Buzz Bissinger, the former Daily News and Inquirer writer, garnered quite a bit of attention since Vanity Fair announced that he would pen the story about the gender transition of Caitlyn Jenner on Monday. The issue hits newsstands June 9.
Bissinger has been on a media circuit ever since. Bissinger talked to the Inquirer about how Caitlyn's celebrity affected his story and how his own experience with cross-dressing helped him tell Caitlyn's.
Usually, as a journalist, the whirlwind of reaction comes after a story is written, not before. This must be a strange experience, talking about a story before it's even been read by most of the public.
It's exciting, but you're right, but it's odd in the sense, I want people to read this story, it took months to do and a month to write. You get concerned because of the way our culture is today: "OK, I looked at the picture, I know what the story is, let's move on." But this goes to great lengths to explain her story, but it's not just her story. It's about the kids from her first two marriages, and her ex-wives. It's about more than her.
It's also a bigger story in the sense that this is not your average celebrity profile, either.
I did one other celebrity profile because of the Philadelphia connection and I knew I'd like him: Bradley Cooper. I don't do them other than that. I never saw this as a celebrity profile, but if you think about her life, here's this guy… I don't mean to be dismissive, I should say woman.
You were pretty forthcoming with how you had problems with pronouns.
We're going to have problems because it's a different story. We all want to be tolerant, at least some of us do who aren't Republicans, and you can quote me on that. It's not a normal story. The number of identified transgender people in the United States is around 700,000. And, we're talking about Bruce Jenner who won the Olympics, not Caitlyn Jenner. This is a woman who has had two lives. It will take time to get used to it. And, she makes fun of it, too. Once a carpenter came to the house and she said, "Bruce here," and had to stop herself and say, "I'm not Bruce, I'm Caitlyn."
But going back to your more interesting question: She's a celebrity but I never approached this as a celebrity profile. There was a much bigger story there. There wasn't just access, but reporting. Close to 100 hours were spent with his kids from his first two marriages. It's a difficult subject, because when they were entering adolescence, he basically abandoned them and they're pretty open about that.
I didn't freak out, I thought I would freak out but I didn't. Well, I freaked out a little bit.
Didn't freak out about what?
I knew this was a big story. A lot of people would look at it and I wanted to do something that would rise to the standard of a real story. Every now and then, I said "Jesus, I don't know if I could do this." But it's like any other story.
At what point did you know Caitlyn was transitioning? Before you got the assignment?
I knew at that point that she was planning to transition. I first saw her in mid-February after she did the Diane Sawyer interview.
But this really started as a tabloid story.
It really became public on TMZ in December of 2013. They outted her as going to in for a consultation into getting a tracheal shave for her adam's apple. Any pretense of doing this privately went out the door.
Then again, she hasn't lived any part of her life privately since 2007 when Keeping Up with the Kardashians first aired.
Reality television has been her life for the past 10 years. The Jenner kids are worried this is going to be spectacle and they declined to participate. But even before the Kardashian show, Bruce Jenner was on TV. She was a broadcaster on Battle of the Network Stars, which was reality TV before reality TV. She's been a public figure since the mid 1970s. That's what? Forty years?
Celebrities from marginalized cultures are important when it comes to media visibility. Out gay celebrities are positive images for gay kids. Same could be said for transgender celebrities. But that high-profile visibility also puts Caitlyn in this position of being a role model when she may not want to be. How is she dealing with that?
It's energized her, actually. It's made her realize how much of an important issues this is. Is the show going to have moments of fun? I hope so. Is it going to make money? It better. I wish I got some. That's how America works. She may go down as one of the socially important athletes in history or have a legacy of making a fool of herself and making millions of dollars doing it. But I hate the commentators saying this all about the money. [Fox News'] Neil Cavuto is a snarky, pasty, white man and he should just go back into cave and shut up.
I don't think she wanted to inherit being the spokesman and becoming a real social force. Starting with Diane Sawyer, she saw she could do a lot of good. I mean, 16 million people watched that. There was something read on the floor of the Oregon legislature about how people need to be more accepting. Two women said they were going to come out publicly as transgender because of Caitlyn. That's pretty cool, that's cooler than scoring 58 points in the NBA finals. She's made a difference beyond the celebrity pats on the head.
How familiar were you with trans issues before you started reporting?
A little. I'm a great fan of the show Transparent, because it shows not just how difficult it is, but how funny it is. The only normal person on that show is Jeffrey Tambor [who plays the transgender Maura]. It can be awkward and painful and humiliating.
But I know how difficult it is to be different. I made my cross-dressing public [in a 2013 story for GQ]. It was common ground for us. Being different in an unforgiving society is hard. As that story gets older, people read it is for what it was and not shock value. I didn't go into rehab just because of the shopping addiction, let's get real. No one goes to rehab for fun for 60 days, and no one transitions to into a woman for money. But it gave us a real common ground.
But you also know what it's like to deal with the anticipation of revealing something about your identity. Did you talk about what it was like to wait for this to drop?
Well, I didn't read any of my reaction because I went to rehab the day it came out. To be honest, she was in much better hands with me because [my experience] made me more sensitive to the repercussions of what could happen to a story like this. The issues of gender are personal and complex, and they're important. Who cares what you are and who you are unless you are fulfilled? But stating that can be have backlash like it happened with me.
Caitlyn got the benefit of someone who was sensitive and attuned to what she's going through and she's a big girl, she can handle it.