Cover Story Laverne Cox Is Redefining Fame Legends
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Laverne Cox Is Redefining Fame

She's shaping Hollywood in her own image.

When it comes to drawing on personal experience to get into character, nothing is more valuable than a direct parallel. Years ago, Laverne Cox met a stranger at a speaking engagement and the pair established a rapport. "He was the first fan I really befriended," the actress told me between sips of black coffee. He confided in her about his trans sister's recent suicide and his own terminal illness, pulling on Cox’s heartstrings. "I wanted to be of service to him, so I allowed him to get close to me." Unfortunately, the alleged "fan" had been lying to her the whole time. And while that level of deception is hurtful, to say the least, Cox is using it to her advantage to play real-life celebrity fitness instructor Kacy Duke in Netflix’s splashy upcoming docudrama miniseries Inventing Anna. Hired as a trainer-cum-life coach for the show’s namesake, the infamous scam artist Anna Delvey, Duke is just one of many characters swindled and exploited.

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Headpiece: Crown and Maiden; Dress: Andrea Grossi

On a particularly frigid December morning, Cox rushes into Soho House New York and immediately dives into an apology for being late. "I woke up and was like, I'm meeting with a reporter today. I better look nice," she explains. “The extra time was worth it,” I reassure her, complimenting the monogrammed Fendi coat she has wrapped around her body. She jokes about the second, heavier coat precariously slung over her forearm, lamenting that it was too cold to leave the house without it.

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Earrings: Mi Manera jewelry; Gloves: Ella Douglas

Barring a 2004 gig playing Marsha P. Johnson in an NYU student film, Cox had never portrayed a real-life person before Kacy Duke. The actress felt an added sense of pressure to do the role justice; she wasn’t being asked to create a character but rather to imitate a person. That pressure was only exacerbated by the fact that Duke, who has worked with everyone from Denzel Washington to Julianne Moore, is still very much alive.

To prepare, Cox met with Duke, eagerly soaking up every story she could about the trainer’s life. She was impressed Duke used to teach a fitness class attended by Madonna in the '80s and utterly gobsmacked to learn Duke helped design (and open) the first Equinox gyms in New York. And yet, Cox ended up holding onto Duke’s sensitivity the most. "If Kacy has a tragic flaw, it’s that she’s been of service in a way that’s sometimes been to her detriment,” she explains, noting that even today, Duke still wants to help Delvey. Foolhardy as that desire may be, that was the side of Kacy that Cox most wanted to highlight.

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RUO BING LI / Design by Kenya Bravo

Watching Inventing Anna, it’s hard to imagine Duke not being pleased with the results. Cox refers to Duke’s approval of her casting as "courageous." "To be open to a trans woman playing you? I think there are a lot of women who might have some issues with that," she lets off—but in reality, the actress makes a solid case for why trans actors should never be limited to exclusively trans roles. Cox imbues Duke with a refined sense of dignity; in a series full of liars, cheaters, and greedy coattail riders, Duke emerges as the most level-headed and honest. The trainer's typically mystical bon mots ("The universe provides what you’re meant to have," she tells one character; "Pain is weakness leaving the body," she says to another) come off as sage and profound rather than cliché, and that's a testament to Cox's enlivened performance.

Inventing Anna marks something of a Netflix homecoming for the actress. Aside from stints on VH1 reality shows like I Want to Work for Diddy and TRANSform Me, Cox first came to national attention with the 2013 debut of Orange Is the New Black, the Jenji Kohan dramedy about the inner workings of a women's prison. Though the series was chock-full of emotional backstories, Cox’s character, Sophia Burset, always stood out as one of the most tragic. A trans inmate doing time for credit card fraud, Sophia lived an honorable life with her wife and son until she needed to pay for her gender-affirmation surgeries. Orange memorably confronted a variety of social issues throughout its seven-season run, but nearly three years after it went off-air, Sophia’s heartbreaking story and its penetrating indictment of insufficient healthcare coverage, damning racism, and violent transphobia continue to resonate.

The show was a runaway hit for Netflix, establishing the streamer as a legitimate purveyor of quality original content. Critics fell in love, fans couldn’t get enough, and when Emmy season rolled around, the series netted a whopping 12 nominations for its first season. One of those nominations was addressed to Cox, and though she didn’t win, the actress still made history as the first openly trans actor to secure an acting nomination.

