"Steve?" My mum calls me from downstairs. "We're heading out now. Don't forget you've got that job interview later on today!"
"I won't forget," I shout back from under my bed covers.
"Well you'll need to hurry up and get dressed for it!" Mum yells back before heading out of the front door.
"You don't know how right you are," I mumble as I get out of bed and stare at the dishevelled youth in my mirror. Staring back at me is a skinny nineteen year old boy with long, scruffy brown hair wearing loose boxer shorts and a t-shirt. However, he won't be staring back at me for long. Grinning nervously, I dive underneath the shower, thoroughly cleansing my body and treating my hair with vast quantities of shampoos and conditioners so that when I'm done, it's no longer messy, but straight and glossy. I take my razor and eradicate what little facial hair I have, before turning my attention to my arms and legs, shaving off every single hair below my neck (with the exception of my pubic hair).
After drying myself, I head back through to my bedroom, where I open one of my wardrobe drawers and stare at the contraband within. I pull out tubes of foundation, tubes of mascara, an eyeliner pencil, two different shades of silver eyeshadow and three different red lipsticks, all of which I apply to my face. From the neck up, the scruffy boy is gone, replaced by a sexy, glamorous teenaged girl. I open another drawer in my wardrobe and withdraw a plain black bra and panty set, slipping the delicate items on my slender frame, before filling the cups of the bra with C-cup breast forms I'd secretly purchased weeks before. After pulling an elasticated girdle around my waist, I roll a pair of black tights up my legs, followed by a tight black miniskirt, finishing by pulling on a tight grey jumper and a cute pair of sparkly black flats. After brushing my hair out to maximise its volume, I slip two silver rings on my fingers before grabbing my coat and my handbag and heading out the door into the cold February morning.
"Stephanie Abbott for the WIN!" I whisper to myself.
My destination today is a small studio in central London. It's far from the first time I've ever been outside in girl mode, but it will be the furthest I've ever gone, and the longest time I've ever spent 'as Stephanie'. After a nervous tube ride where I pray I don't get 'made', and am thankful that Oyster cards don't have people's names on them, I step through the front door of the studio to be greeted by the receptionist.
"Hi," I say in my practised feminine voice. "I'm Stephanie Abbott, here for the auditions?"
"Abbott," the receptionist says, looking at his list. "Oh, here you are, right at the top of course! Please take a seat, Miss Abbott." Whilst the young man behind the desk is very professional, I couldn't help but feel his gaze on my body as I walked away from him, taking a seat on one of the very comfortable chairs.
"Hi," a girl with short blonde hair- who looks barely sixteen- says immediately after I sit down. "Is- is someone sitting next to you?"
"No," I reply with a genuine smile. "It's yours if you want it!"
"Thanks," the girl replies nervously. "Are you here for the auditions?"
"Yep," I say, my heart beating faster. "You?"
"Uh-huh," the nervous teenager replies. "I'm Kayla, Kayla Ford."
"Steph," I reply, shaking the young girl's hand. "Steph Abbott."
"I heard that Jamie-Lee Burke will be one of the people conducting the auditions," Kayla continues. "Do- do you reckon there'll actually be any transsexuals auditioning?"
"Would that be a problem if there were?" I ask cautiously for fear of what the girl might say.
"Problem?" Kayla replies. "It'd be AWESOME if one of the girls in the band was transsexual. We'd be, like, proper Angels if that was the case!" I smile at the mention of the reality TV show that made Jamie-Lee famous- a show I watch almost religiously.
"We don't need to be transgendered to be Angels," I say smugly, confident that Kayla is unaware of my 'true' gender. "We just need to be girls. Regardless of how we were born!"
"Yeah, that's true!" Kayla giggles. I pause briefly, wondering whether or not Kayla has 'made' me, before allowing myself a brief smile- she clearly has no idea I'm not 'like her'. I briefly entertain the notion that Kayla herself might be a girl 'like me', but given that she's barely five feet tall, I quickly shrug off the notion.
"Do you know what you'll be singing yet?" I ask the tiny girl.
"'Show me Heaven' by Maria McKee," Kayla says. "Been practising for weeks..."
"Bit, you know, brown-nosey, isn't it?" I giggle. "I mean, this agency is called Heavenly Talent..." I grimace as Kayla shoots a withering stare at me, before breathing a sigh of relief as she giggles at my 'faux pas'.
"Maybe a LITTLE," Kayla laughs. "But I really, really want this... What are you singing?"
"'Shake it Off' by Taylor Swift," I reply. "I've kinda also been practising for weeks!"
"Kayla Ford?" A slim, brown-haired man with a clipboard announces from the side of the reception area.
"Wish me luck," Kayla whispers with a shaky voice, before disappearing behind the double doors, only to emerge five minutes later with a look of near shell-shock on her face. She just has enough energy to beam me a quick smile before leaving the studio. I spend the next twenty minutes running through my chosen song in my mind over and over again, before I hear the sound that almost makes me wet myself with nerves.
"Stephanie Abbott?" The same man from earlier calls. With my legs barely able to support my weight, I slowly walk over to the man, who shakes my hand and leads me through the same doors through which Kayla- and several other young women- walked not that long ago.
"Hi, my name's Stuart Milton," the man says by way of introduction. "I'll just explain what'll happen, you'll stand in front of our panel, sing your song, we'll be recording it but the recording won't be public, that's just so we can rewatch it later. You're singing Shake it Off, is that right?"
"Yeah," I whisper, making Stuart chuckle at my obvious nerves.
"No need to be so terrified," the young man assures me. "This isn't the X-Factor, there's not going to be anybody booing you. And unlike Simon Cowell, everyone in there will be on your side, I promise you that."
"Who will be on the panel?" I ask, hoping not to have asked a sensitive question.
"Myself, as main producer for the band," Stuart says. "Joshua Benedict, who owns the agency, and two faces I'm guessing you're familiar with- Krystie Fullerton, who'll be the main choreographer for the band, and Jamie-Lee Burke, who'll be taking the band 'under her wing' so to speak for the first few months you're together."
