Real Life

Mastermind’s contestant on Shakespeare, heavy metal and being transgender

Last week, Simone Whitlow (40) showed off her Shakespeare knowledge on the quiz show. But there is more to her than the Bard.
Mastermind TVNZ

As I child, I always knew I was different. I was a pretty hyperactive kid – my brain would go a million miles a minute and I would always be looking for new ways to occupy myself.

When I was very young, one of my primary school teachers noticed I had a gift for reading comprehension and a photographic memory. I was reading at a 17 to 18-year-old level when I was about seven years old, so I was a bit of an outsider in some ways because of it. I would read anything and everything I could get my hands on – especially anything unusual or dark and twisted, such as biographies about Ronnie and Reggie Kray.

I can easily remember anything that grabs my attention, and that’s something that runs in my family. My dad has a photographic memory, as well as my aunty and uncle, and my football-mad grandfather could reel off soccer stats.

As a Mastermind contestant whose specialist subject is Shakespeare’s works – King Lear, MacBeth and Othello – this has come in handy, as has my degree. I studied a Bachelor of Arts when I left school, and English literature was my major and I minored in art history. From there, I did a teaching diploma and taught for six years. I guess it’s fair to say I have pretty good general knowledge.

Of course, I definitely have my weak points – I don’t know much about sport and I can’t cook to save my life, so while I’m a good fit for Mastermind, you’ll never catch me on MasterChef!

Being on Mastermind has been a wonderful experience so far. I was one of the 32 finalists who were selected out of hundreds of applicants. People always tell me that I’m a wealth of knowledge so I thought ‘why wouldn’t I go for it?’ I didn’t know if I would make it, but I knew I had to at least try and I’m so glad I did. It’s fun and nerve racking at the same time, especially when you’re sitting on the chair, but I enjoy a challenge and this is certainly challenging!

That, along with my studies and day job, keep me very busy! I work for a debt collection company on the North Shore, in Auckland, but I’ve also been studying project management for the past year and in the future, I would like to work for an IT company.

But my true passion is music. When I was 10, my parents sent me to classical guitar lessons to give me something to do, and that was where I first discovered my affinity for it. A couple of years later, I came across Iron Maiden and was inspired to become a rock star.

I played in a couple of bands in my teens and in my early 20s, I started up a band called Ishtar with three others. We made quite a name for ourselves on the Auckland scene and I had a reputation as one of the better rock guitar players out there at that time.

I’m also an obsessive Queen fan but I wasn’t aware of them until Freddie Mercury died in 1991, which was a turning point in my life. I realised that I had been churning out a lot of heavy metal stuff in E minor while these four geniuses were creating music so clever and diverse. I realised that all my life, I’ve been drawing sketches while these guys painted in colour. To say they inspired me would be an understatement.

Music runs through my veins, but I don’t have much time at present to do anything with it. Once Mastermind is over, I’ll be looking to start up another band. I really like the idea of a four-piece band – it gives me the freedom as a guitar player to do what I do and I can’t wait to start it up again.

At the moment, everything I do is planned pretty much down to the minute, but I have no complaints. I’m at a place in my life now where I am truly content, but it hasn’t always been that way.

I was born a male and although I always knew I would rather live as a woman, for a long time I couldn’t for the life of me see how I could make that happen. It wasn’t until some of my band mates started to move on and find partners to share their lives with that I realised I couldn’t carry on pretending. How would I ever have what they had if I couldn’t be honest with myself?

Eight years ago, I finally put a stake in the ground and said, ‘This is me – I am Simone.’

In her spare time, when she is not brushing up on her Shakespeare at Auckland’s Pop-up Globe theatre (right), the transgender guitar goddess likes nothing more than rocking out with her band.

Since then, I’ve learnt true happiness. Being transgender has taught me a lot and I now know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a woman – both literally and figuratively! I’ve discovered there is such a thing as male privilege and there are subtle levels of discrimination in society. I’ve also found it’s very hard to decide what to wear in the morning!

Throughout it all, my family and friends have been a constant support – and I don’t know what I would do without them.

As told to Ellen Dorset

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