Tenika Watson: Living beyond Pendergrass’ tragedy

I knew this week’s interview was special, but I didn’t know how special until I searched for her name in my pre-interview research. A slew of websites popped up asking, “Who was the mystery woman?” “Where is she now?” and “Whatever happened to Tenika Watson?” This interview should help answer those questions.

In 1982, R&B star Teddy Pendergrass was severely injured in an auto accident, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. In the car with him that night was a woman, Tenika Watson, who for several years now has kept a low profile. Her own career as a model and entertainer was knocked off track when news outlets found out that Watson had been born male. She’s about to tell all in a forthcoming book, “My Life is No Accident,” but she agreed to meet with me to share a little of her story. I met with Watson in her home, a lovely apartment filled with antiques and artwork. An easel was set up in the corner with a still-life in progress. Immediately, I was struck by how warm and nurturing she was as she served up tea and cookies, a sharp contrast from scandalous descriptions written about her in the media.

PGN: Are you a Philly gal? TW: No, I was born in D.C. and grew up there and in Brandywine, Md.

PGN: Any siblings? TW: Oh yes, I’m one of eight! Well, nine actually, but my oldest sister died shortly after birth. I’m the third from the end.

PGN: What was family life like? TW: It was good. My parents were great. My father did roadwork for the state and my mother did domestic work.

PGN: What did you like to do as a kid? TW: My parents had 7 acres of land, so we would play hide and seek, get tadpoles from the brook and explore the land. I’m a country girl at heart.

PGN: Higher learning? TW: I didn’t go to college, but I’ve taken courses in everything from bank telling to acting with the Repertory Theatre Company and, this month, I’m starting computer classes.

PGN: What was your first job out of school? TW: [Laughs.] I got a job at a furniture company dusting furniture. I lived at home for a while and then I started to travel. I lived in Boston for a summer, I lived in Harrisburg for a summer, Virginia, and then I came to Philadelphia. Boston was tough, very racist at that time.

PGN: What was your worst job? TW: Back in the day, I was a bar maid at a club on 13th Street — oh what was it called? Scabadoo’s? That was hard, trying to remember everyone’s drink orders!

PGN: Best job? TW: Working for Kingsley Six Modeling agency. Unfortunately, the accident happened just as my career was taking off. After that, it became impossible to work. I’d been doing impersonations at the New Forrest Lounge for a year and a half and had to leave there because the owner was trying to exploit the situation.

PGN: Tell me a little about coming out or transitioning for you. TW: I think I was born out. People could tell before I even knew about myself. I don’t think my parents or anyone else was shocked. Even as a kid playing house, I was always the girl, looking for someone to play my boyfriend!

PGN: First crush? TW: There was a boy named Sheldon that I liked in elementary school. [Laughs.] Bald-headed, brown-skinned and he was so mean! But I liked him!

PGN: When did you start to transition? TW: When I was 20. I don’t know why it was in my head, but I had the idea that at 20 I would be considered grown, so no one could say anything to me.

PGN: What was the scariest thing about it? TW: I didn’t have any fear about transitioning. Though I do remember walking down the street in D.C. one time with a girlfriend of mine and she suddenly said, “Be careful, that man has a knife!” I was so naïve I didn’t understand that he wanted to attack us just because of who we were. Next thing I knew, he swung the knife at our heads and we were running down the street. It was my first understanding that people might want to hurt me just because of my lifestyle.

PGN: You transitioned in a time when it wasn’t really heard of and certainly wasn’t accepted as much as it is now. TW: No, it wasn’t. This was in 1977 and it wasn’t heard of, though a lot of the girls were doing it. But back then, most girls transitioned with the thought that you would just live your life as a woman and never tell anybody. You weren’t supposed to be open about it. Once you had surgery, you never told anyone except your mate. That’s how it was back then. Once you were a woman, you put your past in a closet. I guess I’m part of that era. I have fought really hard to be respected as a woman. I don’t know if the girls nowadays really fight for the right to be totally respected as women after the surgery. You hear a lot of trans this and trans that and I don’t get it. Maybe I’m old-school, but once you have the surgery, you’re supposed to be a woman. Your birth certificate says female, your driver’s license says female and yet in articles I read, they still refer to you as a “transwoman.” And it’s like, what was it all for? Why did I go through all of this if I’m not going to be considered a woman? To me, transgender means transition. Moving from one gender to another, but once you’re there, that should be it if that’s what you want. I don’t know if girls today feel any kind of way about that, but I know I do. I don’t like the term.

PGN: So what would you like to say about Teddy? TW: I’m sorry that he’s not with us anymore. I wanted to go to the funeral, but I didn’t want to be disrespectful and I didn’t want to be disrespected. So I just had a little quiet prayer and a little quiet tear after he was gone. I met his mother in 2001. When he died [in 2010], my first thought was for her. He was her only child. I know she has grandkids, but it must be terrible to lose a child.

PGN: And the accident? TW: We were on Lincoln Drive when the brakes went out. The car hit a guardrail, crossed into the opposite traffic lane and hit two trees. The one thing that always bothered me was that the news media got there before the ambulance did. It upset me to think that people were calling for publicity before they called for help.