"Cool," I say as I enter the room to face the people whom Stuart had just described- people I'm already familiar with through reality TV, especially Jamie-Lee Burke, who is possibly the most famous transgendered woman in the whole of the UK, and someone who I've admired for a very long time.
"Hi," Jamie-Lee says in a cheerful, friendly voice. "You're Steph, right?" Almost struck dumb with stage fright, I nod and let out a barely audible 'uh-huh'.
"Stu's already explained what will happen at this audition," Jamie-Lee continues. "So just relax, take your time, and try not to be TOO nervous, okay?"
"Okay!" I say with a smile as I take my place under the large boom microphone.
"Recording," Stuart says, keying instructions into his laptop. "Whenever you're ready." I take two deep breaths, before launching into the song.
"I stay up too late," I sing in a voice that I've recorded many, many times and know to be convincingly feminine. "Got nothing in my brain. That's what people say, mmm, that's what people say, mm..."
Within three minutes, the song is complete and I'm practically hyperventilating through nerves.
"Very good!" Joshua- a large, imposing dark-skinned man- booms in a foreign-sounding accent. "Definite superstar in the making! On your way out make sure reception has an up to date telephone number in case we need to contact you for a second audition!"
"Thanks," I say, leaving the audition room and breathing a long, deep sigh of relief. It's over. The challenge I'd set myself- go outside for a full day as Stephanie and attend a musical audition- has been completed, and it was a roaring success. Even though I'm almost certainly not going to be picked for the band, I now know that I CAN do this. I HAVE done this. Hell, I might even find work as a drag act.
"Mum?" I ask as I open the front door of my home. "Dad?" Satisfied that I'm alone, I quickly head up to the bathroom and wash away the make-up I'd carefully applied mere hours earlier. My eye shadow, my lipstick and my mascara all vanishes, and my sleek, voluminous hair get mussed into the unkempt style that's been my signature for the last few months. I strip off my skirt and my top, before pulling off my underwear and standing in front of the bathroom mirror, completely naked.
"See you later, Stephanie," I say with a twinge of sadness, even though I know 'Stephanie' is always available at a moment's notice.
'Stephanie' has been part of my life for almost six years now, ever since I started puberty, I found myself obsessing over girls... But the obsession was with what it'd be like to BE a girl. Whenever my parents weren't around, I'd slip into my parents' room and fiddle with my mum's clothing, eventually mustering up the courage to try some on- though those sessions were always short-lived, and nowhere near as 'comprehensive' as today's day out as Stephanie.
I left school at 16 with a handful of GCSEs, the best of which was an A in music, so I signed up for a music college and got myself my first part-time job working behind the till in HMV. The work was repetitive, but it did give me an income of my own- half of which went on music and video games, the other half on my first 'contraband'. I still remember the first time I bought a packet of tights from my local supermarket. Even though I was using the self-service checkout- and buying it along with other stuff so as not to look suspicious- I was still scared stiff that someone would look over at me and question why I was buying ladies' underwear. As I walked out of the supermarket with no one even looking twice at me, I got as big a thrill as when I pulled the tights on later that night. Amazon and eBay accounts soon followed, and now I have a large drawer filled with women's clothing- a drawer I return my skirt and top to before pulling on a plain pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Washing the clothes can be awkward, but is usually easy enough as my parents are away a lot for work and my two older brothers no longer live at home. Plus, the alternative- buying new underwear every time 'Stephanie comes for a visit'- really isn't feasible given my current unemployment.
It's not even like I want to be Stephanie all the time (though there are days when I wish I'd been born a girl)- there are times when I actually enjoy being Steve, having the freedom to not care about my appearance, to eat what I want, to wear the slouchiest possible clothing... But Stephanie is always at the back of my mind, and I find myself counting down the days until I can become her once again.
After doing a quick job search on my parents' computer, I switch on my Xbox and play a few quick matches of Destiny to relax- the second of which I am in the middle of when my mother returns home.
"Oh, god, Steve," mum moans. "Please tell me you haven't been playing computer games all day..."
"No, I went to the interview," I sigh.
"I hope you actually combed your hair before you went," mum moans further. "Don't know why you don't get a haircut, you'll be much more likely to get a job that way..."
"In the music industry?" I retort. "It's the one place where my hair will actually HELP me get a job."
"Well, I guess," mum says. "And you have at least had a shave. What job did you say you were going for again?"
"Umm," I hesitate, quickly thinking of a plausible story. "Roadie."
"Well I guess looking like that WOULD help there," mum laughs. "Though with all due respect, I've seen roadies, and you're not quite as, well, muscular as them, not quite as masculine, if you don't mind me saying..." You don't know how right you are, I think to myself with a smirk. Mum is, of course, right- at 5' 6" and just under nine stone, I'm not going to win any Mr. Universe competitions. Then again, I never plan on entering any of them...
After my parents go to bed, I log onto their computer again and do another job search- this time, for places hiring drag performers. Much to my disappointment, research shows that most performers are self-employed- which I can't really afford to do right now- so I delete my internet history, log off and climb into bed, dreaming of my next 'Stephanie day'.
Two weeks pass in which I apply for yet more jobs- and even attend an interview at an independent music store- but to no avail. As my parents are home most days, Stephanie also goes into 'hibernation' for the time being- the closest thing I get to a session as Stephanie is after my parents go to bed and I can pull on a girly item of clothing- ANY girly item of clothing- before I head to bed myself.
However, on Tuesday 24th February- two weeks to the day after I attended my audition- I receive a phone call that changes my life forever.
"Hello?" I say into my mobile in my normal, deep London accent.
"Hello, can I speak to Stephanie Abbott, please?" The woman on the other end of the phone asks, making my eyes go wide with shock.
"Uhh," I blurt, surprised that someone would be calling STEPHANIE. "Hang on a sec please..." With my father looking quizzically at me, I quickly head out of the living room and up to my bedroom, where I clear my throat and adopt the same feminine voice I'd used throughout the interview.
