NYC singer/songwriter Nomi Ruiz has been on a super long journey towards claiming her own womanhood. Since coming out on the indie/dance scene as a vocalist for Hercules and Love Affair, Ruiz has gone on to make a name for herself in her own band Jessica 6, and as a fashion icon for the Mugler brand. Now she’s about to release a new mixtape, Borough Gypsy Mixtape ll- a ten track tribute to the late producer James DeWitt Yancey (aka J Dilla), where she sings over his beats…and her first solo album is expected soon. I got a chance to catch up with my sista, over tea, right before her new singles Bullet Proof, The Light, and The Scent dropped, and she gave a little more insight into her pernicious relationship with HLA, hyper-femininity, and finding her voice as a trans woman and an LGBTQ advocate…which doesn’t exactly echo the sentiments you might expect.
Paisley Dalton: What’s been goin’ on?
Nomi Ruiz: Chillin’! I was away again for a bit.
Paisley: You are totally living this gypsy 2.0.
Nomi: I have it down pat [laughs]! I went to Greece.
Paisley: Oh…that’s where that producer guy (Mansta) lives that did that George Michael cover A Different Corner with you.
Nomi: Yes! I love him! New York was driving me a bit crazy. I went there and to Russia to just relax…to get more perspective.
Paisley: You look very banjee cunt today…with your Wu- Tang Clan t-shirt on.
Nomi: You know me…my basics!
Paisley: Yes…I do! Do you remember when we first met?
Nomi: Yes [laughs]! We were at Patricia Field…before you left for Berlin. I have photos from your going away party.
Paisley: You should post them!
Nomi: I remember when you did the white face Grace Jones look from the movie Vamp.
Paisley: Those were the days in New York. Wait, aren’t you actually from NYC?
Nomi: Yep! Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Paisley: Wow! What was that like?
Nomi: It was interesting…very Puerto Rican, Dominican, Chinese, Mexican and Russian.
Paisley: So, everybody was kind of mixing together?
Nomi: Not really. Everybody had their little section. I was in the Puerto Rican/Dominican area and it was like a drug war zone. My brother was really involved in all that. It was a little scary.
Paisley: At that time you were identifying as a gay boy. Were you effeminate? Did you stick out, or were you in the mix with all that?
Nomi: At first, I was oblivious to it, until I got a little older. My brother was always getting into trouble. I was in my own fantasy world, in my bedroom. I never really went out. My friends would come to visit me in my little imaginary world.
Paisley: Is your brother older than you?
Nomi: He’s like 10 years older.
Paisley: Ah. My brother is only like a year and a half older than me. We were really close when we were younger. People used to think we were twins. We didn’t look alike at all, but my mom used to dress us alike. I always found a way to make my look a bit more girly. We didn’t have much in common; but he was my older brother, so I just followed what he did. He was my best friend.
Nomi: I wanted that! I was always chasing my brother, but I was too young…and acting too much like a little girl. I was innocent and sweet. He wouldn’t let me hang out with him and his gang. He was always protective of me. They weren’t going to play ball. They were into some bad shit.
Paisley: It was kinda the same for me. I was super effeminate! But I didn’t really put a name on it until I went to high school. At that point, people TOLD me what I was. That’s when all the derogatory name calling started…and my glorious foray into the gay world. The first gay bar/club I went to was in Detroit. I remember going to the mall one day, to this store Le Chateau. Back then, it was this super cool place. All the employees dressed in New Wave-style outfits…lots of white face make up, rouge, big hair…and they played this super loud hi-energy music…Dead or Alive, some Siouxsie and the Banshees, New Order, Depeche Mode, Nina Hagen, Kraftwerk, etc. I met this guy who looked like Grace Jones. He was wearing red lipstick, a full beat, and that Grace Jones flat top hairstyle. I thought he was so cool! Anyway, he invited me to go out with him that night. We ended up at this strip mall at around 11pm. It was the middle of the night on a Wednesday and the whole parking lot was full! I was soooo confused. It turned out to be a hidden gay club, located in a back alleyway of the mall. I freaked out! I told him that I couldn’t go to a club because I was underage. The drinking age was 21, but you could go in if you were 18. I was 15. He told me that if I lit a cigarette, they wouldn’t ask me for ID…and it worked! We got in and then I really freaked! Everywhere you looked, nothing but men…men dancing together…men hugging…men kissing… I was mortified! I just kept thinking that someone might see me there. Once I realized that if they see me, I see them too, It was all good! That was the beginning of my sinning…LOL!
