LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Ari Southiphong (Andy South)

Air date: Tues., Jun. 11, 7:30 pm

 

Original air date: Tues., Jun. 11, 2013

 

Finding the Light

 

Leslie Wilcox talks with fashion designer Ariyaphon Southiphong, formerly Andy South. In the first of two episodes, Ari talks about growing up in Waianae, Oahu, discovering fashion as a career choice and landing a spot on the fashion competition show, Project Runway. As Andy, he maintained keen focus on school projects and clothing design, with questions about gender identity lingering on the backburner. In 2012, Andy changed his name to Ari and now identifies as a transgendered female.

 

Download: Ari Southiphong (Andy South), Finding the Light Transcript

 

 

Original air date: Tues., July 9, 2013

 

A Life Redesigned

 

In the second of two episodes, fashion designer Ariyaphon Southiphong (formerly Andy South) talks about her transition to becoming a transgendered female through hormone replacement therapy. Ari elaborates on the challenges her transition has presented and the insight it has given her, both personally and professionally.

 

Download: Ari Southiphong (Andy South), A Life Redesigned Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Part 1: Finding the Light

 

My name is Ariyaphon, Ari for short. And my mom renamed me. I asked her to, because it was very important for me to remain connected with my family, to remain connected with my mom. Ariyaphon means the blessing of radiant light, or the power of radiant light.

 

Which definition did you pick?

 

The meaning that she would have spelled it was, the blessing of radiant light. And the spelling that I chose translates Ariyaphon to the power of radiating light.

 

Power.

 

Honolulu fashion designer Ariyaphon Southipong, former the man known as Andy South, next on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha; I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ariyaphon Southiphong is one of Hawaii’s most recognized young fashion designers. Name doesn’t ring a bell? You may know her better as Andy South. In 2010, Andy South was a top-three finalist on Lifetime Television’s fashion reality show, Project Runway. In 2012, a year before our conversation, Andy changed his name to Ari and began his transition to becoming a female. A child of Laotian immigrants, Ari, then Andy, grew up far from the glamour of fashion and television. Born in Kailua on Oahu’s windward coast, Andy lived with his parents, his sister, half-sister, and two half-brothers. Andy’s parents had a tumultuous marriage. By the time Andy reached the third grade, his parents had split, his mother remarried, and the family moved to the other side of Oahu, to Waianae.

 

And what prompted the move to Waianae?

 

Farming. [CHUCKLE]

 

What kind of farming?

 

Catfish farming. Catfish, and sunfish which is —

 

Tilapia.

 

— tilapia.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

It’s a fancy word for tilapia. But yeah, so freshwater sunfish, freshwater Chinese catfish. When we first started, we actually did an above-ground tank in our back yard in Kailua, and it leaked into the neighbor’s yard. It was a huge ordeal with us running into a lot of issues. It was also our test period, right, of trying to farm raise fish and see if it would be viable for us to actually do it as a business. We eventually moved out to Waianae, and I lived there most of my life, actually.

 

What brought your parents to Hawaii?

 

A better future, quintessential immigrant parents. But more so in my mom’s case, it was specifically … she had actually come here with her first husband, who is the father to my three eldest siblings, who are half siblings for me. But they came as college students, and it was also to escape Communism. My mother, youngest of five girls, daughter to a governor. So, when the whole government was overturned, they were actually warned to leave the country, or they would have eventually been killed if they were ever caught. So, that was their reason for leaving.

 

Is there an exciting escape story?

 

No. [CHUCKLE] College. [CHUCKLE] So, they didn’t have any —

 

Visa.

 

Yeah; college visas. And at the time, they were actually coming back and forth to Hawaii for college at the University of Hawaii. And it just so happened that things with the government weren’t going well, and so, eventually, Mom based herself here and slowly, everybody was sent over, starting with the kids. So, all of my twenty-plus cousins have gone through my mom’s household, when they were in their teens going to high school, starting college. And then, their parents made their way over.

 

So, your mom was a privileged daughter of a governor, to struggling catfish farmer in Waianae.

 

Yeah; basically. My mom would talk a lot about her growing up in Laos, and a lot of things that she … I guess, throughout our lives, growing up as farmers, she would reminisce sometimes about the easier times when life wasn’t so hard, basically.

 

She had somebody tending to her all the time.

 

Exactly; yeah. But I love when people reminisce. I love old stories. I love speaking to older people. I just think that life is so interesting in the way that the stories are all different, and then you realize it’s how they have come out of situations, or how they turn situations o benefit from, and to turn them into blessings, as opposed to letting it kill them.

 

So, you’ve always kind of been attuned to coping skills?

 

Yes; I think so.

 

And resilience?

 

M-hm. And I learned that all from my mom. And my mom still is the hero that I have, which I think a lot of people can say that their mother is their hero, or their father is their hero. I think for every child, it’s very deep for different reasons. And for me, it’s because I’ve watched my mom be the strong woman that she is, and I’ve seen her in her weak moments. You know. But even in that, she had shown such great strength by not letting it show.

