The Man Who Would be a Woman Act Four, Scene One: The Interview Begins

In this installment, the once beguiling, infamously gender-bending Shi Pei Pu reenters the spotlight as he finally sits down for an interview with People Magazine. My plan: to guide the interview away from the prurient details of Shi Pei Pu’s scandalous love affair. But Pei Pu has different ideas. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

As I waited in my hotel’s conference room the following day for Shi Pei Pu and People Magazine reporter Joyce Wadler to appear, I was astonished to see Daniel Bertaux enter the room. He explained that Shi Pei Pu had called, asking him “to back up the lawyer in the interview translation.” But this was clearly a pretext, and I could see that Bertaux knew that. It was obvious to both of us that my client, sly fox that he was, had somehow manipulated Bertaux into spending the day in the stuffy room for an altogether different purpose: he was there to police my resolve to do what I could to turn the interview away from sex and toward opera.

For many years, People Magazine’s journalistic modus operandi has been to expose as private a detail as they can possibly uncover about as public a personality as they can possibly interview. It’s that simple. I had insisted in my negotiations with the publication that they assign a senior journalist, hoping that this would lead to more sophisticated, modulated reporting. Like most coins, however, this one had two sides.  Joyce Wadler, who later in her career would become a respected columnist for the New York Times, was the senior journalist assigned by the magazine, and it was predictable that she would push harder in her questioning than would a less experienced reporter. Moreover, I had to assume that she was on a mission for her editors to find the quotes she needed to debunk Boursicot’s claim that he hadn’t known the true gender of his lover. This, after all, was what would sell copies in grocery store checkout lines.

 The problem was that I had very little leverage to intervene, especially since People had paid dearly for the right to conduct the interview in the first place. My goal was to do what I could to limit Wadler to a small number of passes at the most prurient subtopics, but it wasn’t clear that I would have any appreciable capacity to influence the direction of the questioning.

On the other hand, I felt somewhat more optimistic about the upcoming television special we had agreed to have filmed. After all, complex sexual matters were essentially taboo on network television. I did continue to worry, however, that my client’s physical appearance—he was much older and heavier than he’d been during the height of his fame—could expose him to ridicule. But none of my concerns had any impact on Shi Pei Pu. Nothing Bertaux nor I nor anyone else could have said would have stopped him from proceeding with the broadcast, for in the final analysis, he was an entertainer, and spotlight to an entertainer is like sunlight to a plant.

This same point was made years later by David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly’s playwright, when Shi Pei Pu was named 2009’s Person of the Year by Time Magazine. Hwang wrote: “When I offered a percentage of the play’s royalties to its real-life inspirations, Shi instead demanded a recital at Carnegie Hall, a wish as grand as it was unfeasible. Perhaps this comes closest to the truth about Shi Pei- Pu: he was, above all, a performer.”

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Within five minutes of Bertaux’s unexpected appearance, Shi Pei Pu and Joyce Wadler arrived. The conference room was brightly lit—overly so—and from the very start, the interview felt more like police interrogation than investigative journalism. Wadler indeed proved to be a ruthless and wily inquisitor, but old foxes are cleverer than young ones, and Shi Pei Pu anticipated her every move. Watching the two of them spar was like observing a world class chess match: strategies begat counter strategies, and tactics engendered counter tactics.  Shi Pei Pu had one distinct advantage however: he was remarkably attentive, which allowed him to sense the subtlest of signs. At one point, for example, Wadler paused for just a second too long while she turned the pages of her interview notes, and I heard the tiniest humph deep in my client’s throat.  He was well aware of where she was heading next.

Wadler opened with an innocent enough question, asking Shi Pei Pu how he had met Boursicot. Shi Pei Pu seemed delighted, even surprised, by the open-ended opportunity this provided him to tell his tale of love. I translated each detail as he answered slowly and carefully, taking the time to find just the right words, trying in every way he could think of to communicate the irresistible attraction Boursicot and he had almost instantaneously felt for one another.

But Wadler’s persistence in asking tougher and tougher follow-up questions made it clear that she was not falling under my client’s spell—not yet anyway. And as the answers followed, one upon the next, Shi Pei Pu’s tone of voice changed just enough to tell me that he sensed this.

With seemingly unflappable conviction, he continued to relate his love story—and a lyrical, even poetic description of love it was. Wadler, in turn, struggled mightily to bring the discussion back to what she was searching for, shaking off Shi Pei Pu’s lyricism the way a dog shakes off water after a swim. As the morning ground on, I at one point picked up on a shared glance between Bertaux and Shi Pei Pu. It was clear to me that both of them were becoming progressively resigned to the sad fact that the story Shi Pei Pu so wanted to convey would be ignored by People in favor of yet another analysis of what exactly Boursicot knew or didn’t know about his lover’s genitals.

But whatever the outcome was likely to be, Shi Pei Pu wasn’t going down without a fight.

Up next: the interview between People Magazine’s Joyce Wadler and Shi Pei Pu heats up. Just joining the story? Catch up from the beginning here.