Kansas City is about to be the setting for a new reality TV show – but it’s not about barbecue, fountains or jazz. The show, called New Girls On the Block, follows a group of transgender women. Shot in 50 locations around town at the end of last year, it debuts on the new Discovery Life Channel on April 2.
Discovery Life says New Girls on the Block is the first reality TV series about a group of friends in the transgender community. It focuses on four couples, all of them from Kansas City.
There’s Macy and Sharon, a middle-aged, married couple – Macy used to be a strapping, motorcycle-riding man.
"He was the man all my friends were like, 'Girl don’t you mess this up,'" says Sharon.
Now that Macy has transitioned, viewers will get a glimpse of how her marriage to Sharon is evolving.
"We still love and care about each other," Macy says. "She loves me unconditionally. She is heterosexual, she is definitely not a lesbian or anything like that."
There’s Robyn and Andrew – they used to be best guy friends. Then Robyn began her transition.
"I told him one of the things I would do to preserve our friendship was that I was never going to hit on him, I was never going to make any moves on him, because I didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable being around me," Robyn says. But as Andrew got to know her after her transition, something unexpected happened. "I noticed his behavior started changing towards me. I didn’t know how to interpret that, so I waited it out until he made an advance and … kissed me."
Also in the cast are AiYana and Jaimie, both trans women, now a lesbian couple. Jaimie used to be a captain in the military. And there’s Kassidy and Chloe, best friends and roommates, trying to navigate the dating world.
“New Girls on the Block” was developed by a team at Hint, an advertising and digital marketing company in the Crossroads. Leading that effort was Matt Antrim, who grew up in Lee’s Summit. He spent 14 years as a casting director in Los Angeles before moving back to Kansas City four years ago. At Hint, he started a division called Reality Road to pitch TV ideas.
"My job is to find people all around the country who are fascinating, with interesting stories, that have big personalities that will make good television," Antrim says.
Antrim worked with Caroline Gibbs, a local therapist who runs the Transgender Institute ("a gender therapy and coaching organization") and found people with those big personalities.
"These women are all so courageous and strong," Gibbs says of the cast members, all former clients. "One of the things we like to talk about is having and growing and developing a backbone of steel. They have a presence that speaks of strength, all of them. They’re standing up tall and straight and proud."
Antrim put together a three-minute “sizzle reel” and started shopping the idea.
"I showed it to everyone and nobody wanted it," he says. But then shows with trans characters, like Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Amazon’s Transparent, started doing well. And one of Antrim’s Los Angeles friends started his own production company. And Discovery Fit and Health was re-launching as Discovery Life and looking for new shows. Finally everything came together.
"Most people would think they would get any kind of gender-related pitches or transgender pitches from New York or LA," says Julie Meisner Eagle, Vice President of Production and Development for Discovery Life. "I think it was really refreshing having it from Kansas City because it’s so relatable. It's the Midwest, and the fact that it’s middle America is a really great thing for us."
The cast members wanted to show America how normal they are. But going on TV wasn’t an easy decision for all of them. After all, they live as women. Most people don’t know they’re trans. Soon all of that will change. They say the risks in giving up their privacy are worth it, if the show helps other trans people know they’re not alone — and helps America understand.
"When we talk about transgender people in general, a lot of people think of surgeries and it creates a cloud of mystery," says Macy. "It’s like the person gets lost in all that. Hopefully by people seeing the show, some of that cloud of mystery will get lifted and they’ll actually see people. Hopefully people will laugh with us, cry with us, and maybe people can see something of themselves in us."
For other members of the cast, the decision was easy.
"I did imagine being a reality TV star. I never thought it would ever ever happen," says Kassidy. She grew up in Wyandotte County. When she was a kid, she loved watching MTV’s Road Rules.
"This isn’t quite the Amazing Race, Survivor type of reality show I wanted to be on when I was younger," she says, "but it's a lot of fun."
One way or another, sometimes a kid’s dreams of becoming a TV star really do come true.