Role-Model Realness
Triple threat actress, singer, voguer Mj Rodriguez is poised to uplift the transgender community one stage at a time
Text & photos by Sean Black

As morning light beamed through loft-sized windows over the gaffer’s tape and the seamless paper roll that my photo assistant Julie and I were securing to the studio floor, I glanced a gentle presence entering from the door, left slightly ajar precisely for early arrivals. Flowing into the downtown L.A. space in a loosely fitted, royal blue dress, her hem swept over the sealant of the polished concrete floors casting glossy waves. Like an urban-clad Venus wearing vintage combat boots, she formally announced her arrival by lifting her chin and presenting us with the sweetest smile. Mj Rodriguez was in the house.

On a press tour from the East Coast where she was born and raised, Mj was in Los Angeles anxiously gearing up for the Golden Globe Awards, couch-surfing (by choice) with friends and showing up for HIV awareness, a cause dear to both her and her mother Audrey who tagged along for the majority of the trip.

Bursting into stardom mainly because of her recent role as Blanca in Season One of FX Network’s hit Pose, Mj Rodriguez embodies her character—tender, nurturing and selfless; all desired qualities in a good mother and much like the person who stands before me, forty-five minutes early with an entourage soon to fill the room. It was nice to spend the quiet minutes getting to know this gentle soul.

Although a headstrong outsider at times within her own tribe as Blanca, her onscreen persona shines with maternal light. A young, newly diagnosed runaway, she is determined in her quest to re-create the family she and her “children” long to have. Settling for second best isn’t an option for Blanca and it is a signature trademark that endears her character right from the start. Wanting better she launches her own “house” (The House of Evanglista) sparking competition and rivalry between her former house, The House of Abundance, spearheaded by Mother Elektra Abundance slayed by Dominique Jackson.

Left to right: Mj Rodriguez as Blanca, Ryan Jamaal Swain as Damon in FX’s Pose (Season 1). Photo by JoJo Whilden/FX

Set in 1987, Pose is a stylish and bittersweet time capsule brought to life by masterminds Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals. Pulsating with freestyle jams and sassy sound bites à la Pray Tell (Billy Porter) it recalls Manhattan’s ball culture in tandem with the AIDS epidemic and the devastations of the plague years. The series has been lauded for its scope and telling of trans and non-binary gender individuals. The transgender community has long dealt with slights in media.

Through grace, her character is subtly rewriting and righting years of negative stereotypes ultimately transcending truth about the lives of transgender people akin to the persona brought to life by Daniela Vega in her critically-acclaimed performance in last year’s Oscar-winning foreign film, A Fantastic Woman, by Sebastián Lelio. Trans visibility is taking a serious and welcome turn in television and film.

Mj Rodriguez’s role is legendary and toe-to-toe with Vega’s, bringing a welcome and unprecedented mainstream voice to transgender awareness, broadening the representation and thereby imparting a desperately needed depth to this marginalized community. The same can be said for Rodriguez as expressed by Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw in his review of Vega at the time. Like Vega, Rodriguez beams through Blanca who seems to always be caught “in the act of transcending loneliness, heroically defusing the internal opera of pain, rising above the thousand petty little indignities and hostilities that the world now wishes to add to the ordinary agony [of her life].” Not the death of a lover, Blanca’s burden is a recent HIV diagnosis and I fear for her because of the story’s harrowing timeline.

Fans of Pose are in the know of Jennie Livingston’s important, groundbreaking film Paris is Burning (1991), depicting the underground, fashion subculture of Black and Latino gay and transgender New Yorkers still resonating nearly three decades across the visual arts like contemporary film, music, theater, cultural studies, and politics. When originally screened, the critically acclaimed documentary piece won a Sundance Grand Jury Prize, a Berlinale Teddy Bear, and was recognized on ten best-films-of-the-year lists including those of The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Time Magazine, and NPR.

Pose appropriates and picks up the crucial dialogue that Livingston originated, “examining the intersections of race, class, and gender in an image-conscious, wealth-obsessed society reflecting American anxieties about fitting in and measuring up.” There are no coincidences either that the foreshadowing of our current Trump Administration which looms greedily in a day-trading sidebar enmeshed in Pose’s well executed script.

Refreshing to discover in our candid interview is that Mj Rodriguez’s real life is thankfully a faint cry of that of her characters. Born and raised in Jackson Township, New Jersey, Mj’s travelling companion and mother Audrey is employed in the medical finance field and her father. Michael, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, works for a national parcel service.

“I was just a ball of energy when I was younger, and they knew there was something different about me. And when I say ‘different,’ I don’t mean it in the context of like something bad. I mean it in the context of something beautiful.

“My mother told me a story of when I was very little and how she and my aunt Deborah, who, God bless her soul, just passed away, were in the car listening to Jodeci and the next thing they hear is me in the back seat singing along, ‘Talk to me, talk to me, talk to me, baby,’ mimicking his R&B hit ‘Come and Talk to Me.’ When I got to my early teens and my parents saw that I really, really was happy and serious about singing they enrolled me into the Summer Youth Performance Workshop at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. That’s where it all began.

“I met my godfather there. Terrance L. Kennedy was my vocal coach and he taught me for many years in Rhythm and Blues (R&B) training. I earned minors in acting and dance. From then on, I just carried it onto my life. I mean, I had that structure early on from those wonderful teachers and took it with me as I got older through high school until now, in my career.”

She is a graduate of Newark Arts High School and later attended Berklee College of Music where she was a 2009 Star-Ledger scholarship recipient and a 2009 Young Arts first level scholarship recipient.

Years of hard work paid off when she landed the role of Angel in the 2011 Off-Broadway revival of Rent, for which she won the Clive Barnes Award later that year.