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Dress: Ella Douglas; Corset: Laurel Dewitt

The success of the series catapulted Cox to a level of fame she, at least at one point, never thought possible for a Black trans woman. Within a year of its premiere, she had once again made history as the first openly trans individual to cover TIME Magazine, for a story fittingly—if somewhat misguidedly—called "The Transgender Tipping Point." She became a huge media personality, a bona fide fashion icon, and a regular on the college talk circuit. (In 2014, Cox’s lifelong idol and eventual friend, the late bell hooks, invited the actress to participate in a public dialogue at The New School. Needless to say, the experience was formative for Cox.)

She continued to act, too, guest-starring in everything from The Mindy Project to Dear White People to The Blacklist. In 2016, she took center stage to put her spin on the infamous gender-bending mad scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Fox’s remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The following year, she was cast as a Yale Law School–educated civil rights attorney in the short-lived CBS drama Doubt, making Cox the first trans actor to secure a series regular role on broadcast television.

All these projects, and yet, something about Inventing Anna felt unique. Ironically enough, it was in Delvey, not Duke, that Cox saw an analogue for a younger version of herself—not as a scammer, but as a go-getter who knew the right people. The actress regales me with stories of her early years in New York when she similarly immersed herself in the glittering fabulosity of the city's party scene. "This is why I felt like Carrie Bradshaw," she jokes, fondly recalling that period in the late ’90s and early 2000s when she wasn’t famous but still hobnobbed with A-listers. "I was broke as fuck, but I looked cute and was going to all the hot spots in New York!"

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This included the legendary establishments of famed nightlife curator Amy Sacco, where sightings of Leonardo DiCaprio and his Pussy Posse pals were all too common. ("If there were cell phones around at the time, I would have been that bitch taking a selfie with Leo behind me," she quips at one point, picking up her own iPhone to mimic a classic selfie pose.) Turning her vintage finds into fashionable partywear, Cox had no trouble bypassing lines for the most exclusive events. She was at Lot 61 attending the after-party for Marc Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 2002 fashion show, and she got into Bungalow 8 on a night when The Police were hosting a private Halloween party. Two decades later, she still looks back on this era, even remembering her costume: a topless Josephine Baker—banana skirt and all.

But Cox assures me that, as the years have gone by, she’s developed a healthy amount of distance from that mentality, from that world. To explain, she references an instance from 2013, shortly after the release of Orange Is the New Black, when she showed up to an Interview magazine party in celebration of the publication’s supermodel-filled September issue. After almost being turned away, Cox was recognized by someone throwing the event and was immediately ushered inside, given a table, and served a complimentary bottle of alcohol. "It was such a shift for me because, 10 years ago, I would have been feeling it," she says of the special treatment. That night, however, the thrill was nowhere to be found. "I was looking around and I saw all these people who, in my projection, were feeling fabulous because they were at the party and the celebrity was there. But, apparently, now, I was the celebrity."

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RUO BING LI / Design by Tomoko Takahashi

It’s puzzling for Cox to consider. Though cognizant of her fame, it’s clear the actress still considers other stars to have more celebrity than she does—perhaps more than she ever will. "That was a room," she stresses while recounting her recent attendance at the grand opening for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. To be surrounded by Nicole Kidman, Annette Bening, and Tom Hanks? "It was stacked—just all these Oscar winners."

I ask whether or not she would ever consider herself in those ranks and whether or not she’d ever feel like she, too, deserved to be in that room. "Deserving is a strange thing," she answers. "I think feeling like you deserve to be famous is really ridiculous. No one deserves to be a celebrity." Rather, she hopes that as she continues to refine her craft, she’ll earn her spot one day. "As an actor, I’ve been very lucky," she says. "But I don’t think I've had a role that shows the full range and depth of my potential as an artist. I think that’s the truth."

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Headpiece: Laurel Dewitt; Jacket: Levi's

However, like many actors from minority backgrounds, Cox also knows that, sometimes, these roles don’t come until you make them for yourself. For this reason, she looks up to Black women who, when ignored by Hollywood, went on to create career-defining projects—women like Queen Latifah, who fought for more than 20 years to get her Bessie biopic made, or Halle Berry, who had to produce Introducing Dorothy Dandridge herself. "She had been this 'pretty face' in Hollywood, but she had a bigger vision and took control of her career," Cox says of the latter. "That was a big [realization] for me, that you could change the trajectory of how you’re seen as an artist."

