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‘Champions’ star Josie Totah comes out as transgender in moving essay

The child star credits ‘I Am Jazz’ with helping her understand her identity

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Josie Totah (Screenshot via YouTube)

Josie Totah, known for her work on “Champions” and “Glee,” came out as transgender in an essay for Time.  

The 17-year-old says that she”let myself be shoved into a box: ‘J.J. Totah, gay boy,'” when that wasn’t her true identity. Totah wrote in the essay that her new name is Josie Totah and she goes by female pronouns.

“I realized over the past few years that hiding my true self is not healthy,” she writes. “I know now, more than ever, that I’m finally ready to take this step toward becoming myself. I’m ready to be free. So, listen up y’all: You can jump on or jump off. Either way this is where I’m heading. My pronouns are she, her and hers. I identify as female, specifically as a transgender female. And my name is Josie Totah.”

She says the TLC reality show “I Am Jazz” helped her to better understand that she is female.

“This is not something that just happened,” Totah writes, “This is not a choice that I made. When I was five, long before I understood what the word gender meant, I would always tell my mother that I wished I were a girl. Since I could speak in full sentences, I was like, ‘Give me a dress!’ I always knew on some level that I was female. But it crystallized about three years ago when I was a 14-year-old watching the [TLC] show ‘I Am Jazz’ with my mother.”

Totah closed out the letter announcing that she is going to attend college but also keep acting. She says she is looking forward to pursuing transgender female or cisgender female roles.

“This week, I’m going off to college. I’m also going to continue my acting career, and I am so excited to do both things as myself. I plan to play roles I haven’t had the opportunity to play. And I can only imagine how much more fun it’s going to be to play someone who shares my identity, rather than having to contort myself to play a boy. I’m going to gun for those roles, be it a transgender female or a cisgender female. Because it’s a clean slate — and a new world,” she concludes.

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Theater

Actor overcomes car accidents to thrive in ‘Beautiful’

Bobby Smith on the infectious happiness of Olney production

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Bobby Smith in ‘Beautiful.’ (Photo courtesy of Teresa Castracane Photography)

‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’
Through July 25
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832
$31 -101
Olneytheatre.org

As Bobby Smith describes it, “not too long ago, some things tripped me up.”

In late 2023, the celebrated, out actor was involved in two very serious car accidents and suffered severe injuries. And then May brought the unexpected death of his beloved Vizsla hound Mabel, named for the heroine in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.”

So, for much of 2024, Smith had been spending time healing at his farmhouse in Ellicott City, Md. Until now. Currently, he’s back on the boards at Olney Theatre Center playing record producer Don Kirshner in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” a fun juke box musical about the early career years of singer/songwriter King from her Brooklyn roots to writing hits from an office in Times Square with her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin and on to Los Angeles solo-stardom.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Hey Bobby, you’ve been through a lot since we last spoke.

BOBBY SMITH: It’s been a whole lot. I spent the last seven or eight months either at home or going to doctor visits.

BLADE: How is it being back on stage?

SMITH: To be honest, it’s like learning to walk again.

BLADE: And playing the famously deadpan Don Kirshner?

SMITH: It’s good. I don’t do an imitation. Instead, I’ve created a character who’s not over the top; otherwise, it would become the Don Kirshner show and we don’t want that.

But because there’s not a lot of drama with Carole King, she’s a really kind, nice person, Don serves as a sort of catalyst. He pushes the story forward. He prods Carole to write more songs, to try different things. He doesn’t like her boyfriend.  Don the character doesn’t sing much but he’s always barking at people.

BLADE: Sometimes you forget just how many familiar songs King wrote: “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Up On the Roof,” and “Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow” for acts like the Shirelles and The Drifters. And later songs like “It’s Too Late,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman,” and of course “Beautiful.”  

SMITH: Yeah, it feels like she wrote every song known to mankind; the show tells you that, and we sing most of them.

BLADE: You experienced a highpoint during the rough times. In May, you won a Helen Hayes Award for playing Bruce, the complicated, manic depressive, closeted father in Studio’s production of Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home.”

SMITH: I did, but unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to the ceremony.

Bruce is a sympathetic but difficult character. Ever since being born, people of a certain age, have had to fight our way into the struggle of being gay. It’s not so much a struggle anymore, or I should say not as much as it used to be, but now there are a whole lot more signposts that didn’t exist when I was growing up.

Over the years, people have randomly attacked me for not talking more about my sexuality. I’m not closeted but I don’t feel I have to tell everyone. I don’t share it with my land lady. I don’t need to say “I’m here and I’m queer. Here’s your rent.”

BLADE: You have been in show biz for decades now. What keeps you going?

SMITH: I’m not sure, sometimes I ask myself what was I thinking when I decided to be a professional actor? I feel like I’m making a bigger contribution teaching at Catholic University than I did my entire acting career.

Now that I’ve taken over the tap department, I’m full time at Catholic. I’m also teaching Acting the Text, Directing for Musical Theatre, and in the fall, I’ll add Musical Interpretation.

BLADE: In this summer of so many theatrical choices, why see “Beautiful”?

SMITH: Well, if you don’t already know Natalie Weiss who plays Carole, you should. She’s an amazing compelling, vocalist with one of the healthiest singing voices you’ll ever hear, no straining, perfect placement. 

Also, there’s nothing about “Beautiful” that’s going to make you feel bad, or put you in a place where you might think you need to talk to your therapist. That’s not going to happen. And it’s because Carole King is a positive human being; from an actor’s perspective, you feel great by the end of the show, and the audience gets that. The happiness is infectious.

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Television

Emmy nominations honor queer creators and shows

RuPaul among LGBTQ nominees

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(Public domain photo)

The Television Academy has honored dozens of queer creators and queer-themed TV shows in the nominations for the 76th annual Emmy Awards, announced Tuesday in a broadcast hosted by actors Tony Hale and Sheryl Lee Ralph.

Sheryl Lee Ralph and Tony Hale, along with Academy Chair Cris Abrego, announced the nominees for the 76th Emmy Awards on July 17, 2024. (Photo courtesy of Emmys.com)

The winners will be announced at the Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 15.

Queer-themed shows like Netflix’s “Ripley” and “Baby Reindeer” and FX’s “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans” scored nominations across 13, 12, and 10 categories respectively.

“Ripley,” based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley” about a queer con man, scored a nomination for outstanding limited or anthology series, as well as acting nominations for gay actor Andrew Scott in the title role and Dakota Fanning for supporting actress. It also received nominations for writing, directing, cinematography, special visual effects, sound editing and mixing, picture editing, costumes, casting, and production design.

“Baby Reindeer,” a limited series based on bisexual writer-actor Richard Gadd’s autobiographical one-man show about his experiences being stalked, earned Gadd nominations for writing and his lead performance, as well as acting nominations for lesbian actress Jess Gunning and transgender actress Nava Mau for their supporting roles. The show also picked up nominations for outstanding limited or anthology series, directing, casting, costumes, picture editing, and music supervision.

Ryan Murphy’s latest “Feud” anthology, focusing on an episode in the life of gay writer Truman Capote, earned acting nominations for Tom Hollander, Naomi Watts, Treat Williams, and Diane Lane, and a directing nomination for gay director Gus Van Sant. It also earned nominations for casting, costumes, hairstyling, makeup, and main title music.

Once again, RuPaul cleaned up in the reality categories, with MTV’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” earning nominations for outstanding reality competition series, production design, casting, choreography, directing, picture editing, and sound mixing. RuPaul also earned a nomination for outstanding reality competition host — if he wins, he’ll extend his record eight consecutive wins in the category.

“RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked” also earned nominations for outstanding unstructured reality program and picture editing. “Untucked” will be up against Netflix’s “Queer Eye” in both categories.

