Before writing “Becoming Zoey Tur,” his feature in Los Angeles magazine’s January issue, writer-at-large Ed Leibowitz spent 18 months following Zoey Tur as she navigated the complex emotions and physical realities of transitioning from male to female. Writer and subject had first met in 1996, when Ed had profiled Bob Tur, the daring helicopter news pilot, for a British magazine. In 2013, after Bob appeared on the website TMZ confirming that he was transitioning, Ed got in touch again. Thus began an intense series of interviews—a collaboration, in a sense. Ed went to doctor appointments with Zoey, met Zoey’s friends and family, and often served as a sounding board for Zoey. Throughout, he remained an objective journalist. But the very nature of their continuing conversations required a certain intimacy. Zoey was building her new identity as Ed watched. Below, in a back and forth with Los Angeles magazine editor-at-large Amy Wallace, who edited the story, Ed describes what that was like:
What drew you to this story in the first place?
The past couple of years America has made some amazing strides in terms of transgender awareness. There has been the passage of new federal and state anti-discrimination laws, and sympathetic portrayals of trans men and women in shows like Orange Is The New Black on Netflix and Transparent on Amazon. Time magazine has declared the fight for transgender equality the next great civil rights frontier. But reductive stereotypes can be almost as powerful a means of marginalizing a minority group as legal bias and job discrimination. When Bob Tur announced his intention to transition, many people were shocked, because as a helicopter newsman in the ’90s he didn’t conform to the still prevailing cliche of “a man trapped inside a woman’s body.” If anything, he was the stereotypical alpha male—arriving first at every danger zone, braving gunfire during the L.A. riots, staring down on the witness stand at the defendants who beat Reginald Denny almost to death. His macho exploits were all over television. And for millions of viewers, Bob Tur could never be “the other”—he was someone they’d welcomed into their living rooms, who kept them informed through some of L.A.’s most difficult times.
Was Bob hesitant when you first approached him and proposed such a long-term project?
He wasn’t, in part because he liked the profile I had written about him during his mid-90s heyday, and there was already a degree of trust. Also, as someone who couldn’t tell the truth of who he was to anyone for the first 53 years of his life, he was eager to talk.
At what point in your reporting did Bob decide to be called Zoey? And talk about her decision not to dress as a woman right away. I found that deliberate delineation very interesting.
For the first four months I spent with her, Zoey was comfortable with Bob or Zoey. There’s a scene in the article where Zoey is having breakfast with Dana Vahle, who before her transition was a helicopter stunt and news pilot named Dirk, who was a rival of Bob’s from back in the day. At the end of what turned out to be a very emotional meal at a Hollywood Denny’s, Zoey declared that from then on she wanted to go by Zoey. I commemorated the occasion by crossing “Bob” off the front of my reporter’s notebook and writing in “Zoey.”
Zoey didn’t want to present herself to the world as a woman until after she’d completed her gender reassignment and facial feminization surgeries. You’re right—it did seem like an attempt at deliberate delineation. And yet, as Zoey’s body became increasingly more feminine, her imposition of this clear dividing line increased her discomfort. As the months went by, Bob’s clothes became too tight in places, too loose in others—Zoey actually split his pants at one point. They seemed to stifle the woman she was fast becoming.
One of my favorite scenes in the story is when you gently confront Zoey about why she remained so unaware for so long about the advances that had been made in gender reassignment surgery. As you write, it seemed almost unbelievable that this whip smart, well-informed person wasn’t following the medical advancements that might set her free. Tell me more about why you think that happened.
She also kept insisting to me she had absolutely no idea about any trans developments that had taken place during Bob’s adult life. She said Bob was unfamiliar with L.A.’s small but hardly-in-hiding trans community. Bob Tur was fearless — he could guide his helicopter with a steady hand while rioters were shooting up at him from the ground, he wouldn’t think twice about risking his life to save people ensnared in the disasters he routinely covered. But he couldn’t acknowledge the woman he was, because it would have shattered his relationship with his then-wife and kids, and destroy this public image he had so powerfully crafted. One of the most painful aspects of gender dysphoria seems that that you are authentic to everybody around you except yourself, and that once you’ve transitioned into a man or woman, many people will question your authenticity as a quote-unquote real man or real woman.
In 2014, many stories were written about members of the trans community, a few with controversial—and even disastrous—results. The Grantland piece “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” comes to mind. Did that weigh on you at all as you researched and wrote the piece?
From the start, I made clear to Zoey that this was not to be an ambush, but a collaboration, aimed at getting beyond the reductiveness of the early headlines—”macho helicopter pilot to become a woman”—to document her experience as she experienced it. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t draw conclusions at odds with hers. We had some long conversations where I’d challenge her on one area or another—in the first months, if not a male chauvanist, she seemed to me at least a gender determinist. Over lunch a few months into her transition, she told me that women couldn’t be friends the way men could be friends, and that men wanted to have sex with everything in sight while women couldn’t really experience sexual desire without being emotionally invested in some way with their partners—that hormones made the sexes into the equivalent of machines. It seemed incredible how reductively she regarded the gender she was becoming. After transitioning, she herself gave the lie to some of these long-held Bob Tur theories.
