First entering the public spotlight at 6 years old with appearances on 20/20 and The Rosie Show, Jazz Jennings has been an advocate for the trans community nearly all her life. In 2007, she and her family started the Transkids Purple Rainbow Foundation, which aims to help trans children across America by educating schools, peers, places of worship, and society in general about gender dysphoria and the needs of trans kids. Jazz has been a guest at the GLAAD media awards, and is even the youngest person to ever be featured on our own Out100 list. Publishing her own book, titled I am Jazz in September of 2013, Jazz and her family now star in TLC's newest show of the same name. We caught up with the 14-year-old to discuss what it's like to be a public figure at such a young age, her heroes Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, and her mermaid business.
Out: How did TLC get in touch with your family about doing the show, and what was your reaction?
Jazz: We were actually approached by a production company, and what they did is they made this little film reel of us, which was actually this little 4 or 5 minute clip, and they sent it to the network. And when we first decided that we were gonna expose ourselves and open up and share our stories, it was difficult, because we respect our privacy and it's hard to sacrifice that, but we made this decision long ago that if we could help people or change lives by sharing our story, then it's worth it. So we continued doing that when we decided to do this show, when we said "You know what, if someone sees this show and decides that they want to live their life authentically or they now accept transgender individuals, then this whole thing will be worth it." So TLC really just assured us that all they really wanted was to show that we were just an average family living our lives and that being transgender was ok and that it's ok to be different. And when we knew that they were on board with the message that we had to share, we knew that this was the right thing to do. And that's why we decided to share our story. We were nervous at first, but we knew it was the right thing.
You've been in the public spotlight for a while now. What was it like growing up with so much attention?
You know, a lot of people think that growing up it was hard for me, that people were stopping me in the streets and stuff like that. But actually, I've gotten to live the average teenage girl life, or just the average girl life. In the community, no one really recognized me before the show. So I was just doing my thing, doing whatever. People knew I was transgender, but y'know, I had my close friends, I had my family, so it didn't really matter what they thought. So yeah, I really just lived a normal life, and I would say that I continue to live a normal life even though every now and then someone stops and asks for a picture. But I still get my privacy Jazz time.
Do people ever recognize you from TV?
Yeah, every now and then someone will recognize me and ask for a picture and stuff like that. It's definitely happened much more now that the show has come out and everything. It's really nice to hear what people have to say, but it's also overwhelming and a little strange.
What's your first reaction when you've been spotted by a fan? It's really weird, because they know me and I don't know them. So they're like, "Hey, how are you doing, Jazz? I love you, oh my God, you're the best!" And I'm like, "Yeah, who are you?" It's just weird, because they know so much about you and you don't know about them, so I just try to be kind and be like, "Hi, nice to meet you." And I don't know, it's sometimes really weird for me when people keep giving me compliments and stuff like that. I'm just like, "Oh, thank you, thank you." And I don't know any other words than thank you, so.
Who are some of your heroes? Who do you look up to for inspiration?
You know, a lot of people think that other transgender individuals must be my inspiration, like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, and although they are incredible people, my true inspirations are really just my family, because they have taught me all about unconditional love and support. And I always say I want to be a mom just like my mom when I get older, so maybe one day.
I never had siblings growing up. How do you get along with your brothers and sister?
You know, of course we have the average brother-sister relationship. We fight sometimes, whatever. But for the most part, we're just really close. I know my brothers and sisters, that if anyone makes fun of me, they'll stick up for me and protect me and ensure that I'm safe. And you know, it's great to have that support from my siblings. But yeah, they're just crazy and silly.
Are any of your family members ever nervous on camera?
Well, my brothers are never nervous, because they like attention a lot. So for them, I guess they're just naturals, you could say. They're naturally comfortable in front of the camera. My sister, she's a little bit different, because she's a little more reserved and laid back, but she never gets nervous or anything.
My mom doesn't like the way she looks on TV, that's what she's always concerned with. And then my dad, he's a little bit more like my sister in the sense that he's reserved and sometimes he just gets...not nervous, but uncomfortable sharing everything, and there's definitely things that he doesn't want to share completely. Mom, what do you think?
Jeanette (Jazz's Mom): I'm pretty open with the camera, in fact. My husband, like Jazz was saying, is a little more conservative, so he tends to think that I'm too open at times. So in the back of my mind, I hear him in my ear saying "Jeanette, you might have gone a little too far answering this question." So I'm always trying to censor myself a little bit thinking of him. And like Jazz said, I don't like the way I look on TV, so it's hard for me to watch myself. But while I'm filming, I'm very open and comfortable with the camera.
What are some of your favorite things to do in your free time?
I like to do a lot of things. I really love to learn, so I'm always teaching myself new stuff on the computer. It could be something different every day. One day, I'll be learning how to use Photoshop, the next day I'll be learning how to make a movie. It just really depends what my interest is for the day, so I'm usually doing creative stuff like that. Or I'm just laying down in bed and relaxing or watching movies and TV on my computer.