PGN: You’ve stated that the medical personnel were more worried about getting a urine sample from you than they were about your health. TW: They were very sneaky: They said they needed a sample to make sure that there wasn’t any internal bleeding, but I knew what they were really trying to check for. After they didn’t find what they wanted, they weren’t interested in me anymore. It was reported that I was acting strange, but I was in shock.

PGN: Reading about the accident, it seems that the media didn’t know at first about you being … what terminology would you like me to use? Were you frightened? TW: No, they didn’t say anything because they didn’t know. [Laughs.] Yeah, I was scared. I thought, if anyone finds out, they’re going to lynch me! It was scary wondering if was going to get out or when. Trying to figure out how to survive or explain it. I was never given a chance to explain. The only paper that gave me a break was the [Philadelphia] Tribune.

PGN: I read a Jet article with the headline, “Teddy’s Transsexual Passenger,” in which they call you a “confessed transsexual.” It seems like it really tilted the trajectory of your life, your modeling career, etc. TW: Tilted it? It destroyed it. I was told so by potential employers and it really made me doubt myself. It was a tough time. I had one reporter come to my house and try to force her way in the door. There were some very ugly things printed. I had to move out of the city. Which is sad because I love this city. I love the people, I love the neighborhoods … There are so many places to hide!

PGN: Do you get recognized? TW: Yes, I used to; not so much any more. It happened just the other day when I was walking down the street. But for the most part, nobody really sees me. I’m actually glad of it.

PGN: I noticed your easel. Did you go to art school? TW: No, I’m self-taught. I love it: Concentrating on one thing until you capture it the way you want it. You start out with a blank canvas and create something beautiful.

PGN: It sounds like a metaphor for your life! What’s your favorite style? TW: I like doing landscapes and still-life. Acrylics are OK, but I like painting in oils. There’s something great about the way you can combine colors and the fact that it stays wet, so you can work with it and then rework things. It takes forever to dry but it’s worth it.

PGN: Any other hobbies? TW: I’ve always made clothes and I still make clothes for the girls every now and then, if someone has a special occasion or show coming up.

PGN: And did you do shows back in the day? TW: Oh yes. I impersonated Diana Ross, Donna Summers, Lena Horne and Josephine Baker. I worked at the Forrest Lounge and at Bill Hart’s club at 22nd and Market. I was in acting school at the same time so it was a chance to express my art.

PGN: What’s the best outfit you ever created? TW: I created an outfit for my sister to wear to the Miss Black America ball. It was a see-through dashiki, jet black with swirling designs on it. She had a great big afro and looked stunning! She was just a guest, but everyone thought she was competing.

PGN: I see a lot of butterflies around your apartment. Any significance? TW: No, I just seem to keep ending up with them! I saw the big painting at an auction in Jersey and just had to have it. I got it for $5 and some of the others I got from my sister.

PGN: So, if you were an animal, what would you be? TW: A deer. They’re so aloof.

PGN: Name three objects you love. TW: My bible, my family pictures and my artwork.

PGN: Worst performing blunder? TW: I was doing Diana Ross, singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and I fell!

PGN: What’s a song that makes you happy? TW: Mary J Blige, “Love It or Hate It.”

PGN: What star would you want to dance with? TW: He’s passed, but I would have picked Gregory Hines. He’s nice and tall. At least he seemed tall on TV. PGN: Best gift you ever gave or received? TW: My friends and family gave me a surprise birthday this February. It was beautiful. [Laughs.] And it took the sting out of turning 60! Oh, I just love my family. The best gift I ever gave was to buy a grave marker for my father. It makes me smile to think of it.

PGN: What’s a smell that makes you stop and reflect? TW: Lavender. It makes me think of the country and fields of flowers.

PGN: You chose to take the high road and not make a media spectacle after the accident. Was it lonely to deal with it on your own? TW: It was lonely. I tend to be too independent and don’t know how to ask people for things. I just put on a smile and went about my business with as much dignity as I could without responding to the media frenzy. I started working with a therapist seven years ago and that helped me get to the point that I’m able to write about it now. [Laughs.] I probably should have started long ago!

PGN: Did you ever have any contact with Teddy after the accident? TW: I talked to him in 2002. That’s how my book starts out, with that conversation.

PGN: Was it frustrating being in such a high-profile incident with someone and not being able to call and ask if he was OK or let him know how you were? How well did you know him? TW: I didn’t know him at all! I’d met him once or twice before, but that was it. He’d simply offered me a ride home from a club that night. The media tried to make something out of it, but it was untrue. He was one of those people that had a kindness about him.

PGN: Happy memories? TW: The Christmas I was reunited with my family in 1962. I was 10 and had been separated from my family for a time. It was the best Christmas ever to be with them again. And when I got clean and sober. A friend of mine named Phil from the Westbury Bar took me to an AA meeting and it saved my life. I’ll be 14-years sober in June.

PGN: Why were you separated? TW: My sister Jackie and I were abducted when we were children. I was 5 years old. I’m not really comfortable talking about it yet, but I’ve been working with [my writer] Jennifer to get it out for the book. It’ll be in there.

PGN: What’s the best part of Tanika Watson’s life now? TW: I have no regrets, I don’t have anything to prove to anybody. I’m 60 years old and I lived to be 60! To me, that’s great.