The Transformation Of Jack Monroe (The Times, November 2015)
Jack Monroe, true to her self-outing last month as transgender “non-binary”, is surrounded by a mountain of masculine/feminine stuff in the small two-bedroom flat she shares with her five-year-old son in Southend, Essex. The skateboard with a shark on it (matching tattoo on her thumb), for example, versus the Disney Belle dress she tried to wear for Hallowe’en but couldn’t (due to testosterone therapy and working out to make her physique more masculine) encapsulate the contrasts.
She’s just dyed her hair white, with blue and purple chunks on the top – a far cry from how her image first came to widespread attention. Then, she appeared homey and ever so slightly mumsy in a floral pinny in the inside pictures in her first cookbook, A Girl Called Jack, followed by A Year in 120 Recipes.
A Girl Called Jack, her bestselling breakthrough, was published in 2014. It started with a blog. The media pounced on something she posted, Hunger Hurts, in 2012, about trying to feed her son healthily (and at all) on next to nothing, going without herself and visiting food banks when she resigned from the Essex Fire Service after they rejected her request to work flexibly. She wrote her resignation letter from a hospital bed after she tried to commit suicide because she didn’t know how to both earn money and raise a child as a single parent. Her own parents were horrified when they found out she was on the breadline – “I kept it from them.”
Monroe, now 27, was more or less turned into an overnight star, not just as a “real” person capable of writing properly affordable recipes. Even The New York Times wrote a profile of her. She became what she called a “lezzer” food columnist for The Guardian (her son was conceived as a result of a brief relationship with a close friend, which she called off before she knew she was pregnant), and an impassioned liberal spokesperson for the underclass on a variety of political shows.
Today she looks like the most beautiful boy, or is it that she is a very androgynous beautiful girl? “Now my categories are completely wonky, because I don’t even know what I am.”
Since declaring herself transgender non-binary last month, she is already on testosterone, and seeing changes to her voice and stamina: “I’m not saying I want to be a man, just a slightly more masculine version of me. I want to be Jack. I might be a titless wonder, but I’ll be a titless wonder with great big long eyelashes and a pair of heels.”
The phone has started to ring again, after a fallow period brought about by ill health, both mental and physical, which meant she stopped writing and cooking. Now, modelling agencies are interested in her androgyny – “I think people find it interesting that I will model as male and female” – and the media have looked to her for transgender comment and explanation as it’s an issue very much in the air. Monroe has starred in a music video and there are also a few high-end clothing brands interested in attaching themselves to her. “But before I say yes, I have to know about what they pay their staff, their cleaners, the morality of it.”
She’s started to cook again properly, devising recipes, being creative and blogging: “I’d got to the point that it had bubbled up so much I couldn’t keep pushing it down. I don’t quite know where it’s all going to end. It will click into place and I’ll stop.
“And now I’ve got this off my chest – quite literally! – I’ve started writing again and creating recipes and I’ve got back in the kitchen. [Before then] I felt like I wasn’t being honest with my readers about something that was very fundamental. I had a two-month total absence from my blog and then I came back and had to say, ‘Please don’t call me “a girl named Jack”. I don’t feel like a girl. That name doesn’t suit or fit me any more.’
“In the morning I get showered and dried and put my binder on and then I like what I see in the mirror. I knew I had made the right decision to go public when I left my binder at a friend’s house for about four days and I was going mad. I have actually bagged up all my old feminine clothes and tea dresses to give to a transgender charity.”
She pulls up her shirt to show me her binder. I feel her flat bosoms (yes, I do!). She’s right. It’s like a very, very tight sports top. She doesn’t want a penis, she says: “I have seven of those in the drawer!” Pause. “I’ll spare you the show and tell. I have no desire to have a ghastly amount of surgery.” Are the seven penises for aesthetic reasons or sexual? “Both!” she says. “Multifunctioning! As far back as I remember I’ve roamed around the house with a sock in my pants, when other girls were sticking socks in their bras. [A penis] is not something I need or generally use, but it’s there and handy and it makes me laugh. I drag up sometimes. There are drag kings as well as queens.”
