Inside this new issue we have the handsome model Ben Fronckowiak [Elite Model Management in Miami] photographed by Fritz Yap.
The choice of the title for Ben feature ‘L’Artiste’ was obvious, he is a man of many talents. Below, Ben gives us details about Women Of The Palms a documentary about the transgender/transsexual community. A project that was his thesis at UCLA.
The transgender/transsexual community is currently on the forefront of human rights issues, and needs all the help it can get. ben filmed at The Palms Bar and documented the last year it was in business (until it was decimated in 2013). The Palms Bar was an iconic lesbian bar, and a refuge to people such as Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, etc.
Ben Fronckowiak: Artist, Model, and Director of Women of The Palms
Ever try to cast a drag queen? I am sure not many have been in this predicament, and I am not sure many would want to be. It is definitely tricky, it is definitely trying, but it was absolutely one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
My first short film was called the “Puberty Fairy,” and its title is quite indicative of its theme: a young girl, Becky, wakes up in fear of her first period, but is soon visited by her drag queen Puberty Fairy who coaches her into womanhood. This short film was my initiation into The Palms bar and the trans world.
The film was a student project, and I was dedicated to cast a drag queen as the lead role, but I had a dilemma: I was only twenty years old and legally wasn’t able to enter the West Hollywood bars—which was where I was told, drag queens were everywhere. After unsuccessful attempts, I was downtrodden. It was late Saturday night (technically, early Sunday morning at nearly 12:30 AM), and I needed to have everything rehearsed and ready to be filmed by Monday. Despite the countless drag queens whose promises fell short, I still had a fire burning inside to cast the perfect Puberty Fairy. I ended up at the Palms Bar. It was a hole in the wall—a place where one stumbles in rather than having any former intent to go, especially if it was his or her first time.
Nevertheless, something about The Palms stuck with me. It was small, decrepit, seedy and dying, but it had a beating heart that wouldn’t and—it seemed— couldn’t be smoldered. It stood as a rebel to the glitzy West Hollywood bars, and a figurative middle finger thrust in the face of the commercialized scene. Instead, it was unique, individual, and followed the beat of its own drum.
At its prime, The Palms had been frequented by the Hollywood stars: Madonna, Jim Morrison, Ellen DeGeneres, and Melissa Etheridge. In fact, it was known as West Hollywood’s only lesbian bar. However, I wasn’t aware of any of this when I first entered.
I marched in, and immediately pleaded the bartender to play the role.
“What are you looking for baby?” a school teacher looking red haired female bartender asked.
I could tell she was puzzled, so I explained, “I need to cast a drag queen for a short film I’m working on.”
She was still confused, “Baby, first thing, if you call any of these girls drag queens, you’re gonna get punched in the face!”
The man sitting at the bar, tattoos covering his bulging muscles, whispered, “They’re trans.”
Meanwhile, he was grabbing the watermelon sized breasts of the woman next to him.
He haughtily declared that he was Dale DaBone, the number one male porn star. He then started striking a deal with the bartender to help my plight. If she would act in it, he would also. He gave me his number, and the bartender told me to return in about two hours. I was excited, but slightly convinced that this would be another empty promise.
However, after two hours, I returned. She pulled me into the bar, and I was led backstage. Meanwhile, I watched the performances and was awestruck. I swore I had seen angels. One of the main performers, Gia Ryan, agreed to be in the film (I think more out of empathy for my desperate situation than anything else.) Fortunately, she showed up to rehearsal and within three days, we had a cast, and a successful short film—including a special guest appearance by Dale DaBone.
This was 2011.
One year later, and something about The Palms and Viva Sex’s Club Illusion transsexual show was still on my mind—something about its decrepit exterior was comforting. The trans performers occupied a world hidden to most others— most people would be afraid to watch such a show, much less be associated with this community. I didn’t understand why trans issues were taboo, as the trans performers became the kindest people I met in my life—sure, sometimes jaded and sometimes harsh, but I found this to be a facade to deflect emotional trauma. I witnessed empowerment and freedom when I watched these women perform and I knew that if any story needed to be told, it was theirs.
There I was, twenty-one and not technically savvy when it came to the camera. However, I was persistent and soon learned how to operate the camera and be a source for the performers to divulge their stories. I initially entered the bar with the intent of openly observing; I didn’t have any particular idea in mind other than to capture whatever the performers wanted to say. At times it felt like a shark tank; I was the outsider: a former high school jock now in the backstage of a transsexual show, surrounded by transsexual performers. I never thought I’d be
there, but there I was. I needed to prove myself to win their acceptance, and only time would show my commitment to them.
Eventually, we became friends.
There was Viva Sex: a jaded, outspoken, legendary trans mother (who performed on Johnny Carson and who is the number one Madonna Impersonator). Finding love is tricky for her as she calls the shots and will not take shit from any man. However, she is sick of the sexual escapades that leave her feeling the void even more. Viva Sex on Joan Rivers:
Katrice: A drag queen who wears her heart on her sleeve. She lives in two distinct worlds—one: as PG, a shy, introverted gay man, and the other: as Katrice, PG’s outspoken, boisterous drag personae. Finding love is difficult as when someone falls for Katrice, they don’t necessarily fall for PG—the men don’t consider themselves gay.
