“Vanderpump Rules,” one of Bravo’s deliciously dishy reality shows, follows the life and times of the beautiful and at-times bonkers staff at Lisa Vanderpump’s Los Angeles restaurant SUR. You can call it many things, but a pinnacle of positive messaging isn’t necessarily one of them.
And yet, its most recent season is playing a role in moving the needle forward when it comes to representation of LGBTQ people on television. Billie Lee is a transgender activist, SUR’s newest host, the latest cast member to join “Vanderpump Rules” and, if our conversation is any indication, one of the most grounded ― both literally and figuratively ― people in this wild bunch.
We chatted with Lee about dating (a major topic of conversation on the show’s most recent episode), how she deals with bullying and harassment, and why it’s so important to her that she is on this show.
What made you want to be on the show?
I have been working in restaurants my whole life. I didn’t go into this job thinking I was going to be on the show. I just went in hoping to have a paid job. As trans people, we don’t get the same opportunities. The unemployment is three times higher than the general population. I didn’t think of the big picture. Now that all of this is happening, I am so grateful. All this hard work of being who I am and telling my truth in my everyday life makes a difference, and people are inspired by that and people can relate.
We all have things we are afraid to admit and think society might shun us for it, whether it’s sexually or a disorder or anything. I think people are inspired that I am opening up about my difficulties, even with things like dating. It’s embarrassing to talk about being rejected by men, but I talk about it because it’s a real thing and it happens. I don’t want my younger sisters and brothers to have to deal with that and being rejected as much as I did.
But now that you are on it, what do you hope to accomplish?
I just want my trans brothers and sisters to live a better and more accepting life. As a child I wasn’t accepted, and even when I first transitioned, society did not accept me, I felt like I was beat up nonstop, I didn’t have opportunities, I had to do really awful things to survive and I just don’t want that for anyone. If I can speak my truth and be vulnerable on television in front of everyone, even when it’s difficult, that’s what I need to do so the younger generation can be more accepted and have a safer environment.
How has it changed your life so far?
I was recently in New York City, and I stopped by The Stonewall Inn. I wanted to pay my respect and do a little prayer. So many people came out and were screaming my name and telling me how much they love me ― it was a beautiful experience. I love my community so much and to see them love me and have that reflection was a beautiful moment. At the same time, it’s overwhelming. I don’t want to put any extra pressure on myself because I am not the token trans person. My experience is mine, it’s not everyone’s.
You’ve talked about being bullied and harassed in your experience. Does it still happen now? How do you handle it?
It’s completely different now. Being bullied makes you feel alone. When I was being called a sissy and a faggot and being bullied, I couldn’t go home and tell my family because I was afraid, afraid they would be embarrassed and ashamed. We keep it in. That’s why the LGBTQ suicide rate is so high. We are afraid to tell anyone because we’re made to feel like we’re wrong. Now, I love myself. I’m a secure, grown woman. When I experience bullying I put them in their place immediately. Even at SUR, I’ve had moments not necessarily being bullied but with people who might not understand certain things about the LGBTQ community. Sometimes I can be called a diva but I’ve been bullied half my life. I won’t stand for it now.
You always appear to have so much confidence. Was that always the case?
I was so insecure for a very long time. So much so that I wouldn’t even look people in the eye, I wouldn’t connect with them. I realized I was living in fear. It was one thing to live in fear as a child and build a wall to protect yourself, but as an adult it was hurting me. I wasn’t connecting with people and I wasn’t getting the opportunities I should have been because I was afraid. I started living my life in love. This is for every woman out there. It’s our journey to fall in love with ourselves and honor the power that we have. For me, I do little ceremonies where I put images on the floor that I’m scared of. I put photos of myself when I was a boy on the floor and just thank myself and love myself for everything I’ve been through.
Do you ever have bad days now?
We all get into those places. I can’t say I’m the most confident person out there. The other day I was on a date, this guy was really feeling me. Someone came over and asked for a photo. The guy went to the bathroom and Googled me. When he came out he was like, “I gotta go,” once he knew I was trans. Here I am this secure, confident woman, everything is going great and then he leaves me there and all I could do is cry. I went to Ariana [Madix, another “VPR” cast member’s] house at 3 a.m., and she let me crawl into bed with her and held me while I cried like a baby. It’s these moments when I’m really low that I pull out my journal and write what I’m grateful for. I try to lift my spirits so I don’t go on thinking negative thoughts about myself which leads to insecurity.
Your dating life has been a focal point in the past few episodes of “Vanderpump Rules.” What do you want people to know about dating a transgender woman?
My biggest thing I want people to know about dating a transgender woman is that [men] are not homosexual if they date a trans woman. I have had girlfriends be like, “He dated a trans woman, I’m not fucking with him because he’s clearly gay.” And I’m like, “No, he is not!” I have heard cis women talk about it, and I’ve definitely experienced with cis men. They’re like, “Yo, my brothers are going to think I’m gay. I’m not gay.” I’m like, “I have a vagina. You’re attracted to me because of my feminine features, you’re not gay.” I just wish we would get to a point in society where it is OK to be attracted to a trans woman.
And even being bisexual, I have so may guy friends who are afraid to say they’re bisexual because a woman “doesn’t want to be with a man who sucks a dick.” And I’ve heard from my girlfriends ― I’m not speaking for every woman out there ― but I have heard from a lot of my girlfriends who are like, “I don’t wanna be with a guy who is sucking dick, I don’t want to be compared to a dude.” Society makes it where we can’t be bisexual and open about it, and we can’t be open about dating a trans woman. That’s where we are at right now.
What do you think has to happen for things to be more open?
I think it’s about time and visibility. That’s one reason why it’s so important that I am on this show and that Hollywood is stepping it up. I was just at my best friend Alex’s premiere of “Love, Simon.” To be on that red carpet and see all these people out there for this beautiful LGBTQ movie about a boy coming out, I’m so grateful it. We have Hollywood embracing us, while at the same time our government is trying to take our rights away, literally erase them. Hollywood is building trans people up, and we will win. I also feel like the younger generation is going to save us. They are so open-minded. I hope they save humanity and the planet, which we’re obviously killing, too.
The world as it is now can be overwhelming and toxic. What do you do to exhibit self-care?
I don’t watch television. I come home and put on relaxing music. I light incense and write in my journal and just try to connect with the planet. I also practice grounding. We have shoes on all the time, and it looks weird when you go out with no shoes on, but to be able to have your bare feet connect with the planet has helped me calm down.
Speaking of keeping calm, your relationships with most of the “VPR” cast seem to be pretty solid at the moment on the show. Are you still getting along with everyone?
You know, life is happening and things happen where you can’t be best friends with everyone, you can’t be liked by everyone. So you’re going to start to see some things. When you start a job, you’re thrown into a group of people. I love a bunch of them, but some I find are a little too much of a victim. They take big, life-changing things and make it about themselves. I feel like some people are very self-involved and privileged and I’m not down for that, so I do express that and that has gotten me into some shit.
People are going to come out and say negative things because I guess I’m judging them in that way, but if you’re using your platform for ignorance I’m not down with that. If you have a big platform and you’re not trying to evolve and help others evolve, I’m just not down with that. You’re eventually going to find out there are people who are not going to like me. And that’s OK.
“Vanderpump Rules” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. Eastern on Bravo.