 

Growing up as the boy known then as Andy Southiphong, Andy found his mother’s lesson of resilience to be a valuable and recurring one, as childhood teasing led to bigger questions.

 

Do you remember some of the early things that you had to use resilience to overcome when you were a kid?

 

[CHUCKLE] A lot of teasing.

 

About what? What kind of teasing? Regular kind?

 

Yeah, well, a lot of regular teasing, which is kids being kids. I obviously wasn’t the popular kid growing up. I wasn’t athletic. I was actually a lot heavier when I was a child, so I was teased a lot for, one, my weight, for me being just naturally effeminate as a boy.

 

Did that bother you?

 

It did, but I never let it get me down. Because I think I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of mentors throughout my life, and they’ve been my teachers, a lot of my instructors.

 

What did the teachers say, or how did they let you know everything’s okay?

 

I guess it was the positive feedback that I was getting from them for my work, and for me being a good student. For them constantly telling me, You’re gonna go far. And even in elementary, that matters so much to the development of a child. Because had they not been that positive with me — and I don’t think they ever knew that I would get teased or that it bothered. I was never bullied, per se. I never was picked on, but you have other students in your class of how many really rowdy boys, and you don’t fit in with the boys. And then, if you play with the girls, that’s more reason for you to get teased, right?

 

Did you try to sound less effeminate?

 

Growing up, I did, throughout high school. It started to matter more as I grew older, and as I reached high school. Because that, I guess, is … you start to really decide who you are.

 

Or it’s decided for you?

 

Yeah; it’s decided for you based on the opinions of your peers. And I tried to; I took a weightlifting class as an elective. But I don’t think I’m the correct person to go to weightlifting.

 

And did you talk roughly? [CHUCKLE]

 

[CHUCKLE] I’m pretty sure. There were a lot of moments that I tried to. Locker room situations were awkward, because a lot of people just gathered and assumed that I was gay, and they would voice that. And so, from early on, that’s when I was like, Okay, maybe I am.

 

Did you know you were gay?

 

I did. Well, I knew that I wasn’t straight. That’s the thing. And the closest thing that I knew of to what I really am was being gay.

 

But you didn’t think that quite hit it?

 

No; never. And that’s the thing, and maybe that was the reason. That was probably the reason why I never fully accepted it. I didn’t come out to my mom ‘til I was twenty-one. Among my gay friends, my other gay male friends, I never felt like I … I still didn’t fit in. Something internally just wasn’t right. After high school, in college, I actually met more gay friends. Going out to the clubs more, meeting more of the community, that I started to meet transgender women and transgender men, drag queens or cross-dressers, that I started to realize that there’s much more to the community, than just being gay or straight, or bisexual or gay or straight. And it started to open my eyes, because then I started to get to know them. I started to get to know people for who they are. That’s never something that I allowed myself to do before, because I was so focused on school, focused on my career. And that’s how I am. When I was in college, everything was school-school-school. I was sewing all the time, I was doing extra projects, ‘cause that was my focus. And it could have been a distraction.

 

That’s what I was gonna ask you.

 

Yeah.

 

Do you think you did that as an escape from questions about identity, which are central to any young person. It’s who are you? What am I evolving into?

 

Exactly.

 

Who will I be, who am I now?

 

Well, ‘cause I knew that I had a talent that was received positively. So, I think that’s why I was always drawing, I was always creating. In high school, I always loved the big projects, the projects that every other kid hated. I loved building. We had to build these huge insects at one point, we had to make cell models. And I loved it. I spent all my money, all my allowance at craft supply stores. And on the weekends and on the school breaks, I would stay home and watch Home and Garden Television, and all these craft shows that I loved, and I started dabbling in quilting. And my mom taught me needlepoint when I was very young, so that’s where I got a lot of my initial sewing skills from. But that was my way of putting my best forward, because I knew that that was something that was very positive in me.

 

And were you consciously thinking, there’s other things I have to pursue, but I just can’t get to that right now?

 

M-hm.

 

I don’t know what it is, but something’s up with me.

 

Yeah; always. That’s always been in the back of my mind.

 

The former man known as Andy Southiphong set aside questions about identity and instead focused on finding a career that would play to his creative strength. During his senior year at Waianae High School, Andy fell in love with a career option he had not previously considered.

 

All those career days, and nobody mentioned fashion?

 

No; not at all, not in Waianae. And it wasn’t until I went to a State college fair at the Blaisdell that I found a connection with it being creative and seeing what you create being taken to a commercial sense, and being sold and being worn, and actually being utilized every day. For art to have a purpose; that was really, really interesting to me. To see something that you create become something functional in the real world. And so, after that college fair, I decided that I wanted to do fashion. That’s why I say it was serendipitous, because had I not gone to that career fair, I wouldn’t have realized that it was possible.

