[Editor’s note: This cover story interview with Candis Cayne originally appeared in March 2009. Currently she can be seen on I Am Cait and The Young and the Restless. She has continued her commitment to individuals living with and affected by HIV/AIDS by fundraising for TPAN and raising awareness with Moovz.]
She became a breakout star on Dirty Sexy Money and now Candis Cayne is using her bigger spotlight to raise awareness about crystal meth, her losses, and the transgender community
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Mark Bennington
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 1986, Candis Cayne was hanging out with her girlfriend. Her friend’s mother, who was a healthcare professional, sat them both down for a talk. “I just wanna tell you guys about something,” she said. “I want you to be very, very careful. There’s something out there, it’s called AIDS, and you can get it by being sexual with other people.” Candis, who was fifteen at the time, wasn’t even sexually active, but the mother continued to explicitly explain the disease, giving them full instructions on what they could and could not do. “Being raised on Maui,” Candis says, “I was out of the loop and sheltered. I was never taught about AIDS prevention in school either. The mentality was if you get AIDS, you’re a faggot.”
Thank heaven for motherly advice, for it may have saved Candis’s life, as some of her friends succumbed to the disease. In the early nineties, she was kicking her legs up in her one-woman show in New York. One day, Candis was knocked down emotionally after finding out about a friend who had left the city unannounced. “A month later, my pal Sherry called and said, ‘Doug’s passed.’” Her eyes widen and her mouth opens. “I didn’t think she was serious. I didn’t know how to react. I was shocked.” Candis was numb; she couldn’t cry. Weeks later, as she and her father were watching the film Schindler’s List, she had a thunderous outpouring of repressed emotion. “All these feelings came out about Doug. I was a complete mess throughout the film. I was sobbing, bawling…,” she recalls. “There have been a lot of moments like this when I lost friends. I’m young enough where I didn’t see the mass murder of our community the way I could have, though I have a lot of friends now who are HIV-positive and lead a healthy, happy life.”
One of those friends is also a Maui native. While living in New York, Candis returned to the Island for a visit one day and couldn’t get in touch with her old friend. “My drag mother [for privacy, Candis doesn’t want to give her male friend’s name] was not answering my phone calls. I couldn’t figure out why she wouldn’t talk to me,” she says, stumped. “I finally got a hold of her and she said, ‘I don’t really want to see anybody right now.’ This was the early nineties, before the cocktails were available. I convinced her to come with me and get a massage. When she undressed, I saw black lesions on her body, including one on the tip of her nose. I was taken aback. I had never seen that before. It was really intense.” Her drag mother was fortunate enough to have a brother who worked for the pharmaceutical company that was developing the new antiretroviral treatments. “She was one of the first people to go on the cocktails. I’m getting chills just thinking about it,” Candis tells me tenderly. “And the next year I saw her again and she was fine. She just made it, Dann….”
Candis shakes her head in relief. Talking with her is like being in the presence of a spiritually evolved supermodel with the essence of a young Ann-Margret. This girl is Vogue gorgeous, centered, and she carries herself like a star. Probably best known as Billy Baldwin’s love interest, Carmelita, on ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money, Candis also has appeared in Wigstock: The Movie, Stonewall, Sordid Lives: The Series, CSI: New York, and To Wong Foo…, where she was head choreographer. She recently completed filming several episodes of Nip/Tuck.
After shooting a few festive poses with A&U photographer Mark Bennington, Candis dons a comfy, sleeveless, aqua top and black sweat pants and then distributes bottles of spring water to our crew. She’s barefoot and her crimson red toenails are like neon lights against the dark wooden floor. She sits on a modern, loose-cushion, light grey sofa in the contemporary style living room of her vintage 1920s duplex in L.A.’s South Carthay district. The simple décor is peppered with glassware, candles, and crystals. Next to the widescreen HDTV are several DVDs, including All About Eve, The Visitor, The Ab Fab Collection, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. On the coffee table is a book by Sophia Loren, Women and Beauty, and A Course in Miracles lays next to a package of opened Nicoderm gum. Yes, Candis smokes and she’s not proud of it.
What she does take pride in is her long association with the LGBT and AIDS communities. Candis has many transgender girlfriends who are HIV-positive. Over the years, some have died of AIDS, which is why she’s so concerned about the spread of the disease among the transgender population. “I know that there’s a lot of guys who like transgender women, but, because they are so ashamed of themselves, they go from girl to tranny and sometimes they date men.”
In the early nineties, when she first started dancing professionally (she’s classically trained), one particular guy would hang around the club, complimenting her, “Oh you look great, girl.” “I’d ask the other girls [about him] and they’d say, ‘You want to stay away from him. He gives the girls The Thing [HIV].’ There were guys who you didn’t want to fool around with because you knew they were carriers. It’s a scary thing,” she sighs. “There’s a lot of [transgender] girls who are insecure about their identity and their appearance. They’re in transition and they’ll do anything to please a man or make him love her—low self-esteem issues. It has a lot to do with letting somebody…fuck you…without a condom,” she laughs with a wide smile, adding, “Excuse my French. Bleep. Bleep.” She tilts her head forward and her voluminous hair cascades over her face. She carefully tosses it back. This could be a Pantene commercial. She continues. “In the transgender world, there’s a lot of prostitution. Girls aren’t stupid now, but then there are those moments when the more sex you have the easier it is to become positive. It’s an issue the girls really need to think about.”