"Hello, Stephanie speaking," I say in my convincing falsetto.
"Oh, hi Stephanie, it's Ella from Heavenly Talent calling," the woman announces. "We're holding second auditions for the band this week, would you be able to come down today at any point?" I nearly drop my phone with shock as I'm asked the question I never in a million years thought I'd be asked.
"Umm," I say with a shaky voice. "Today's not really good..."
"Oh, no worries," Ella says. "Just thought as you were local, you know. Can you do tomorrow at noon? We've not really got that many free times, had to book in those who had to travel a long way first..."
"Um, sure, noon sounds great!" I say, my heart slowly returning to its normal pace.
"Great!" Ella beams. "Just a heads up- this'll be a second audition, not an interview, so just turn up in casual clothes, but if you get an interview after, you'll be expected to wear formal clothing, like you would to any job interview."
"Okay!" I practically squeak as Ella hangs up the phone. Noon tomorrow!? That's barely enough time to get ready- and I don't even know what mum and dad have planned for tomorrow...
"Who was that, Steve?" Dad asks as I trudge back downstairs.
"Uhh, interview!" I say happily.
"Great!" Dad says. "When is it, and who's it for?"
"Noon tomorrow," I say. "Just for a shop..."
"Well it's better than nothing," dad says. "I've got tomorrow off, I can drive you if you'd like?" Crap! I think to myself.
"No, it's okay," I say. "It's right in the centre of London, I know you hate driving through the city centre..."
"No, I don't mind if it's just a one-off," dad says. "And it's not like it's at rush hour or anything..."
"Honestly, I'll be fine," I insist. "My Oyster Card needs using up, after all..."
"Umm, Oyster credit doesn't expire," dad says, clearly confused by my reluctance to let him drive me.
"I'm also going to see Greg before the interview," I lie, name-dropping an old school friend with whom my dad's familiar.
"Oh, okay," dad says. "Just as long as you don't waste too much time playing videogames before the interview!"
"No, no chance of that," I laugh as I try to formulate a plan in my mind, a plan that still isn't complete as I go to bed. I know that on a day when they're not working, my parents won't be up until about 8am, so I want to be up and gone before then. That'll give me four whole hours in which I'll need to 'be Stephanie'- something which should be a dream come true, but is instead a total burden. Changing back after the interview won't be a problem- a disabled toilet at any McDonalds will do the trick, and I can carry my 'boy clothes' and make-up remover around in a backpack.
"Or you could just tell your parents the truth," I sigh to myself as I close my eyes and try to get to sleep. However, deep down I know that that is simply not an option. Every time anything any even remotely transgendered topic enters conversation dad becomes uncomfortable. He's not outright hostile, but it's clear that he'd rather pretend that the topic simply didn't exist. Mum's much the same way- she even refused to watch Eurovision last year because the Austrian singer- who of course, ended up winning- was a drag artist. God only knows how she'd react if she found out the job I'm REALLY applying for...
My alarm clock wakes me at 7am and, satisfied that I haven't woken my parents, I quickly shave- not showering for fear of making too much noise- and pick out an outfit for the audition. The woman at the agency said 'casual clothes', so I after pulling on a bra and a pair of panties (stuffing the bra cups with my breast forms), pulling on my girdle and applying a full face of make-up, I roll a clean pair of black tights up my legs before stepping into a short denim skirt, pulling on a tight black top and slipping my feet into my cutest flats. I write a quick note for my parents- who are still asleep- before stuffing my make-up remover, a pair of 'Steve's jeans and a t-shirt into my backpack and heading out the front door, satisfied that I haven't been seen by any neighbours and that phase one of my plan is complete. However, it's not even 8am yet, meaning I have four hours to kill before my audition...
Rather than call the agency and ask for an earlier audition, I instead take the opportunity to have a stroll around central London, partly to sightsee (I don't get into the heart of the capital that often) and partly to test 'Stephanie's look- by which I of course mean 'test to see if anyone sees the boy beneath'. I do get the occasional odd stare from strangers as I walk past them down the crowded streets, but most people barely pay attention to the average-looking girl with the backpack- and if they do, it's usually just men checking out the nylon-covered legs poking out from underneath her short skirt.
Just after 10am, with 2 hours still to go until my audition, I get hungry (having skipped breakfast), so I head to a nearby coffee shop for a sandwich, when I get one of the biggest shocks of my life.
"Stephanie?" A familiar-sounding voice calls me from behind, sending my heart into overdrive. Never did I imagine I'd be recognised on this trip out- let alone recognised as Stephanie.
"Stephanie Abbott?" The voice asks, and I slowly turn around to stare into the smiling face of the girl I met two weeks ago.
"Kayla?" I ask in a deliberately feminine voice.
"I knew it was you!" Kayla squeaks happily. "Oh my god, did you get a second audition too?"
"Uh-huh!" I say enthusiastically, making the short blonde girl bounce up and down excitedly.
"Eee, this is so cool!" Kayla squeaks. "When's your audition?"
"Noon," I say, grabbing my drink and heading to a table with Kayla.
"Had a long way to travel too?" Kayla asks sympathetically.
"Nah, just from Ealing," I giggle, making the blonde girl frown with confusion.
"Umm, why are you in London THIS early then?" Kayla laughs. "You don't like sleeping or something?"
"Heh, no," I say, faking a laugh as I desperately try to think of an excuse. "I kinda... Don't really get on with my room-mates, that's all."
"Ah, that sucks," Kayla sighs. "I've come up from Southampton on the 8:30 train, thought I'd do a bit of sightseeing first, try to calm my nerves, heh!"
"I know what you mean," I giggle, before taking a deep breath. "Kayla... What you said at our first interview, about transgendered people auditioning for the band..."
"Yes..." Kayla continues. "You- you wouldn't have a problem with that, would you?"