 

What were you looking for at the career fair? Did you have something in mind?

 

 

At the time, I was in culinary arts. And before that, it was architecture and mechanical drawing, and I had taken classes in both throughout high school as electives. And that’s because I loved being in the home, I loved to cook, I loved to do crafts with my mom. And so, I was trying to find something that was something that I loved. You’re told that you should do …

 

 

Build on what you know; right?

 

Yeah; build on what you know, choose to do something that you love, so that you’re happy.

 

Not long after that serendipitous discovery, Andy Southiphong branded himself as Andy South and enrolled in the fashion technology program at Honolulu Community College. He gained a reputation for designing edgy couture gowns. Several years after graduating, serendipity found Andy once more.

 

I think you were only twenty-three when you got yourself on Project Runway.

Yes.

How did that happen?

I went through an audition process. I had gotten a call while I was at work, and it was the casting agent for Project Runway, who had gotten my number from someone else. And they said that, We called a few people locally in the area, and they all had you at the top of their list to contact to audition. So, they invited me to audition. And even then, it was maybe a week before the deadline, and I was like, I don’t know. I had already looked into the audition process, I looked at the deadlines.

 

Was it a lot to do? Did you have to make something?

 

[SIGH] It was a lot of prep. Because you have to submit a portfolio, a digital portfolio, and you have to do a three to five-minute audition video, fill out the application, which I believe was twenty-some-odd pages. A lot. And that was like, written pages. And then, there was another forty of what you had to read for the contract. So, it was a very daunting process that I was just kind of like, Ah — I kinda wrote it off as like, Oh, I’ll try next year. But by them calling me I said, You know, what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll just continue doing what I’m doing.

 

I’ll stay up late a few nights and get it done.

 

Yeah. So, a lot of things happened just in that instant, because I knew that I listened to what I was supposed to do. I could tell that God was telling me, You need to do this because you’re getting too comfortable. ‘Cause at the time, I was working for another company locally, another fashion brand, but she was more focused on manufacturing and selling. So, not as creative, I was doing a lot of office administration stuff and shipping orders, taking orders, but really learning the business. And that’s really where I learned a lot of what I need to put into practice now.

 

And by this time, you were out of Honolulu Community College’s fashion program.

 

M-hm. I was already talking to the owner of the company about taking over. Taking over the company so she can retire, and I would have been set. I would be running another company, but it wouldn’t be the company I’m running now. And so, the fact that I acted on that gut instinct that told me, Okay, you need to do this, you don’t know what’s gonna happen but you need to do it and just be open to the possibilities. And that was me listening what I was supposed to do. The things playing out the way that they did that told me, Okay, you’re about to embark on a really crazy ride and you better free yourself up, and be open to what’s gonna come.

 

And you acquitted yourself in the way your mom said you should, with strength of character.

 

Right.

 

Was that hard to do? I mean, it must have been tempting sometimes not to make a snarky comment, as everyone else seemed to do.

 

Right. That would have been the easy thing to do. But I think I kept in mind that you’re always on camera, you’re always on a microphone, so even if you said something in private, they would ask you about it later.

 

 

And it’ll exist on tape forever, or digital records.

 

Exactly. So, I always kept that in mind, which kept me from overreacting. But I think after I grew out of my childhood tantrums and as I matured, I grew calmer in my thoughts. My friends always told me that I have a really calm demeanor about myself, that even in the thick of stress, in the thick of chaotic situations, I’m able to think logically and to be levelheaded about my reactions. And there are times when I’m running around the studio, crazy, and I’m telling people to do ten things at one time and I’m yelling at people, but most times, I’m actually much more thoughtful about my actions, and that helped me. That and also making sure that I had … many people don’t know this, about how important my faith is to me. And the more I talk about it, I think you hear it, that it plays a huge role in my day-to-day, even though I don’t talk about it and I don’t make it an Evangelistical thing. But I kept my Bible with me, and I prayed every night, and I just wanted to keep myself centered, keep myself grounded, ‘cause I knew that I was entering a place that I wasn’t familiar with. And I didn’t want to be just caught off guard and lose myself, I didn’t want to lose myself in it.

 

Rather, Andy Southiphong aka Andy South, was finding himself. At the brink of his fashion design success in Hawaii and on Project Runway, Andy was beginning to resolve those questions about his identity, that he had long kept in the back of his mind.

 

When did you discover transgender living?

 

Well, my first time doing drag was probably years into going out in the gay scene. And it’s not one of those things that had tormented me my whole life. I just knew that something wasn’t completely there, but it was never pressing on my mind all the time. So, I decided to do drag one year in Portland.

 

Was that because you’re a fashion-conscious person, or because you thought maybe you’d like to be a woman?

 

I thought that that was actually my opportunity to see if that was something inside of me that needed to come out. And along the lines of being a drag queen and being a performer, you’ve got a huge gray area of being a transvestite or a cross-dresser, which is a man who dresses up in women’s clothing, and then, transsexuals and transgender people.