How does this girl take care of herself? “Getting tested for the first time was probably the most horrifying moment of my life,” she laments. “I did it late. I was twenty-three or twenty-four. I had been sexually active for a few years. While I was waiting for the results, I’d think about all the times when I had been unsafe—how I let him do that to me or how I did that that night. Then I’d think about when I got a cold and it lasted for a month. And I’ve had those deceiving moments where I had been dating and I’d say, ‘Oh, well, he looks healthy. We don’t need to have protected sex.’ I just let my passion get in the way. That’s stupid.” Samson, one of her two large boxers (the other’s named Delilah), stands by her legs waiting to be petted. Candis acquiesces. “So here I am waiting for my test results thinking, ‘Well…,’” she blows a raspberry, “‘I’m positive.’” She throws her arms upward to emphasize her certainty that she is indeed infected. “It just angered me so much that somebody my [young] age who was just loving someone else would be scarred for….,” she takes a meaningful pause, “…life.”
Counselors were standing by when she got the news in case her results were postive (though, either way, one may need counseling). Candis was negative. She recalls being in the doctor’s office. “I was like, ‘Ahhhhh….’” Candis thrusts her body forward and dramatically collapses to accentuate the relief she experienced. “I hugged and kissed the doctor. He was some straight man.” She loudly laughs, adding, “The doctor’s thinking, ‘Why’s she leaning on me?’—you know?! I told him, ‘Thank you so much!’ It was the scariest moment and the happiest moment,” she clarifies, looking momentarily out the radiant stained-glass living room window. Since then, Candis has tested with several of her boyfriends. Her current paramour is Marco, who DJs for her show. They’ve been together for six and a half years. Now engaged, they plan to wed on Maui.
All during the interview, Candis sits on the edge of the sofa. She’s focused and direct, like a good pupil in class. She’s articulate, forthcoming, and honest.
Candis has long been active in the AIDS fight. After this year’s Oscar ceremony, she attended the APLA Oscar Party. Last year she performed in a benefit for AIDS Healthcare Foundation. She’s also worked with Pediatric AIDS Foundation. “Whenever they call, I do it,” explains Candis, nonchalantly. She’s also passionate about the issue of hate in the gay community and has hosted several GLAAD functions. “What motivates me to get involved is that this is my community. Even if I’m transgendered, or if I’m not transgendered, people want to think of me as just a woman, I’m a part of this community. I have felt firsthand what AIDS has done to our community, so if I can’t afford to give money, at least I can give my time and do a couple of [musical] numbers.” She smiles.
“I think everybody in the entertainment business, no matter what city they are performing in, should sponsor an event and talk about these important issues when they’re onstage. I’m guilty about not doing it myself,” she realizes. “I do a show every Monday night [at The Abbey in West Hollywood called The Candis Cayne Show] and I really should say, ‘AIDS is still around. Use a condom.’ I am going to start doing it,” she asserts with conviction. The apathy of so many people who feel that AIDS is passé enrages her. “We need to talk about it!” Her voice is crisp and feisty. “People see HIV-positive people who are leading healthy lives and they assume that AIDS is not a serious matter anymore. They think AIDS in Africa is the issue and not the situation here at home. So wrong!”
Indeed, the under-thirty set has a high rate of HIV infection. They are a new generation that never witnessed the brutal realities of an AIDS-ravaged community. What’s Candis’s take on this? “The younger kids somehow, sometimes feel like it’s a way to fit into their community, if all their friends are positive,” she says offhandedly, referring to those who “choose” to get infected. Did she just say that? Yes. Kids are getting a false impression about being HIV-positive, and so they cast the condom to the side and take their chances.
“Our community has always been very sexually oriented. Even before the bathhouse days of the seventies it was all about sex. When things are repressed you find ways to sneak around. When you’re sneaking around you’re doing things because you want that rush to get rid of all that repression you feel. Nowadays, everything is just so open, you would assume that people would be more intelligent about their choices.” She curtly blots her glossy lips with her finger, her nail tips painted nun-white.
“What gets me most is the meth epidemic that’s infiltrated our community: It’s really causing new HIV infections,” she points out. “They get high and they don’t care [about protected sex]. Meth chemically changes your mental state and it does something to your brain. You don’t think about what you’re doing and you don’t feel any ramifications of your actions.”
Candis has lost friends to meth. “You know what gets me? I have a couple of friends who were negative into their thirties and early forties and started doing meth and now they’re positive,” she exclaims, sadly. “They should have known better. And not only are they infecting themselves, but they are carrying on that infection to other people who are doing the exact same thing.” She pauses and, in the most serious tone I’ve heard, says vehemently, “That’s unforgivable.”
Like clockwork, Mark quietly enters to see how much longer we’ll be talking, as he wants to grab the light and capture Candis in its timely rays. I tell him we are nearly finished.
Having witnessed the deaths of so many people, Candis is driven to protect those around her, like her seven-year-old daughter, Satori (Marco’s child from a former relationship). “She’s too young now, but as soon as it gets to that point where I see her looking cross-eyed at a boy—or girl—I’ll put her down and say, ‘Let’s talk.’” She briefly glances away. “My friends who are positive, who can actually function and still get through life and be happy—that’s a lot to carry…” she proclaims, touching my knee for emphasis. Candis folds her hands, lays them in her lap, and concludes, “They are my heroes.”
Thanks to to Jill Merin for her valuable assistance and Robert Constant for hair and makeup.
To contact photographer Mark Bennington, log on to www.markbennington.com.
Dann Dulin interviewed Jason Mewes for the February cover story.