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Real Life

Trans beauty queen Arielle Keil's triumph

The Auckland pageant winner shares her emotional journey to becoming a woman

By Leena Tailor
I'm going to be New Zealand's first transgender beauty queen," Arielle Keil told herself as she sat bawling in a hair salon after being kicked out of home for telling her parents that she was going to become a woman.
Named Andrew at birth but having never felt male, Arielle had for years experienced bullying, feelings of confusion and depression, and suicidal thoughts. But her quest to become a beauty queen carried the 27-year-old Aucklander through the loneliness and tears that came before she underwent life-changing gender reassignment surgery.
Nineteen months on, Arielle has not only been crowned Aotearoa's first transgender beauty queen, winning Miss Intercontinental NZ 2020, but she's also enjoying an unexpected bonus prize – the crown has helped her reconnect with mum Grace.
'I came alive. Nine-year old me thought she was Tyra Banks!'
"We were at the beach at Christmas and Mum told me off because my bikini was too revealing," smiles Arielle, who will represent New Zealand at the Miss Intercontinental pageant in Egypt next month.
"Most girls would find that irritating, but I loved it. Until then, I'd never felt like she saw me as a daughter."
It was a different story growing up in the Philippines, where Arielle recalls panicking when her Christian parents, who moved the family to Auckland when she was four, found her playing with a Barbie.
"I cried and knew it was bad I loved dolls. It's my earliest memory of having my gender policed. Adults taunted me in church, asking, 'Are you a boy or girl?' I felt like something was wrong with me. During one sermon about gay people going to Hell, people stared at me. I was six and thought, 'If I die, it doesn't matter.'"
Arielle got her first taste of feeling "truly myself" after her big sister Abegail, who regularly defended her from bullies, put her in a dress and make-up.
"I came alive. Nine-year-old me thought she was Tyra Banks!"
With supportive sister Abegail.
Despite being constantly told to "stop acting feminine", Arielle never conformed and when she moved to Wellington at 18 to study fashion design, she discovered the transgender community online. "It was a lightbulb moment. Everything suddenly made sense."
Around that time, transgender model Jenna Talackova won the right to compete in Miss Universe Canada, igniting Arielle's pageant hopes. She explains that pageants are to Filipinos what rugby is to Kiwis and she'd often wished she was female so she could compete.
But the dream seemed far-fetched, especially after she confronted her parents about her sexuality and they became increasingly unsupportive. After Abegail moved to the US, Arielle reached breaking point, leading to her first suicide attempt.
"My parents told me I'd burn in Hell on Judgement Day. They wanted doctors to cure me – one suggested testosterone shots. Life seemed really daunting without my sister there."
Luckily, Arielle recovered and her parents gradually accepted her, with dad Nicasio even helping to build a Barbie box for a performance when Arielle began doing drag at 21. But three years later, she realised drag wasn't fulfilling enough and she needed to transition, so she commenced hormone replacement therapy in 2017.
Arielle is set to represent Aotearoa in Egypt.
Arielle could only deny mum Grace's observations that she'd developed breasts for so long before declaring, "I'm transgender. I've started hormones." Her parents responded, "We still love you," but one week later, Arielle announced plans to get hair extensions and fully present as a female, prompting an ultimatum: "Stop transitioning or leave." She left.
Arielle recalls, "I sat in the salon, crying and thinking, 'I've lost everything.' I had no home, my sister was in America and my parents had cut ties. But I made a mental mood board of that pageant and decided I was now putting everything into achieving that dream."It was a goal Arielle clung to as she crashed at a friend's house, worked in a call centre and entered toxic relationships with men to feel less alone. She didn't see her father again until she was 24 and in hospital after another suicide attempt.
Her mum refused to visit, but it was a turning point in Arielle's relationship with her dad. Nicasio reflects, "The night he told us, 'Dad, I'm gay,' it was very hard to accept. It was like the whole world was crashing down on me. But the hardest part was when he said he was going to Thailand to change his gender. I cried knowing I no longer have a son. But I still love him very much because he's my child, so I will accept her with all my heart and support Ari for who she is now."
His hospital visit was the start of him "coming to terms with having a daughter", says Arielle. "But Mum's stubborn, so I accepted I'd never be part of the family like before. If her child almost dying wasn't enough, nothing would be."
Arielle took two further attempts to end her life, but after saving up, she headed to Thailand in January 2020 for the $15,000 surgery, which involved breast implants and vaginoplasty. Looking in the mirror afterwards, she felt "correct" and was overjoyed to return to Aotearoa "in the right body".
"Even though my dad was sad about the surgery, he picked me up from the airport and gave me the biggest hug. It was the sweetest thing."
Although Arielle's physical rehabilitation was challenging due to COVID-19 lockdowns restricting in-person check-ups, she busied herself preparing for Miss Intercontinental. "It was liberating," she says of the win. "I dreamt big, but never thought it'd actually happen."
Nor did she expect the pageant would ultimately heal her relationship with her mum. After Arielle's win prompted media coverage in the Philippines, relatives expressed their admiration, leading Grace to realise having a trans daughter is nothing to be ashamed of.
Dad Nicasio and mum Grace struggled to accept the loss of their son.
She invited Arielle to Christmas in 2020, which was the first time the two had seen each other in almost three years. Arielle says, "We have a better relationship now because now I can talk to my parents about anything. They see me as their daughter."
Arielle, who is studying towards a Masters in Digital Media at AUT, has since had cheek fillers and veneers to complete her feminisation.
And she's still seeing a psychologist as she adjusts to "no longer living in survival mode", but she realises there will always be whispers.
"People seeing me as a freak or not entirely a woman is more hurtful now that I've completed my transition. Some might say, 'You're not a woman – you're a trans woman,' but just like there are maxi dresses and mini dresses, 'trans' is just a prefix to describe me. Trans women are women. We're not sub-human and we have dreams we're capable of achieving."
'I can talk to my parents about anything. They see me as their daughter'
As for what Arielle would like to tell six-year-old Andrew as he sat in church crippled with fear?
"I'd do anything to save him from the trauma of thinking he'll rot in Hell and that life wasn't worth living. I'd also thank him for never changing. Had little Andrew caved and conformed, I wouldn't be Ari today. I am who I am because he didn't give up, so I'm super-grateful to Andrew for hanging in there."
HELP IS HERE
For more information on the transgender community and how you can get support, visit genderminorities.com. If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, please call or text 1737. For Lifeline, call 0800 543 354 or text 4357. For the Suicide Crisis Hotline, phone 0508 TAUTOKO. In an emergency, always dial 111.

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