 

And there are some people who really don’t know. They’re somewhere in between.

 

And there’s every different level in between being a cross-dresser and a transgender individual. So, I think that’s why a lot of the confusion comes up with people in the public just not knowing a lot, or not knowing enough. So, a lot of times, being transgender gets mixed with being a cross-dresser, and you know, you’re gay.

 

It’s a big category.

 

Right; yeah. Because a cross-dresser technically usually consider himself gay, because they still like men, they like being a man, but they like dressing up as women just to perform for fun. So, I’ve been asked many times, So are you gay? And I don’t consider myself gay. But it kinda just opens up the topic of conversation for all this gray area that can get very exhausting. And there’s a lot of different levels, but I don’t think that we shouldn’t talk about it, because every person is different. And it really should be as the person identifies himself is what they are. Because gender, sexual orientation are completely different; completely different things.

 

Talk about that, ‘cause I don’t understand that.

 

Gender and sexual orientation are different. And I think it gets mixed up, because your gender is often called your birth sex or your sex. Right?

 

Okay.

 

Meaning physically, what you have. And sexual orientation is whether you are homosexual and you like being a male who likes other men, or a female who likes other women. But gender identity has nothing to do with sex.

 

I see what you mean.

 

It has nothing to do with sexual lust, it has nothing to do with the taboo of a man having sex with what most people will call a tranny, which I find very offensive. I’ll joke around with my other sisters about it. When I talk to my sisters and referring to myself, I like to keep things light. And so, sometimes I’ll refer to myself as Trandy. [CHUCKLE] ‘Cause I’m Andy, and I’m transsexual. But even my family has had to learn a lot about, I don’t consider myself gay, I consider myself a woman who was born a male. Because I’m not attracted to other gay men. I thought I was when I was trying to live as a gay male. But I see myself with a straight man, I see myself having a real family, living as a woman, being completely that female role in society.

 

And yet, you’ve chosen not to have surgery. You’re doing hormones, right?

 

M-hm. Yeah.

 

Is there a longer term plan?

 

There’s a longer term plan, and the first steps are to get onto your hormone replacement therapy. Because it takes time, and you have to equal it to a girl going through puberty for the first time.

 

So, as you’re building a business, you’re going through this transition. And that affects even what your name is.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

You could have kept your name.

 

M-hm; yeah.

 

What made you decide not to? It’s the Andy South brand

 

Right.

 

And your name is?

 

My name is Ariyaphon, Ari for short. And my mom renamed me. I asked her to, because it was very important for me to remain connected with my family, to remain connected with my mom. And throughout the initial steps of my transition, I just wanted to be very sensitive to the fact that I wanted my mom to be as much a part of my life as she wants to be. Every mother wants to be a part of their child’s life.

 

Why did she choose that name? Does it mean something?

 

Yeah. Ariyaphon has the meaning in Sanskrit, which is the Buddhist language. She went to the temple to ask for two names; one of them being Ariyaphon. And the meaning of it, depending on the spelling, either means the blessing of radiant light, or the power of radiant light.

 

Which definition did you pick?

 

The meaning that she would have spelled it was, the blessing of radiant light. And the spelling that I chose translates Ariyaphon to the power of radiating light.

 

Power.

 

[CHUCKLE] Exactly.

 

And so, this is a personal brand. So, you have to make that distinction between, this is me, and this is me. So, essentially, your transgenderism becomes a conversation in your business.

 

Yeah.

 

It’s the first thing out there, if you’re the spokesperson.

 

M-hm. It does. The true test was, I had done this after we had started working with Neiman Marcus, which is really great for a brand, being associated with a high end retailer like that.

 

Was that a factor for them, the fact that you’d chosen to go transgender?

 

No. I actually met with them about my second collection that they were purchasing, and I had gone as female. And at the time, I wearing a wig, and I was dressing in women’s clothing. But of course, in the beginning, I was very androgynous and maybe a little bit more detectable as not being a genetic female. And I conducted the first part of the meeting with just them, just their buyer and me, that’s it. And then, midway through, we got to catch up a little bit more, and then I told them, and I said also, I mean, I’m sure you guys know this by now by coming here, that I am now living my life as a woman and I have chosen to transition and act upon what makes me happy. I just wanted to make sure that the lines of communication were open. The main thing that I told them was, If you have any questions or concerns, or anything about what I’m going through, ask me. Don’t feel that you can’t ask me because we’re professional or we have a professional relationship. I want you folks to be open with me, and I want you to know that me doing this is not gonna affect my business. But this is my personal journey that I’m deciding to take.

 

What was the reaction?

 

They were supportive. And along with everybody, everybody was supportive. Because it goes back to what my mom first told me when I had come out to her as gay. It makes so much sense, because when you allow your professionalism, when you allow your character to speak before you do, there’s no denying that you’re one that should be respected. I think that was the main thing, that was my mom’s main concern with me living the living the life that I choose to live.