Other queer reality shows earning nominations include HBO’s “We’re Here” and Shudder’s “Boulet Brothers: Dragula,” each with nods in the hairstyling and makeup categories.

Showcase’s epic gay romance “Fellow Travelers” earned acting nominations for out actors Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey and a writing nomination for gay writer Ron Nyswaner.

Lesbian actress Jodie Foster earned her first Emmy nomination for her lead role on HBO’s “True Detective: Night Country,” which picked up a total of 19 nominations.

Queer actress Ayo Edibiri will be defending her win earlier this year for outstanding lead actress in a comedy with a nomination for her work in the second season of FX’s “The Bear,” which broke a record for a comedy with 23 nominations this year.

Lesbian actress Holland Taylor earned a nomination for her supporting role on Apple TV+’s “The Morning Show.” The show also earned Reese Witherspoon her second nomination for playing bisexual reporter Bradley Jackson. Altogether, “The Morning Show” has 16 nominations this year.

Bisexual actress Hannah Einbinder earned her third nomination for her supporting role on HBO’s “Hacks,” which earned a total of 16 nominations this year.

“Saturday Night Live’s” Bowen Yang got his third nomination for supporting actor in a comedy series. Altogether, the long-running sketch show has 17 nominations this year.

Out comedian John Early got a writing nomination for his HBO special, “John Early: Now More Than Ever,” while HBO’s “The Other Two,” which ended its three-season run last June, earned its first Emmy nomination, for writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider.

To be eligible for nomination for the 2024 Emmys, television shows must have been released between June 1, 2023, and May 31, 2024. The awards show will take place Sept. 15 at the Peacock Theater in Los Angeles and be broadcast on ABC.

Click here for a complete list of nominees.

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Movies

Stylish ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ entertains despite falling short

Johansson and Tatum lack chemistry in leading roles

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Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum in ‘Fly Me to the Moon.’ (Photo courtesy of Apple Studios/Sony Pictures Releasing)

Greg Berlanti is known as a pioneer in bringing depictions of queer life to television, having been behind the first male-on-male kiss in an American network show (“Dawson’s Creek”), the first recurring transgender character on prime-time television (“Dirty Sexy Money”), and the first openly gay superhero to headline a series (“Freedom Fighters: The Ray”) – not to mention bringing the first live-action transgender superhero to TV with the casting of Nicole Maines in the show “Supergirl” or his production of last year’s high-profile Amazon adaptation of the gay literary romance “Red, White, and Royal Blue.” His legacy on the small screen, which includes numerous accomplishments beyond those mentioned above, is not just solid, but exemplary.

On the big screen, however — with the exception of  2018’s “Love, Simon” (a major hit, which scored an impressive $66 million at the box office) — his efforts in the theatrical film industry have replicated his success on television.

Yet with “Fly Me to the Moon,” which opened a widespread theatrical release on July 12, he just might have changed that narrative. 

Indeed, changing narratives might be what the movie itself is all about. Set in 1969, a year in which divisive politics and an unpopular war had made America a deeply anxious and cynical nation (sound familiar?), the pseudo-historical but entirely fictitious plot takes place during the Cold War “Space Race” in the months leading up to the historic Apollo 11 moon landing. National sentiment for the U.S. space program has waned, thanks to shifting public priorities and tragic setbacks in NASA’s progress. But with a perceived battle between American and Russian ideologies on the line, the U.S. government has decided that the mission is “too important to fail,” and  they enlist the services of New York marketing whiz Kelly Jones (Scarlett Johansson) to give the floundering moon mission a boost in popularity.

