After transitioning to become a woman, Octavia Hamlett fell into homelessness and sex work. Six years on she's turned her life around.
Back in 2011, a news story began hitting the internet about a beauty pageant in Los Angeles. But this was no trite and archaic revival of the Miss World formula. This pageant – titled Quest: Woman of the Year – was specifically for transgender women, to help empower the often marginalised transgender community, and to reward applicants for their advocacy and activism around transgender rights.
The reason this particular year had hit the news was because it had been won by Octavia Hamlett, a homeless former sex worker with more charm, charisma and personality than Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres and David Letterman combined. “Octavia, how could transgender women protect themselves from being victims of hate crimes?” read the suited pageant presenter onstage, as he flicked through question cards. “Well… I work out,” replied Octavia over the sound of an audience breaking into hysterical laughter, “So, you better know better, honey.” After winning the pageant that night, she left the theatre wearing a ball gown and the victory crown, put on some trainers and walked back to the transitional housing facility in Skid Row where she resided.
Six years on, Octavia is no longer homeless, has worked extensively helping other transgender women in her local APAIT Health Centre, and has become a powerful motivational speaker. Having grown up gay in a deeply religious household in Atlantic City, New Jersey, before moving to Las Vegas to begin her transition, she’s spent much of her life dealing with hate and the shame society tries to project onto those it marginalises. “I always knew myself to be a strong powerful female spirit,” explains Octavia down a crackly phone line, “I just felt like my physical body didn’t manifest.”
This month, she appears as one of the many stars in a short film by Diesel to celebrate their new global outlook: ‘Make Love Not Walls’. Created by Diesel’s Nicola Formichetti and directed by David LaChapelle, the campaign focuses on using the Diesel voice for good, love, and togetherness to overcome hate. It’s about tearing down the mental and physical walls that divide us. So, we decided it was a good opportunity to catch up with Octavia, to discuss her life, the challenges she’s faced, and how she’s broken down some of her own walls.
Hey Octavia, how are you?
I’m good, I’m excited. There are a lot of good things going on.
How was the shoot day with Diesel?
No words could describe that day. It was one of those big God shots. One of those shots that’s like, ‘Honey, the universe is listening.’ It was sent from heaven. I didn’t even need to eat it was so fabulous. I was spiritually high.
Let’s talk about your childhood. You grew up in Atlantic City right?
Yes, I’m from Atlantic City, New Jersey. I don’t know if you’ve been to the East, but it’s very aggressive. I was raised around a lot of alcoholism, sexual abuse and religion. There was a lot of psychological trauma and violence, but I learned how to mask it when I came out in public. You learn to have a dual personality basically.
What age were you when you came out?
I came out coming out, honey. I can’t remember being in. It was just this thing that I was sexually attracted to boys. It wasn’t something I needed to think about, I just knew it was what I liked. The kids around me weren’t really a problem; it was the home life that was the problem. I was raised around Jehovah’s Witnesses and I am not Jehovah’s Witness, but I was raised in it. So there was a certain level of shame attached to me.
In what way?
Well, there was a woman who raised me – not my mother, but she raised me – and she asked me one day: “Are you a faggot?” I was 10 years old, and she asked it with such venom. The energy behind the word was venom. I felt the sting of it. That was the moment that I took on the shame. Because to most children, their parent or guardian is God. We know our parents aren’t really that, but there is a perception that they are. So the shame of the parents becomes your shame.
When did you first think about transitioning?
The thing about transitioning is that it’s an interesting word, because I know ‘trans’ just means to evolve. So to put a date on my transition is interesting, because I always knew myself to be a strong powerful female spirit. I just felt like my physical body didn’t manifest. So for the last ten years I’ve been having the physical manifest, but I already knew myself to be the spirit.
Did you have a lot of love and support around you?
I had some support. Not everyone was against me. But I don’t think the universe wants me to get too caught up in being liked. So when I did start transitioning, it wasn’t conscious to me of who liked it and who didn’t. It was more: this is me, and if you don’t like it you can leave. I was never really comfortable with the thought of hoping that people would accept me afterwards. This is me.
For you personally, does your transition have an end point? Or is it a constant journey?
I always want to evolve. I want to always produce newness. My name is going to change very soon to Octa Goddess. Why? Because that is the idea of me right now. I don’t know what it is going to be next, but that is me now. I keep evolving. The idea of not evolving or staying the same is death to me. That is death. So I always want to be transitioning into something new.
How did people treat you differently once you became a woman?
Well, what I’ve come to realise is that most people are operating at a zero dimension. Okay, I’ll be cute… 0.1 dimension. And I used to do that too, but when I did I was so depressed I wanted to commit suicide. That’s why it’s important to evolve, because sameness is normal. And normal means you’re dead. The universe is all about evolving. If you raise your dimension or your vibration, then you’ll see that the power is in you. It’s never out of you. I can do whatever I want with my body because I don’t focus on the physical. The power is in me always. Now, I understand that people don’t get that. When I decided to call myself Octa Goddess, people laughed. But it’s normal, because I know they’re dead. Life can never relate to death.
How has life been since you moved to LA?
LA is interesting. When I first came here, I felt this shift in my soul. There is a lot of sameness in LA, and a lot of fear and racism too. But it’s hidden so seductively people can pretend they don’t see it. Everyone feels like they should be doing what everyone else is doing: don’t eat, pretend you’re nice, do yoga, have so much caffeine in your system that you’re fucking high as a kite, look like you’re 12, do what we do and you’ll be successful. It’s interesting because most people here are dead. There are a lot of nice people here, and I know nice people in the industry, but they’re dead. Because they are saying no to the universe but yes to Hollywood. For me, that’s death. Because of the money, property and prestige, we think they’re happy, but I know a lot of them and they are so dead in their soul. They want what I have. I like LA, but you gotta be strong and warm because if not, they’ll get tethered to you and you’re gonna be fucking miserable.
Tell me about the challenges you’ve faced in life… Have you had moments where you feel you’ve had to knock down walls to achieve what you want to achieve?
Listen, challenges feed my soul... I was born being challenged. This might sound weird, but I like the idea of people thinking they won one over on me. That’s always made me horny. When they think that, it gets me more excited to connect more with Jesus Christ and sit in prayer and be alone and told what to do. And eventually, what happens is, I end up shining bright before their face, and it’s like a delicious snack that the universe gives me. When those people who hate me then see me blessed and surviving, it just makes me so horny. It’s beautiful.