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Long before Laverne Cox made the cover of Time magazine as a “transgender tipping point,” and long before Caitlyn Jenner made global headlines as a former Olympian transitioning from male to female at age 65, there was Candis Cayne.
The 5-foot-10 Hawaii beauty ruled the New York club scene for more than a decade before moving to Hollywood in 2007. There, Cayne became the first transgender actress to appear on network TV.
She was cast on ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money,” opposite William Baldwin as a transgender woman having an affair with a married politician. She appeared on “Good Morning America,” where Robin Roberts said she was “blazing a path” for transgender visibility.
The spotlight did not last. After “Dirty Sexy Money” was canceled, Cayne largely faded from public view. But in recent weeks she has re-emerged on a larger stage.
She appeared on the cover of Star Magazine, was interviewed by People magazine, has appeared in innumerable tabloid blog posts and was grand marshal at the Gay Pride Parade in Montreal.
The source of this sudden attention is E!’s “I Am Cait,” in which Cayne, 44, has emerged as the unlikely confidante of Jenner, accompanying her on trips to San Francisco to meet with gay and transgender activists and escorting her to the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles.
There have also been rumors of a romantic spark, although it’s hard not to be skeptical that the story was manufactured by E! producers to gin up tabloid interest. Indeed, a recent teaser posted by E! is called “Caitlyn Jenner Gets Asked Out on a Date,” although the clip just shows Jenner going to Cayne’s house for a glass of wine.
And earlier this month Star published a photo of Cayne on its cover, with the headline “Caitlyn Jenner: I’m in Love.”
Cayne is savvy enough to know a good tabloid story, so when asked about the relationship, she simply offers, “I can say Caitlyn and I have become close, and we’re great friends.”
On a recent Wednesday, Cayne was running around a spacious house in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles where a photographer was taking publicity shots for her newfound fame.
There were sequins in every shade of the rainbow and dresses made out of peacock feathers. But it was her hair — long and blond and blown out to perfection, the sort beauty queens try to emulate — that completed the look.
“It’s my showgirl moment,” Cayne said. “This dress I’m wearing now has a kind of ‘Viva Las Vegas’ vibe.”
Growing up on Maui in the early 1980s as Brendan McDanniel, things were a little more crunchy granola. Her parents were teachers and progressives who had few problems when, as a teenage boy, their son came out as gay.
It would be several more years before Cayne came to terms with her gender identity.
Shortly after graduating from Baldwin High School, Cayne moved to New York in hopes of becoming a professional dancer.
She lived in a single-room- occupancy hotel in the then-seedy Meatpacking District; went on scholarship at Steps, a dance studio on the Upper West Side; and worked as a kitty girl at the Roxy, a former gay club in Chelsea.
“I had a tray, and I would sell candy, cigarettes and lollipops,” she said. “And then I realized I loved doing drag.”
There, Cayne fell in with Lina Bradford, also known as the “gender illusionist” Girlina, and the two became inseparable. Cayne worked by day at the wig bar at Patricia Field’s boutique in Greenwich Village and performed by night with Bradford at Boy Bar in the East Village and the Tunnel in Chelsea.
They did triple pirouettes in 4-inch pumps and knew the words to every disco song.
A crowd favorite was their lip-synced rendition of “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” with Cayne channeling Barbra Streisand and Girlina as Donna Summer.
“They were like the Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell of the gay club scene,” said veteran drag performer Linda Simpson. Well, at least the scrappy downtown version of them.
Matthew Kasten, who was the promoter at Boy Bar, said, “She kept her shoes in the oven because she didn’t cook.”
By the time Cayne was 24, it was clear that performing in beaded gowns at night was not enough for her. “Nothing made sense,” she said. “I just felt better when I was female.”
But there was one thing standing in the way of a transition. “I was flat broke,” Cayne said.
Through a transgender club doorwoman named Paris, Cayne began getting black-market hormones. Surgeries took place in a decrepit basement in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Then, in 2007, she received a phone call from Field, her former boss, who had since become an in-demand costume designer. Field had been hired on a noirish nighttime soap called “Dirty Sexy Money,” which was casting the part of a transgender woman. Would Cayne come in and audition?
“I read for it, and a week later I got a callback,” Cayne said. “I had no idea it was a big deal.”
But when the ratings for “Dirty Sexy Money” dropped in the second season, one of the first things that was reconsidered was her character’s place in the plot. She died an ignominious death.
“I got killed in a flashback,” Cayne said. “A flashback!”
This May, a few weeks before Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover hit the newsstands, Cayne received a phone call from a producer at “I Am Cait.” Except she wasn’t told what the show was about.
“He said, ‘I want to tell you something, but I can’t until you sign a confidentiality agreement,’” Cayne said. “It was like, ‘Hmm. OK. I’m going to sign my life over before I know anything.’ But I was also intrigued because of that.”
Soon the producer called back to say that he was working on Jenner’s series for E! and that the show wanted Cayne to go to a dinner at Jenner’s house.
Cayne put on a navy lace dress and drove over, and was surprised to discover not only how far along Jenner was in her transition, but also that a number of other prominent trans women were there, including artist Zackary Drucker and Jennifer Finney Boylan, a Barnard College professor and frequent contributor to The New York Times.
And the cameras were rolling.
At first Jenner was shy. “Not in the sense of being quiet,” Cayne said, “but in the sense of wanting to learn. Now she’s blossomed.”
Likewise, a genuine friendship seems to have blossomed, on and off camera, between the two. “Very good friends” is how Cayne put it.
Perhaps eager not to alienate the producers at E! (“I don’t even have a contract,” she said at one point), she hedged a little when asked point blank whether she and Jenner were dating. Then she gave a wink.
“I lived in New York for 15 years,” she said, alluding to the friends there who know her to be solely interested in dating straight men. “You do the math.”
Asked the same question on “Access Hollywood,” she was more direct, saying, “No. We’re just really, really good friends.”
If this sort of attention in the celebrity press has not bothered her, it’s partly because the show has put transgender issues front and center in a way seldom seen on television.
“The reason I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do this’ is because it’s going to change the world,” she said. “This is going to make a huge difference to kids who feel alone and watch this show and see trans women who are successful, happy, amazing people.”