Prada top, bottom, hat, sleeves, and shoes.

I’m a Jersey girl. I was raised by my mom—who was the flyest girl ever—my older sister, and my grandmother. My father died of AIDS when I was 2, but I grew up really happy; there were women around me all the time, and a lot of love. My mom is Peruvian and curly-haired and is a big beauty inspiration for me. We’d always be singing the latest hits, and she would enroll me in little plays, but I was shy. I was more into doing things by myself: I’d wrap a T-shirt around my head and put on makeup to try to look like her. I knew that I was different, but my mom never told me I should be any other way. Consequently, I didn’t grow up thinking that I was wrong being who I was—until I got to school. That’s when the actress in me had to come out.

I’d see kids who were gay, and they’d get picked on. So I learned very quickly that I had to keep certain things to myself: I’d try to act like a boy and wear sneakers. It helped that I was friends with all the cool girls. They would hang out with the popular boys, who knew better than to tease me or the girls would get on their case. But straight after finishing high school, I left them all—I went to New York, like, that weekend. I’d gotten a brand-new car, and I started going to the Village and getting to know the scene. I went to my first drag show at a Latin club called Escuelita. The finale starred this stunningly beautiful goddess. She was obviously a transwoman, and she took my breath away. At the time I was studying photography in college, so I would take pictures of the shows, and I got to know all the girls. I also started doing makeup professionally, but surprisingly I discovered that what I really wanted to do was perform. I participated in an amateur show, and the audience loved me—I won! After that, I started touring clubs and acquired a fan base. I also realized that being onstage gave me an escape: I could be feminine, which is what I was on the inside. I never felt like a gay guy—growing up I’d pray that I would wake up a girl.

Eventually, I didn’t want to act like a woman anymore—I wanted to become one. I went to a doctor, and he prescribed what I needed. But I sat on it for a little bit. I kept thinking, What happens if I don’t look nice? That same month, I got a phone call from the producers of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Literally the day after we finished filming the show, I decided it was time to transition.

It hasn’t been easy—especially when it comes to dating. I tell people I’m transgender, and they bring up all the negative stereotypes that come from ignorance. I don’t have time to play psychologist, so I try to lead by example. I want to leave something behind so people can look back one day and say, “Wow, remember when transpeople were discriminated against the most? This person was like, ‘Screw everybody! I’m going to parade around half-naked and be superproud, because that’s how everyone should be!’ ”