Tenika Watson: Living beyond Pendergrass’ tragedy
by Suzi Nash
Apr 21, 2011 | 51688 views | 13 13 comments | 44 44 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I knew this week’s interview was special, but I didn’t know how special until I searched for her name in my pre-interview research. A slew of websites popped up asking, “Who was the mystery woman?” “Where is she now?” and “Whatever happened to Tenika Watson?” This interview should help answer those questions.

In 1982, R&B star Teddy Pendergrass was severely injured in an auto accident, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. In the car with him that night was a woman, Tenika Watson, who for several years now has kept a low profile. Her own career as a model and entertainer was knocked off track when news outlets found out that Watson had been born male. She’s about to tell all in a forthcoming book, “My Life is No Accident,” but she agreed to meet with me to share a little of her story. I met with Watson in her home, a lovely apartment filled with antiques and artwork. An easel was set up in the corner with a still-life in progress. Immediately, I was struck by how warm and nurturing she was as she served up tea and cookies, a sharp contrast from scandalous descriptions written about her in the media.

PGN: Are you a Philly gal?

TW: No, I was born in D.C. and grew up there and in Brandywine, Md.

PGN: Any siblings?

TW: Oh yes, I’m one of eight! Well, nine actually, but my oldest sister died shortly after birth. I’m the third from the end.

PGN: What was family life like?

TW: It was good. My parents were great. My father did roadwork for the state and my mother did domestic work.

PGN: What did you like to do as a kid?

TW: My parents had 7 acres of land, so we would play hide and seek, get tadpoles from the brook and explore the land. I’m a country girl at heart.

PGN: Higher learning?

TW: I didn’t go to college, but I’ve taken courses in everything from bank telling to acting with the Repertory Theatre Company and, this month, I’m starting computer classes.

PGN: What was your first job out of school?

TW: [Laughs.] I got a job at a furniture company dusting furniture. I lived at home for a while and then I started to travel. I lived in Boston for a summer, I lived in Harrisburg for a summer, Virginia, and then I came to Philadelphia. Boston was tough, very racist at that time.

PGN: What was your worst job?

TW: Back in the day, I was a bar maid at a club on 13th Street — oh what was it called? Scabadoo’s? That was hard, trying to remember everyone’s drink orders!

PGN: Best job?

TW: Working for Kingsley Six Modeling agency. Unfortunately, the accident happened just as my career was taking off. After that, it became impossible to work. I’d been doing impersonations at the New Forrest Lounge for a year and a half and had to leave there because the owner was trying to exploit the situation.

PGN: Tell me a little about coming out or transitioning for you.

TW: I think I was born out. People could tell before I even knew about myself. I don’t think my parents or anyone else was shocked. Even as a kid playing house, I was always the girl, looking for someone to play my boyfriend!

PGN: First crush?

TW: There was a boy named Sheldon that I liked in elementary school. [Laughs.] Bald-headed, brown-skinned and he was so mean! But I liked him!

PGN: When did you start to transition?

TW: When I was 20. I don’t know why it was in my head, but I had the idea that at 20 I would be considered grown, so no one could say anything to me.

PGN: What was the scariest thing about it?

TW: I didn’t have any fear about transitioning. Though I do remember walking down the street in D.C. one time with a girlfriend of mine and she suddenly said, “Be careful, that man has a knife!” I was so naïve I didn’t understand that he wanted to attack us just because of who we were. Next thing I knew, he swung the knife at our heads and we were running down the street. It was my first understanding that people might want to hurt me just because of my lifestyle.

PGN: You transitioned in a time when it wasn’t really heard of and certainly wasn’t accepted as much as it is now.

TW: No, it wasn’t. This was in 1977 and it wasn’t heard of, though a lot of the girls were doing it. But back then, most girls transitioned with the thought that you would just live your life as a woman and never tell anybody. You weren’t supposed to be open about it. Once you had surgery, you never told anyone except your mate. That’s how it was back then. Once you were a woman, you put your past in a closet. I guess I’m part of that era. I have fought really hard to be respected as a woman. I don’t know if the girls nowadays really fight for the right to be totally respected as women after the surgery. You hear a lot of trans this and trans that and I don’t get it. Maybe I’m old-school, but once you have the surgery, you’re supposed to be a woman. Your birth certificate says female, your driver’s license says female and yet in articles I read, they still refer to you as a “transwoman.” And it’s like, what was it all for? Why did I go through all of this if I’m not going to be considered a woman? To me, transgender means transition. Moving from one gender to another, but once you’re there, that should be it if that’s what you want. I don’t know if girls today feel any kind of way about that, but I know I do. I don’t like the term.

