One of the questions I’ve been asking on TransGriot for a while is what happened to Tenika Watson once her name faded from the headlines in the wake of the 1982 traffic accident that paralyzed Teddy Pendergrass and threw a money wrench at the time in her life and her budding modeling career because her trans status was revealed.
I wrote a TransGriot post talking about the accident using quotes from a Barbara Faggins interview she’d done at the time and was published in JET magazine, and then had to go to war on these pages last year in the wake of Teddy’s death with people trying to either erase her existence or disrespecting her with faith-based hatred..
The posts jumpstarted some conversation and led people to be curious enough about her to where I’m happy to report she’ll have a book coming out soon entitled My Life Is No Accident.
One of my readers e-mailed me a link to a recent Philadelphia Gay News interview of Ms. Watsonby Suzi Nash that PGN entitled Tenika Watson-‘Living Beyond Pendergrass Tragedy’. She’s now 60 years old, still looking good, and she talks about various subjects including her painting, her life now, her thoughts about transition, her upcoming book, and a little about you know who.
PGN: Are you a Philly gal?
TW: No, I was born in D.C. and grew up there and in Brandywine, Md.
PGN: Any siblings?
TW: Oh yes, I’m one of eight! Well, nine actually, but my oldest sister died shortly after birth. I’m the third from the end.
PGN: What was family life like?
TW: It was good. My parents were great. My father did roadwork for the state and my mother did domestic work.
PGN: What did you like to do as a kid?
My parents had 7 acres of land, so we would play hide and seek, get
tadpoles from the brook and explore the land. I’m a country girl at
PGN: Higher learning?
TW: I didn’t go
to college, but I’ve taken courses in everything from bank telling to
acting with the Repertory Theatre Company and, this month, I’m starting
PGN: What was your first job out of school?
[Laughs.] I got a job at a furniture company dusting furniture. I lived
at home for a while and then I started to travel. I lived in Boston for
a summer, I lived in Harrisburg for a summer, Virginia, and then I came
to Philadelphia. Boston was tough, very racist at that time.
PGN: What was your worst job?
Back in the day, I was a bar maid at a club on 13th Street — oh what
was it called? Scabadoo’s? That was hard, trying to remember everyone’s
PGN: Best job?
TW: Working for
Kingsley Six Modeling agency. Unfortunately, the accident happened just
as my career was taking off. After that, it became impossible to work.
I’d been doing impersonations at the New Forrest Lounge for a year and a
half and had to leave there because the owner was trying to exploit the
PGN: Tell me a little about coming out or transitioning for you.
I think I was born out. People could tell before I even knew about
myself. I don’t think my parents or anyone else was shocked. Even as a
kid playing house, I was always the girl, looking for someone to play my
PGN: First crush?
TW: There was a
boy named Sheldon that I liked in elementary school. [Laughs.]
Bald-headed, brown-skinned and he was so mean! But I liked him!
PGN: When did you start to transition?
When I was 20. I don’t know why it was in my head, but I had the idea
that at 20 I would be considered grown, so no one could say anything to
PGN: What was the scariest thing about it?
TW:I didn’t have any fear about transitioning. Though I do remember
walking down the street in D.C. one time with a girlfriend of mine and
she suddenly said, “Be careful, that man has a knife!” I was so naïve I
didn’t understand that he wanted to attack us just because of who we
were. Next thing I knew, he swung the knife at our heads and we were
running down the street. It was my first understanding that people might
want to hurt me just because of my lifestyle.
PGN: You transitioned in a time when it wasn’t really heard of and certainly wasn’t accepted as much as it is now.
No, it wasn’t. This was in 1977 and it wasn’t heard of, though a lot of
the girls were doing it. But back then, most girls transitioned with
the thought that you would just live your life as a woman and never tell
anybody. You weren’t supposed to be open about it. Once you had
surgery, you never told anyone except your mate. That’s how it was back
then. Once you were a woman, you put your past in a closet. I guess I’m
part of that era. I have fought really hard to be respected as a woman. I
don’t know if the girls nowadays really fight for the right to be
totally respected as women after the surgery. You hear a lot of trans
this and trans that and I don’t get it. Maybe I’m old-school, but once
you have the surgery, you’re supposed to be a woman. Your birth
certificate says female, your driver’s license says female and yet in
articles I read, they still refer to you as a “transwoman.” And it’s
like, what was it all for? Why did I go through all of this if I’m not
going to be considered a woman? To me, transgender means transition.
Moving from one gender to another, but once you’re there, that should be
it if that’s what you want. I don’t know if girls today feel any kind
of way about that, but I know I do. I don’t like the term.
PGN: So what would you like to say about Teddy?
I’m sorry that he’s not with us anymore. I wanted to go to the funeral,
but I didn’t want to be disrespectful and I didn’t want to be
disrespected. So I just had a little quiet prayer and a little quiet
tear after he was gone. I met his mother in 2001. When he died [in
2010], my first thought was for her. He was her only child. I know she
has grandkids, but it must be terrible to lose a child.
PGN: And the accident?
We were on Lincoln Drive when the brakes went out. The car hit a
guardrail, crossed into the opposite traffic lane and hit two trees. The
one thing that always bothered me was that the news media got there
before the ambulance did. It upset me to think that people were calling
for publicity before they called for help.
stated that the medical personnel were more worried about getting a
urine sample from you than they were about your health.