I think it’s safe to say Monroe and I have broken the ice. We’re sitting among all her higgledy-piggledy possessions, drinking tea and eating crisps. She’s got the munchies constantly, she admits, because of “the T” (transgender shorthand for testosterone), which is making the fat on her hips, thighs and tummy melt away.
There’s a sledge crammed in one corner; a baby grand piano she inherited from the landlord (she’s musical, with a beautiful voice, now lowering, and once busked with Billy Bragg); and bits of furniture she’s been given over the past three years since she sold everything to keep the bailiffs from the door in 2012.
There’s a note on the fridge – “For you, darling, Nigella xxxx” – which came attached to one of the little gifts the domestic goddess sends her regularly, and she wears a wedding ring on a right finger, moved from the left hand…
“I’ve come full circle,” she says. “Everything I own is pretty much in this room.”
Money, these days, is tight again: “Bills did and do scare the s*** out of me.” Monroe’s current financial situation is, she says, “hairy, shall we say hairy. I had to borrow money from a friend this month for my rent, but I know I’ve got money coming in. It’s feast or famine.
“One of the reasons I moved back was to root myself and cut my outgoings. To have a bit of financial security and sort myself out.”
It has not been easy this year. Today, she is covered in hives from stress. She shows me them – angry red patches – on her legs through the rips in her jeans and rubs Sudocrem over the hives on her fingers. Within the last month she has had three very terrifying episodes involving her heart in which she has, at least once, been hospitalised.
But she is trying to take better care of herself now, and falling back on old methods of feeling in control about money, making columns and lists about money coming in and due out. (In the dark old days of mouldy flats and bailiffs at the door, she had spreadsheets.) The fear of this happening again, I detect, is not far from the surface.
At the beginning of this year, Monroe had a nervous breakdown, which she attributes to breaking her foot, then being unable to work (lucrative recipe consultancies for high-street brands meant ten-hour days on her feet).
This coincided with the end of her broadsheet column. Much was also made in the press of the fact that Sainsbury’s, for which she had filmed an ad a year before, had supposedly “dropped” her over a high-profile Twitter comment she made about David Cameron using his son’s death to score points about the NHS. This was not true, she says. “I filmed the ad a year before. There wasn’t a ‘contract’ at all. But it’s safe to say I am f***ing ashamed of that comment and I wrote a page and a half letter to Samantha Cameron apologising. I should never have done it.”
It only takes a skim of her Twitter feed to see that Monroe is so impassioned that she can often be her own worst enemy. She regularly gets into long social media scraps with the Daily Mail (which seems to loathe her and everything she stands for). “I won’t be complicit in their lies about me,” she says.
She says she was written off at her very academic girls’ grammar school in Westcliff-on-Sea as a troublemaker. She was bored. Despite her obvious and fierce intelligence, she left with four and a half GCSEs, not enough to sit for A levels. She went to work in Starbucks.
“You’re only good to flip burgers,” her head of year apparently told her. “And when my first book came out, I turned down the corner of the page of my burger recipe and sent it to that teacher with a note, ‘Dear Mrs so and so, remember when you said, “I’m only good to flip burgers”? Well, here’s the recipe from my bestselling cookbook.’” She laughs.
It’s a great, ballsy story – a cautionary tale to teachers who underestimate – and a reflection of what makes Monroe such a powerful voice, but it also demonstrates the level of nervous and emotional energy that keeps her going. Her tweets show she has an almost constant instinct for combat, perhaps born of having to fight prejudice, perhaps because it’s her personality. “The abuse that I get thrown … I have had such a hellish time at the behest of trolls,” she says.
