Janet Mock is Living Her Best Life
There’s no stopping the podcaster, memoirist, and pop-culture evangelist
- Text: Collier Meyerson
- Photography: Magnus Unnar / Rep Limited
Late in September, writer and journalist, Collier Meyerson visited her friend, Janet Mock, in Los Angeles. The two caught up and talked about Mock’s latest memoir, Surpassing Certainty and the importance of telling her own story.
Since first meeting Janet in 2013 while I was working on the Melissa Harris-Perry show at MSNBC, we’ve spoken like a pair of excited homegirls, fussing over each other as if we’ve known one another our whole lives. On television and in her podcast, Janet is a bottomless pit of ebullience. You’ll never get a cool girl act from her—the kind some of us adopt to conceal our social insecurities. She’s excited to be in conversation. She’s attentive, always narrowing her eyes, a hand tucked under her chin, hanging on to your every word. Janet Mock, the TV host, trans activist, and my friend pushes tough conversations forward without alienating you.
Janet’s second book, Surpassing Certainty, which came out early last summer, inspires a similar experience. A confessional journey, Janet transports us to her teenage years in Hawaii, where as a trans girl, she began to individuate, navigating romantic relationships, school, making money, and contemplating dreams of becoming a writer. She moved to New York City where she honed the art of the job interview in her prized Zara sheath dress to the slow, painful process of breaking away from her first love. There’s no pretension in her writing. You’re just a friend on the other side of a couch, laughing when she laughs, and crying when she cries, shaking your head at meditative moments.
Ours is a conversation that mimics the style in which Janet wrote her book, it’s an extension of it even. Her reverence for pop-culture— from Ally McBeal to Destiny’s Child— beauty, and fashion. We meet at a fairly unremarkable annex-office inside a studio in West Hollywood, where Janet is writing for a television show.
Collier Meyerson: All of the writing in your newest book, Surpassing Certainty is so vivid. You remember how much your clothes cost in your teens and early twenties. You remember what you wore; whether your hair was up or down. Your sense of fashion has obviously shifted from those years where you were younger. Broke. Tell me, how were you informed by fashion growing up as a working-class person and how did moving to New York from Hawaii change that?
My first jobs in Hawaii, when I was 15 or 16, were in clothing stores and that’s how I was able to have access to clothing that was cool or on trend, or, very Destiny’s Child-esque. It wasn’t until New York where I felt my sense of style was not just challenged, but broadened. There were vintage resale shops—I’d go through every rack at Beacon’s Closet and Ina because it was cheaper. I was inspired, too by street style. It was all so far ahead. Like walking around downtown, in the East Village, around NYU, in Greenwich Village. The images I surrounded myself with made me be like, “Oh my god I cannot wait to be able to have a job so that I can buy clothes.” It’s only in the last year that I started to become comfortable with spending money on clothes.
Just in the last year? Wow. So, do you buy lots of clothes that are less expensive or just a few special items? I’ve been trying to just do a few items, like I just finished a story so I could buy this jumpsuit I’m wearing.
It’s only been in the last year that I got over the guilt of sometimes buying things that are expensive. My husband is always like, “No, you work really hard you should be able to buy the things that you want.” I buy one good handbag a year, maybe two depending on the price. I still think about price. I never not think about price. And I still have that thing where I’m like, “Well all of this can end tomorrow and I wouldn’t want to have nothing.”
Where do you think that comes from?
Poverty! Growing up in poverty, bitch! Not having a financial safety net. I don’t have some family to fall back on who has all this money for me. If I fall, I fall. Maybe someone will give me a couch to sleep on. I won’t be homeless, but I would have to go move back to Hawaii or something. For me it comes from that sense of, I’ve only had myself to be able to make money.
In your book, you acknowledge without skipping a beat, that you’re pretty. I love it. Your bluntness about it allows for you to spend time on unpacking your pretty privilege. In fact, you just dedicated a whole piece to it in Allure. But, I’m curious about your interaction with the beauty and fashion industry since your ascendance?