Bringing all the tricks of her trade to NASA’s Florida headquarters, she is, naturally, met with resistance from mission director Cole Davis (Channing Tatum), a Korean War hero whose no-nonsense military background immediately puts him at odds with her “do whatever it takes” approach to selling the public on his project. Nevertheless, a mutual attraction sparks between them, but when Kelly’s “handler” (Woody Harrelson) instructs her to arrange a faked moon landing that can be sold to the public in case of the mission’s failure, any potential romance is put on hold as she tries to pull it off under Davis’s unsuspecting nose. Needless to say, as the launch date grows closer, the stage is set for a confrontation of ideals – and a comedy of errors — with consequences that will impact not just their personal lives, but America’s future understanding of its own history, as well.

Ostensibly a “romcom,” Berlanti’s film — built into a screenplay by Rose Gilroy from a story by Bill Kirstein and Keenan Flynn — certainly incorporates that always-popular genre into its slick-and-stylish formula. The match between its two attractive leading characters seems a foregone conclusion before they even meet, and once they do, proceeds through the standard series of tropes toward a presumed happy ending in which they ride (or, in this case, fly) off into the sunset together.

But “Fly Me to the Moon” doesn’t set out to simply be a love story with a historical backdrop; the romantic tension between its leads is really a hook to pull us into a satirical, absurd-ish confrontation between perception and reality — defined, in this case, by the juxtaposition of a historic event and the public image being manipulated around it, which plays into (and pokes a bit of troll-ish fun at) the perplexing popularity of conspiracy theories two generations later, and pitting the “end justifies the means” approach to truth embodied by half of its leading couple against the tight-lipped, old-fashioned idealism embodied by the other.

For fans of classic Hollywood cinema, it’s as much this aspect as the movie’s romcom trappings that will likely resonate. In its first half, it feels more than a bit like an homage to the sly and cynical wit of the great Billy Wilder, whose films from “Double Indemnity” to “Sunset Boulevard” to “The Apartment” looked beyond comfortable morality to cast a grimly humorous spotlight on human corruptibility. As the plot shifts toward its “save the moon mission” denouement, however, a swelling of sentiment fueled by the emotional arc of Johansson’s seemingly amoral huckster transforms the vibe into something more akin to the populist fables of Frank Capra, whose films about underdogs fighting and winning against a corrupt system arguably helped to shape the American sense of self throughout the mid-20th Century. Indeed, one might easily envision James Stewart and Jean Arthur — the stars of Capra’s 1939 classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — as the two romantic leads here.

Unfortunately, they’re not. While Johansson — for our money, one of the best yet most under appreciated film actresses in the industry — easily wins our attention and our loyalty early on, her chemistry with Tatum never quite ignites into the crackling flame clearly intended by the script. For his part, Tatum is well-cast in his role, but seems to us a little out of his depth when it comes to the finer points of his character growth.

Among the supporting players, there’s a more solid slate of performances. Ray Romano tugs our heartstrings without trying as a schlubbish career rocket scientist, and queer actor/comedian Jim Rash gives a hilarious but completely authentic turn as the “high maintenance” would-be directorial genius hired to orchestrate the phony lunar landing. Rounding out his headlining cast, Woody Harrelson steals his scenes as the shady government operative who serves as Kelly’s “handler,” and the fact that the actor’s father was in real life a CIA agent on the scene at the John Kennedy assassination, adds a layer of fun detail for those who care to look.

On top of its collection of memorable performances, “Fly Me to the Moon” offers a spectacularly genuine period aesthetic, achieved with a seamlessly orchestrated visual design that ranges from perfectly recreated late-sixties fashion to a convincing and magnificent recreation of the real-life moon landing. And though it’s far from being a “thinker,” Berlanti’s movie is layered and compassionate enough to make us drop our reticence over some of its less historical experience.

We won’t mislead you: “Fly Me to the Moon” is a brilliantly insightful comedy, but the chemistry between its leading players fizzles. The cast is stellar, and even if its effort to balance hardboiled social commentary with value-affirming feel-good sentiment doesn’t always feel simpatico, its throwback, classic Hollywood style makes for an oddly satisfying nostalgic romp. In other words, it’s not what we would call great cinema, but as mainstream, middle-of-the road entertainment goes, you could do a lot worse.

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