Gia Ryan: A caring, genuine, beautiful transgender woman who offers insight into the club, and real life trans dilemmas (as she is naturally feminine and chooses to lead an authentic life, without surgery or hormones). Finding a relationship is difficult for her as she feels the pressure to change and have surgery for a man, but she would rather remain her authentic, spiritual self (without surgery or hormones).
Kimora and Travis: A married couple—Travis has supported Kimora and they remain strong during Kimora’s transition. However, in the meantime, Travis still considers himself “straight.” Travis offers insight into what it’s like being a “straight” man in a relationship with a trans woman.
They opened up about (what seemed to be) everything; however, the main themes were about love and heartache. Some girls had become caught in the dangerous web of prostitution, some by drugs, and the others who led wholesome lives had to fight off temptation every day. In regards to love: how were they to fall in love when the idea of attraction seemed dependent on gender? The men who entered the bar seemed a small cluster of men specifically attracted to transsexual women; these men were only interested in having their sexual proclivities met, and nothing more. Unfortunately, the majority of these men were also already married. Many of the women viewed them as tricks and therefore, the women were forced to question every man’s intention.
If the women didn’t view the men as “tricks,” they considered them “trade.” The community of men interested in transsexuals was so small, so if one man didn’t
work out for a transsexual woman, she would trade him with the next woman in hopes that this might be a fit.
The lingo was endless; a dynamic, Beyonce obsessed performer would always declare, “I’m real fish honey! I’m a barracuda bitch!” Come to find out, “fish” was the equivalent of saying, “woman.” This strong spirit was specific to the trans community, and it remained relatively hidden to the larger public.
Despite new media released about trans issues, “Women of The Palms” maintains a unique vantage point in how the performers are portrayed. Their stories are captivating: first hand accounts of rape, prostitution, and recollections of that first moment seeing themselves after their transitions. These women don’t hold anything back; they are candid as they interview backstage before and after performances, and even in their living rooms. These are women who don’t have the luxury of gender reassignment surgery (much less to even fathom the idea) as they cannot afford it. These are women who represent the majority of transsexuals. These are women who represent true empowerment. The Palms stood as a sanctuary, a haven, and a place where they could be uninhibited.
Unfortunately, this was the last transsexual venue in West Hollywood. And I soon found out that the bar was due to close.
The filming finished when the bar was shut down due to renovation. After filming for one year, I recognize my role in capturing a pivotal part of the historic bar’s history. After the transition and coming out of Caitlyn Jenner and trans awareness gaining more momentum, timing could not be better; however, the performers’ plight was unfortunate. They felt as if they had nowhere to go—here was a family becoming separated; I had become part of this family. Consequently, I recognize my responsibility to honor such kindness. These women openly invited me into their lives, and were vulnerable. I learned from their stories; their wisdom was a gift, and I intend to share this with others.
I am now twenty-five, and I am currently modeling in Miami with Elite Model Management. Since coming to Miami I have shot with photographers Tony Duran, Mike Ruiz, Sonny Tong, Stevan Reyes, Fritz Yap, etc.
It is my objective to utilize modeling as an impetus to finish the film, and promote overall human rights and awareness. I realize that there are larger issues that need attention and I would like to use my creative work to make others aware of these issues, in any capacity possible. The money I make modeling goes towards completing the film. I also have the same motivations with my studio art.
“Women of The Palms” has consumed me. This film drives everything that I do— from modeling to painting. I work with photographers with this film in mind: how can I connect photos of myself to the film to then promote trans awareness?
And how can I model in a shoot which will implement some of my artistic vision?
I am currently seeking funding and additional financial assistance to complete the film, and share this remarkable story. I have created a crowdfunding site in order to fundraise for the film GoFundme.com/WomenOfThePalms. My goal is to raise $10,000 for post production: $6,000 for editing, $1,000 for sound mixing, $1,000 for color correction, $1,000 for composing, and another $1,000 for additional post-production.
“Women of The Palms” is much more than a film—it has become a lesson in humanity. We live in an extremely visual culture, which is a blessing and a curse. However, I intend to utilize this aesthetic craving to create a unique image—to show that the outcasts are victimized and constructed via societal labeling and dehumanization.
The modern day monstrosity is the most intricate, the most misunderstood, and therefore the most complex and beautiful. The greatest comedy stems from the deepest tragedy, and vice versa. More often than not, those who go overlooked because they do not possess a traditional familiarity become invisible. And this is where the magic of life lies—in the crevices, the cracks, and the largest voids. Beyond that black hole is a world that nobody has ever seen—a psychology to challenge traditional perspective and offer an entirely new understanding and awareness. Thorns protect the rose, oysters protect the pearl, and the most profound empathy is guarded by societal stigma, but push yourself to delve beyond stereotypes.
I challenge you to cast a drag queen. I encourage you to fall into the rabbit hole. And I dare you to stumble into a place like The Palms. It will change your life forever.
To see backstage interviews and footage, please go to: www.womenofthepalms.com
If you would like to make a contribution to help make these women’s voices heard, please show your support at: www.gofundme.com/womenofthepalms
Below a couple of extra photos of Ben by Mike Ruiz.