Underpinning the nervous breakdown, aside from the exhaustion and burnout, was, she says, fear of having to go back to her old life. “All the demons I have pushed down since the fire service came out,” she says. “I had panic attacks, anxiety attacks. I can’t even begin to describe the midnight nightmares, the sobbing and shaking in corners. My biggest fear was falling back into a spiral of unemployment with no money and poverty and everything that brings. Ridiculous, because I was living in a beautiful house with a woman who loved me, but I was very much terrified that everything was going to get taken away by the bailiffs.
“There was no rational thinking. I fell apart. I was so ashamed and fearful and I had all these readers telling me that my blog gives them hope for the future and I felt I needed to keep this sunny, chirpy personality going because people write to me every day.”
By then, Monroe had written her second book, A Year in 120 Recipes, at the bar of the Groucho club, sung with Bragg, been named Woman of the Year, appeared on Question Time and cooked and socialised with most of London’s foodie royalty. On a Wednesday night, she and McEvedy would cook at McEvedy’s new restaurant, Blackfoot, and come out together to meet the diners. She had cooked for and still drinks with Sue Perkins, who turned up to the book launch of her first book. “I was just thrown into this world,” she says. “What the f*** are you doing here?” Monroe remembers thinking when she saw Perkins. “I was almost too scared to set foot in the Groucho, let alone talk to anybody.” But, more importantly, she had continued to write her blog – now, post transgender outing, called Jack at a Pinch – in which she provided her recipes and advice free, determined that those unable to afford lots of cookbooks would not be excluded from being able to cook well. These were the readers for whom she felt she had to remain a success story. Unable to work, “I thought I’d become irrelevant.”
One night, she took too many sleeping pills. “I didn’t want to die. I just wanted that particular night in question to end, but when it’s a second attempt, they start to look at you really seriously then. But I was determined I didn’t want to be admitted, that I hadn’t wanted really to die and that I didn’t want to lose Johnny.” After a lot of initially expensive therapy at the Priory and then later through Mind and the NHS, Monroe recovered: “It was a really messy couple of months.”
“It was having to admit to my readers that it was over,” she says. It is the only aspect of talking about her life in which she exercises caution. All Monroe will say is that about the breakdown itself, “[Allegra] was nothing less than perfect”, that she regrets absolutely nothing and that they are friends.
Jack Monroe has a birth name of Melissa. She changed it by deed poll after Johnny was born – an early step towards where she is now. Contrary to what her detractors think, “I’m not ashamed of it or embarrassed by it,” she says. “It’s on my bloody birth certificate and on my karate records and my GCSEs. My mum cross-stitched me a beautiful picture with bears on carrying a banner across saying Melissa and it’s in my flat. I haven’t burnt it or torn it to pieces or unpicked it or restitched it. I’m fine with it, but Jack is my real name.”
Jack was an old nickname and she changed her surname, too – “In for a penny” – because it sounded better. She had been intending to come out as transgender then, after Johnny was born, but she “bottled it”. She’s wanted to have her breasts removed – save during and post pregnancy – for nine years.
While her haters are always keen to bring up her birth name just to annoy her, and insist on ignoring the transgender politically correct “they” and “them” (sticking to “her” and “she”), she says to me, “I don’t mind if you call me ‘she’ and ‘her’.”
She’d bound her chest on and off since school (initially with bandages, a dangerous method, and now with the two compression vests) and has hated her breasts since puberty. She kissed a girl at 10, and began coming out from 14. She did dress in a girlie way at times, but always felt it was “dressing up”. She has no plans to give up her stilettos.
When she was working in the control room of Essex Fire and Rescue, she shaped her body with weights and protein shakes, cut her hair and tattooed her arms to look masculine.
She shows me some photographs that reveal her as a teenage skinhead. She grew up in the fold of the Baptist church (her mother, a former nurse, is religious), but was, she says, asked to leave Sunday school teaching once she had shaved her head and come out and was deemed “an inappropriate role model”. The Fire and Rescue period, during which she is photographed with her back to the camera in male pants, covered in tattoos, is what she calls her butch dyke phase (her words), but it was never really enough. “Like a hexagonal peg in a square hole,” she says. She’s also had a phase where she “tried to shag [myself] straight”, but that didn’t work.
