Inside The Life Of A Transgender Star In Taiwan

Photo: Courtesy of Kiwebaby Zhang.
There's no question that Kiwebaby Zhang meets the standards to be considered a "social-media celebrity."

The 24-year-old regularly appears on TV and has a combined follower count of 250,000 people on Instagram and Facebook. Her selfies and OOTD posts regularly attract thousands of likes.

However, her impressive media credentials are only part the reason she frequently makes headlines in Taiwan: Zhang is one of the few trans people in the public eye — and arguably the most visible one in her generation.

In her native land, Zhang is called a nisemusume, a borrowed Japanese term referring to androgynous men who can pass for women with the aid of makeup and clothing. While not all nisemusume — which loosely translates as "fake lady" — identify as women, Zhang has stated that she has identified as female ever since elementary school.

Zhang got her first big break — a guest spot on University, one of Taiwan's most popular talk shows — after getting scouted at a nightclub. She then parlayed the gig into a recurring role as one of the show's college-student panelists. More offers to appear on TV rolled in, and in 2014 she became the first transgender person in Taiwan to release a music video.

One of the most recognized faces at this past LGBT Pride in Taipei, she regularly emcees at commercial events and models for women's fashion catalogs. In a phone interview, Zhang spoke to Refinery29 about growing up in Taiwan and her desire to help other trans youth find love and acceptance.
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When I was playing games where I had to pick a role, I always picked a female character.

Kiwebaby Zhang
Can you talk to us about what it was like growing up in Taiwan?
"I've always identified with the opposite gender since elementary school. I loved playing with Barbies and watching anime like Sailor Moon. When I was playing games where I had to pick a role, I always picked a female character. I'd strut around in my mom's riding boots and stage runway shows in the living room.

"In middle school, I started developing crushes on guys who were upperclassmen, but I never said anything to them and would love them from a distance. When I was 17, I dressed as a woman for the first time."
Photo: Courtesy of Kiwebaby Zhang.
A photo of Zhang at age 20. She first auditioned for a spot on the talk show University as a male and didn't get a callback. It wasn't until she was recognized by a cast member — while wearing female clothing at a club's Ladies' Night — that she won a second chance. Her first guest appearance on the show was for the segment "Taboo Love Affairs on Campus" to discuss college-age men who date nisemusume.
What was your family's reaction when they saw you?
"My parents divorced when I was in fourth grade, so I've been estranged from my father ever since. I don't really know how he feels about me. My mum and my extended family have always been understanding about my sexual orientation, but less so about my desire to be a woman. It wasn't until I grew out my hair that they've accepted that this is who I want to be. My boyfriend's mother has a harder time, and understandably so: Her relatives would always pester her about my relationship with her son and ask 'what's wrong' with him."

You had a breast augmentation back in July. Can you tell us more about the decision behind it?

"I've wanted a set of boobs for as long as I could remember. I was always envious of girls who looked great wearing low-cut clothing. Before the surgery, I felt very insecure and would always avoid dresses that draw attention to the chest area. Guys would say things to me like, 'You would look so much sexier with bigger breasts,' and that stayed with me.

"Getting this done was almost impossible for me in Taiwan. I've been to so many hospitals and clinics where they refused performing breast augmentation on a man. Luckily, a clinic got in touch with me earlier this year and asked if I wanted to change anything about my body. The owners were willing to sponsor the procedures if I became a spokesmodel, so my wish finally came true. The first week was hellish because the doctor needed to keep pressing on my implants so they don't harden. It feels like being run over by a truck."

Did you undergo any other medical procedures?

"I contemplated a gender confirmation surgery, but my boyfriend was really against it. He saw how much I was suffering when I got the implants and didn't want me to be in any more pain. He said that he will compensate any sense of loss I have with his love. He already sees me as a woman, perfect the way I am."
Photo: Courtesy of Kiwebaby Zhang.
It's mandatory for men between 18 to 35 in Taiwan to serve a year in the military. Were you able to be exempted?
"I was exempted, but the process was one of the most grueling things I've ever experienced. I was required to provide a diagnosis for my gender dysphoria, and to do so, I had to make three visits to a hospital an hour away from me. Each mental evaluation consisted of 1,000 questions, and I was asked about every little detail in my life. It was so uncomfortable since they'd stop at nothing to make sure you are not 'faking' it to get away with serving in the army: I was with a friend who's in the same situation, she was asked to show her underwear right there and then and prove that she had women's panties on."

You were often asked to remove your makeup or change into a "masculine" get-up on TV. Do you ever feel that you're marginalized for entertainment value?

"Unfortunately, that's the entertainment ecosystem in Taiwan. People here are under a lot of stress at work, so they don't want to watch anything serious when they get home. Every program you see on TV is lighthearted and driven for laughs. If I want to discuss the hardships trans people face, the only possible outlet would be a documentary."
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Photo: Via YouTube.
A screenshot of Zhang's guest appearance on Kangxi Lai Le, an extremely popular talk show in Taiwan. Nisemusume are often booked on these shows and asked to remove their makeup and change into masculine clothing on camera, to create the shock value of a "transformation." This particular segment bore the title "Check Out These Fake Ladies Without Makeup On!"
Have there been moments where you felt mistreated for your gender identity?
"Once, a guy who didn't know who I was tried to chat me up in a club. His friends recognized me, so they pulled him away and said, 'Don't you know that he's a man?' Stuff like that would happen all the time. Just earlier this month, a random woman confronted me on the street and yelled, 'He's a dude!' to my face. She probably read about me in the news.

"I also ran into a lot of trouble because my ID depicts a person of a different sex: When I was on vacation in Amsterdam, I was detained for an hour by immigration officers. They wouldn't believe that that is me on the passport. I've had similar experiences on the Taipei metro: I was accused of fare evasion because I used my student ID for concession tickets and the photo doesn't look like me in real life."

Just earlier this month, a random woman confronted me on the street and yelled, 'He's a dude!' to my face.

Kiwebaby Zhang
How do you usually cope when these things happen to you?
"I used to be really indignant about how life would be so much easier if I were born female. Now that I have more understanding of what a woman goes through in her lifetime — from menstrual pains to worrying about birth control — I do feel somewhat liberated from dealing with these things. I know there are people out there who appreciate me for who I am."

Do you have any role models?
"I admire Andreja Pejic so much. I've followed her career for years and admire her style and wisdom. I actually check her Instagram every day."

What's your biggest goal for the future?
"I get private messages on Facebook all the time from young people who are going through the same thing. They'd tell me how they thought they were unworthy of being loved before discovering my story. So, I'd love to publish a book about my journey and the obstacles I faced along the way so even more people can read it. And I'd very much love to be married someday."
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