 

What a groundbreaking conversation you had with Neiman Marcus. How often do those conversations take place?

 

Probably not often, because you don’t hear a lot about transgender business owners or transgender women who are in the process of making that transition as they conduct business.

 

Yeah.

 

Usually, it’s before or after.

 

A lot of people would handle it a lot differently than you did. Because, you chose to just say, Here’s the deal.

 

Yeah. And I decided that because quite honestly, I knew that I wasn’t happy internally. And I guess what I always value above everything else is that I’m living a life that I feel fulfilled, and that I feel happy. Because if I’m not happy with the life that I’m living, there’s no way that I can do good for other people.

 

Ariyaphon Southiphong currently operates her clothing line, still branded Andy South, out of her workshop in Honolulu’s Chinatown. In a future episode of Long Story Short, we’ll talk more with Ari about her life as a transgender woman. For PBS Hawaii, and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

I love fashion very much, but it’s not the only thing that I love. What I love most is actually creating opportunity. Seeing something good being done for the world, thinking that I’m gonna leave the world a better place that what it was is why I live every day. And I’m given the opportunity by having a company, by forming my company, by having the drive that I have, having the courage that I have to do it, make the choices that I’ve made, and to continue living my life, as well as living my life in a good way, and creating a lot of great things for the community and for society, and specifically with creating jobs, creating opportunity for young talent that’s coming out of Hawaii.

 

Part 2: A Life Redesigned

 

I’m hoping that me living my life in a public manner gives the opportunity for discussion and opens up the floor for people to realize that being transgender isn’t being a freak of nature.

 

Honolulu fashion designer Ariyaphon Southiphong, formerly the man known as Andy South, next on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha; I’m Leslie Wilcox. Honolulu fashion designer Andy South first gained national recognition in Season 8 of Lifetime Television’s reality competition show, Project Runway. In 2012, Andy announced that he was now a she, a transgendered female. Her mother renamed her Ariyaphon Southiphong, or Ari for short. Her clothing line continues to operate under the Andy South name. As of our conversation in 2013, Ari has not yet undergone gender reassignment surgery. Ari has been on hormone replacement therapy, biweekly injections of testosterone blockers and estrogen, which she plans to take for the rest of her life. When Ari, who had already built the Andy South brand, first told her mother about wanting to start hormone therapy, her mother had her concerns, based on a previous transition attempt.

 

Her first question was like, Why would you want to do this? Because she had gone through my first transition, which was right before Project Runway, and I stopped right before.

 

Were you not sure you wanted to?

 

I wasn’t sure.

 

Ah …

 

Yeah. I wasn’t sure about my first transition, because it was so quick. My body took to the hormones so quickly, the changes were coming on too fast. And I felt like I had made the decision based on pressure, or encouragement from people who didn’t really know me as well as I, thought that that person or that influence should be coming from. And so, I took a step back and I actually had a lot of resentment toward being transgender. I didn’t go out anymore, I had stopped talking to a lot of people. Because had to deal with my own internal conflict of, What did you just do to your body? A lot of things caused me to hate myself.

 

That’s what you were feeling like right before you went on the TV show?

 

Yeah.

 

‘Cause you were still centered.

 

Yeah. That’s what I was feeling right before going on the TV show. But that first transition and then off of it, I took it as, well, it was probably a lesson learned. And then, when it came up again, this was after I came back from Project Runway, and a lot of great things were happening, again that same feeling of something is missing. I had already gotten a glimpse of who Ari was. Who I was as a female.

 

Did it come to you as a visual? ‘Cause you’re a visual person.

M-hm; it did.

 

You saw yourself as a woman?

 

Yeah, I started to see her more often. I saw myself as a woman much more often, because I had that first glimpse of my first, few months on transition. In the beginning, I used to always talk about the Andy South woman, and she was always on the show. A lot of people will recall and they all became fans of that warrior woman that I was designing for. I guess what I realized was that the imaginary person I was designing for was me.

 

I see.

 

So, that imaginary Andy South woman who was a warrior. Because I felt like I had to fight for whatever it is that I wanted to do. And especially at that stage, it was such a breaking moment of my career that I think a lot of the reason why my designs came out as very hard and very defensive was because I felt like I was constantly fighting. I was constantly competing to remain in the game. And then when I came home after that initial collection — I mean, the back story to my collections are always very extensive. Because it’s about the woman and what she’s going through. And after that first collection, at the end of my first fashion show actually, the last model came out with this huge costume that was ripped away. It was about a girl going through the seasons, transitioning through winter, and then at the end breaking into the first glimmer of spring with the ice melting away and her hard exterior melting away. The next collection was extremely feminine. But I think that they made sense with the Andy South brand completely, because even though it looked like light and dark, the story was like a next chapter to this girl, where a lot of it was silk hand-dyed ombre, beautiful colors, like the water. Because I imagined this girl now coming out of this melted snow, out of this debris, like everything was frozen over and that she was coming out of this muddy, murky water, renewed and was finding a new femininity in herself. And that was in the same collection that I decided to make my transition.