Perhaps because Zoey was experienced as a journalist herself, some of her observations within the piece sometimes had a sort of meta quality—as if she understood how she might sound to our readers. Her text, “I’m a bouncing baby girl,” for example.
Yes, that was an issue. From the macho helicopter pilot to the family man who at his core was a woman, there had always been an element of obfuscation in the way Bob Tur presented himself to the world, and sometimes there seemed a degree of obfuscation in what Zoey was telling me as well. In one pivotal moment in the piece,
Zoey recounts the night Bob returned home and finally allowed himself to declare that he wanted to be a woman, and admitted that he was no good at being a man, and decided then that instead of committing suicide he would begin his transition. Then in the fact checking process, Zoey told our research editor that Bob said he wanted to be a “hot woman.” Of course that wasn’t in the quote I had recorded, and it had the quality of not only gilding the lily, but trivializing what apparently and no doubt was one of the most cathartic moments of her life.
You knew Zoey before and after her transition, dating back more than 15 years. What was it like to watch her physically transform?
To me it seemed the most profound change a human being could ever possibly undergo outside the womb. In the early stages of hormone therapy, it was remarkable how much progress injected estrogen made against native testosterone, and how quickly. Zoey’s male pattern baldness began reversing itself, her five-o’clock shadow faded. Then there were the stirrings of female adolescence in a middle-aged male body—the swelling of the breasts, a re-distribution of body weight towards an hourglass figure. Then, at the end of this gradual process were the final facial and gender reassignment surgeries, which of course weren’t gradual at all.
The language around transitioning can be complicated. How did you acclimate yourself to the subtleties?
In the article, I refer to Zoey as Zoey from the moment of our first meeting when she told me her new name. My usual notions of identity were challenged by the narrative of Bob/Zoey’s life, and its retelling. When Zoey talks about childhood, or early adulthood, it wasn’t really her childhood or adulthood, but Bob’s childhood and adulthood. The macho helicopter pilot with gender dysphoria and the trans woman shopping at Sephora or assessing her career and dating prospects are not the same person, however intimately they share a single life experience.
Zoey’s children and ex-wife were very candid and forthcoming with you for this story. Did that surprise you?
When I profiled Bob in the 1990s, I also became acquainted with his then-wife Marika, who was also his camerawoman during the L.A. Riots, and the O.J. Simpson slow speed chase. I met her again when I was interviewing Zoey at a cafe, and she dropped by to pick up some archived videotape that the two of them were licensing for a TV documentary—they kept the rights to all their work, and the Reginald Denny beating and the O.J. chase footage have been solid moneymakers. Marika said hello when she approached our table. Zoey invited her to sit down and talk, while telling me she’d never accept the invitation. They had had a bitter divorce, and had hardly spoken for months. Marika took up the challenge. I interviewed her alone later. Their son, Jamie, is a medical student, and had no hesitation talking to me. Their daughter Katy is an NBC on-air reporter based in London. She and Zoey became estranged very early into the transition, and Marika told me that Katy had advised her not to talk to me, and didn’t want to talk to me either. When I called Katy, I thought I’d get her voicemail, but she picked up. We had a conversation for the better part of an hour. Marika and Jamie didn’t hesitate to talk about the conflict and difficulty they’d had as a family. Katy tried avoiding those areas, but couldn’t entirely. It was clear from all of them that Bob’s depression and anger at having to deny who he was had had an effect on them all.
You say at one point in the story that Bob’s style of news telling was overshadowed by celebrity. Car chases still stop newscasts cold. Can you elaborate on that?
Zoey liked to say that Bob destroyed television news. He did get his share of celebrity scoops—hovering over Sean Penn and Madonna’s wedding, or capturing AIDS-afflicted Rock Hudson as he returned to L.A. to die. Certainly the high-speed police chase, which he pioneered as an infotainment event, is still with us. But the best of what he did—the kind of breaking news stories that can become a part of history, like his coverage of the L.A. Riots—hasn’t been emulated in the same way. Keeping a helicopter perpetually in the sky is expensive, and it’s a cost that many local news programs have cut in the face of declining revenues. In the ’80s and early ’90s, helicopters were uniquely able to vault past traffic and huge geographic distances to get to a story, the way news vans couldn’t. Now of course everyone has a smartphone. If the Rodney King riots had broken out in 2014, there would be wraparound coverage of the mayhem from every sidewalk or shop window in the vicinity.
But it’s also true that helicopter news coverage in L.A. declined after Bob Tur’s departure in the late 1990s because the major newscasts no longer had to compete against Bob Tur. He was one of those rare newsmen who learned to become a helicopter pilot to better report the news—not a veteran pilot who leverages abilities he or she might have learned in the military or commercial aviation to land a news job. In terms of audacity, in terms of news instincts and ability, helicopter journalism in America hasn’t seen the likes of him since.