Standing tall: Kinley Preston overcomes the odds
Wed. September 10, 2014 by Terrence Chappell
I want to continue to pave the way and knock down doors to make things easier for people after me and of course changing people’s perspective.
"I remember being in rooms full of women wearing gowns that cost thousands of dollars, and here's my three dollar dress and they're fanning over me. I just remember being able to pull it off," says Kinley.
However, before the charity balls, her salon, the luncheon lady admirers, and overall "pulling it off", Kinley struggled to figure herself out. She grew up in a religious and conservative family in the small town of Pleasanton, Nebraska where the boys were required to play sports and the idea of transgender wasn't discussed.
"I remember all the things I wanted to do like cheerleading and dance were the things I wasn't allowed to do, but that I should've been allowed to do. The things, like sports, that I didn't want to do I had to do," she recalls.
Like so many other children who are seen as different, Kinley was bullied at school. But unlike gay kids who are bullied for their sexuality, at the time Kinley didn't quite know how to define herself. She knew she was different because as a young boy she associated herself with "girl things". So, mistakenly she identified as gay. It wouldn't be until a few years later when a school counselor advised Kinley that she was transgender. She remembers falling into a deep depression upon hearing the news.
"I didn't really get it fully I guess. I backlashed and denied it. I went into a huge depression, tried to commit suicide and ended up going home," says Kinley.
Still in denial, Kinley came out as gay to her family after returning home. Her parents were outraged over the news. Escaping the fighting and the religious pressure, Kinley ran away to Dallas. Dallas served as a dual destination of awakening and descent for Kinley.
It was in Dallas where she met her first transgender woman and learned that transgender people can and do live normal lives. She became more and more comfortable in her identity as a transgender woman. But it was also in Dallas where Kinley fell into the nightlife and grew addicted to drugs. She hit rock bottom after finding herself sick from constant drug use in an abandoned apartment building. She called her dad to send her money so she could return home.
After settling in at home, Kinley made the decision to come out as transgender to her family and began her transition. When Kinley came out as transgender, in a way her second coming out, her parents seemed much more concerned with what others would think. Frustrated, she decided to move to Chicago and attend Paul Mitchell the School in Chicago. It was here in this city where Kinley became the Kinley Preston we know today. She stayed in school, attended benefits, and grew her network. It also didn't hurt that billionaire businessman and Paul Mitchell School co-founder John Paul Dejoria reached out to her. With Dejoria's insight, her parents help, and other supporters, Kinley was able to open up Vanite Salon in the heart of Lakeview. Kinley now sits on the most sought-after charity boards, is a business owner, and aspiring motivational speaker. Although Kinley admits that she still struggles with depression and substance abuse, she recognizes that coming from addiction is a continuum of wellness.
“You don’t just wake up and you’re happy. Happiness takes work,” says Kinley.
Being transgender is only a small part of Kinley's identity and life. She's a budding entrepreneur, a community champion, a performer, and she's a survivor. Kinley opens up to readers about overcoming drug use and depression, and how it was growing up transgender in small town.
TC: (Terrence Chappell) Where are you from originally?
KP: (Kinley Preston) I'm originally from Nebraska via Dallas, Texas. I started my transition in late 2008 and just knew that it wasn't a state or safe space to transition. I also knew that I wasn't mentally stable to get through college, so I started looking for other ways to survive and an easier way to get through. I looked at hair and beauty schools.
TC: Tell us more about your home town.
KP: I grew up in a small town of Nebraska, Pleasanton, with only like three hundred people. I went from kindergarten through twelfth grade with the same twenty-three people. I think my closet neighbor was about a mile or a quarter mile away. I kind of grew up as a social outcast.
TC: How were you a social outcast?
KP: I was really bullied a lot verbally and physically. So, I found an escape with horses and that's what I resorted to. That's what I think saved my life because I was able to find comfort in that. So, when I wasn't in school, I was with my horses 24/7.
TC: Did you open up to anyone about being bullied and picked on at school?
KP: I did but nothing ever got done about it. So, I quit telling people because no one ever did anything about it. Either that or it was covered up or people would say it will go away and it never did. So, I just learned to live with it and find ways to maneuver around it, so I wouldn't have to deal with it.
TC: When did you notice that you were a little different from the other kids?