PGN: So what would you like to say about Teddy?

TW: I’m sorry that he’s not with us anymore. I wanted to go to the funeral, but I didn’t want to be disrespectful and I didn’t want to be disrespected. So I just had a little quiet prayer and a little quiet tear after he was gone. I met his mother in 2001. When he died [in 2010], my first thought was for her. He was her only child. I know she has grandkids, but it must be terrible to lose a child.

PGN: And the accident?

TW: We were on Lincoln Drive when the brakes went out. The car hit a guardrail, crossed into the opposite traffic lane and hit two trees. The one thing that always bothered me was that the news media got there before the ambulance did. It upset me to think that people were calling for publicity before they called for help.

PGN: You’ve stated that the medical personnel were more worried about getting a urine sample from you than they were about your health.

TW: They were very sneaky: They said they needed a sample to make sure that there wasn’t any internal bleeding, but I knew what they were really trying to check for. After they didn’t find what they wanted, they weren’t interested in me anymore. It was reported that I was acting strange, but I was in shock.

PGN: Reading about the accident, it seems that the media didn’t know at first about you being ... what terminology would you like me to use? Were you frightened?

TW: No, they didn’t say anything because they didn’t know. [Laughs.] Yeah, I was scared. I thought, if anyone finds out, they’re going to lynch me! It was scary wondering if was going to get out or when. Trying to figure out how to survive or explain it. I was never given a chance to explain. The only paper that gave me a break was the [Philadelphia] Tribune.

PGN: I read a Jet article with the headline, “Teddy’s Transsexual Passenger,” in which they call you a “confessed transsexual.” It seems like it really tilted the trajectory of your life, your modeling career, etc.

TW: Tilted it? It destroyed it. I was told so by potential employers and it really made me doubt myself. It was a tough time. I had one reporter come to my house and try to force her way in the door. There were some very ugly things printed. I had to move out of the city. Which is sad because I love this city. I love the people, I love the neighborhoods ... There are so many places to hide!

PGN: Do you get recognized?

TW: Yes, I used to; not so much any more. It happened just the other day when I was walking down the street. But for the most part, nobody really sees me. I’m actually glad of it.

PGN: I noticed your easel. Did you go to art school?

TW: No, I’m self-taught. I love it: Concentrating on one thing until you capture it the way you want it. You start out with a blank canvas and create something beautiful.

PGN: It sounds like a metaphor for your life! What’s your favorite style?

TW: I like doing landscapes and still-life. Acrylics are OK, but I like painting in oils. There’s something great about the way you can combine colors and the fact that it stays wet, so you can work with it and then rework things. It takes forever to dry but it’s worth it.

PGN: Any other hobbies?

TW: I’ve always made clothes and I still make clothes for the girls every now and then, if someone has a special occasion or show coming up.

PGN: And did you do shows back in the day?

TW: Oh yes. I impersonated Diana Ross, Donna Summers, Lena Horne and Josephine Baker. I worked at the Forrest Lounge and at Bill Hart’s club at 22nd and Market. I was in acting school at the same time so it was a chance to express my art.

PGN: What’s the best outfit you ever created?

TW: I created an outfit for my sister to wear to the Miss Black America ball. It was a see-through dashiki, jet black with swirling designs on it. She had a great big afro and looked stunning! She was just a guest, but everyone thought she was competing.

PGN: I see a lot of butterflies around your apartment. Any significance?

TW: No, I just seem to keep ending up with them! I saw the big painting at an auction in Jersey and just had to have it. I got it for $5 and some of the others I got from my sister.

PGN: So, if you were an animal, what would you be?

TW: A deer. They’re so aloof.

PGN: Name three objects you love.

TW: My bible, my family pictures and my artwork.

PGN: Worst performing blunder?

TW: I was doing Diana Ross, singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and I fell!

PGN: What’s a song that makes you happy?

TW: Mary J Blige, “Love It or Hate It.”

PGN: What star would you want to dance with?

TW: He’s passed, but I would have picked Gregory Hines. He’s nice and tall. At least he seemed tall on TV.

PGN: Best gift you ever gave or received?

TW: My friends and family gave me a surprise birthday this February. It was beautiful. [Laughs.] And it took the sting out of turning 60! Oh, I just love my family. The best gift I ever gave was to buy a grave marker for my father. It makes me smile to think of it.

PGN: What’s a smell that makes you stop and reflect?

TW: Lavender. It makes me think of the country and fields of flowers.

PGN: You chose to take the high road and not make a media spectacle after the accident. Was it lonely to deal with it on your own?