 

This time, Ariyaphon Southiphong was confident about transitioning to a female body. But that didn’t make the journey an easy one.

 

Do you spend any time saying, Why me?

 

Many times. Yeah; many times. I constantly ask, Why was I born this way?   And after college, I actually transitioned from Buddhist, ‘cause I grew up Buddhist with my parents, and I became a Christian. But I understand a lot of the Buddhist teachings that my mom taught us. I constantly pray, and I constantly have conversations with God on a regular basis. And then, when I was dealing with the reality of my transition, and quite often the struggles. And a lot of people see me now, and they see me received very well in the general public. There’s a lot of things that I deal with internally that aren’t so … glamorous, they’re not positive, a lot of things that I question about myself.

 

Self doubts, you mean?

 

Self doubts; yeah. All the time. Because society is always telling you one thing, even though in your gut that you need to do the other. And especially in the beginning, I constantly prayed about, Is this right? That was my main prayer.

 

Did you have a mentor or counselor?

 

I mean, I did talk to my doctor about it, who diagnosed me with gender dysphoria, which allowed me to start my transition.

 

So, you have to say you’re mentally ill in order to begin something that you say is going to heal you.

 

Yeah. Because in the medical world, that’s the way it’s treated. You treat gender dysphoria by allowing yourself to live in the form, and attain that physical being that you identify with for your mental sake. Which when you think about it, it’s so … [SIGH] … it’s almost pitiful, when you think about it, of someone having to succumb to admitting to that, and admitting to them suffering from mental illness in order to be happy. Because I don’t think it’s a mental illness. I think that it’s just the life that I was born into. This is life. And my main conflict with God in the beginning was, like the main question was, Is this right?

 

Did you say, God, you know, You know I’m not your son, I’m your daughter?

 

Right. Yeah; exactly. I used to always ask, actually; I don’t ask anymore, because I know that for whatever the circumstances and whatever He has in front of me and before me, this is the path that He’s determined for me, and the journey that He’s already laid out, because He knows that I can handle it.

 

There are a lot of segments of the Christian church, and there are some elements which would say, Come on, that’s not right.

 

Of course.

 

I know you’ve heard it, and what do you do say?

 

I think that everyone’s walk with God is different. And especially with being a Christian, there are so many different variations, I would say. Some being a little bit more by the Bible, being closer to Catholicism. But for me, religion has always been kind of not a big question, but I’ve always been one to ask questions. And the reason why I think I’m such a strong Christian is because I found Christianity and I found God on my own. I wasn’t brought up forced to go to church. I wasn’t brought up forced to do anything religious. But I knew He was calling me. A lot of thing that happened in my childhood and my life, just aside from me being transgender, have already told me that He has been calling me back to Him, to know Him, to live my life in a way that will affect the world in a really great way. In the beginning, I used to always ask, like, Well, am I really supposed to live this life? My fear was that I was doing something wrong. My fear was that I was being selfish and acting upon my own want to be a woman. Going back to people telling me it’s a choice. People telling me that this is a decision you make, you’re not born this way. But for me to live as a straight male does not make sense. For me, it doesn’t make sense.

 

And for you to live as a gay male doesn’t make sense.

 

It doesn’t. It doesn’t anymore. Because I mean, the first thing people ask with the hormone replacement therapy is, Well, how do you change, how do your thoughts change? And for me, I just make more sense internally. My thoughts make sense, things seem more balanced.

 

With balanced thoughts and a decidedly female perspective, Ari Southiphong says she has a greater understanding of how to design clothes for women.

 

My idea of designing for women has changed, because now I’m wearing the clothing. Of course, my body is different from, your genetic female body that you have to fit, but the same things apply as far as you know, wanting to cover certain things, or wanting to wear a bra, which in college, I never really cared about. Well, the girl can go bra-less, I don’t care. Being a man designing for a woman, I didn’t have that innate sense of fashion being completely functional. You know, I always wanted, the really fashion-forward pieces, and I always designed for the very fashion-forward woman.

 

This should expand your market, shouldn’t it?

 

M-hm; exactly. I mean, as the business grows, in our first two collections, I learned a lot about our clientele, real women who bought our clothing. And I think it’s very common for students and for young designers to design for a very petite frame, for a very thin model. But the majority of my clients and my customers are older women who are not, size zero to a four. And so my design sensibility has changed according to, one, my personal transition and now being so connected with the brand, that I am the brand, but also, on the business side, designing to maintain my customer and give my customers what they want.

 

Would you do men’s clothes?

 

I have started. And that’s something I started to do before my transition for myself to wear. But I recently started to do some menswear pieces, and starting with the basics. Because I think with the women’s wear, I’ve gotten a very good grasp on the fit and the styles that I love to design and my customers love, but with the menswear, I guess I’m more focused on the fit. So, I’m doing a lot of basics, a lot of basic button-downs, cargo shorts, just to get the fit right. Because for a brand, that’s the most important thing, is that the product fits the customer.

