to rehab for my shopping addiction, or turn it into something positive.” This trans-formative power is elemental to her personality, and intrinsic to her art. Van’s ability to positively manipulate situations in her life, and objects with her aesthetic, has facilitated her success.
“Growing up I didn’t have a lot of adult guidance, which really allowed my personality to develop in an uninhibited way,” she explains. “As soon as I could drive I started dumpster diving and hitting thrift stores.”
Van was hand picking clothes and accessories out of the catacombs of junk that were amassed in small town re-sale shops. She was training herself to use the aesthetic properties of vintage items for the sake of self expression.
Van’s artistic spirit was too vibrant to tame, and impossible to hide. She was bullied all throughout her youth. Though, towards the end of high school Van found a glimmer of hope in the pages of Project X, an underground nightlife magazine dedicated to Club Kid culture.
“I saw how free and expressive it all was,” she recalls. “I knew I belonged somewhere like that. I wanted to be a part of it.”
As soon as Van graduated she packed up her belongings and embarked on a cultural pilgrimage to Chicago and eventually, New York. Van’s first performance in Chicago was the perfect introduction to the adventures that would ensue: “I arrived in a cardboard casket with tons of balloons flying out in front of me.”
Van regularly go-go danced and performed at Crowbar and Shelter, and was exalted in the nightlife press for her year and a half spent in The Windy City.
Van’s time in New York had a much more tumultuous beginning. She lived initially with her friend Steven Ashmore, who resided in a dilapidated squat.
“I used to wait out in the cold and rain in skimpy outfits and fake furs at all hours for someone to come and open the door so I could make my way up to the top of that tenement, ”Van says. “It was a very trying time in my life…I didn’t have a real home that I could run back to. At that time in my life it was either sink or swim.”
Van regularly danced at Webster Hall’s Makeup Room, and occasionally at Limelight. During her performances at Limelight, a re-purposed Gothic Revival Church, she descended over the dancing crowd from the cavernous ceiling in a giant bird cage, writhing in a rhythmic fervor. Her striking performances made her into a New York sensation. She was photographed for fashion spreads, artistic photo projects and gallery shows including a show at Gramercy Art Club. Van was also cast in various film projects, including her brief speaking part in the documentary film, Wigstock.
Still barely scraping by, Van decided to respond to an ad on the back page of The Village Voice seeking individuals to perform “transgender make-overs on cross-dressers,” which she soon found out was a cover for a call-girl service. Though Van had known since early childhood that she was indeed a woman, she was born genetically male. Van began her first round of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) while working as a high-end escort/dominatrix/psychodramatist for two years.
“My time as a Club Kid was a step towards femininity, but HRT was giant leap,” Van quips. “I never walked the streets honey, I just walked into a lot of really expensive hotels and penthouses. I always practiced safe sex when I was working as a call girl, and I never really got mixed up in the hard drugs that were all around me in the club scene. Staying away from those hard drugs is probably the main reason I’m still alive today.”
When the luster of her fast-paced lifestyle wore off, Van withdrew herself from the party scene, and began questioning her decision to reassign her gender. “No one at that time would hire me being a transgender person. Being passable is one thing, undetectable is another, and I had no job skills beyond what I knew previously.”
Van chose to stop HRT and revert back to living a masculine life. He worked his way into corporate America.
“It was an important time, She says. “I learned aspects of business and deal-making that I couldn’t have learned any other way. College was never an option for me. I had been called a faggot before I ever reached the age of puberty, and I didn’t want to risk being the victim of a hate crime. Looking back, I could have ended up like Matthew Shepard, being drug down a dirt road by a chain to my death, all because of my gender [identity] and sexuality.”
Van’s immersion into the corporate world transformed him and his artistic spirit was tempered into steel. The process yielded an individual who possessed a passionately artistic soul and an unbreakable constitution. It was a vital period of growth, though it took an emotional and physical toll.
“I was completely unhappy while living as a man,” she admits. “I began having very self-destructive sexual habits for the first time in my life, because I felt like I would never grow into the person I was supposed to be. Self-destructive behavior is often produced by that overwhelming sense of hopelessness.”
When the time was right, Van decided to live again as the gender she was born to be. She left her corporate job, and returned to her old Midwestern stomping grounds.
“I realized that I had to continue with my HRT,” she says. “I had to find a way to be my own boss, so that I could not be fired for being transsexual. So I began junking.”
Van’s ability to pick out the elemental qualities of an object or accessory and place them perfectly to the appropriate situation was now coupled with her corporate life experience. She had become an artist with a business side. Instead of selling her aesthetic in the form of herself to crowds of party people, she now sells it as high-end decorative art and artifact.
The artist has come full circle and is now living out her childhood dream. She and her committed partner often escape to a secluded cabin owned by her partner’s family, where they, camp, hike, swim, fish, four wheel, shoot guns, garden, landscape and bask in the beauty of nature.
“I’m essentially a Midwestern girl at heart,” Van concludes. “I loved my previous life, but now I cut trails through the woods, build pathways out of rocks that I dig up by hand and love one man. It’s so great to grow up and become exactly what you dreamt of as a little boy…. I wish my level of happiness on everyone!”
BY: DERICK ALLISON