December 4, 2013 at 1:00 pm EST | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Mamma Mia
Mia Ryan, Houston Beauty, OWN, Oprah Winfrey Network, gay news, Washington Blade

Mia Ryan, one of the stars of ‘Houston Beauty.’ (Photo by Somer Turley, courtesy the P.R. Mentality)

Mia Ryan is one of the main characters on “Houston Beauty,” a reality show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).

It’s set in the Houston-based Franklin Beauty School where owner Glenda “Ms. J” Jemison runs a tight ship. Mia, a native Texan who’s transgender and left a life of escorting, is one of the students working on a cosmetology license. The show debuted in late October and runs through Dec. 14. It airs on Saturday nights at 8 and 10 p.m. We caught up with Mia by phone a few weeks ago to talk about her experience on the show, which filmed in 2012.

She’s still in Houston but is taking a break from Franklin to care for an elderly relative. She says she’s “about halfway” through the process of earning her certification, which takes about nine months if one goes full time. She’s 18 now and started transitioning when she was 15.

Billed in her media kit as only the third trans woman to have a recurring storyline on a major network TV show, Mia says she didn’t seek out the opportunity. She simply learned a reality show was planned at the school at the time she happened to be enrolled there.

“I went to Franklin in an attempt to better my life and career and the show was just there,” she says. “I was kind of standoffish at first. I didn’t feel my life was something to be proud of with the things I was doing so it took me awhile to open up.”

She says the feedback so far has been highly positive.

“I opened up and allowed my life to be an open book to America,” she says. “Everyone has been really proud of me and I hope I can possibly inspire someone else.”

Anybody who’s seen the show knows the exchanges have wrought plenty of drama, necessary to sustain any reality show. Her exchanges with Ms. J — who has insisted on referring to her at times by the boy name she grew up with — have fueled some of the more heated moments.

“She is a good person but she has some growing up to do,” Mia says of the instructor. “She’s from the older generation and is just not too fond of alternative lifestyles.”

Mia says Ms. J did come around to some degree during the shooting, but says there were still tough moments.

“She had never experienced a Mia Ryan before,” she says. “I don’t know if it was because I was transgender or what. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why she treated me differently. Maybe she sensed more expectation in me and so she felt she needed to be harder on me, I don’t know.”

Mia says contrary to assumptions about reality TV, the situations and tensions seen on the show were not rigged.

“I think any viewer who watches these shows knows these things can’t really be faked,” she says. “Those were actual things that were occurring at the time. It was real and in some ways, it was a lot worse than what you actually see on the show. They had to do a lot of cutting and editing to get it down to an episode, so there was a lot more than what they used.”

Mia says the outspoken Queensley is the only person on the show she’s still in touch with regularly. She plans to continue at Franklin when she is able.

“Of course I never thought something like this would happen,” she says. I’d seen transgender people like Laverne Cox (of ‘Orange is the New Black’) and Isis King (of ‘America’s Next Top Model’) and I’ve been truly inspired by those women as well. I always wanted to do something inspiring to help people. I just didn’t think it would unfold like this.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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