Cox has spent years trying to do the same, but many of her efforts have been in vain. "It was devastating," she remarks about the dissolution of a project centered on trans supermodel Tracey "Africa" Norman. At one point, it had landed at a network. But as the actress, who would have also served as a producer, explains, "It fell out of development, and then the script was going around Hollywood, and then it just kind of died."

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Ditto for a different show she once pitched around—this one was partially autobiographical. Though Cox "was ready to spill a lot of [her] personal tea in a fictional story," none of the powers that be seemed interested in green-lighting the series, nor any like it. "I've talked to a lot of trans creators pitching shows that are not getting bought, pitching films that are not getting bought," she says dejectedly. "It feels like, post-Pose, people don’t want to make trans stories."

This is clearest in the case of Clean Slate, an in-development comedy starring George Wallace as a car wash owner forced to confront his prejudices when his trans daughter, played by Cox, returns home after 17 years. Like the aforementioned Pose, whose pilot script sat around for years until reliable hitmaker Ryan Murphy attached his name to it, Clean Slate is billed as a Norman Lear production. The brain behind famed sitcoms like All in the Family and The Jeffersons, Lear has a long proven track record in Hollywood. Yet still, Cox tells me, "Even with Norman Lear’s name, we pitched many places that said no."

The one project Cox has been successful in pushing out to the world is Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, Sam Feder’s heavily researched historical look at transgender representation in film and television. "When I got involved, I just wanted to tell the story, to tell the history that Sam [Feder] had already been working on," she says. At the time, Cox, who executive produces and appears in the Netflix documentary, had no idea that it would receive universal acclaim. She definitely didn’t think it would receive Oscar buzz (which it did—though it wasn’t nominated). She wasn’t even sure the film would sell. "We got a five-minute standing ovation when we premiered at Sundance, and still, no one wanted to buy the movie. Initially, Netflix didn’t even buy it," she remembers. “The fact that it got made and that it’s out in the world is a miracle."

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Sweater: Li Mo

Of course, there are things other than her career Cox values—love, chief among them. Though she never mentions him by name, Cox can’t help but mention "my boyfriend" several times throughout our conversation, a smitten grin breaking out on her face each time. "When you’re really intimate with someone, it’s scary as fuck,” Cox says of her partner, who she met on Tinder during the summer of 2020. “Real vulnerability means you can be wounded, you can be hurt.” But something about this mystery man has made Cox feel safe. “The way he’s shown up for me, no man has shown up for me before,” she tells me, positively kvelling as she boasts about the way he’s exposed her to new things. A few days before our breakfast, Cox, who has “never really been into Christmas or holidays in general,” even felt comfortable enough to let him come over and install some lights and a small Christmas tree.

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As we talk about her approach to love and romance now versus in the past, Cox and I stumble into a conversation about her upcoming birthday: This May, she’ll be turning 50. Being alive for half a century would be cause for anyone to celebrate, but for Cox, the upcoming date holds even grander importance. “I had all these milestone birthdays where I was lying about my age,” she tells me, admitting the habit first started around the year 2000. At that time, when she was about 28, she did so to appease her younger partner. But as time went by, Cox felt the shame grew larger the longer she kept her age a secret. "Now, I get to turn 50 and be openly 50,” she enthuses. Citing, on average, Black trans women have a life expectancy of just 35 years, Cox notes, “It’s a statistical miracle I’m still alive." As such, she wants to have a good time with people she loves. Her only stipulation? “I have this fantasy of being 'J.Lo 50' or 'Naomi Campbell 50,' where I’m snatched and I’m looking flawless."

As she approaches her fifth decade, Cox has placed a significantly larger focus on her mental health. The actress has been going to therapy for many years, but typically, she couldn’t see her therapist regularly, stopping by whenever she had a free moment in L.A. The pandemic, however, changed things. Forced to abandon in-person meetings for virtual Zoom calls, Cox and her therapist found it easier to schedule meetings—at least weekly, but sometimes even more than that. Around the same time, she also began experimenting with somatic experiencing, an alternative therapy practice that treats the body and the mind as a collective. The practice has taught her how to listen to her body more. Now, whenever she tenses up, she’s learned to take a second and assess, as it’s usually some kind of stress response.