Her son’s birth is, she says, an absolute blessing because she is devoted to him, and now she’s transgender, childbirth is unlikely to happen again: “Everything had to happen as it has.”
Having Johnny, she admits, also changed her relationship with her body and delayed her public admission that she was transgender non-binary, not least because she expressed her breast milk to feed him. Perhaps it’s why her look softened, too?
We look at the pictures of her in her cookbooks and on the front pages of the various magazines after she became high-profile. One shows her in a minxy blouse, which clings to her now famous “34DDs”. There is a whole wave of Twitter haters preoccupied by the imminent removal of her breasts. They are threatened, Monroe says, by her sexuality and it’s why she gets into frequent social media scraps.
Monroe is, without doubt, fashion model beautiful. A couple of model agencies said her face was right, but that at 5ft 2in she was too short. She was told to lose two stone. “How ironic is that?” she says. “A woman who hasn’t got enough money to feed her child, writing a cookbook, then being asked to lose weight.”
On one magazine cover, her face is made up, with mascara-covered lashes and painted lips. “I hate that picture because of them,” she says, pointing to the bosoms. If she hadn’t had big bosoms, she might not have come out as transgender, but might have just gone about flat-chested and topless, having built up her torso. “But I felt I had to be honest.
“I don’t [feel beautiful]. I photograph well if I’ve slept OK. I think that is about as far as I’ll go. I don’t consider myself to be attractive in any sense of the word.”
Her editor brought a floral pinny for her to wear in the pictures for A Girl Called Jack, which she rejected at first, finally relenting. “But I said, ‘That is not going on the cover.’” (There she wears a plain blue apron.) The idea of her wearing a floral pinny now is ludicrous. She looks like she belongs on an album cover. She’s wise to the game: “I probably wouldn’t have got a mainstream book deal if I’d been transgender then.
“The sexual objectification of women in my industry is absurd,” she says. “You look at Deliciously Ella and the Hemsley sisters … Like any female newsreaders, TV presenters, they are all identical. One of the things I most admired about Allegra was that she broke that mould. She was ‘out’ and gorgeous and wasn’t the cookie-cutter celebrity chef.
“It’s one of the things I admire about Nigella. You can’t put her in a box.”
Do you fancy her, though? She screams with laughter. It’s not what you think, she says, of the little billet doux on the fridge. Well, do you? She spends five minutes talking about Lawson’s kindness, her generosity, what a great, loyal friend she is, how she is the first to get in touch if Monroe is monstered in the press, and how her recipes (and Gwyneth Paltrow’s – who knew?) got her through her breakdown and then says, “Doesn’t everyone?”
Now that Monroe is clearer about the unclear nature of her gender, she can set her mind to the future. Her first appointment at the London Gender Clinic is in the next couple of weeks and, providing she makes it through the necessary psychological checks, she expects her surgery will have taken place by next summer. Her parents are fully supportive and Johnny, who calls her Mamapapa after the Barbapapa children’s books, is unfazed. There might be modelling to come, another couple of books, one of which she hopes will be political, and maybe some day in the future a political career, probably with the Green Party, to which she defected from Labour over immigration. And then there’s more kissing of girls – “beautiful, very feminine women who always smell so lovely, all the way through to the butchest of dykes” – to be pursued. “I must make time for that – it’s a wonderful way to unwind!
“I feel more confident, I walk taller – I know I need to have this done. I felt like I was lying to people. [By admitting it] I sort of unblocked the dam. I can write again now – spend three hours scrawling recipes and ideas, because … I just can.
“I’m doing all right. I’m doing OK. In fact, I’m doing better than OK. I have been through the mill and I’m out the other side of it. I can look back and say, ‘Life gets crap and I’ve pulled through.’”
By Louise Carpenter for The Times, published 14 November 2015.