 

I always look at, say, Vogue, and there’s some hideous looking dress on the runway, and they say, Metallics are in. And you think, Who would ever wear that? So then, your job is to convert that into something people would want to wear, using the theme or the color, or the something.

 

Exactly. The magazines will list the trends. So that’s why I always say the magazines really the ones who run the show. Because whatever they say, whatever magazines say are the trends are what the consumer will look for.

 

And then, you adapt that sense of a trend. Because you know, so many things aren’t wearable.

 

Right. Well, ‘cause fashion is a creative industry. You run the gamut from being commercial, commercially and retail-conscious of running a company, and making sales, and making things affordable. And then, there’s the extreme creative side of it, with haute couture, and handmade garments that are much more like art pieces.

 

Where do you see yourself?

 

When I first started, I saw myself doing a lot more couture, because I love the creativity of it. And I still do. And I would love to do couture gowns all day, every day, and I would love to go to France and study under a real couture house. But the reality is, to run a business, that’s not gonna be possible. I have to form a brand that’s much more wearable. And actually, I prefer to design things and manufacture them, and create them for people who love them and actually wear them. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing one of your pieces in the street.

 

So, is your ideal customer somebody like you, or is it somebody else?

 

I think my ideal customer is someone who’s like me in the sense that they’re risk takers, that they know who they are. And that’s what I base the Andy South brand off of. ‘Cause my logo is —

 

Authenticity.

 

Authenticity; exactly.

 

And that’s your life struggle.

 

Being who you are.

 

Ari Southiphong, the former Andy South, is self-assured about who she is. But she’s also well aware of the challenges that transgender dating presents, especially someone who’s in the public eye.

 

If the future is a husband and a family, how does that get accomplished?

 

Finding the right person. It’s gonna take a really, really amazing man to be that person, to know himself well enough to know that falling in love with me, or being attracted to me isn’t being attracted to a man. And I’ve met some really great couples with some of my sisters who are who are now sex-changed. They’re post-op. But a lot of times, the ones that have a really strong relationship are the ones that first started dating not knowing that she was born a man, and they built a relationship just exactly like a straight couple. And then later down the line, she has to tell them, because she can’t hold the secret in. When they meet the family, then it gets complicated, so it has to come out.

 

Yeah; but I would think that that would put you at risk for a blown-up relationship, or even violence.

 

Exactly.

 

Because you didn’t tell.

 

Yeah; exactly. So, you never know how someone’s gonna react. And not that it’s a matter of deceit and trying to trick someone into thinking you’re a genetic female, and tricking them into fall in love with you. I see it more as because of the society we live in, to have it at the forefront complicates a lot of things with people. And letting it come out over time, I think allows the person to get to know the person for the real reasons. Get to know their character. And whether they fall in love, they fall in love with that person’s personality, their strengths, their humor their beauty from within, before they completely shut the door on the fact that this person is transgender, even post-op sex change.

 

So, a lot of it is context.

 

A lot of it is context. And the reason why girls are working the streets, and they’re becoming creatures of the night is what I would say —

 

Which really puts them in position for violence.

 

Yeah. The girls who have to work the streets at night, they put themselves in a lot of danger.

 

Now, why do they have to work the streets at night?

 

Employment opportunities for transgender individuals, especially mid-transition or very early on when they’re still very androgynous, they’re very difficult to find, and it’s very difficult with the current laws. One thing that I hear from many young girls is when they get a job, if they show them their ID card with their gender on it, then they’re required to use the male restroom, or the gender marker that’s on, say, their driver’s license.

 

I see.

 

Because they’ve basically told them, I’m male. But for someone who’s living their life as a woman, that’s difficult. And that’s like kicking them when they’re down making them go into use the male restroom, for people to see that they are male. You know, that they are transgender. No matter how passable they may be on the outside with their features, the fact that it’s lingering, that’s the risk we take for living this life. And a lot of transgender deaths and murders go unaccounted or unspoken about, uninvestigated. They get swept under the rug, because it’s … sad to say that it’s just not a priority. Being transgender heightens that risk of someone trying to pick a fight with you, especially men who see you as a man and see you as a freak. So, the danger level of living a public life as transgender, it’s very high especially if you’re in the wrong place. But thankfully, I’m in Hawaii.

 

Have you ruled in or ruled out surgery?

 

I haven’t ruled out surgery at all. And ideally, if I could get everything done and be perfectly healthy, and live a full, great life, long …

 

Surgery is a risk, I guess. I mean surgery is a risk, and that’s a big one.

