The transgender night life diva Amanda Lepore is, to quote the filmmaker Joel Schumacher, a “moving sculpture,” a person who has made her own body her life’s work.
The night life columnist Michael Musto calls this ubiquitous carnivalesque curiosity, “the missing link between old New York and the current prominence of transgender divas.”
Famous largely for the plastic surgery that she brazenly flaunts, Ms. Lepore has been photographed by David LaChapelle while bent over a gurney, receiving a silicone injection. The fashion designer Jason Wu created a doll in her Jessica Rabbit-meets-Jocelyn-Wildenstein likeness. Swatch even put out a timepiece with Ms. Lepore’s face and blowfish red lips emblazoned across the dial.
And that’s to say nothing of the ad campaigns for Mac Cosmetics and Armani Jeans. Or the dance single she recorded with the producer Larry Tee (the title of which cannot be repeated in this newspaper).
For those who still can’t get enough of this silicone-enhanced creation, there is now, “Doll Parts,” a memoir disguised as a coffee-table book that Ms. Lepore released this spring (with her ghostwriter, Thomas Flannery Jr.) and features many of Ms. Lepore’s most iconic images with collaborators such as Mr. LaChapelle, Marco Ovando, Pierre et Gilles and Roxanne Lowit.
Not that Ms. Lepore is aiming to be the next Patti Smith. Sitting in the Gramercy Park Hotel room she calls home, decked out in a fire-engine-red dress, her hair blown out like Jayne Mansfield, Ms. Lepore estimated that she’s read all of two books since 1986.
“Oh, I never read anything,” she said. “Mostly, I look at pictures.”
Certainly, Ms. Lepore’s publisher, Judith Regan, did not decide to publish “Doll Parts” because she saw her latest author as the future oracle of trans-feminism.
“I wanted it because of the plastic surgery,” said Ms. Regan. “It’s extreme.”
“And then you sit down and talk to her and it’s a lifetime of drama.”
Befitting a person who is endlessly reinventing herself, Ms. Lepore’s age can change depending on what she feels like on a given day.
In her Tinder profile, she is a 36-year-old “hourglass shape petite blond bombshell looking for tall gentleman.” In her memoir, she is 49, though friends have their doubts.
Nevertheless, Ms. Lepore (whose birth name was Armand) grew up around Cedar Grove, N.J., where her father was Herman Lepore, a chemical engineer, and her mother was Frances Lepore, a housewife who spent much of Ms. Lepore’s childhood floating in and out of mental institutions with schizophrenia.
One of Ms. Lepore’s earliest memories is of a recurring dream in which she was trapped like Rapunzel in a tower. Perhaps because she is a person who lives to be photographed, this was not a nightmare about isolation and neglect, but a fantasy about having strawberry blond hair and a mirror to spend all day in front of.
Through a nanny, Ms. Lepore learned to sew, which came in handy when she worked at a gentleman’s club in Newark while still a teenager. There she would make costumes for the strippers, one of whom was transgender, and paid Ms. Lepore with black-market estrogen.
It would be another three decades before transgender rights became a major social issue, but Ms. Lepore knew at an early age that she was trapped in a man’s body.
As Ms. Lepore recounts in her memoir, a guidance counselor at her high school spotted breasts growing underneath Ms. Lepore’s shirt and gave her an ultimatum. “I could get a tutor or quit,” Ms. Lepore said. She changed her name to Amanda, chose a tutor and got her high school equivalency diploma soon after, she said.
Finding love as a transgender woman would prove more difficult, and Keni Valenti, a friend for more than 30 years, said he always believed Ms. Lepore’s obsessive physical transformation was driven by a feeling of “never being feminine enough.”
Growing up, Ms. Lepore acknowledged, she was concerned with little other than “looking pretty. I didn’t know anything else really.”
Her first paramour was a businessman she hitched a ride from one day after high school. Ms. Lepore was 18 when she had her first long-term relationship, with a man identified in the memoir as “Michael,” who she said beat her up when he found out her biological secret.
Michael’s father, who was perhaps more progressive, intervened on her behalf, explaining that Ms. Lepore was not a man, but a woman whose body was out of sync with her mind. As Ms. Lepore tells it, the father paid for her sex reassignment surgery.
Soon after, she and Michael patched things up and got married in a small ceremony in New Jersey. But the relationship was rocky, said Mr. Valenti, who attended the wedding.
“He was possessive, really possessive,” Mr. Valenti said. “I was trying to turn her into a model, so I would take pictures of her, and I remember, he said, ‘You’re exploiting my wife. I was like ‘We’re making fashion.’”