Nomi: For me…I kind of always knew. I knew I liked boys. I started getting turned on at around 8 years old. I was REALLY young! I think I realized what gay was from watching the Howard Stern Show. It was late at night and I wasn’t suppose to be watching it. I can’t remember the exact show or topic, but they were describing what gay was. Two guys were pretending to be gay and they were making fun of it, and I thought ‘that’s me’, and I started crying. Before that, I always thought I wanted to be a girl. But after watching that show, I went to my mother and told her I was gay. I was so frightened.
Paisley: That’s so weird. One would think that since you grew up in New York, you would feel more secure. People think of New York as a progressive city, a mecca where everyone is accepting and free.
Nomi: I was isolated. I didn’t really go into the city. I was so young. When I got older, around 13 years old, I did start venturing out. I would go to the LGBT center and to youth groups. Then I started realizing I wasn’t gay. I tried having a boyfriend, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t comfortable kissing a gay boy, or taking my clothes off. I started thinking that something was wrong, there must be something else going on. It wasn’t until I started doing outreach at Hetrick-Martin Institute at the Harvey Milk School that I met a more eclectic group of kids and transgendered girls. I met this girl Gloria, and everybody told me she was trans. She told me her story and I realized that that was what I was feeling inside of me. That’s when I started to pursue transitioning.
Paisley: I had a similar experience when I first moved to NYC. I was 17. I remember walking into a costume shop in the West Village. This was towards the end of that era being the gay area. It was still FULL of queens, day and night. There was a woman behind the front desk who I now realize was transgender. She said something to me that I will NEVER forget. Keep in mind that back then I was super androgynous. I had a full face of makeup EVERYDAY! There wasn’t even a name for my look at that time. It was just how I organically expressed myself. I never thought that I was a woman or a man, at least not in a binary way. But she clocked me and said, “One day you’re going to be a really pretty girl”. I was dumbfounded. It made no sense to me. I knew I was a boy, perhaps not masculine, but I was a boy. But the way she looked at me…the way she saw me…no one had looked at me like that before. She seemed to understand me, and that was a validation that I had never felt before. Nowadays, it feels like people are quick to emulate people they admire…pop stars, actors, people who are popular on TV or social media. That emulation might also manifest into changing your hair, your body, or even your gender. That doesn’t necessarily mean you are transgender because you want to look like someone who is popular, or even feel like someone who you think has it all.
Nomi: I guess I always knew. When I was young, I had Alopecia. I had NO hair! I felt like an alien. When I would go to school, even the teachers would ask me, “Are you a boy or a girl”?
I remember when I worked at The Gap, I was dressing as a girl everyday…I had fully transitioned…no one knew! But I was always terrified that someone would find out…like a friend of mine would come in and I’d have to hide behind the denim wall [laughs]! My manager was actually an old friend. We had worked together at a local newspaper…and she didn’t recognize me! I had to pull her aside and let her know. From then on, she had my back. For a while, I did really well there. They actually wanted to promote me to corporate! Then, one day this kid I knew from school came in, and he outed me to her. Of course, she already knew by then, but I hated the feeling that someone could have that power over me. That’s when I decided I needed another job- a place where I didn’t have to worry about being exposed…where I could be myself. I started going around to places that I thought were cool and that’s how I ended up at Patricia Field.
Paisley: Is that where you started to feel safe…comfortable in your new skin?
Nomi: I felt I could be more myself, express my femininity. Before that, I was more of an ‘around the way’ girl…wearing Timberlands…trying not to be noticed.
Paisley: And your bandana!
Nomi: Always [laughs]!
Paisley: We can laugh about it now, but the great thing about the Patricia Field store was that we were a family of special creatures. No one ever came for someone else…at least not in a malicious way. I do remember Mona Foot (Nashom Wooden), who also worked at the store at that time, would always say to me (about my outfits), “Girl, you came on the train like that?” He just couldn’t believe that I actually made it, alive, from Brooklyn to Manhattan in some of the looks I pulled. Looking back on it, I’m not sure how I did it either. But I couldn’t have done it any other way. It was just organic for me to be expressive…in my way.