KP: Well, I remember when I was younger I was always associating myself with girl things like dressing in girl's clothes and playing with girl's toys. There was this one game called pretty princesses and it was a board game. I remember the day my mom wouldn't let me play it anymore because she thought I'd gotten out of hand with it.
TC: Do you think your parents knew what was going on with you at this time?
KP: I don't think they knew what was going on either. I grew up in a very conservative, religious home. So, the word gay or anything gay wasn't even talked about let alone transgender. I didn't even know what transgender was until I was twenty-two or twenty-three. So, I just thought that thinking like a girl and liking girl things, and liking boys was just me being gay. I later found out that I wasn't gay.
TC: Did things get better when you went to college?
KP: When I joined my fraternity was when I started drinking a lot. For me it was an outlet, an escape, like a numbing mechanism. I ended up leaving that school and pursuing a career and showing horses. This was where I met my first gay person. He was a classmate and we had a romantic relationship. But the relationship aspect just wasn’t working with him. That's when I started really conflicting with gender, sexual orientation and trying to figure out the difference.
TC: So, identifying as transgender didn't even enter your mind?
KP: I really didn't figure it out. I mean growing up you hear through the grapevine of people who got sex changes. But your perception of it was just men dressing up as women. I never really got the grasp of what it meant. I didn't know that there were so many trans people out there who lived normal lives because it was always made a mockery of to me.
TC: How did you figure out that you were transgender?
KP: I had a classmate that called me out as gay, so I was struggling with that because I knew there was something going on. But in the back of my mind there was still the whole religious affiliation and pressure. So, I started seeing a counselor at school. She was the one that told me I was trans.
TC: How did you respond?
KP: I didn't really get it fully I guess. I backlashed and denied it. I went into a huge depression, tried to commit suicide and ended up going home.
TC: Did you tell your parents what your counselor told you?
KP: I actually came out to my family as gay, but I didn't really know what was going on with me.
TC: How did your family respond?
KP: Horribly. It wasn't pretty. It was a big mess. There was a lot of fighting, bickering, and hard times. I just couldn't take it anymore. So, I tried to commit suicide once and ended up in a suicide ward for a while.
TC: How did you try to commit suicide?
KP: I tried to overdose and ended up in the hospital. When I got out, things didn't get much better. A few months later, one day I just packed my bags and left for Dallas. I didn't tell my family where I was going. I didn't have a plan. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't have a place to live once I moved down there.
TC: What specifically drove you away from home?
KP: The religious pressure got real intense and I ended up running away to Dallas. I was familiar with Dallas because I was into horses, trainers, and just from being down there a lot. That's where I saw my first trans person. I just remember being in awe and thinking that's who I am. That explains everything. Plus, she was beautiful.
TC: So, she was your introduction to the transgender community.
KP: After I met her, then that was when I started meeting this community of girls, just one after the next.
TC: How was Dallas?
KP: I spent two years in Dallas on the streets, homeless, and on drugs. I was a mess. I eventually did find a good place to live, a good job, and all that. But when I met my first trans person, I was so enthroned by her. I met her on the nightlife scene. I just felt that deep connection of this is who I am, this is what I am.
TC: What kind of affect did she have on your life?
KP: As much as she kind of saved my life, she was also the worst thing that happened to me. She was a hardcore drug addict. When you're already mentally and emotionally distraught from everything and being separated from your family, it's easy to fall into that kind of life.
TC: Were you talking to your parents at all throughout this?
KP: No, they still had no idea where I was at. I didn't want them to know where I was at.
TC: What was the turning point for you to get your life back on track?
KP: I was doing a lot of drugs at that time, and I got really sick. I just remember laying on this couch in this abandoned apartment. There were people dying around me and people shooting up. Looking back on it now I can't even believe that was me, or I went through that. It's something I never want to go through again, but I'm glad I did because I have whole new perspective on people, life, and reality that most people don't' even get to see. Most people don't ever make it out of these situations.
TC: So, you decided to leave Dallas and return home?
KP: I just thought that if I come down off this high, I'm going to call my dad and ask him to send me money to go back home. I was down to 112 pounds, but I survived. So, I went home and got healthy. I made the decision that I needed to really start dealing with my problems because everything was a coping mechanism numbing me from reality.
TC: Did you come out to your parents as transgender?
KP: I finally made the decision to tell my parents I was trans, and that I plan on transitioning.
TC: How was this time coming out as transgender different?
KP: I think when I came out as gay I shoved it down my parent's throats so much, and forced them and pushed them. When I came out as trans, I knew that time was the only thing I had. So, instead I let them come to me this time.
TC: How did they respond to your transition?
KP: I started my transition very quickly after I told them. Of course it wasn't received the best. It was more of what are people going to think, what are people going to say; just a lot of selfish concerns. They were more concerned with their image and their social status then me I think at the time.
TC: What brought you to Chicago?
KP: I came across the Paul Mitchell School of Chicago in January 2009, so I moved here that same year. I had no job, no resources or family support. I moved here with four hundred dollars and the clothes on my back, and the rest is kind of history. I've been here for five years. I pretty much came here with nothing and built up everything I have now through networking.
TC: How was living as a transgender woman in Chicago?
KP: I was doing well for a while but I was dealing with a lot of social stigma here in Chicago. It was just people coming at me all the time with remarks and hate speech. I was use to it but I was living here full-time now and it was just more intense. I fell back into the nightlife and into drugs.
TC: How did you fall back into the nightlife scene and drugs?
KP: I just started going out in the LGBT scene. I felt safe and comfortable there. It just sucks you back in when you don't have any support systems. I didn't really know how to find support in Chicago, so I was struggling with that. I didn't know about Howard Brown. I didn't know about Center on Halsted at this point. I didn't know how to deal with any of it.
TC: How was the relationship with your parents at this time?
KP: Off and on, they were still coping with it. So, they didn't really like dealing with it. They weren't a big emotional support at that time.
TC: What helped you get your life back on track in Chicago?
KP: After JP (John Paul Dejoria ) talked to me, I felt like someone was holding me accountable, so I got myself together. No one was really holding me accountable before. Here, I had these really amazing people holding me accountable.
TC: How did you relate to JP?
KP: It felt really cool to know that he understood me and that he was in a similar situation in his life at one point and to see where he took it in 30 years. That was really inspiring to me. Not only that, this very busy person took time out of his life to track me down and talk to me.
TC: John Paul DeJoria actually personally reached out to you?
KP: I fell back into drugs for a while and into the nightlife. The owners of the school kind of pulled me up by my bootstraps and really came behind me. John Paul DeJoria, who is the co-founder of Paul Mitchell and Patron Tequila called me one day and told me how his multi-billion dollar company was started out of the trunk of his car when he was homeless.
TC: What was it like to having this powerful business owners personally reach out to you?
KP: That was a really powerful moment for me because this is someone who can completely relate to me from a homeless standpoint and of being an outcast and having nothing. Also, here was this very powerful man taking the time out of his life to seek me out and personally talk to me because he has heard my story.
TC: How did they hear about your story?
KP: The school printed a newsletter about me, and so he was able to read about my story and my past. It really resonated with him and that's why he decided to reach out to me.
TC: What did you do after you graduated from the Paul Mitchell School of Chicago?
KP: After I graduated from school, I couldn't get a job. I had an amazing resume at that point. I'd apply to salons and get pulled into interviews and so many owners wouldn't want to hire me when they found out I was trans. Even gay owners would tell me that there's not a place for me in this industry, which I thought was bizarre because every trans person I know does hair and make-up better than anybody.
TC: How long did this go on for?
KP: This went on for a few months. I got depressed again and started falling back into my old ways again because I just couldn't find work.
TC: So, you went into business for yourself?
KP: One day I walked by where my salon is at today and the space was empty. I mean it was a beautiful building for a salon I thought. I figured the rent would be super high and plus the building was just beautiful and brand new. But when I called the realtor it was actually super cheap.
TC: How did opening Vanite Salon become a reality?
KP: I got a hold of all my networks and support systems, writing an amazing business plan, pitching them an idea, and they came together in different ways to help me get my salon.
TC: Since owning Vanite Salon, you've become quite the brand.
KP: Vanite Salon allowed me to platform and reposition myself into other arenas. My business allowed me to join different boards. Instead of just being a trans person at this event, it allowed me to have a legitimate backing rather than just another face in the crowd.
TC: What other endeavors did you get involved in after becoming a business owner?