They were very sneaky: They said they needed a sample to make sure that
there wasn’t any internal bleeding, but I knew what they were really
trying to check for. After they didn’t find what they wanted, they
weren’t interested in me anymore. It was reported that I was acting
strange, but I was in shock.
PGN: Reading about the
accident, it seems that the media didn’t know at first about you being
… what terminology would you like me to use? Were you frightened?
No, they didn’t say anything because they didn’t know. [Laughs.] Yeah, I
was scared. I thought, if anyone finds out, they’re going to lynch me!
It was scary wondering if was going to get out or when. Trying to figure
out how to survive or explain it. I was never given a chance to
explain. The only paper that gave me a break was the [Philadelphia]
PGN: I read a Jet article with the headline,
“Teddy’s Transsexual Passenger,” in which they call you a “confessed
transsexual.” It seems like it really tilted the trajectory of your
life, your modeling career, etc.
TW: Tilted it? It
destroyed it. I was told so by potential employers and it really made me
doubt myself. It was a tough time. I had one reporter come to my house
and try to force her way in the door. There were some very ugly things
printed. I had to move out of the city. Which is sad because I love this
city. I love the people, I love the neighborhoods … There are so many
places to hide!
PGN: Do you get recognized?
Yes, I used to; not so much any more. It happened just the other day
when I was walking down the street. But for the most part, nobody really
sees me. I’m actually glad of it.
PGN: I noticed your easel. Did you go to art school?
No, I’m self-taught. I love it: Concentrating on one thing until you
capture it the way you want it. You start out with a blank canvas and
create something beautiful.
PGN: It sounds like a metaphor for your life! What’s your favorite style?
I like doing landscapes and still-life. Acrylics are OK, but I like
painting in oils. There’s something great about the way you can combine
colors and the fact that it stays wet, so you can work with it and then
rework things. It takes forever to dry but it’s worth it.
PGN: Any other hobbies?
I’ve always made clothes and I still make clothes for the girls every
now and then, if someone has a special occasion or show coming up.
PGN: And did you do shows back in the day?
Oh yes. I impersonated Diana Ross, Donna Summers, Lena Horne and
Josephine Baker. I worked at the Forrest Lounge and at Bill Hart’s club
at 22nd and Market. I was in acting school at the same time so it was a
chance to express my art.
PGN: What’s the best outfit you ever created?
I created an outfit for my sister to wear to the Miss Black America
ball. It was a see-through dashiki, jet black with swirling designs on
it. She had a great big afro and looked stunning! She was just a guest,
but everyone thought she was competing.
PGN: I see a lot of butterflies around your apartment. Any significance?
No, I just seem to keep ending up with them! I saw the big painting at
an auction in Jersey and just had to have it. I got it for $5 and some
of the others I got from my sister.
PGN: So, if you were an animal, what would you be?
TW: A deer. They’re so aloof.
PGN: Name three objects you love.
TW: My bible, my family pictures and my artwork.
PGN: Worst performing blunder?
TW: I was doing Diana Ross, singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and I fell!
PGN: What’s a song that makes you happy?
TW: Mary J Blige, “Love It or Hate It.”
PGN: What star would you want to dance with?
TW: He’s passed, but I would have picked Gregory Hines. He’s nice and tall. At least he seemed tall on TV.
PGN: Best gift you ever gave or received?
My friends and family gave me a surprise birthday this February. It was
beautiful. [Laughs.] And it took the sting out of turning 60! Oh, I
just love my family. The best gift I ever gave was to buy a grave marker
for my father. It makes me smile to think of it.
PGN: What’s a smell that makes you stop and reflect?
TW: Lavender. It makes me think of the country and fields of flowers.
PGN: You chose to take the high road and not make a media spectacle after the accident. Was it lonely to deal with it on your own?
It was lonely. I tend to be too independent and don’t know how to ask
people for things. I just put on a smile and went about my business with
as much dignity as I could without responding to the media frenzy. I
started working with a therapist seven years ago and that helped me get
to the point that I’m able to write about it now. [Laughs.] I probably
should have started long ago!
PGN: Did you ever have any contact with Teddy after the accident?
TW: I talked to him in 2002. That’s how my book starts out, with that conversation.
Was it frustrating being in such a high-profile incident with someone
and not being able to call and ask if he was OK or let him know how you
were? How well did you know him?
TW: I didn’t know him at
all! I’d met him once or twice before, but that was it. He’d simply
offered me a ride home from a club that night. The media tried to make
something out of it, but it was untrue. He was one of those people that
had a kindness about him.
PGN: Happy memories?
The Christmas I was reunited with my family in 1962. I was 10 and had
been separated from my family for a time. It was the best Christmas ever
to be with them again. And when I got clean and sober. A friend of mine
named Phil from the Westbury Bar took me to an AA meeting and it saved
my life. I’ll be 14-years sober in June.
PGN: Why were you separated?
My sister Jackie and I were abducted when we were children. I was 5
years old. I’m not really comfortable talking about it yet, but I’ve
been working with [my writer] Jennifer to get it out for the book. It’ll
be in there.
PGN: What’s the best part of Tenika Watson’s life now?
TW: I have no regrets, I don’t have anything to prove to anybody. I’m 60 years old and I lived to be 60! To me, that’s great.