"It'd be a bit hypocritical if I did," I whisper to Kayla, watching anxiously as her jaw drops with shock. At the first audition, she DID say that she thought it'd be awesome if one of the girls in the band was transgendered, but that was just a hypothetical scenario, whether or not she'd approve when confronted with it is another matter entirely...
"No. Way!" Kayla gasps. "You? But- but- you're cute!" I giggle bashfully as Kayla pays me an unexpected- and in my mind, at least, unwarranted- compliment.
"Thanks, you're not bad yourself," I tease.
"No- ugh, you know what I mean," Kayla sighs. "You're not, like, even remotely masculine!" I bristle a little- even though Kayla clearly intended it as a compliment, it IS a little insulting...
"Thanks," I laugh. "I've only been transitioning for a month..."
"But you've obviously been thinking about it longer," Kayla muses. "Your hair..."
"Yeah, all my life," I giggle as I play with my shoulder-length hair.
"You know," Kayla teases. "If Jamie-Lee picks you over me, it will be pure favouritism, right?" I giggle girlishly with the tiny girl as we both finish our drinks and head to the nearest tube stop.
"My mum would probably have a fit if she knew I was getting on the tube," Kayla sighs. "She's convinced the second I set foot on here I'll be robbed and raped..."
"She needs to learn that you're an adult now, and can do what you want," I blurt, wincing a little in case Kayla feels that I'm insulting her mother.
"That's just it, I'm only seventeen so I'm technically NOT an adult, not yet..." Kayla sighs. "Also an only child..."
"I've got two older brothers," I say. "28 and 25, so a lot older than me, I know what it's like being the baby of the family, heh."
"That must've made it easier when you came out, knowing that there are two other boys and no other girls," Kayla muses.
"Yeah," I say, though in truth I'd never thought about it that way before- my parents always loved me and my brothers equally, I was never the 'spare' to my older siblings, but still, if I DID choose to live my life the way I wanted- whether that's as Steve or Stephanie- it's not like the 'family name' or 'family genes' would be under threat... And maybe they'd even like having a daughter after almost three decades of just boys...
As we arrive at the studio for the audition, I find myself unconsciously gripping Kayla's hand for support as we enter the reception area.
"Hi," the short blonde girl says to the receptionist. "Kayla Ford, here for the auditions?"
"Yep!" The same young man from two weeks ago says with a smile. "I remember you from last time- I'll let them know that you're here. You too, Miss Abbott!"
"Thanks!" I giggle as I take a seat with my new- and 'Stephanie's only- friend.
"Whilst we're waiting," Kayla says, taking out her phone, "do you have Facebook? I'd love to keep in touch after the auditions, even if we don't get into the band..."
"Um, no I don't," I say hesitantly. "No Facebook... Kinda had a bad reaction from, um, friends after I came out... I deleted my profiles, didn't bother setting a new one up..."
"Ah, that really sucks!" Kayla spits. "There are some real idiots in this world..."
"Kayla Ford?" Stuart shouts from the side of the room before I have a chance to reply. I smile at the nervous girl as she smoothes her short pink dress and follows the young man into the audition area.
"Knock 'em dead!" I say, making Kayla giggle nervously as she disappears from view, only to return fifteen minutes later looking physically and emotionally exhausted. I smile at her, assuming she's going to leave, only to frown in confusion as she plops herself back down next to me.
"Turns out we're auditioning for three spots," Kayla explains. "There are two girls who are already signed to the agency who are the 'core' of the band, we're kinda auditioning for the 'backup' spots."
"Cool," I say confusedly. "Umm, why are you telling me this, you know, 'giving secrets to the enemy'?"
"We're hardly enemies!" Kayla giggles. "Yes, we're going for the same spots, but like I said- there's three available... And it'd be really, REALLY cool if we both got one!"
"Yeah, I guess," I laugh. "Though if I don't get on, I'll be sure and keep an eye out for you in all the papers and magazines!" Kayla giggles excitedly, though our opportunity to chat further is curtailed when the man with the clipboard returns.
"Stephanie Abbott?" Stuart shouts.
"Good luck, future bandmate!" Kayla giggles as I stand up and follow Stuart into the audition room.
"Getting friendly with Kayla, I see?" Stuart asks.
"Yeah, we met at the first audition, then bumped into each other before this one," I reply.
"Ah, coincidence," Stuart laughs. "OR she knows that the most famous group to come from this agency were successful because they were all friends beforehand, and she wants to emulate that success..." A bit cynical, I think to myself. Could sweet, tiny, seventeen year old Kayla be THAT Machiavellian?
"Heh," I giggle as I follow Stuart into the audition room, where the three people (four including Stuart) have been joined by two new faces- a young woman around my age (who bares more than a passing resemblance to Stuart) and a tall, strikingly beautiful dark-skinned girl.
"Stephanie Abbott!" Joshua booms as I take my place underneath the microphone. "So glad you could come back for a second audition! I hope you have taken the advice of the first song you sang and shaken off your nerves!"
"I have!" I half-lie. "I, um, haven't prepared a second song, though..."
"That's fine, as we have!" Joshua laughs. "These two lovely young women on the end of the desk are the two lead singers around whom the band will be formed. My niece, Adeola-"
"Hi," the dark-skinned girl says in a soft, friendly voice.
"-And Stuart's sister Rebecca," Joshua continues.
"Hi!" Rebecca says, before standing up and joining me under the boom microphone.
"This audition will be a duet," Stuart explains as he fiddles with his laptop. "We already know that the first song we'll promote for the group will be a cover of Belinda Carlisle's 'Heaven is a Place on Earth', so you'll be singing that with Becca, assuming she can keep up with you."
"Oh shut up, you arsehole!" Rebecca playfully teases her brother as I smile awkwardly.
"I'm not a hundred per cent familiar with that song," I confess.
"That's okay, there'll be lyrics on the screen in front of you," Stuart says. "Sorry we're doing this karaoke style- obviously if you make the band, you'll get plenty of rehearsal time!"
