I heard about the Vanity Fair coming-out photo of Caitlyn Jenner before I saw it. On my favorite NPR station, I had listened to media expert Howard Bragman, the Hollywood P.R. maven who once handled the transition of Chastity Bono into Chaz, praise the savvy with which Jenner and her team have managed a very public transition from male to female. Bragman, who is not on Jenner’s payroll, noted the careful step-by-step nature of her unveiling, from the confessional TV interview with Diane Sawyer to the eye-catching new Vanity Fair cover shot by Annie Leibovitz. For me Bragman’s best moment came when he noted the former Bruce Jenner’s aw-shucks image. In Bragman’s eyes, Jenner’s famous boy-next-door sincerity has always had an element of calculation. Bragman applied a terrific term that’s apparently common in Hollywood P.R. circles for someone whose ingenuousness is a bit of a performance: “faux-shucks.”
Well, yes. When you’re a member by marriage of the Kardashian clan, generating publicity is all part of the game. So is being true to your own branding. I’m actually impressed that Caitlyn chose to dodge a Kardashian family tradition by not spelling her new name with a K, to better fit in with mama Kris, as well as Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, and their half-sisters Kendall and Kylie Jenner. It doesn’t surprise me at all to learn that, as a spin-off of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Caitlyn will soon be the star of her own eight-part cable reality series, following her through a transition that has included such things as multiple hours of facial-feminization surgery.
Then there’s that cover photo, the one with the Rita Hepburn hair, the Betty Grable swimsuit, and the Marilyn Monroe come-hither look. The retro-glamour of the shot was certainly designed to provoke maximum attention. In fact, on the day of Vanity Fair’s release, art critic Christopher Knight’s front-page article in the Los Angeles Times focused exclusively on the implications of Annie Leibovitz’s aesthetic choices. Knight was disappointed that Leibowitz, who has shot many a symbolically charged magazine cover and whose own sexuality is obviously complex, muffed an opportunity to say something really new about gender. In Knight’s words, “Leibovitz’s Caitlyn Jenner is a newfangled Vargas girl, one of those airbrushed cuties from the old pages of Playboy. Is that all there is?”
It just so happens that I’m starting to feel surrounded by transgender people, both at social gatherings and within my family circle. It’s clearly a tough road to travel, and I have nothing but good wishes for all those who feel they’ve been born into the wrong gender classification and decide to do something about it. By coincidence, on the day the Caitlyn cover appeared I had just read the last pages of Jennifer Finney Boylan’s second (of three) memoirs, I’m Looking Through You. Jenny appeared on a memoir panel at the 2015 conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She and fellow panelists Darin Strauss (Half a Life) and Lizzie Stark (Pandora’s DNA) made a fascinating point about privacy. Each of these three had revealed through a published memoir their deepest, darkest secret. It’s therapeutic, of course, to get something out of your system. But if you effectively share with the world the private thing that’s haunting you, you might well end up building your reputation on exactly that secret you once desperately tried to conceal.
Caitlyn Jenner—gold medalist, actor, Kardashian—can’t exactly hide. And so I can only applaud her for using her celebrity status to shine a spotlight on her once-hidden self in such a dramatic way.