Nomi: That was so inspiring for me too…to be around people who were being themselves all the time…full time! I eventually started wearing stilettos…cowboy hats…
Paisley: But you seemed a bit nervous at first…even there. You hadn’t quite yet embraced you ‘sex’…your womanhood.
Nomi: You’re right! Over time, I evolved. Where I came from, I tried not be noticed. But at Pat’s, I started to feel free and sexy.
Paisley: Did you start venturing out to clubs then…gay clubs? A lot of the trans women I knew back then had started out in the gay clubs, as gay men…then they were drag queens…and eventually transitioned to women. But they would still hang out in gay clubs because that’s where their friends were, the people they had known throughout their transition. The gay clubs were a safe place.
Nomi: I went everywhere! I was a gypsy. I would go to Cafe Con Leche. It was gay, Latin, but also mixed. Spa and Cheetah were also places I loved! They were mixed too…but definitely gay too! I also went to all straight places. Sometimes, it was dangerous! There was one incident at this place called Riddlers, in the Bronx. It was a straight place, but they had a gay night…so, everybody knew what the tea was. One night I’m sitting there with a friend of mine and this boy starts staring at me. He comes over, grabs my throat, pulls my hair back and says, “What the fuck are you? Are you a boy or a girl?” He was about to strangle me! Luckily, a bunch of butch lesbians came over and ripped him off of me. I was like, WTF! I wasn’t even flirting with him. It just happened out of no where.
Paisley: Do you think, looking back on it, that some of that rage was sexual tension?
Nomi: Definitely! It’s crazy how just seeing a trans woman challenges straight men and whatever position of power they think they hold in society. He starts to question himself and his sexuality. It takes straight men into a crazy place. That, combined with all their testosterone, creates a monster.
Paisley: Is the sometimes exploitive media focus on transgender issues possibly doing an injustice to the trans community, possibly trivializing it down to a hastag or a trend, or fame, or becoming the pretty girl? Could this possibly be influencing younger, impressionable kids to make rash decisions?
Nomi: I totally agree! I actually wrote an essay on this, and I’m putting out a video where I have no eyebrows, no hair, totally genderless and raceless. In it, I explore my ideas of being super hyper-feminine when I was younger, when I first started performing. I was trying to be the media’s idea of feminine. Now, I’m coming back to the idea of feeling genderless. People need to explore their aesthetics. It’s just things you add on. One is ignoring their spirit. There’s also a false sense of advocacy. Some people come out as trans, then all of the sudden they are an advocate, telling other transgender people to do the same, when they themselves have barely lived the life.
Paisley: Perhaps there should be more attention placed on the incubation period…not just the end result…the actual period of transitioning, from declaration, through the gradual process.
Nomi: Right! If you’re really an advocate, go be part of those communities. Don’t just say it to gain fame, or continue one’s fame.
Paisley: You were kind of foisted into the spotlight when you joined Andrew Butler’s music project Hercules and Love Affair in 2008. What was that like?
Nomi: I met Andrew through Anohni (formerly Antony of Antony and the Johnsons). Anohni was looking for girls to be in the Turning project that she was doing with Charles Atlas (pic below, featuring Connie Flemming). We ended up living in the same building for a while. That’s when I got to know Andrew, who was BFF’s with Anohni. They were already starting to work on what would become Hercules and Love Affair. I was doing R&B and neo soul music at the time. There was a song called You Belong that was written for Anohni, but she didn’t want to do it. This was right after Anohni had won the Mercury Prize. She suggested to Andrew that I do the song. She thought it was more my style. Everything just took off from there! We went on tour for a year.
Paisley: What exactly is Hercules and Love Affair? Is it a project? Is it a band?
Nomi: Andrew wrote and produced all the songs. It’s his project. He would have different singers come in and vocalize. There was me, Kim Ann Foxman and Anohni. When he set up the tour, he wanted a whole band. Anohni didn’t want to go on tour. So, I sang her parts. There were like fifteen of us on a bus. It was awesome! It was a disaster. It was rock ‘n’ roll!
Paisley: After the tour, you left! It seemed like it was a great concept. All you queers, communing, living your dreams. What happened?
Nomi: I quit the band. I had left everything to do Hercules…my boyfriend, my job…I was homeless! I thought that being with them was everything I ever wanted. I would finally be seen and heard. A year into it, I was coming back from touring exhausted, with no money. I was in every magazine, in every media outlet, and I was broke! There was one time when we all did a photo shoot for a magazine. When the article came out, I was on the cover! It was amazing, but I could tell that Andrew was not happy. Our working relationship and friendship started to change. At the end, we were not even talking to each other. And as a songwriter, I had my own music I wanted to work on. It was no longer satisfying for me to just sing on other people’s productions. From there, I started my own group Jessica 6.
Paisley: Oh, yes! Jessica 6. Where did that name come from?
Nomi: From the movie Logan’s Run. A friend of mine had given me a copy to watch one night. The next day, we were trying to come up with a name for the band. We were originally called Deep Red, but there was another band with the same name and they were coming for us…talking lawsuit! I remembered there was a girl in the movie named Jessica 6. It sounded so sexy…like Prince’s girl group Vanity 6! It also had the film backstory. It was perfect!
Paisley: The new band was you and two straight guys. Did they mind being second seat to your new stardom?
Nomi: Not at first [laughs]! But later, it was an issue.
Paisley: What did you think about that post Anohni made on Facebook: “Why I’m Not Attending The Academy Awards”…addressing how she felt about not being invited to perform at the Oscars?
Nomi: I loved it! I told her that she should go, slay it! But when she wrote that letter, I better understood her perspective. The music industry has changed. There’s no more ‘discovering’ the new artist. There’s no more supporting people just for their talent. You have to have millions of followers on Twitter or Instagram, or have millions of dollars.
Paisley: She said in the piece, “I know that I wasn’t excluded from the performance directly because I am transgendered”. Do you think that played heavily in the Academy’s decision to exclude her?
Nomi: In those situations, which I’ve been in myself, I’ve had people tell me, ‘We don’t want you here because you’re trans’. But usually, they don’t tell you why they are excluding you. So, you start to wonder if it’s because I’m trans, or is it because I haven’t sold a million records. You just don’t know. I think Anohni was exploring every possibility.
Paisley: I don’t think it was a trans thing. I think it was that Anohni didn’t fit in with the Academy’s “gold standard of beauty”, America’s codification of beauty. She’s not the accepted “Cover Girl”.
Nomi: It’s annoying to live in a world still where your talent or your content is not enough…where the number of Instagram followers is more important.
Paisley: That’s an interesting point. We do live in a social media era. We live in a time where being transgender is a hastag…it’s trending. There was a time when trans women didn’t even use the word ‘transgender’. After transitioning, they wanted to be a woman…’realness’ was the end game…being able to ‘pass’ in society as a cisgender woman would. Now, it’s more in the spotlight. In fact, labeling yourself seems to now be the best way to garner attention. For someone like you…an indie music singer, being a trans woman sets you apart from the pack. It’s even brought you fame, working with people like Mugler designer Nicola Formichetti. How did that come about?
Nomi: Nicola heard my song White Horse, and he liked it! I didn’t even know who he was. I got an email that he wanted to shoot me for V Magazine and I was just excited about that. It was one of my dreams to be in V. We ended up doing that shoot and the Brothers of Arcadia Fashion Film. It was so crazy! He told me the film was going to premiere on the amateur porn site Xtube..and he wanted to know if I was comfortable with nudity! So, I kinda freaked out. I wan’t sure if I wanted to do it. I was scared, but I loved it! It was challenging.
Paisley: I feel that was the moment you started to publicly claim your sexuality. During the Hercules and Love Affair years, the music seemed to come first. Showing off your titties wasn’t the goal.
Nomi: That was the first time I started to come into my own…I was feeling it! Now, I’m more comfortable with my body. I’m more confident. I love the woman I’ve become!
Paisley: What’s next for you, now that your back in New York?
Nomi: I’m still traveling. I’m doing these shows where I sing while DJing deep House Music. I’m also finishing my first solo album, which will be more of a pop/dance music record. And, I’m writing a lot more on my blog…starting to express myself more, and speak more on transgender issues. I wanna get beyond the fact that trans people exist. It’s time for a new conversation.