For better or worse, embracing this new practice has pushed her to speak out less. Throughout her career, Cox has been a very vocal advocate for, among other things, trans rights and Black rights. Often, the actress has invoked stories from her past to speak about the importance of certain causes, but now, she moves with a bit more caution. "I remember seeing a headline where someone just flippantly talked about my suicide attempt, and it just felt awful," she says, referring to the stories she told in 2018 about trying to take her own life. Though Cox stands by her choice to share that information, the fallout made her reconsider how open she should be in the future. "After that, I thought, How would I feel if this was out in the world and used in a way that isn’t consistent with my intention? Because that’s going to happen."

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Cox maintains she has plenty of stories left to tell, but she admits she may not feel ready to tell them until she’s at least 70 or 80. When I suggest they’d be best saved for a potential memoir down the line, she reminds me she reneged on a much-publicized book deal for much the same reason. While trying to write the never-released Daring to Be Myself, Cox felt like the timing was off. Most of her best stories were about events in her life she wasn’t ready to publicly share. "I was like, I'm at an early stage of my acting career and I need some mystery," she says. "And it’s not going to be a good book if I don’t spill all the tea, right?"

In the end, she scrapped her plans for the book and ended up returning her reported six-figure advance to the publisher. Upon hearing this news, bell hooks allegedly exclaimed, "Why did you give the money back? Nobody gives the advance back!"

And perhaps that choice was for the best. Revealing too much can quickly pigeonhole a performer in Hollywood, and as a Black trans woman, Cox’s screen options already felt limited. Though she’s committed to telling trans stories, she's just as happy to be cast in non-trans roles. In addition to Inventing Anna, Cox also recently appeared as a sass-spewing café owner in the Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman and as a tough-talking detective in the revenge thriller Jolt. She’ll continue that trend later this year when she appears in a key still-undisclosed role in director McG’s film adaptation of the popular young adult fantasy novel Uglies.

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Dress: Asquin; Boots: SYRO

Then, there’s everything else. "Sometimes I think my brand is such a bizarre thing," Cox tells me toward the end of our meal, which has now exceeded three hours. She's just finished talking about her new post as the red carpet host for E!, a position she was initially apprehensive about accepting. ("I’m an actress," she recalls bewailing. "I don’t want people to forget that and think I’m just this 'red carpet correspondent.'") But after having "so much fun doing it" for the first time at last December's People’s Choice Awards, she’s excited for what’s to come.

She also has her podcast. Produced by Shondaland, The Laverne Cox Show finds the actress interviewing everybody from Chase Strangio to Billy Porter. With Cox speaking out less in other forums, the podcast has proven to be an ideal platform for continuing to foster the politically and socially engaged discussions she’s always felt passionate about. While people in the booth next to us at breakfast may have been taken aback by Cox’s tendency to drift toward the philosophical—even in casual conversation at 10 a.m., she was invoking Michel Foucault’s research on docile bodies in one moment and drawing references from Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks the next—on the podcast, these same scholarly qualities only make her a better host. In this way, The Laverne Cox Show is the best gig imaginable; who doesn’t want to get paid to have the same conversations they’d be having anyway?

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RUO BING LI / Design by Kenya Bravo

At the time of our interview, we're 10 days out from the end of the year, and though Cox isn’t a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, she agrees to indulge my question about what she wants to change in 2022. "It’s about dancing more," she tells me, her black-lacquered nails, artfully accessorized with playful rhinestone designs, enveloping the stem of what has to be her third cup of coffee. While Cox is known for posting videos of herself dancing on Instagram, the actress reveals doing so isn’t always easy. She thinks back to her time studying dance at the Alabama School of the Fine Arts, where she trained for more than eight hours a day to "overcome the physical limitations" of not having a "natural dancer’s body." It’s been decades since then, but Cox, drawing upon even more therapeutic research, knows trauma from the pressure during that time still lives in her body. Now, unburdened by the need to have perfect form, the actress hopes to approach dance as more of a discipline than an unhealthy obsession. She may not be able to do six pirouettes in a row or even jump off the ground anymore, but she insists that none of that will stop her. As Kacy Duke says in Inventing Anna, “Just thank your legs for holding you up."

Talent: Laverne Cox

Photographer: Ruo Bing Li

Creative Director: Hillary Comstock

Beauty Direction: Hallie Gould

Makeup Artist: Deja Smith

Hairstylist: Dee TrannyBear

Manicurist: Ada Yeung

Stylist: Jessette NYC

Production Assistant: Caroline Santee Hughes

Video Editor: WesFilms

Cinematographer: Jon Cortizo

Booking: Talent Connect Group

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