Nineteen minutes into the film “Zola,” the actress TS Madison delivers a devotion that becomes a kind of mantra for the rest of the film.
“Dear heavenly father, we come to you thanking you today for all the bounties that you’ve bestowed upon us, Jesus,” her character, a stripper named Hollywood, recites with her head bowed and her hands linked with several dancers backstage. “We are asking for a special prayer today,” she says repeatedly.
The prayer — in which she begs for God to send Black men who are cultured, have good credit (“840!”) and are well endowed — was not in the original script.
“It just flowed,” Ms. Madison, 44, said in a recent Zoom interview. “It’s just like all of my energy, all of my personality, all of my self flew into it.”
On the call, she summoned that spirit once again. “We are asking you for a special prayer!” she exclaimed, pausing before repeating, with a half-smirk: “A special prayer!”
Ms. Madison, a transgender woman, had her first taste of fame in 2013 after a Vine she posted, called “New Weave 22 Inches,” went viral. In the six-second clip, Madison shows off — what else? — a new, 22-inch-long weave. At the end she dances in front of a chair in the nude. Soon after, Ms. Madison was being interviewed by magazines and was invited to host L.G.B.T.Q.-focused events.
“I had no idea that those six seconds were going to change the trajectory of the way my whole life was going to go,” she said.
Janicza Bravo, who co-wrote “Zola,” said she watched the Vine, “maybe 20 times in a row.” Afterward, she couldn’t stop laughing, “I became kind of obsessed with her,” she said.
At the time, Ms. Bravo was working on a multicamera sitcom-style web series for Vice — a cross between John Waters’s 1972 film “Pink Flamingos” and the 1990s sitcom “Family Matters.” Ms. Madison was to play the matriarch of the family, and Alia Shawkat was going to play her daughter.
“It was experimental and totally absurd,” Ms. Bravo said. “I think it was a little too radical for them.”
The series fell apart, but the women stayed in touch. In 2017, Ms. Bravo began to write “Zola” with the playwright Jeremy O. Harris. The first draft of the script did not have Ms. Madison’s role in it, but after Ms. Bravo saw a YouTube video of exotic dancers holding hands and praying before their performances, that changed.
“I thought it was a really beautiful detail,” Ms. Bravo said. “I felt that was something that fit in this world.” Ms. Madison was the only person she could imagine playing the part of the dancers’ spiritual leader.
“I remember saying to her, ‘You know what’s supposed to happen, and you know what you’re supposed to do here, right? You’re supposed to rally the women, and so wherever the dialogue doesn’t fit in your mouth, make it yours,’” Ms. Bravo said. “She opened it up and she made it beautiful. She brought in a sermon.”
Life Informs Art
As a child, Ms. Madison always knew she was different. It wasn’t until she watched “The Crying Game,” a 1992 movie about member of the Irish Republican Army who falls in love with his hostage’s girlfriend, starring Forest Whitaker, that she realized how monumental her difference was. Ms. Madison attributes the many dark times she has faced as fuel for her ambition and as reference for her acting.
“I’ve always felt two spirited. I’ve always felt connected to men and women,” Ms. Madison said. “I knew I didn’t want to be one or the other one. I wanted to be both.”
A year later, RuPaul’s “Supermodel” was a hit, and Ms. Madison saw the video on television. She admired RuPaul and saw parts of herself in him, but she felt she was not a drag queen. Slowly, her identity began to take form. Ms. Madison said she found “underground friends” in her Miami hometown who taught her about transitioning. In 1997, she started hormone therapy and began growing her hair and shopping in the women’s section. The backlash came swiftly.
“I finished high school, I did some college and wanted to have a job but was in the process of transitioning,” Ms. Madison said. “I dropped out of college, I didn’t go back and I got fired from many jobs because they didn’t understand me coming to work like this.”
To avoid living on the streets, poverty and unemployment, she turned to sex work. In 2007, she purchased the home where she currently lives: a seven-bedroom, five-bath in the Atlanta suburbs. The living room’s floor-to-ceiling windows bathe the space in sunlight. Her fireplace mantle is adorned with porcelain figurines of cats and dogs and several candelabras. Throughout the space, Baroque paintings hang in gilded frames.
Buying a home was a goal that she told her mother that she would reach by 30, and she did so with two days to spare. Then she started dreaming bigger.
She studied adult film actors like Jenna Jameson, Lexington Steele, Traci Lords and Heather Hunter to learn how they earned money and how they became secret household names. In 2009, she started her own adult film production company and began to promote her work as if she and the production company were separate entities.
“I put together my company and restructured the way that I started putting out my material,” Ms. Madison said. “I started filming and making people think that now I’m under some kind of corporation. People thought Raw Dog Entertainment was a white company paying me, but it was mine.” This brought her lucrative distribution deals, and in 2014, she turned to social media to promote the adult movies she produced.
The same year — when Ms. Madison’s Vine went viral — Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” premiered on Netflix. The series about incarcerated women featured the actress Laverne Cox as one of the prisoners. Ms. Cox, who is herself a transgender woman and played a transgender woman on the show, became a role model for trans people hoping to break into entertainment.
Ms. Madison’s Vine, by contrast, was held up by some as hurting the cause. “They were saying that Laverne Cox was the role model, and I was the detriment,” she said. “That hurt.”
At the time, Ms. Madison recalled thinking, “‘I’m not trying to be a leader.’ I was working to not be poor. I had no idea that I was becoming a revolutionist.”
But she took note from her critics and decided to switch up her delivery. She started to share more videos about her life and where she had been. “I’ve been raped and almost killed,” Ms. Madison said. “I have to turn that into funny.”
Ms. Madison wants more challenging roles and more opportunities in Hollywood. During our interview, she stopped midsentence, left the room and returned with a green, three-panel poster-board display typically used for science-fair projects — a vision board she started in 2016. On it were photos of a home; the word “Hollywood”; the figure $1.8 million; the logos for HBO, We TV and Bravo; a photo of Wendy Williams; and many more things she hopes to accomplish.
Gazing at her pasted hopes and dreams, she seemed surprised at all she had accomplished. Earlier this year she was filming for her role in “A Perfect Find,” a Netflix romantic comedy starring Gabrielle Union. Her first reality show also premiered this year on We TV. “The TS Madison Experience,” is about her every day life and attempts to reach her goal of being the first Black transgender talk show host.
Still she is dreaming bigger. Before we hung up, Ms. Madison bowed her head: “Dear heavenly father, without you, none of this would be possible.”
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