I think it still goes back to what spaces I’m in. If it was a majority people of color space, where the photographer is black and the hair and makeup people are black, I’m getting my entire life on set because everyone is like, “This bitch is gorgeous!” Whereas if I’m in another space where it’s a super high fashion space, where whiteness and thinness are prided, I have this sense of wanting to shrink myself because everyone’s like, “Oh this skirt isn’t working.” The image making part of it can have all these layers to it and so the way I protect myself is to make sure I have my own hair and makeup people. It seems like such diva stuff when you hear it, but when you’re in the space, you have to think, “This image is me in front of the camera.” I’ve fought with a lot of anxiety.
We’ve acknowledged you’re pretty. But you’re also glamorous. And it seems important to you to let people know you didn’t “wake up like this.”
Because I want people to know that it took work to do this, and that none of us wake up like this. I try to tell the truth. Most of the stuff I post on Instagram is me out doing stuff, it’s not my everyday. I post like once a week, and it took work, effort, thought, and people’s scheduling, and calendars to make this one pretty image of me.
“My followers are very supportive so there’s none of that fuckery.”
Yes, and your image is certainly out there a lot. What is your relationship to your body as an image that is being consumed by others, and sometimes objectified?
My followers are very supportive so there’s none of that fuckery, but if I’m having a day and want to feel bad about myself and search my name on Twitter, then that becomes a whole thing. Someone will put my image up—usually a straight cis man or woman—and they’ll use it as bait to see if someone will find me attractive, and then they go: “That’s a dude,” or, “That’s a man.” And then these bizarre conversations unfold between cis people where they want to police each other’s sexuality. I have never seen a man reply and say, “She’s beautiful,” and then “She’s trans, she’s still beautiful.” It’s never that.
There was something I felt like came up in the book, that there was a tension between telling and not telling people that you’re trans, and also about how much you wanted to talk about it or how little you wanted to talk about it. But there’s this jump from that tension to coming out. What happened? How did you decide you wanted to be really, really public?
That part of my story hasn’t been told yet, that piece of it. It was the meeting of a lot of different things. In my career, I had reached people in a way that was cute for the first two and a half years and then it got really boring and I was on autopilot. A piece of it was that I was feeling like an unfulfilled writer who hadn’t really written anything substantial. It nagged at me. The next piece was the end of my relationship with Troy, my first husband, and before it even ending we still had that weird back and forth area where it took a year and a half to actually break up.
Which I also love talking about because I think people don’t talk enough about how long it takes to break up.
Yeah, he was still coming over and sleeping over and I would go to New Jersey to be with him. He would buy me stuff, we were still in this very dysfunctional relationship. I always knew I could go back so I never really let go and I kept myself tethered to him. In that time period, I maybe had six real months of being single before I met Aaron, and that was a whole different kind of relationship. I think at that point I was ready to be open. I really was moved and obsessed with this man, this beautiful, kind, open man, and so in meeting him, I let myself be vulnerable, and told him my story and that’s why it’s no coincidence that in my first book I opened with that. Even though I don’t really write about our relationship, people think that I have because the mere presence of this straight, cute guy.
You are a trans woman, but that’s not the only thing you want to talk and explore and use your platform for. A recent Vice interview hinted at it, the headline said: “Janet Mock knows trans activism is not her only legacy.”
I needed to tell my own story first before I could go and try and tell other people’s stories in a real, deep way. That’s how I went from being the person asking the questions to being the person answering them. I love to have conversations and to talk about them and ask questions that are through my perspective as a trans person, as a black person, as a woman of color. But I’m not on Taraji P. Henson’s level, she didn’t know who I am! On Kris Jenner’s level, she didn’t know who I am! The Kardashians, they don’t know who I am! I’m just this smart black girl that came into the room and had the conversation with them, and then if I want to bring myself into it to get them to answer a certain question, then I do that. It’s always purposeful in that sense. I guess I imagine it like Oprah before Oprah, where she had all these experiences before and she just shed those layers over and over.
So you’re trying to be like Oprah?
I’m not trying to be Oprah, I’m trying to be myself! But in the sense of yeah, I would like to have a talk space, and I think the talk space is in transition so we don’t know what that looks like. I’m not there yet. I’m not in a rush.
Collier Meyerson is a fellow at the Nation Institute and a contributor at The Nation. She lives in Brooklyn.
- Text: Collier Meyerson
- Photography: Magnus Unnar / Rep Limited
- Styling: Ian Bradley / Starworks Artists
- Hair: Rob Scheppy / ONLY.AGENCY
- Makeup: Neeko / Tracey Mattingly