"In between all the celebrity parties, anyway!" Rebecca giggles. "Ready?" To sing a song I've never sung before, in a voice that DOESN'T come naturally to me, in front of five strangers in a duet with a professional singer?
"Ready as I'll ever be," I say, taking several deep breaths to calm my nerves. My left leg starts to shake as the blank screen in front of me fills with words, and as the marker hits the first word, I try my hardest to make my voice the most feminine and tuneful it's ever been in my entire life.
"Ooh, baby, do you know what that's worth?" Rebecca and I sing in perfect harmony. "Ooh, heaven is a place on Earth. They say in heaven, love comes first. We'll make heave a place on Earth, ooh, heaven is a place on Earth..." Four minutes later, at the end of the song, I feel like I'm about to die of both dehydration and hyperventilation, when Krystie- one of the judging panel- rushes over and hands me a bottle of water.
"Now I know why you call you an 'Angel'!" I say, making the tall blonde woman giggle appreciatively as she sits back down.
"We'll contact you for the formal interview next week," Jamie-Lee says, making notes on her own laptop. "That will just be to get to know you better, you won't have to sing at that, I promise!"
"Okay," I say, before taking another deep breath. "About that... I kinda have a limited wardrobe..."
"Just wear a pencil skirt and a blouse if you don't have a full suit," Jamie-Lee shrugs. "Though I'd be surprised if you didn't, you ARE nineteen and I assume applying for jobs?"
"Yeah..." I say, before sighing heavily. "The reason my wardrobe is limited is because..." I pause before continuing my sentence. If I explain that I'm a crossdresser, a wannabe drag queen, it'd be almost like I'm cheapening the journey Jamie-Lee herself took to becoming a woman.
"...I'm a pre-operative transsexual," I say. I'm so unlikely to get a spot in the band, one little white lie surely won't hurt, right? Much to my relief, all six people on the panel simply smile warmly.
"Well obviously, we're not going to hold THAT against you," Jamie-Lee laughs. "Though I'm surprised you felt the need to leave it off your application form..."
"There wasn't anywhere to put it down," I shrug.
"Um, yeah, there kinda was," Jamie-Lee giggles. "The 'medical history' section? Where we also ask you if you're on any medication, the anti-androgens and oestrogen you're taking count there as well!"
"Oops," I giggle, playfully rolling my eyes. "Guess it's just become second nature to me..."
"How long have you been transitioning?" Jamie-Lee asks, before being abruptly cut off.
"Jamie! Save it for the interview!" Joshua playfully reprimands the beautiful transgendered woman. "That's why we're having the interviews then, rather than now, when we're against the clock!"
"Sorry," Jamie-Lee bashfully giggles. "We'll be in touch. Look forward to getting to know the REAL Stephanie better!"
"Yeah!" I laugh as Stuart escorts me out of the room.
"I've got to hand it to you," the young man says, "you really are passable, though the other pre-op transsexuals we auditioned actually remembered to put it on their forms so we knew what to look for..."
"Sorry," I say. "Again!"
"At least we know about it now rather than later," Stuart laughs, before turning his attention to the rest of the reception area. "Abbey-Gayle Simpson?" I sit down next to the waiting Kayla as the next auditionee follows Stuart out of sight.
"So," Kayla asks. "How did it go?"
"Okay, I think," I sigh. "Kinda glad it's over!"
"For now!" Kayla giggles. "What you got planned for the rest of the day? I've got ages until my train, figured we could grab some lunch?" I briefly pause before answering, mindful of Stuart's earlier 'advice'. Sure, Kayla seems like a fun girl, but I'd hate to think that she was using me to increase her own chances- and I do need to find a way to get out of 'Stephanie mode' and back into 'Steve mode', which I can't do if Kayla's around...
"Umm, I should really get home..." I say.
"Thought you said you didn't get on with your room-mates?" Kayla asks. realising I've left myself no way out of this conversation, I simply shrug my shoulders and concede defeat.
"You're right," I giggle. "Got anywhere in mind?"
"Saw a small place a couple of streets away," Kayla says, opening up a map on her smartphone. I fake a smile as I follow the tiny girl out onto the streets of London. By now, I've been in 'Stephanie mode' for four and a half hours, and it's beginning to feel like I'll never get back to being Steve again.
After a quick lunch, over which I learn a little more about Kayla (born in Southampton in Late 1997, sang in the school choir from an early age) whilst divulging some facts about my own life- some of which obviously have to be fabricated, but some, including my relationship with my brothers, are 100% true.
It's almost 2:30pm- seven hours after I entered 'Stephanie mode'- by the time I bid farewell to Kayla at Waterloo station. As I'd promised myself earlier, I quickly locate the nearest McDonalds and, after ordering myself a small coffee, head into the disabled toilets, stripping out of 'Stephanie's clothes and removing my almost caked-on make-up. The whole process takes a lot longer than expected, thanks to the length of time the make-up has been on my face, and when I leave the toilet, I wince as I get several judgemental stares from the patrons of the fast food restaurant. Whether it's because I'm an able-bodied person using a disabled toilet or because they saw a woman go in and a man emerge, I can't say, but I still make a point to leave the restaurant as soon as humanly possible.
"Hi Steve!" Mum greets me as I stumble through the door at 3:30pm, utterly exhausted from the day's events. "Interview go well?"
"Yeah," I say. "They're going to call me again in a couple of days."
"Well that must mean it went brilliantly, then!" Mum enthuses. "Did you say it was for a shop?"
"Oh, um, yeah," I say. "Where's dad? Thought he was off today..."
"They're offering overtime, so he went in," mum explains, making me curse under my breath- I know for a fact mum only got in herself less than an hour ago, so I could've been home- and been Steve- a LOT earlier.
"He doing overtime for the rest of the week?" I ask.
"Yeah," mum sighs, making me inwardly cheer- it'll make getting out for the interview so much easier. "I'll be home all tomorrow and Friday, though." Crap! I think to myself.
"I hardly need babysitting," I joke, hoping that this will persuade mum to take extra shifts at work.