What about when you're with friends? Jazz: I met my friends through school, and for fun we just hang out and do whatever, I guess. I mean, we always do different things depending. We're just girls doing our weird things, you know?
Which careers are you thinking about doing for a living?
That's a hard question for me, because I love doing so many things that I haven't tuned in on one specific activity that I'm super interested in and want to pursue, but I definitely know I want to continue using the creative side of things for sure, but I also really love math and science, so I'm trying to find a way to fuse those all together for my dream occupation. Or maybe I'll do a bunch of different things, I'm not sure. When it comes to my future occupation, I don't know what field or industry I'll end up in.
What's it like going into high school as a young transgender girl?
It's definitely a little bit nerve wracking, because I don't know what to expect completely in high school. I'm not sure what's gonna happen. I'm not sure if people are going to be supportive of the face that I'm transgender and if they're going to be mature about it and understanding and accept me for who I am as a person, but I know that with my friends by my side and the administration being supportive, that I'll be able to get through high school.
You do a lot of advocacy work through your Transkids organization. What's it like working with the organization and travelling the country and speaking at conferences?
Jeanette: I think that it's very rewarding knowing that we're doing the hands-on work, because not everybody can relate to us through the media, and it's important sometimes for trans kids to be able to walk up to Jazz and give her a hug or thank her or be able to ask questions. When you're in the media, you can't ask those one-on-one questions that you can if you're having a live appearance. And when Jazz is in front of an audience speaking, she really commands the room beautifully, and that's a side that you don't really see on the show, which is her advocacy work. It's so important for her to do, and she's been doing that since she was pretty young. Jazz, do you want to add anything? Jazz: I really want to share my story. It's really for other people, not for myself, and I'm just hoping that someone can watch me and hopefully say "that message is beautiful, I should live my life authentically and be myself." And I hope I can get that across with everything I do. It's just really rewarding to see the difference you're creating and the change that is occurring in society. It's great to see people finally start opening up their minds and being more accepting and loving towards people.
What has it been like meeting other trans people who you've helped through your book and TV show and public presence?
You know, whenever I meet another transgender person, it's really just incredible, because they tell me all these incredible things, and I'm like "Wow, you're so sweet." When I see that people are looking up to me and telling me that I'm really affected them and made an impact in their life, it just confirms that I've really made a difference by sharing my story and I have to continue getting my message out there if it means that it's gonna benefit other people out there. So yeah, it just really motivates me to continue sharing my story.
Do you have any words for any young transgender kids who might be out there watching the show?
Jazz: Well, for just transgender individuals or transgender kids, the message I always have for them is that you just have to live your life authentically and stay strong and if anyone's gonna bring you down, don't let them affect you, because they can't judge you without understanding who you are. So don't let them affect you. Always love yourself, keep moving forward, and have a positive attitude. If you have a positive attitude, then things will get better. So I just try to encourage them to live their lives authentically.
How about parents who might be unfamiliar with trans issues and are trying to get accustomed to having a transgender child?
Jazz: This might be a good question for my mom. Mom, do you have anything you want to say?
Jeanette: My big thing to say to parents is that you have to put aside your own ego and put the child's needs first. I always say that it's a child's birthright to be loved and to be happy, and there's nothing more important than for your child to be happy. That if they're depressed and suicidal because you're not allowing them to be their authentic self, then that's a pretty scary thing. The attempted suicide rates for youth are close to 50%, so I didn't want to play with those odds. And other parents need to know that this is serious. Being transgender could be a life or death situation for a child, and they really need to take the idea of what they think their child is and put that aside and put their child first.
Any funny stories or things we might not know about?
Jeanette: It's funny, Jazz has this mermaid tail company where she's making tails all summer when she's got time, and the money goes to our foundation, the Transkids Purple Rainbow Foundation. So I think it's important for people to know she works hard to help other transgender kids. Not just by being on the show, but all the work she does. She travels all across the country and she speaks at conferences and talks to other kids. And she doesn't like saying this kind of stuff because she doesn't like to brag about herself, but I can, 'cuz I'm her mom.
How does this mermaid tail business work?
Jazz: So I make silicone mermaid tails in which I make sculptures and then I make plastic molds and then I put the silicone into the molds. And then I kind of just put the tail all together and airbrush it, and you can actually swim in the water with these tails. You can see a video of me swimming with one at my YouTube page, and you can buy them over on my site.
Anything else you'd like to mention?
Jeanette: I just hope that anybody watching the show really gives it a chance. Some people don't know anything about transgender kids, and if they just open their mind and watch our family and just look at us as any other family, they'll see that's what we are. We just happen to have a child who was assigned the wrong gender at birth, and she is now living her life happily. And I think it's important for other people to see the issues that transgender kids have to tackle.
I Am Jazz airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET (9 p.m. Central). Watch an exclusive clip from tonight's episode below: