Kae Mason was asked a lot of questions last year when film crews started showing up outside her downtown hair salon.
“Word got out fast,” Mason said. “Soon, all the local TV stations were calling wondering what was going on.”
Mason, owner of Salon K on Pleasant Street in Concord and a transgender woman, was part of a reality TV show about people transitioning from their assigned gender while also dealing with being overweight. As a salon owner, and a person who has already undergone a transition herself, Mason acted as a mentor to a Manchester transgender woman navigating the beauty aspects of transitioning, like makeup, hair styling and facial hair removal.
But because Mason signed a confidentiality agreement, she couldn’t talk about the show with anyone – that is until Thursday night, when Too Fat to Transition premiered on The Learning Channel at 9 p.m. as a two hour special.
The silence was difficult for Mason, who started feeling apprehensive about the show as soon as she found out what it would be titled. Although she finished filming last winter, the name Too Fat to Transition, wasn’t revealed to her until three weeks before the air date.
The network had originally pitched four separate episodes about different people going through the transition process. One of those people was Kayla Kennedy, 37, of Manchester who Kae was helping out.
But after Kennedy and another character on the show, Shane, both struggled to qualify for sexual reassignment surgery because of their weight, the network decided to move in that direction instead.
When Mason was first told about the switch on a conference call, she made it clear she didn’t like the name.
“I thought Too Fat to Transition, was a little aggressive,” she said. “It sounded like they were going in a trashy direction with it, and I thought it could be harmful.”
Eventually, after being calmed by a producer, she decided to give it a chance.
“I started thinking, ‘you know what, transgender struggles are real in all different arenas,’ ” she said. “And if that’s what it takes to sell, to get the message out, then I guess I understand it. I don’t have to necessarily like it, but even with the way Hollywood is, helping people learn about transgender people in any way is still a bonus.”Reality TV
When Mason agreed to be on the show in October 2015, she had no idea what her participation would look like. The company originally approached her for a segment on advice for dating as a transgender person, but Mason said she would be more comfortable staying in her arena of beauty and styling.
The network agreed and a crew arrived at her Concord salon. Mason said it was chaotic as employees and customers had to sign release waivers and with long days of multiple takes of every scene.
Mason worked closely with Kennedy, who was hoping to qualify for breast augmentation and genital reconstruction surgery by the end of the year.
Kennedy had taken steps to transition as early as 2002, but never reached a healthy enough weight to transition surgically. After visiting with a doctor in San Francisco, Kennedy was given four months to lose 57 pounds.
Mason and Mike Good of Good Training in Manchester worked as mentors for Kennedy on the show. Good helped Kennedy with daily workouts to help her lose the weight she needed to get the surgery, while Mason helped with beauty tips to make her feel good emotionally.
A first step for Kennedy was ditching her blond curly wig. Mason recommended she either find another wig better suited to her, or go natural. Even though they seem like an easy step toward femininity, wigs can come off as fake, Mason said.
“It’s extremely important for a transgender person to pass, to feel and look like a woman,” Mason said. “Right now, I really don’t feel like she’s passing.”
Mason said people would be surprised by how close mental and physical health tie together, especially for transgender people.
“If you don’t feel good about how you look, then it’s hard to find an emotional balance,” she said.
Kennedy also went to Salon K looking for for facial hair removal services. She said facial hair is one of the biggest giveaways when it comes to transgender women trying to pass as female.
At her salon, Mason uses intense pulses of light to permanently remove hair.
Mason acted as a friend as well as an advisor to Kennedy on the show. In one scene, for instance, the two went to dinner at O Steaks and Seafood for some “girl talk.”
Sitting across from each other at the crowded Concord restaurant, Kennedy told Mason that “it’s nice to talk with another girl who understands.”
“I do understand,” Mason said. “And you understand me. I haven’t seen a lot of that.”
Mason, 50, was born male, but never felt quite right about her body. It wasn’t until she was older that she could put a word to the feeling: transgender.
Mason has been out and living as a woman for the past two years, but she’s been open about her experience, speaking to media, and acting as an advocate for the transgender community.
Now, Mason uses her salon as a way to support other transgender people, who she sees on a weekly basis.
“I’m in the beauty business, so I know how to be able to get rid of hair, grow hair, put makeup on – all the things people transitioning are going to want to know,” she said. “I wanted that to be the platform from which I could help people.”Losing the weight
Even with Mason and Good’s support, Kennedy struggled to lose enough weight to obtain her goals. Although she lost about 30 pounds, Kennedy became discouraged when the weight wasn’t dropping as fast as she’d hoped.
Kennedy said she suffers from emotional eating, and is a self described “fast food addict.” This caused her to have difficulty sticking to her diet and workout plan.
By week 12, Kennedy stopped training regularly and wasn’t able to meet her weight-loss goal to get the surgery. The failure was discouraging for a person who’s suffered from bouts of extreme depression, Kennedy said. She said during particularly bad times, she’s even “detransitioned” to live as a man again.
Depression rates are very high among transgender individuals. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, between 38 and 65 percent of transgender people experience suicidal ideation at some point in their lives.
Kennedy acknowledged transitions can sometimes be long and painful processes.
“It’s like when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly,” she said. “It doesn’t just happen overnight that one day it’s a caterpillar and the next day it’s a butterfly. There’s a process that happens, and I’m going through that process.”
In a phone interview, Kennedy explained that she hopes her experience will inspire others to keep going through their own transgender journeys.
“It’s worth it if it prevents just one person from committing suicide,” she said. “We just want to get the word out there so people know that they’re not alone in this.”
For the premiere of the show, Mason hoped to have a viewing party with friends and co-workers at her home in Bow on Thursday night, but had to cancel because of the snow storm.
After watching the show, Mason said she was pleasantly surprised that it had the flavor she had hoped. The show portrayed the struggles of the characters fairly and accurately, and was informative about the process, Mason said. Key terms such as “transgender” and “transitioning” were even defined on the screen as the show progressed.
Mason said she even heard from Kennedy the morning after the show aired, who was feeling optimistic.
“She texted me and said she still wants to get her vagina,” Mason said. “I guess that’s a good sign.”
Mason said what she would be happy if the show is able to draw attention to what she sees as a potentially vulnerable group that needs support. She said any chances at notoriety didn’t cross her mind when she agreed to participate; she did it for free because she cares about the community she represents.
“There’s no fame,” she said. “It wasn’t about that – I don’t care about that stuff. It was just about helping get the word out, supporting the community, that was near and dear to me.”