"I should hope not!" Mum laughs. "But this place is getting filthy, and god knows YOU'RE not going to clean it any time soon..." I sigh heavily- I hate housework, but if I can persuade mum to give me the house to myself- or rather, give the house to Stephanie- it'll make life so much simpler.
"Tell me what needs doing," I laugh, grabbing a duster and a can of Pledge.
"Okay, who are you, and what have you done with the REAL Stephen Abbott?" Mum jokes.
"He's hoping that this will get you off his back about very occasionally relaxing by playing on his Xbox!" I laugh, making mum giggle and roll her eyes.
"Do the living room, the upstairs window sills AND do a job search, and I'll let you have the TV the rest of the day!" Mum laughs. "Can always catch up on TV tomorrow and Friday..." I let out a silent scream as I start my dusting- all this hard work will potentially be for nothing.
Sure enough, when I wake up at 7:30 on Friday morning, mum is still in the house, but thankfully, still in bed. I'd received a phone call the previous day inviting me in for an interview at 10am today, meaning that immediately after I wake up, I head into the bathroom to shave (and remove any stray body hairs), before returning to my room, hastily pulling on a bra, a thong and a pair of black tights, followed by my smartest black pencil skirt and the opaquest white blouse I own. With mum already stirring in her bedroom, I don't even have time to bother with any make-up, instead stuffing my boy clothes and make-up remover into my backpack, before grabbing my only smart pair of high-heeled shoes and heading out the front door. I've left another note explaining my early start, though I'm now kicking myself for having not made it even earlier as I walk down the street with my face devoid of even the tiniest trace of make-up. With time running short before my interview, I duck into the nearest ladies' public toilet.
My heart races as I get out my make-up and apply it to my face- foundation first, followed by mascara, eye shadow and finally my deepest red lipstick. Unlike the disabled toilet fiasco on Wednesday, no one would look twice at a long-haired figure in a pencil skirt and high heeled shoes ducking into a ladies' toilet, but deep inside, I know that I don't truly belong here, and I complete my business quickly for fear of being 'found out'.
After assuring myself that my make-up is immaculate and there's no way I could be perceived for what I 'really am', I head straight to the tube- still wobbling slightly on my heels- and report to the reception desk at Heavenly Talent, just as I'd done twice already.
"Morning, Miss Abbott!" The receptionist says, greeting me as though I was an old friend. "Here for the interviews?"
"Yep!" I say happily, disguising my internal weariness at the situation. As I take a seat, I briefly consider just walking out of the interview- I've accomplished everything I wanted to by auditioning for this band already. I've proved that I can pass as a woman- well, for 99% of the population, anyway- I've proven that I can sing professionally (I wouldn't have got the second audition if I couldn't)- what more do I need to accomplish? It's not like I can actually join the band, live a double life as Steve at home and Stephanie in the band, like a sort-of cross-dressing Hannah Montana...
"Hi," a skinny girl with ginger hair says, snapping me out of my daze.
"Oh, um, hi," I say as the girl sits down next to me, uninvited.
"Mentally preparing yourself for the interview?" the girl- who has a VERY thick Scottish accent- asks as she smoothes her short pencil skirt underneath her. In her not-quite fitting suit, she looks almost as uncomfortable as I am...
"Yeah," I lie. "I'm Steph, Stephanie Abbott."
"Lauren McTavish," the girl says. "Have you come far?"
"No, just from Ealing," I say, before allowing myself a quick smirk. "I'm guessing you came a WEE bit further?"
"Just a WEE bit, aye!" Lauren giggles, deliberately exaggerating her already-strong accent. "Ever heard of a place called Dingwall?"
"Umm, not really..." I say, making Lauren chuckle.
"No one has," Lauren laughs. "It's about 15 miles north of Inverness..."
"Good god!" I gasp. "How long did that take you on the train?"
"I flew!" Lauren laughs. "About a third the price of the train and it's an hour and forty minutes instead of ten hours!"
"First time flying?" I ask.
"Aye," Lauren confirms. "Well, the auditions were, anyway. Also the first time I'd ever left Scotland... Can I tell you something secret?"
"Sure," I say to the girl who I've only known for seconds but feel like I've been friends with for my whole life.
"Coming down here for the band, wearing this clothing, this make-up..." Lauren sighs. "I feel silly. Like, SO out of place."
"I know exactly how you feel," I giggle with the flame-haired girl, before a familiar face appears at the top of the stairs leading to one of the building's many offices.
"Lauren McTavish?" The familiar voice of Jamie-Lee Burke calls.
"Good luck!" I whisper to the Scottish girl as she walks up the stairs, clinging to the banister as she proves to be even more unsteady on her high heeled shoes than I was going down the escalators on the Tube. I take the fifteen minutes of comparative solitude I'm granted to compose my thoughts. Obviously, I can't keep up the pretense about being a full time transsexual, especially not if Jamie-Lee- herself a post-operative transsexual- is personally conducting the interviews. I've just about figured out how I'll word my 'explanation' to her when my new Scottish friend returns, once again parking herself next to me.
"That was terrifying," Lauren giggles nervously.
"First job interview?" I ask.
"Aye," Lauren confirms.
"You get used to them," I giggle. "Um, unless you get this job, of course, in which case you'll probably never even NEED another interview!"
"Here's hoping!" Lauren laughs. "I mean, yes, I know my chances aren't any better than anyone else's- and it would mean moving a long way away from home, but the chance to be rich, and famous... And that £10 000 signing bonus sounds REALLY nice!" My jaw drops as Lauren mentions this hitherto unknown aspect of the job.
"Wait, 'signing bonus'?" I ask.
"Aye," Lauren says. "Just to help me get settled down here, money I can put towards rent, expanding my wardrobe... I live on a sheep farm, so not really got a lot in the way of high fashion!"
"Ten grand..." I mutter to myself.
"Do I see pound signs flashing in your pupils?" Lauren teases. "It'd probably be a little less for you as you live locally, but I'm sure they'd help support you whilst you get settled in with the band..."