 

Surgery is a huge risk, and I know that my life purpose is more than just making the complete transition to being completely physically female. Because like I said, gender is internal before it is physical. When I first transitioned, it was very young of me to think that I wanted to do everything as soon as possible. I wanted to do everything quickly, so I can get on with my life and I can live my life. But as I transition, I learned to really, really love myself for the first time. And even before that, loving myself as gay male and accepting myself, it’s not the same when you finally accept yourself for who you are. And whether or not the surgery and the final—you know, ‘cause that’s like a final step to achieving the closest possible likeness of living as a genetic woman, right now, it’s not that important to me, because what’s important is my career.

 

Ari Southiphong, formerly Andy South, is also passionate about advocating for the transgendered community. Her openness about her transition comes from a strong desire to educate.

 

So, the T in LGBT stands for, what?

 

Transgender.

 

So, not transsexual, it’s transgender.

 

Transgender and transsexual are pretty much the same.

 

But I’ve read, speaking of looking things up. I read that you don’t have to have hormonal treatment or surgery to identify as transgender.

 

You don’t. You don’t have to have any procedures done, you don’t have to be on hormones to identify yourself as transgender. Like I said, gender is internal before it is physical.

 

And you know, there all these categories where you could get stuck on side streets, instead of seeing the big street picture. Like, transvestite.

 

Yeah.

 

Where does that fit in?

 

Transvestite is a gay male — or not even, it doesn’t have to be a gay male. It could be a straight male, as well, that cross-dresses.

 

So, people have to learn what transgender is, because we have all these labels. We use names we don’t even know what we’re talking about.

 

Exactly. That’s what I always encourage people to learn. Not only for the sake of me being able to share with them, but also for them to be knowledgeable, and for them to not look a fool either. That’s probably really embarrassing when you’re talking to somebody who does know what they’re talking about, and you’re using terms in the wrong context and in the wrong form. And it’s disrespectful as well.

 

I think there are very few people having conversations like this. You know, you’re open, you’re explaining something to me that I don’t know very much about. What would you say to people who really don’t have a clue about what being transgender means, and they’d like to know, and they don’t know how to talk to people about it?

 

You can research. A lot of what I did before my transition was actually research online, mainly because I needed to find out for myself, kind of unclouded by the opinion of the person sharing with me what being transgender is. But then also talking to people who are. Talk to them, because chances are, you might even know somebody who is, and you may just not know. Like, talk to them regularly now.

 

But how do you bring it up? I mean, what if they’re not?

 

Well, I mean, don’t just go and ask any random person, like, Oh, so are you transgender? You’ve gotta be really sensitive about it.

 

Good way to start a conversation.

 

Yeah. You’ve got to be sensitive about the form that you speak about it. But I think if you know somebody who is, I think asking about it is much more of a welcome thing than people might think.

 

Than tiptoeing around it.

 

Than tiptoeing; yeah. It’s much easier. I have a much greater sense of relief when people ask me about it, because I like that people are interested in knowing what it is that I’m going through. And the fact that they’re open to learning, that’s the first step to educating more people, and it’s the first step to transgender individuals becoming more a part of society. I mean, we’re steps behind the gay community, because there are a lot of things that don’t protect us, because a lot of our issues aren’t brought up and aren’t dealt with. They’re just not discussed enough to determine things and laws to be in place that are appropriate for us, but also appropriate for the rest of the community as well.

 

But on the other hand, I think people are reticent, because it’s so personal. And yet, it’s central to you.

 

Right. And I think in my case, I’m very open about it, because I realize that my life is in the public eye, that I can’t disappear and come back as a woman and expect to have the same life. So, that’s kind of the cross I bear. Alongside of the business purpose that I serve and the career that I’m building and the opportunities it offers, I’m hoping that me living my life in a public manner gives the opportunity for discussion and opens up the floor for people to realize that being transgender isn’t being a freak of nature. And I really want people to realize that, yeah, I am transgender, and I run a business. Because you don’t see that often. This life can seem difficult, being transgender, and it is. This isn’t a life that I would wish on anyone, because it’s not easy.

 

Because that’s front and center, everybody reacts to that first; right?

 

Exactly; exactly.

 

And even among very well-meaning people, and I think so many people are well-meaning, you hear all the pronoun confusion.

 

Yeah.

 

He, she, he she.

 

And my mom does that too. She still sometimes slips and calls me, he. But I understand that she raised me as a son for twenty-five years, and so for me to expect her and my family and friends to automatically change overnight, that’s selfish on my part. Me allowing myself to live my life is not selfish. It’s the right thing for me.

 

With confidence, Ari Southiphong is looking ahead, and her Andy South business is the priority. Her high end clothing brand is seeing growth. She’s forging ahead in the challenging fashion industry, while navigating new dimensions in her personal life. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

It’s much greater than just tolerating. You tolerate your crappy neighbor, you tolerate your husband’s snoring. But to really be accepted in a community, I think, is just such an uplifting feeling that probably I’m most thankful for, is for the support that I’ve been getting from fans and from community members who have thanked me for taking a stand, and for honestly just being me.

 

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