Nadia Almada: A heroine for our times?

Her mother applauded her for 'being herself', her father thanked God for his new daughter, and 74 per cent of viewers voted for Nadia, the transsexual who won the latest 'Big Brother'. But was this a victory for liberal acceptance or a vote for the freak shows of less enlightened centuries?
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The Independent Online

'I am now accepted by the public as a woman," said Nadia Almada after emerging from the Big Brother house on Friday night as the winner, tottering on unsteady legs with her mascara streaming. "There is no words that could show my heart that is inside me," said the woman who was born a man 27 years ago on the Portuguese island of Madeira. "I am so happy. Thank you." She crossed herself frantically, and a big diamanté cross jiggled in her now-famous cleavage. Fireworks burst overhead; cameras flashed and the crowd screamed.

"For you, Big Brother was all about acceptance," said the presenter Davina McCall, aware that now, at last, after endless hours of dead-end television featuring catfights and bitching, snogging and snoring, the programme she has presented for five series had a real story on its hands. Boy, did it need one. In the beginning, just having real people locked up together night and day was fascinating enough, but then we got bored. They put celebrities in the house, which was diverting for one series but not two. By last year BB was just tedious, a gathering of quiet, sensible people too ordinary to be interesting. So the production company Endemol went "evil", its melodramatic word for rounding up unstable extroverts and playing psychological games with them. Emotional fires were stoked; there were fist fights, surprise expulsions and even the first live sex in the house (an anti-climax for all but the participants, who were hiding under a table). But it would all have amounted to nothing without a bank clerk from Surrey with a fierce addiction to fags and a big secret.

Long before the end viewers knew far more about Nadia than the people she was living with. They appeared not to guess that she was a post-operative transsexual, which almost suggested that they did accept her as a woman, although the blunt Victor did describe her look as "like putting boobs on Antonio Banderas". And her friend, self-appointed mediator Dan, said: "It doesn't take Einstein to work out there's something there ... or not there any more."

Nadia knew what she wanted - validation, by as many people as possible, and not just because she wanted to be famous like so many of the preening, posturing prats who auditioned and shared the house with her. That was her secret weapon: there was a purpose to her craving - not just vanity but the end of a journey out of the confusion and misery of being a woman trapped in the body of a boy, into a new identity. As well as the money her reward would be love, a national explosion of it that allowed the true, vivid and glorious Nadia to emerge.

That was the very modern fairytale, anyway. Endemol bought it, because it was running out of marginalised, misunderstood characters who could grab the public sympathy. They'd done a gay man, a lesbian former nun, an Essex girl - hell, they'd even had a Christian. Nadia was something new, and the enthusiasm was such that some critics suggested the producers were editing the programme to flatter her. But there wasn't much complaint from the red tops and celeb mags, which might be suspected of collusion, such was their determination that Nadia would win. "She's vulnerable and real," they said. "Look, she cries, she broods, she loses it when her ciggies are taken away; look, she's inarticulate and moody just like an ordinary person (although, of course, she is very far from ordinary); look, she's tough, a survivor."

Inevitably, The Sun tracked down her estranged father. Luis Leodoro, 51, was stacking shop shelves in South Africa apparently unaware that his son Jorge had become a woman. Although now he thought about it, gentle Jorge had spent rather a lot of time doing his hair. Not that Luis seemed to mind. "Now, after all this time, God has given me the daughter I always prayed for," he reportedly said, obligingly caressing a Big Brother publicity still.

Mr Leodoro moved his wife and six sons from the Madeiran mountain village of Campanario in 1989 to look for a better life in Pretoria. Three years later the family went home without him. "I lost my passport and didn't have any money to buy a plane ticket to go and see them," he said.

Back in Madeira Jorge looked after his five brothers while his mother was out at work. He then worked as a waiter but was harassed for being effeminate. At 19, he moved to Britain in pursuit of a sex change. The final operation was completed nine months ago, and Jorge applied to Big Brother as Nadia. She was happy to have viewers know about her past, but insisted on not telling the other inmates of the ultra-competitive house.

By Friday the tabloids were simply trashing the others and urging people to vote for Nads. The large Portuguese community in Woking where she lives had been supportive and the public had bought the fairytale. "You have been the bookies' favourite for six weeks," said Davina McCall to the dumbstruck winner. "You won with 74 per cent of the vote." That was 3.9 million people, far fewer than in Big Brother's heyday but good enough to keep Channel 4 happy until it can think of a crueller, more extreme way to humiliate puppy-eager volunteers. It had flown in Conceicao Almada, 49, to tell the public that her daughter should win because she was "honest, a great laugh, and she's herself". Conceicao had not seen her daughter with breasts. Nadia was trembling in all directions like an actor having a breakdown inside a silicon suit, eyes burning behind a face that suddenly had all the expressive powers of a mask. "I feel much more comfortable about myself," she said. Now she would look for a man, because "every girl's dream is a white wedding".

And so ends a fairytale: boy meets girl inside himself, boy becomes girl, girl becomes star (briefly), girl finds boy and gets married. Happy ever after. A victory for equality, compassion, understanding, and a new flexi-sex Britain in which there will be no more gay bashing and transsexuals will have their new identities recognised in law. Splendid stuff, but utter bilge.

Nadia and Davina both missed something that P T Barnum would have recognised in an instant. The British public did not accept Nadia as a woman. It accepted her as a larger-than-life, transparently mixed-up, hot-headed but warm-hearted, still-a-bit-butch transsexual, the best since Dana International won the Eurovision Song Contest for Israel. In an age when sex is continually thrust in our faces and good old seaside postcard smutty humour seems antiquarian, transsexuals are almost alone in retaining the power to fascinate. If Nadia wants to stay famous she will have to exploit her unique selling point. But that, of course, will work against the kind of acceptance she craves.

Big Brother was always a freak show, and more so than ever this time. Sorry Nads, but however much it hurts you and those of us who wish people who change sex could live equal, unmolested lives, victory just makes you its most popular freak. Time for another fag, love. All those post-pub BB fans who phoned and sent texts voting for you were not voting for a woman. They were voting for the bearded lady.