Josie Totah Is Exactly Where She Wants to Be
For so many years I had never known a trans person other than myself. Even though I’d been “out” to my family since I was 3 years old, I wasn’t able to be my true self in public. Acting was my passion, but who I wanted to be and what I loved to do were at odds with each other. In fact, before recently landing a part on the Saved by the Bell reboot, I had never played a role that fully embraced who I was at my core: a woman.
After years of keeping myself hidden away to play male characters, I reached my breaking point when I was 17. I had filmed the pilot for the NBC show Champions [with Mindy Kaling] and decided that if it didn’t get picked up, I would finally announce my transition. The show was green-lit, and I put myself on the back burner to live out my acting dream. When Champions got canceled after one season in 2018, I cried — partly because the show had come to an end, but mostly because, after concealing myself for so long, this was my chance to finally breathe.
Two months later I publicly announced that I was transgender. I was prepared to run away, but instead, I was met with an overwhelming amount of support from within the industry as well as from my very traditional Arab-American family. It was exhilarating getting to feel true freedom for the first time. I thought, “Is this what people are supposed to feel like? Are you supposed to wake up and enjoy life?”
Now I can tell more truthful stories and have actual fun with the roles I take on. It’s much easier not having to think about my mannerisms and wonder, “Are my hands moving like a boy’s? Am I speaking like a boy?” I don’t have to contort myself anymore. Still, there’s a giant stigma surrounding both gay and trans characters. They’re always the best friend and rarely have a story line or an arc with actual depth. Having spent years playing characters who were subjected to those stereotypes, I was shocked when my agent called and said that the creator of the Saved by the Bell reboot, Tracey Wigfield, had a role in mind for me. I’d always dreamed of an opportunity like this; I just never knew it could be a reality.
My character, Lexi, is the most popular girl in school. She is Kelly Kapowski, if Kelly Kapowski were a Birkin bag-status billionaire and best friends with Ariana Grande. This girl is top of the line, and she just so happens to be trans. She’s mean and funny. I had the opportunity to serve as a producer on the show, so I was involved in my character’s story-line development. Of course, the most fun part was getting to help pick the wardrobe. Before, when I played male characters, I used to dread fittings because every time I tried on clothes meant for a different gender, it didn’t feel right and triggered my dysphoria. I’ve enjoyed getting to experiment with my style in my own life now. I feel so much freer knowing that I can be myself, and I think my clothes reflect that.
Looking back on my career so far, I have no regrets. I believe things happen when they’re supposed to, and I know I would be happy no matter what I was doing right now because I get to be me. I’m finally at the point where I could put on a trash bag and still feel comfortable in my skin. But honestly, I would much rather dress like Cher from Clueless for the rest of my life. [laughs]
Saved by the Bell premieres on Nov. 25 on Peacock.
For more stories like this, pick up the December 2020 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Nov. 20th.