KP: That’s a long list, I sit on the Board of Directors for the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce, Board of Trustees to Chicago House, Trans Life Center Advisory Board, Co-Chair GLAAD,s Chicago Leadership Council, Chicago Ambassador to the Dot429 Network and Magazine, Joffrey Ballet Auxiliary Board and GoPride.com’s Trans Rep and blogger. I think that’s about it! [laughs]
TC: Who were some of your biggest supporters at this time?
KP: The entire Paul Mitchell family as far as the owners, their salon coaches and the people at the school. Professional Salon Concepts Joliet was a huge supporter as well. The Cowin family was another big supporter.
TC: Your parents?
KP: I think having all these other great people behind me inspired my parents to support me.
TC: Have you been back to your home town, since you last left?
KP: I remember the first time going back I was young and crazy, so I'd showed up to town and would just make a big scene. That was back in June of 2010. However, now when I go back I just try to stay low key. (Laughs)
TC: How is your relationship with your family now?
KP: It's amazing. I talk to them all the time. It's weird when I don't talk to my mom at least once or twice a week. I remember at one time never wanting to talk to her again in my life. Now, I can't go a week without talking to her. She's become one of my best friends. My dad doesn't say much but he's a huge supporter. He's a go with the flow kind of guy. My dad is an awesome man. It's ups and downs with my siblings. We're just at that age now where we're like why are we still arguing about stupid shit?
TC: How is your dating life and meeting guys?
KP: I don't know if this has to do with growing up and feeling so alone. I'm just use to being by myself. I have always had a hard time with being or connecting with people period on a more intimate level. I never really had friends growing up and even today it's hard. I think that's why I throw myself into work so much because it distracts me from all that.
TC: Do you stay in contact with any of the trans girls you met when you first came to Chicago?
KP: Yes, I do! When I moved here I was running around with trans girls who were in the nightlife, and not that anything is wrong with that but I wanted my life to go in a different direction.
TC: You also perform at Kit Kat Lounge sometimes.
KP: I'm a show girl too. So, then there's that whole rift of trans activism and being a show girl. Sometimes people can view it as being degrading to the trans community. I don't view it as that at all, it's an art form.
TC: Do you find yourself relating to or feeling more comfortable in LGBT community or straight community?
KP: I consider myself straight and I feel more at home in the straight community then I do in the LGBT community. It's still a struggle because there's a lot of discrimination there, so sometimes I do look to the LGBT community for support.
TC: Do you think the trans community fits into the larger lesbian, gay, and bisexual community?
KP: I think there needs to be a separation between LGB and T because not all trans people are gay. I think trans activism is important and for me to have a voice. Instead of being a face of trans activism, I'd rather be on a board behind closed doors making decisions kind of person.
TC: How do you see yourself?
KP: I see myself as a business person vs a trans person. For what I want with my life, my companies, my businesses, and for where I want to go a lot of it isn't even trans related it's just business related. Trans is one aspect of me and I'm not going to let it define my life and business, and everything I live and breathe.
TC: What are some long-term goals for you?
KP: I want to expand my company into multiple locations and multiple cities. I want to have a men's division. Children are a possibility, so I haven't ruled that out yet. This time next year I'd like to travel around and do motivational speaking on a lot of different topics starting with the Paul Mitchell School. I definitely have a plan of attack on getting another business here in Chicago. Next thing on my wish list is a horse and cattle farm. I'm a country girl, so I love the ranch and country life. That's why I loved Dallas, cowboys and Maseratis.
TC: Why motivational speaking?
KP: One reason I want to go down that road is because of the stories people have come at me with. One girl messaged me saying that she texted her mom for the first time after listening to me speak while another girl told me she had a cocaine problem. One girl told me her boyfriend was trans and didn't know how to deal with it. I've just had this overflow of people coming to me after I did some public speaking on a whim. So, that's where this idea of doing more public speaking came from.
TC: What's one major issue facing the trans community today?
KP: I think it's education and awareness both in the straight and gay world and even in the trans world a lot of people are still unaware. We have to let them know that gender is not binary. That's why I feel like I've got to be visible to some degree and do what we call stealth. We need to educate the people who are unaware of us.
TC: What do you want your legacy to be?
KP: I want to continue to pave the way and knock down doors to make things easier for people after me and of course changing people's perspective.
Interviewed by Terrence Chappell