When I'm in need of a life change, I get a hair cut, maybe some new layers. When Helie Lee does it, she shaves her head and stuffs her underwear with a sock.
In "Macho Like Me," a gender-bending documentary and one-woman show currently playing in Los Angeles, Helie wants to prove to the world just how easy it is to be a man.
So, naturally, she decides to become one. In a matter of weeks, the gorgeous Helie transforms into the awkwardly ambiguous and "unattractive" Harry (who eventually becomes Henry, then finally, H), and culminates her ascent into manhood by passing as a male at a local gay bar. But it's not just flannel shirts and basketball games for Harry as she quickly realizes that men do not exactly live on easy street.
Thre's no crying in basketball either.
During her six-month journey, which includes a trip to the Playboy Mansion, a part-time job with a retired architect and a friendly-but-violent game of basketball, Helie learns that men don't suffer like women at all. No.
In fact, they have it worse. Men live in a world where they can't be vulnerable, where they must censor their emotions, and where making extended eye contact only means, "I'm gay for you" or "I'm going to beat your ass."
After I saw her incredible show last week, I had the privilege of speaking to Helie about her experience.
Jen Kim: After nearly 40 years as a woman, why become a man?
Helie Lee: To understand men, but also to be the martyr that I thought I was. So I could say: "Aha! It's true, the reason that I'm not as successful or that I didn't become president is because I had been cheated. If I had been born a male, perhaps, instead of starting on step three, I would have started on step seven and I would have been closer to whatever success I could have had."
And another reason why I did it was I needed an escape from reality. I had come back from the escape mission from North Korea and it had been so traumatizing, I needed something fun and light to do. And then I ended up thinking: "My God! It's harder being a man than rescuing relatives from North Korea!"
JK: That's funny. In your show, you mention that one of the hardest aspects of being a man is not being able to express your true feelings. Was there anything easy about being a man?
HL: The easy part was the clothes and the preparation of getting ready-- and how simple it was. Clothes are sort of a symbol of the few choices they have compared to women. But after a while, that ease, that simplicity wasn't a benefit-- it was actually hindering of who I was, because I didn't have these choices. I missed the choices I had as a woman. Sometimes, as a woman, I look in my closet, and I say, "Oh Lord, there are too many fucking choices here-- too many sizes, different colors-- it just gets too confusing, but then I missed it, because I had the option of having colors and sizes and glitter and not glitter... and I liked the freedom to make a choice.
JK: Was there anything enjoyable about it? Your hair perhaps?
HL: Yeah. Long pause. [laughter] The hair and the baseball cap. But even the baseball cap became a constraint, because as a woman, I'm used to looking up and down, left and right-- I want to see the whole parameter, but the baseball cap actually limited my view, and it only took me from point A to point B and I thought, "Wow, that's how men think. They don't dilly-dally-- they don't window shop. They go from point A to point B. Granted they probably get there faster than me, but I like the dilly-dally. I like to stop at some windows and say, "I'm going to stop here and have a different experience." The baseball cap was so appealing in the beginning, but I realized that it restricted my options yet again.
JK: So you survived six months as a man. I don't think most people could do a fraction of that. What's your proudest moment thus far regarding your experience?
HL: I'm very proud of the show because it's something I never thought I'd do. I didn't think I had the courage to do it, much less the talent. But whenever I think I can't do something, I always ask myself, "Why not? At least try," and since I've tried, I've been rewarded with the show becoming this weird, unexpected, surprise hit. But it wouldn't have been a hit if I didn't have my family behind me-- if I didn't have my parents stealing the show. They really are the stars of the show, not me. They're the ones who give me stories. If I didn't come from such a colorful background, I don't think I'd be the type of writer or the success that I think I am.
JK: Tell me about this "colorful background." And how did you ever manage to avoid becoming a doctor or a lawyer?
HL: How I became an artist and this sort of artist, is that I don't think I was very smart, growing up. I came to the states when I was five years old and I sort of got lost in the school system, so I really didn't learn Korean that well. And I didn't really learn English that well. And my parents weren't capable of tutoring me or monitoring my studies because they were so busy working and trying to pay the mortgage. So I always felt very uncomfortable in school. I thought: "Wow, I'm just barely getting by, but this is a secret that I only knew."
I think it wasn't until my second book where they [my parents] realized, "Oh she is actually capable of supporting herself as a career doing this." Myself, too. I wasn't sure I could support myself being a writer, but now, that I'm here-- it wasn't an easy journey, but I got here. I'm so glad my life was not cookie-cutter-- that I have forged my own path, especially in the Korean American community. I think people sometimes look at me as an oddity, and that's okay. It's very bizarre that young ladies who are single in their 30s or late 20s use me as an example to their parents: "Don't worry, she got married when she was older and she did pretty well for herself... And don't worry, she didn't become a doctor or a lawyer and she did okay for herself."
JK: So do you recommend taking the path less beaten?
HL: I've always believed, when you have the courage to walk through a door that has been placed in front of you, that's saying: "Here's an opportunity, here's an experience"-- I've always been the first one to walk through that door. And if it's slightly stuck, then I always kick it open.
Sometimes, when I kick it open, I go through it, and I think, "What the hell did I do?" But I'm always-even in those situations, I'm glad that I had that experience. Because I am of the belief that everything leads to the next journey. That everything is of an experience that will change my life and improve my life no matter how good or bad, and that's how I live my life.