"Um, yeah!" I giggle, before our conversation is brought to an abrupt end.
"Stephanie Abbott?" Jamie-Lee calls from the top of the stairs.
"Good luck!" Lauren says, watching me ascend the stairs in my heels with only slightly more grace than she managed. When I enter the office, I'm shocked to see that Jamie isn't alone- in addition to her, Joshua Benedict (the agency's owner) is also conducting the interview.
"Stephanie Abbott!" Joshua booms, momentarily startling me. "Please, take a seat!"
"Thanks," I say, unconsciously smoothing my skirt underneath me as I sit down and cross one leg over the other, despite the discomfort that causes my 'area'.
"You really impressed us in your auditions," Jamie-Lee says with a warm smile. "As I said then, this interview is just to get to know the REAL Stephanie better. We've done some background checks on you, and the results have been kind-of odd..." That's unsurprising, given that 'Stephanie Abbott' doesn't legally exist...
"Umm, how so?" I ask.
"Well, for starters, there's no trace of 'Stephanie Abbott' anywhere in the record," Jamie-Lee says in an almost accusing voice. "How long did you say you've been transitioning?"
"Umm, just over a month," I say, repeating the lie I'd told to Kayla.
"Okay," Jamie-Lee says. "That isn't very long, admittedly... Have you legally changed your name?"
"Um, no," I say, my hands starting to shake as I dig myself deeper into my lie. "I'm unemployed, I can't afford it..."
"Guess I sometimes forget how lucky I was at the start of my transition," Jamie-Lee laughs. "We did a search for 'Stephen Abbott', born 23rd January 1996, and it only turned up one result- I'm guessing this will be yourself, right?"
"Um, Stephen with a 'ph', right?" I ask.
"We searched for both ph and v and only found one person," Joshua explains. "Left secondary school aged 16, did a year at music college, only done the occasional job since, usually in music-related shops, no singing experience though?" I take a deep breath, conscious that I don't want to start a fifth sentence in a row with an 'um'.
"I would have thought that my ability would have come through at my audition?" Much to my relief, Joshua simply laughs at my challenge to his question.
"She has fire in her belly!" The large, dark-skinned man booms. "I love it!"
"It's not your ability singing so much as your ability to connect with audiences, the public," Jamie explains. "There's more to being a professional singer, a performer than just raw ability. And as you've only been transitioning for a month, it'd be extra hard for you... How did your parents take the news?"
"Badly," I whisper, earning a sympathetic gaze from Jamie-Lee. "Got kicked out... I now live with flat mates I barely get along with."
"Because you're transgendered?" Jamie-Lee asks.
"No, I think I'm just an asshole," I joke, chuckling with relief as both Joshua and Jamie-Lee roar with laughter.
"I don't think you're an asshole," Jamie-Lee giggles. "I think you're someone who's had a few hard breaks in life, saw a golden opportunity and reached for it as hard as she can... Believe me, I can sympathise with where you are right now."
"Why do you REALLY want to be in the band?" Joshua asks. I take a deep breath, abandoning everything I'd earlier planned to say to Jamie-Lee. If it were just about being in the band, I could take or leave that in an instant, but with the money that's on offer... All I can see is independence, independence from my parents to be who I want, what I want, when I want. The chance to have my own place, to be Stephanie as often as I want... An opportunity like this is once-in-a-lifetime. I CAN'T let it slip through my fingers.
"I want the chance to be myself for the first time in my life," I say, inwardly chuckling as I see both Joshua's and Jamie-Lee's faces softening. "I want the chance to do something I'm both good at and something I genuinely love. When I was Steve... My life was directionless, just one depressing day after another... I just want to be Stephanie now." I see Jamie-Lee's eyes narrow as I paraphrase her most famous quote, and wince slightly- she has the potential to be my biggest supporter, and kissing up to her obviously ISN'T working...
"I want the chance to show the world that this is who I am," I continue. "And I want to show girls- and boys- the world over that they shouldn't let trivial things hold them back from achieving their dreams, no matter how big or how... Grandiose they are. Just be yourself, keep trying, keep striving, and never accept 'no' for an answer!" Jamie-Lee smiles warmly as I finish my spiel.
"'Big' and 'grandiose' kinda mean the same thing," Jamie-Lee giggles. "Otherwise... I think I've heard everything I need to. We'll be in touch- either way, it's been GREAT meeting you- do you have Facebook?"
"Um, no," I say. "Kinda had some bad experiences on there..."
"Ah, that really, really sucks," Jamie-Lee says as she escorts me out of the office. "I would've said I'd friend you on there so we can keep on touch, but-"
"I've been meaning to sign up a new account for a while," I hastily interrupt. The chance to have a national celebrity as a friend on Facebook? That's another opportunity I'd be stupid to decline.
"Okay, cool!" Jamie giggles. "Well, once you're signed up, like my fan page, I'll keep an eye out for your name and send you a friend request. I'd really like to keep in touch with you, Stephanie."
"Will do!” I say, grinning widely as I head down the stairs to where Lauren is still waiting. I also keep an eye out for Kayla, in case she's interviewing today, but there's no sign of her anywhere.
"Went well?" Lauren asks.
"We'll see," I sigh, sitting down to rest my tired legs. "Got a friend request from Jamie, though..." I grin as I see the ginger-haired girl's jaw drop.
"Oh. My. God!" Lauren gasps, taking her smartphone out of her handbag. "That's a really big deal! Here, let me find your profile, I'll add you as well..." I inwardly smirk- from the way Lauren's acting, clearly she didn't get the same 'reward' I did...
"I um, kinda don't have Facebook," I laugh.
"A friend request and you don't even have Facebook?" Lauren laughs. "Why did Jamie offer to friend you anyway? You're not a transsexual as well or anything, right?"
"Well..." I say, making Lauren grimace.
"Oh- really? God, I'm sorry," Lauren stutters.
"Really, nothing to be sorry about," I say, calming the blushing girl's nerves.