She recently sang and brought a beautiful rendition of “Home” live at Sheryl Lee Ralph’s 27th Annual charity benefit Divas Simply Singing! alongside Pose writer/producer Our Lady J [A&U, November 2018], an acclaimed pianist providing accompaniment.

Sheryl Lee [A&U, August 2015] is a Tony-nominated Broadway legend and renowned HIV activist who first began her anti-AIDS work in the late 1980s despite resistance from others in the entertainment industry; encouraged by Elizabeth Taylor to continue her important work, she forged ahead with The DIVA Foundation and created DIVAS Simply Singing! Conceived as a “living memorial” to the many friends and co-workers she’d lost to AIDS, DIVAS Simply Singing! is the longest consecutive running musical AIDS benefit in the country. Ralph is currently planning her 28th Anniversary charity event.

The show also featured performances by some of the most talented DIVAS in entertainment, including longtime supporter and fellow Dreamgirls cast member Jenifer Lewis (Blackish) [A&U, May 2005] who in her usual rare and raucous form served up laughter and antics from the red carpet to the showroom floor. Joining the entourage was rising Mezzasoprano sensation J’Nai Bridges who performed a number from Carmen while handing out roses to the audience. Mj was later joined by Pose cast members including Indya Moore, Halie Sahar, Dominique Jackson, and Lady J.

Amid all of the awards-season buzz Mj took some time out to chat with A&U.

Sean Black: What have you been up to since Pose’s Season One success?
Mj Rodriguez:
Fashion shows! [She sweetly giggles then sighs as if slightly overwhelmed.] There have been so many that I have gone to. I think the reason why I am invited is because of the success of the show and that there are so many aspects and nuances derived from the fashion scene and embedded within Ballroom and Ball Culture. It’s literally an underground fashion show blended with performance art. So, I see this culture growing up and becoming more mainstream. I think that’s why we [the cast of Pose] are now being embraced and invited to be a part of this increasingly more visible part of our culture and the overall fashion industry.

You mentioned being allowed by your parents (in real life) to attend balls in your teens?
Well, see, it wasn’t so much that my parents actually allowed me to go to balls. [More chuckles.] They found out because I eventually confessed to my dad that I was sneaking out of the house. But, yes, I did get involved in the ballroom scene at around fourteen years of age mainly because of this man I met by the name of Timitheus J. Smart. He became my House Father and he was from the House of Jourdan. It was one of the first houses that is no longer around. He scouted me when I was in high school. He would come to the classrooms and host fashion shows and teach a lot of us kids how to walk runway. He would also bring garments and accessory pieces along with some of the students who knew how to make clothes and sew. Like I said, I was lucky, because my parents knew I was different and unique, and being middle-class they sacrificed a great deal to send me to quality art programs and art schools.

Any special moments or memories?
I remember one day, when Timitheus saw me ‘walk,’ he came right up to me and said, “That’s my daughter.” And that was that. From then on, I would go into New York City with him. He brought me to the place known as Ripley-Grier, where I auditioned at a whole bunch of times. It was the place where my fellow house members taught me and him how to vogue.

I imagine that liberation and support of your family and school helped shape the talented person we see today?
I think it did. It helped me in a way to develop my confidence and I got to own who I was at a very young age. My high school was very, very well-versed in the arts and in people like me. They had a slew of programs in drama, dance, voice, instrumentals and cinema that were geared towards artists, and it was a space for me to feel comfortable and confident in myself and I have always been very confident in my artistry.

When did you realize you were different or unique?
For me, personally, I’ve always expressed myself as someone who is just simply ‘me.’ I never really aligned or labeled myself with a particular gender per se. I just saw myself as a being walking through the spaces of life, and that’s what has made me so confident ever since I was a kid.

When did you first learn about HIV/AIDS?
HIV/AIDS came on my radar when I was very young. My mother Audrey had diverse friends. I heard stories from her. She would tell me about friends who were HIV positive that developed AIDS and then passed away. I remember her telling me about the brother of a close loved one who died. There were so many people during that window of time that were dropping off completely, like one, two, three, twelve at a time. Of course, I remembered seeing about it on the television as well and in the news and also trying to do my own independent research. I remember thinking, “Wow!, this is something that needs to be taken very seriously. There was this moment back then where I thought, hopefully when I get a chance, I’ll have a platform where I can emote my feels and create awareness around this through my art, or be able to speak about the struggles that my mother had to go through witnessing friends that passed away so young. Just disappearing right before her eyes.”

I finally got that opportunity in my role as Angel in Rent. So, it came to full fruition, being able to be a voice for people who are dealing with HIV/AIDS and making sure that they know that they are not alone.

When we first met at our photoshoot you spoke candidly about the importance and responsibility in taking care of our sexual partner(s). Can you continue this dialoague for our readers?
I have always thought no matter the situation that it is important to take into consideration the other person or other people. Regarding sexual intimacy I think that it is important to know your status and get tested. Be responsible. I think then you should also always share your status with your partner before you indulge in anything, especially when it comes to pleasure, because sometimes people get lost in the moment and they don’t think clearly.

Selflessness is a great act of kindness because when you are selfless, you are acting out of the care of the other person. You never really know what the person might tell you or what they may say, but most importantly, you know and hopefully they’ll appreciate you more.

Makeup: Anton Khachaturian for Exclusive Artists using M•A•C Cosmetics
Hair: Kat Thompson for Tomlinson Management Group
Photo Assistant: Julie Shafer
Wardrobe/Styling: The amazing Viktor Luna
Shoot Location: Apex Photo Studios

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Sean Black photographed Evvie McKinney for the April issue.