JK: What kinds of obstacles have you encountered in your career?
HL: My biggest obstacle is sometimes myself. And my doubts. I think everybody has this: "Can I do this? Will I be a success? Will I shame myself, my family, my community, all of that stuff..."
I hate to say it, and I try to tell people when I encourage them to write: "You don't need to have drama in your life to write. In fact, don't use that as a crutch." But unfortunately, for myself, it seems to work very well. When I have something traumatic happen in my life, that's when I stay focused.
Because writing is the greatest therapy for myself. It's a way to work out issues or confusion and clean my spirit and the quicker I write, the more healed I become.
JK: I definitely consider writing my own therapy. What is it about writing that makes us feel so powerful?
HL: I always knew the power of words. It's changed the way I speak. The words that I say, because I know they carry a lot of spirit, power good and bad, so I try not to say words that are mean or hurtful, because I know they have the ability to affect people and myself.
JK: I noticed a therapist actually recommended your show for relationship counseling. What's the feedback been like?
HL: I've been credited for saving a couple marriages-- putting couples who have separated back together. Men, husbands have come up to me and thanked me for letting their wives hear their side. And the women say to me, "I'm going to go home and hug my husband... I'm going to call my father... I'm going to have a conversation with my son or my brother." And this kind of impact is completely something that I didn't anticipate, that I'd be sort of a marriage-uplifter. So, it's been really joyful and has improved my own marriage.
JK: In "Macho Like Me," you mention that you wanted to live as a man so you could understand relationships better. Do you think you have found the key to a successful one?
HL: It's funny. My husband was researching on the Internet what was the best relationship, and he comes to me and says, "Honey we have it!" And what it was, is very simple:
Each person has to have their own dream, their own goal, but your partner is the person who supports the dream, in a way that supports it so that the dream can become bigger... and I thought, "That's very wise, and that's what we have..."
JK: I love it. The secret to a lasting marriage found on the Internet. But what about single women or women in really unfulfilling relationships who are probably reeling from envy right now. What do you think is keeping them from their own successful relationships?
HL: I've been in a lot of relationships-- many bad ones, some good ones, but I was too young and too naïve and too self-absorbed to appreciate the good ones, but I think when I was ready, was when I released it. I had no expectations of the other person. It's more working on myself, than trying to fix my partner, and I realized that I am not perfect, so I don't want to find someone who's perfect, because No. 1, it's impossible, and No. 2, it's just too much pressure because then I have to live up to the perfection that I think he is, but no one wants to live up to that-- it's just absolutely boring and too stressful.
But when I released the fact that I needed somebody, that I was okay by myself, that my life was brilliant, that if I bring someone in, he has to maintain that status quo or elevate my life-- it wasn't really so much about the other person but it was about finding my own happiness, and once I realized that I felt like I found it... I realized the fact that whether someone comes into my life or not, it's okay.
Once I had that attitude, other people had that attitude too. My parents were like, "You're fine by yourself." And then all of a sudden, Wham Bam Sam. There he was... But I did want to be in a relationship, who doesn't want love? Who doesn't want to be held? Who doesn't want to have that best friend?
JK: That makes sense. So once we let go, do you think we are all destined to find love?
HL: Women, we can be single and still have a very fulfilling and long life. But for men, I think they need us. Because we become their best friends, we become their sounding boards. We become their conversation-- my husband says that all the time, and I see it all of the time with my guy friends who are single. I wonder who they talk to, confide in. I know my husband and his best friend don't talk about intimate things. It scratches on intimacy, but it's really not. For me as a woman, it's sort of shallow-- I go much deeper with my girlfriends or my mother and my sister. But, if you don't realize you're missing it, you're not really missing it.
Even if you're content with it (being alone), it's society, and your parents and your friends who always think something is wrong with it. But there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. As long as you use that time to improve yourself. Everybody seems to think you should be in a relationship to be happy, but that's not necessary. If you find it, wonderful...
I remember, even at the time when I was feeling fine-- when I had accepted the fact that this was it and I'm okay with it, everybody else was making me feel lousy about it.
Even time apart is brilliant. Because you know you have the confidence of that person loving you, but it's time to get busy, on yourself, your career, your dream.
JK: Speaking of getting busy on yourself, your career and your dream? What's next for you?
HL: For me, I'd like to take "Macho Like Me" to the next level and become an inspirational speaker.
And my next writing project will be on being an older mommy and the trials and tribulations of getting pregnant, struggling with: "Do I have a child? Am I supposed to have a child? Should I want to have a child? What are the costs, benefits and sacrifices of being an older mother?" Because so many people are having children later in life.
JK: You are my hero. As cheesy as it sounds, you have inspired me to pursue a creative career and also helped me not to let age or anything else prevent me from experiencing new adventures. Is there anything you would have changed on your own path to the present?
HL: I'm a late bloomer, but that's okay. It works for me. I don't think I would have really appreciated things if they had come easier to me. I've always had to work hard for everything I've got. Not necessarily my parents didn't give it to me, but I've always thought I had to work harder-- and that wasn't their shit, that was my shit. But I guess it allowed me to strive and struggle to get to the place where I'm absolutely grateful.*
Follow me on Twitter: ThisJenKim