During the late 1980s and the early part of the 1990s Jahna Steele was a Las Vegas showgirl. As a stand-out performer with the Riviera Casino’s Crazy Girls’ Revue. she was sent to open Crazy Girls in Japan, where she stayed for a year. Steele was voted “Sexiest Showgirl on The Strip” in 1991.
The following year, Steele was outed as transsexual on A Current Affair. When her secret was made public, she was asked to leave the show. Although she says it was very painful to lose her entertainment career, Steele is now thankful that after her coming out, she was able to be a role model for other trans women. “I had come to terms with the platform I had been placed on—that of a spokesperson for the transgender community—of which I am very proud.”
After she lost her showgirl job, Steele toured the talk show circuit in the ‘90s, sharing her story on television programs like Montel, which was, Steele says, more respectful and educational in those days than the exploitive “freakism” shows they’ve become. “When I was outed, it seemed to me that society was open to learning about gender dysphoria—-until the sensationalism of tabloid television, because of shows like The Jerry Springer Show.”
Steele toured the country with her one-woman performance and guest starred on NYPD Blue, before moving to Hawaii and dropping out of the entertainment business for nearly a decade. She returned to college and says she “learned how to do things other than entertaining so that I’d have something to fall back on.”
“I studied computer courses, then I worked for United Blood Services for awhile, and I worked for a woman’s heath facility, which was very rewarding. I got certified in nonprofit management. I learned all these things, but what I really learned is that really all I want to do is entertain.”
Last year, Steele (www.thejahnasteele.com) returned to the Riviera to host “The World’s Most Beautiful Transsexual Pageant.” Before beauty pageant competitors participated in an all-trans revue at the Riviera, Steele had lamented, “There are no known trans showgirls.” After Steele was outed, producers began checking showgirls’ backgrounds to prevent any other trans women from getting on stage in Los Vegas revues.
The Most Beautiful Transsexual in the World pagent was the subject of 2006’s documentary Trantasia (www.trantasiathemovie.com) a behind the scenes look at the lives of the top six competitors, and an examination of Steele’s life and the impact her career had on the trans women in the pageant. “What started as a simple documentary of the contest itself,” Steele says, “turned into a documentary film drama because of industry interest in the lives of the contestants as well as an interest in the impact I have had on the transgender community.”
When asked if things have gotten easier for trans women in the last decade, Steel says, “It depends on who the trans person is. It still creates sensationalism and is not as acceptable as gays are. We are a very visual world, and unless you are a 100 percent passable people will judge harshly.”
Steele is also concerned that transsexual women are too often confused with crossdressers and drag queens, despite there being significant differences between those identities.
“One is gender identity and one’s sexual preference.” Steel explains. “The differences are vast, and I don’t believe that in a short article I could even begin to [explain], because I still get questioned all the time: ‘So, does that mean you’re a girl?’ And it’s like, ‘Well, last time I looked, for the past 25 years.’”
When Steele isn’t busy as official spokesperson for Tingari skincare products, she can be found on the road. Ever a showgirl, Steele has gone back to touring. She says, that in addition to singing, impressions and comedy, audience members can expect, “the ‘unexpected’—plus, of course: glamour, glitz and a few pairs of Manolo Blahniks.”
Trans writer Jacob Anderson’s co-authored Blind Eye mystery series premiers March 2007 with Blind Curves from Bold Strokes Books.