In the memoir, Ms. Lepore not only recounts the abusiveness of the marriage, but said her father-in-law began to make sexual overtures. “It was just too weird,” she said.
One night in 1988 or 1989, Ms. Lepore packed a single suitcase and decamped to New York City, where she roomed with a male hustler who would throw her out whenever he brought home a trick.
She found work as a dominatrix at Belle de Jour, an S&M club on the East Side, before landing at the makeup counter at Patricia Field, the avant-garde boutique in downtown Manhattan known for its transgender and unconventional staff.
“Working” wasn’t exactly what she did there.
“I used to say, ‘Amanda sits in the makeup department and looks at herself all day long,’” Ms. Field said. “It was a loving joke.”
While Ms. Lepore was making her foray into the city’s clubs, a fortuitous night arrived in 1993, when she attended the opening party for Disco 2000, a Wednesday party at the Limelight. She was spotted from across the dance floor by the party’s promoter Michael Alig (later convicted of murdering and dismembering a drug dealer named Andre “Angel” Melendez) and the club’s publicist Claire O’Connor.
“I pointed her out to Claire and said, ‘Look at that beautiful woman,’” Mr. Alig said. They introduced themselves, and Mr. Alig hired her on the spot to become a club regular and help spice up the party.
Nightclubs around the world started booking her for appearances, where, in addition to free airfare and accommodations, she was paid to primp and pose with fans, becoming, as Mr. Musto noted, one of the first people who was paid simply to show up at parties. This was especially true after Ms. Lepore appeared on the “Joan Rivers Show” for a segment about club kids.
In 1998, Ms. Lepore ran into Mr. LaChapelle at Bowery Bar, and after spending all night talking he invited her to model for him the following day. The photographer-muse relationship blossomed as her devotion to perpetual self-reinvention through plastic surgery intensified.
Ms. Lepore certainly isn’t shy about discussing her numerous operations. “That’s the thing I love,” said the veteran club promoter Susanne Bartsch. “She’s completely open about it.”
Ms. Lepore has undergone cosmetic alterations to nearly every part of her body that can be altered. She has had her derrière injected with silicone, her nose made smaller, her forehead lifted and her hairline lowered. Her cheeks are regularly pumped with fillers, and her breasts have been enhanced three times.
To accentuate her hourglass figure, Ms. Lepore even had her bottom ribs broken and pushed in as a way of making her waistline appear smaller and her hips broader. For that procedure, Ms. Lepore traveled to Mexico since few doctors will even perform the operation in the United States.
Her latest procedures include a laser treatment designed to make the skin around her jaw tighter. “It’s like a face lift, but you don’t get cut,” she said, with the kind of enthusiasm others display when discussing shopping.
She argues that segments of popular culture, especially reality shows, have caught up with her obsession with cosmetic self-improvement. In “Doll Parts,” Ms. Lepore describes having an assignation with a famous rapper whose songs often play in the clubs she frequents. Soon after, she writes, he got married, and “I couldn’t help but think that his wife had a similar body type to me.”
Ms. Lepore’s outsize presence has not always been embraced by fellow travelers on the night life circuit, who sometimes wonder aloud how a person with no discernible talent has managed to remain in the public consciousness for so long.
Unlike Honey Dijon, a transgender DJ who sits at the intersection of music and fashion, Ms. Lepore cannot match beats. And unlike Lady Bunny and Bianca Del Rio, she is neither a ferociously funny comedian or a commanding stage performer.
“I guess she sings,” said Mr. Valenti, “I don’t know. Have you heard her?”
L.G.B.T. activists have different gripes. A person who parades around the global party scene in rhinestone-encrusted outfits that show off her heavily augmented figure can seem like an inconvenient spokesmodel, especially at a time when President Trump has rescinded protections for transgender students, and feminists have argued that transgender celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner are reducing women to “hoary stereotypes.”
Denise Norris, a trans activist who served on the board of Marriage Equality USA and founded the Association for Transgender Professionals, said Ms. Lepore deserves credit for “fearlessly expressing” herself decades before the topic of gender diversity became a central cultural debate. At the same time, she added, Ms. Lepore can seem like a Dorian Gray figure who draws unwanted attention to the “pressure” trans women face to “conform gender expression to societal norms” without showing much regard for coming off as “intelligent and articulate.”
“The only way we can judge Amanda is through the eyes of 1987,” Ms. Norris said. “Doing that, she becomes a bookmark to how much we’ve changed in 30 years.”
Nevertheless, as Ms. Bartsch points out, Ms. Lepore remains extremely popular with nightclub audiences. “Every time she takes off that dress, people love it,” she said. “Roaring. Screaming. And I think that’s an art. She’s the ultimate sex symbol. Move over everybody.”