"I mean, sorry for implying that the only reason Jamie would want to be friends with you is because you're, you know, 'like her'..." Lauren mumbles.
"Hell, for all I know, it is!" I laugh. "What've you got planned for the rest of the day? Want to grab some lunch?"
"I'd love to, but my flight home is in a couple of hours," Lauren sighs. "Got to get checked in, you know how much of a hassle that is even when you're only flying within the UK..."
"Ah, that sucks," I say, though inwardly I'm relieved as it means I can get back into 'Steve mode' at the earliest opportunity.
"Well, when we're both on the band we can have plenty of lunches together!" Lauren giggles. "See you round, Steph!"
"If I'm ever in Dingwall I'll look you up!" I joke as the flame-haired girl leaves, dragging her travel case behind her. I follow shortly afterward, heading to a different McDonald's than the one I'd used before, where I have my customary coffee and completely transform myself back to Steve.
"Hope that interview went better than the others you've been going to lately!" Mum laughs as I stumble through the front door, dropping my backpack- containing its contraband- in the hallway.
"Seemed to go better," I say. "Not any more confident about it than I am any of the others..."
"Well I AM," mum says firmly. "You've worked really hard at finding a job, it's about time you had some luck!" Luck? I think to myself. Think I've used up all my luck for the year just getting as far as I have in the interview process...
"Mum..." I say quietly. "If- if I do get a job, and choose to move out..." I wince as mum silently closes her eyes.
"It had better be a really good job to afford a place in London!" Mum chuckles. "But I suppose I can't keep you under my roof forever, I'd just have hoped that you'd have waited a while before moving out, just because your brothers moved out before they were 21 doesn't mean you have to as well, and your dad and I do want to keep at least ONE child under our roof for a while- at least until we get grandchildren, anyway!"
"Yeah, well you know who to pester for those, and it's not me!" I joke, earning a playful whack with a cushion from my mum.
"In all seriousness," mum continues, "we can't stop you living your life the way you want to." If only that were true... I think to myself.
Six days pass- during which I have a brief spell as 'Stephanie' when both my parents are out at work- and as far as I'm aware, my adventure at Heavenly Talent has run its course. That is, until I receive a phone call out of the blue just after 4pm.
"Hello?" I say into the phone.
"Hi, may I speak to Stephanie Abbott, please?" The familiar voice of Ella from said talent agency asks.
"Um, uh, hang on," I say, hastily leaving the room, much to my parents' confusion. Once I'm in the comparative privacy of my bedroom, I take two deep breaths before speaking into the phone.
"Hi, this is Stephanie," I say in my falsetto.
"You need to stop letting your flat mates answer the phone for you!" Ella jokes. "It's Ella here from Heavenly Talent, can you come for a second interview tomorrow at 10:30am, please?" I freeze temporarily- both my parents WILL be at work by that time, but it doesn't leave me long to get ready...
"Umm, I can try but it'll be a little tight," I say.
"Oh, that's okay," Ella says. "Can you do noon instead?" I pause briefly, surprised that they'd be so willing to shift things round to accommodate me.
"Um, yeah, noon would be great," I say, already working out in my head the logistics of leaving the house as Stephanie and returning as Steve. Fortunately, both my parents leave the house early the following day, giving me ample time to get ready for the second interview, and when I leave the house, dressed in the same skirt, blouse and shoes as seven days ago and my face as fully made-up as it was then, I have a confidence in my stride I was lacking for my first interview.
When I arrive at the agency, I'm greeted by a sight that almost knocks me backward- the sight of Kayla and Lauren, both dressed in their smart skirt suits, chatting as though they were old friends.
"Steph!" Kayla says, calling me over to be greeted with hugs by both girls.
"Hey girls!" I giggle. "You've met each other, then?"
"Might've met earlier if you'd set up that Facebook account you promised you would!" Lauren teases.
"Yeah, sorry about that," I grimace. "Good flight?"
"As good as EasyJet gets, anyway," Lauren giggles.
"Yeah, it's no Virgin Atlantic or Soixante-Trois," Kayla giggles.
"What time's your interview?" I ask, sitting down next to the two girls.
"Noon," Lauren says, making both mine and Kayla's eyes go wide.
"Same here..." I say, my heart beating faster and faster.
"And me," Kayla whispers. "Do you- do you suppose this is it?"
"They'd have told us over the phone, surely?" Lauren says.
"Unless they wanted to film it for their reality TV show," Kayla says. "You know, 'get our genuine reactions'..."
"Let's- let's just see what they say, okay?" I whisper nervously. Could Kayla be right? Could this, as she says, be 'it'?
Mere minutes later- well before the stated interview time of 12pm- the three of us are called together into the audition studio we'd sang in weeks earlier. Also present are Rebecca and Adeola- also wearing smart skirt suits- along with Jamie-Lee, Joshua, Stuart and Krystie- and a camera crew...
"Ladies," Joshua announces as Kayla, Lauren and I sit down in the chairs that have been provided for us. "It is with great pleasure that I introduce to the world the hottest new girl band: Rebecca Milton, Adeola Benedict, Lauren McTavish, Kayla Ford and Stephanie Abbott: Out of Heaven!"
"OH MY GOD!" Kayla screeches, almost knocking me out of my chair. "Thank you thank you thank you so so much!" Before I know what's happening, I'm bombarded by hugs, not just from Kayla and Lauren but from Rebecca and Adeola as well, and it's only when I'm shaking Joshua's hand that it finally dawns on me- I've won. I'm in the band. My dreams HAVE come true- financial and personal independence are just within reach, they're actually in my hands.
"Obviously there'll need to be plenty of rehearsals and hard work before we start publicising the group," Stuart explains. "But not long from now, your five faces will be on our TV screens, in magazines, on billboards across the city... Every teenage girl will want to be you!" As our producer explains our upcoming schedule, however, my face falls.
Stephanie's face on billboards across London? That's going to be a hell of a thing to explain to my parents...
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