Travis Alabanza wants to show young people you can come out as your true self and still be loved

Travis Alabanza on success, their mum, and working with Pantene

Travis Alabanza, the writer, performer and theatre-maker extraordinaire, agreed to kick off their slippers recently to do something a bit different: a modelling shoot with their mum, Desiree.

“I was gagged, because I’ve been wanting an excuse to get my mum dressed up and glammed up. It was a no-brainer for me,” they say.

But when Travis proposed the shoot – a hair campaign with Pantene – to their mum, she said no.

“Because she was like, ‘I don’t wanna do my own hair!'” Travis laughs. “I told her, ‘Mum, it’s Pantene, they will bring in hair people!’ So then she was like, ‘Well, what about make-up, I’d have to get new make-up!'”

Once Travis explained the mechanics of an ad campaign – ie hair stylists and make-up artists are brought on set (Travis requested Umber Ghauri, an agender make-up artist who has done their make-up for the past five years) – their mum agreed to do it.

“And then she turned into a massive diva!” Travis says. “There was a moment when I was in the kitchen, making tea for the film crew, when I come back in and asked Umber how my mum was getting on. And Umber said, ‘Well, I can tell she’s your mum!’ The diva came out very quickly.”

Travis adds that, after her experience on the Pantene shoot, Desiree said she’s thinking about finding a modelling agency. “I was like: ‘Go off, Mum!'” they laugh.

Travis Alabanza: ‘I want to show young people that you can come out and be loved’

There are many things that Travis Alabanza – who is “‘normally someone that says no, a lot, to lots and lots of things” – likes about working with Pantene.

The brand – whose UK ambassador is the trans journalist Paris Lees – works with the Dresscode Project, an initiative to make hair salons and barbershops more trans-inclusive and gender-affirming. Travis got to show off their mum. They got to bring Umber in to do their make-up. And Pantene teamed up with national trans-led charity Gendered Intelligence, and is donating to GI to help support young trans people with their transitions.

It’s the young trans people who are most important to Travis.

“So often, when we talk about trans people and families, the experience is that as soon as you start displaying signs of gender non-conformity, you’re shunned,” Travis says. Media representation of transness often shows trans people as victims (or perpetrators) of violence, as people who lose family and friends when they come out, and worse.

A mum saying, actually, my gender non-conforming kid brings me joy.

And although these are sadly “very real statistics”, what Travis loved about this video was getting “to show young people and their parents that there’s another option when it comes to what you do when your kids come out”.

“I’ve been gender non-conforming, visibly, since a very young age,” they explain. “And my mum is a Black African-American woman, which comes with all of its own preconceptions around our community. And here she is on the advert, like, just loving me. It’s natural. It’s not this forced thing, it’s just a representation that I don’t think we get a lot of.

“A mum saying, actually, this part of my kid, their gender non-conformity, brings me joy.”

On success

After someone threw a burger at Travis Alabanza and yelled “tranny” at them in broad daylight on Waterloo Bridge, they wrote Burgerz.

It was Travis’s debut solo show, first put on by Hackney Showroom in 2018. In 2019, Burgerz toured in the UK and Europe, from Berlin to Dublin, including a month’s stint at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. The show ended with a sold-out, critically acclaimed run at London’s Southbank Theatre – just metres from the bridge where the burger was thrown at them.

In 2020, the 25-year-old wrote Overflow – a highly relevant, one-woman play about bathrooms, transphobia and female friendship – during lockdown. It went on to sell out at the Bush Theatre in Hammersmith, London, at the end of last year, before celebrating record ticket sales for seven live-streamed, lockdown-compliant shows in January and February 2021.

Almost 4,000 people from more than 25 different countries, including Finland, Kenya, Peru and the United States, watched the play, which starred Reece Lyons in her debut role. And Overflow was positively reviewed seemingly everywhere, from happy trans viewers on Twitter to the New York Times and, memorably, the Guardian – which was referred to by a line in Travis’s play denigrating “Guardian-reading transphobes“.

Travis Alabanza for Pantene. (Pantene)

The accolades that have rightfully been heaped on Travis and their work were perhaps best summed up by writer Otamere Guobadia, in a BBC piece about Drag Race UK and Black gay icons. Otamere said Travis is “a once-in-a-generation playwright, thinker and performer”.

“I wanted to hide under a duvet [when I read that]!” they laugh.

“I’ve still got so much to do, I’m still learning, I’m still really growing,” Travis says. “Obviously, I’m glad that my voice is being recognised in different ways. But I think it also comes with a lot of pressure.”

That’s partly because there isn’t a blueprint for gender non-conforming, trans feminine people on how to exist in the public sphere in the UK.

The important stuff is to just stay focused on what you want to do.

“Let alone when they’re also Black, let alone when they’re also political, let alone when – there’s not really a blueprint”, Travis adds, saying this sometimes leaves them “quite terrified”.

“Because I’m like, this doesn’t feel like it should work. But I remember that that’s not really the important stuff, which is to just stay focused on what you want to do, keep on opening doors for people, opening doors for yourself, bringing your squad in, bringing not-your-squad in… to me, that’s my focus.”

In 15 years time, Travis wants to have a theatre company and be hiring “multiple different artistic trans voices”, putting on shows across the UK and beyond.

“And so, because I know that’s where I want to be I just, you know, keep focused on that,” they say. And what’s coming up next for Travis Alabanza?

“I want to push away from my obsession of what’s next,” they say. “And like, really enjoy what is happening now.”