TW: It was lonely. I tend to be too independent and don’t know how to ask people for things. I just put on a smile and went about my business with as much dignity as I could without responding to the media frenzy. I started working with a therapist seven years ago and that helped me get to the point that I’m able to write about it now. [Laughs.] I probably should have started long ago!

PGN: Did you ever have any contact with Teddy after the accident?

TW: I talked to him in 2002. That’s how my book starts out, with that conversation.

PGN: Was it frustrating being in such a high-profile incident with someone and not being able to call and ask if he was OK or let him know how you were? How well did you know him?

TW: I didn’t know him at all! I’d met him once or twice before, but that was it. He’d simply offered me a ride home from a club that night. The media tried to make something out of it, but it was untrue. He was one of those people that had a kindness about him.

PGN: Happy memories?

TW: The Christmas I was reunited with my family in 1962. I was 10 and had been separated from my family for a time. It was the best Christmas ever to be with them again. And when I got clean and sober. A friend of mine named Phil from the Westbury Bar took me to an AA meeting and it saved my life. I’ll be 14-years sober in June.

PGN: Why were you separated?

TW: My sister Jackie and I were abducted when we were children. I was 5 years old. I’m not really comfortable talking about it yet, but I’ve been working with [my writer] Jennifer to get it out for the book. It’ll be in there.

PGN: What’s the best part of Tanika Watson’s life now?

TW: I have no regrets, I don’t have anything to prove to anybody. I’m 60 years old and I lived to be 60! To me, that’s great.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portrait,” write to portraits05@aol.com.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
November 06, 2013
Facts about Tenika Watson,

1. March 18th 1982 Sonny Hopkins DJ of (WHAT eye witnessed and first responded to the accident). He tried to get the doors open and couldn't when asked later by Philadelphia Magazine stated that:

"Tenika Watson, Teddy and rumors of a third party being in the car couldn't have been possible if there was someone else in the car they must have got out through the keyhole”. Mr. Hopkins also stated all he saw was “two people needing help."

2. Tenika Francisann Watson underwent surgery March 18th 1977 to become a woman that same year she legally changed her name from Johnnie Francis Watson.

3. She’s also an activist for Trans-people who have been killed. Tenika Watson, Sheila Colson, Jaci Adams and Timothy Cwiek are just a few activists who have carried the banner for the past ten years. It started with Nazah Morris a West Philly transwoman found with a fatal head wound December 22, 2002 after receiving a courtesy ride from the Philadelphia police. She and the rest of the activist are fighting for justice for trans-people like Kyra and Stacy and others.

November 07, 2013
I don't understand what the point is of bringing up Tenika's birth name.

The issue of transgender women being murdered goes back to at least the 1980s when Tanya Moore and Tina Rodriguez were murdered and their bodies cut up and set on fire.

Tenika did not become a woman in 1977 when she had SRS. Tenika has always been a woman.
September 04, 2013
In reply to comments made on this page by tw2705 on July 08,2013. Because Tenika didn't cover every aspect of her life and past does not invalidate the credibility of the comments she made in this interview. She has discussed those aspects of her past that the intrepid tw2705 supposedly wants to shine a light on, in other articles and interviews. This time it did not come up. So what? I'm sure other facets of her past, with just as much weight and interest appeared here (Sheldon, really?). It's easy to paly the spirited voice of truth, demanding the same but sometimes this can be a masquerade for something else. My friend, anonymous cheap shots are easy, facing the mistakes of your past in public is hard. We all have skeletons rattlingh around our closet. So why don't you do this. Stand in front of a mirror and say: Let he who is withouht sin, let him cast the first stone.
July 08, 2013
Ms. Watson's story would be more believable if she had included her arrests for prostitution in Philadelphia during the 1970's. Maybe the interviewer should have done a little research first since it's all public record.
July 10, 2013
Your post would be more believable were your screenname Dick.
January 04, 2012
The interview was simply beautiful. My heart is overwhelmed with joy in knowing that Ms. Watson is alive and well. I admire the way Tenika has held her head high and found the strength to tell her story. As a kid, I remember reading the articles about TP and always wondering if the rumors were true and if the person in the car was dead or alive. I'm sorry for the way society treated Ms. Watson and it's refreshing to know that she beat the odds and did not give in to suicide. I can't wait to read the book. The best of luck to you. And for the record, you look fabalous!!
October 27, 2011
To AnnaRosa,

Where in my post did I say that every woman should become a "transsexual fetish performance artist"??

To the best of my recollection I have never endorsed

this to anyone. I certainly did not mention it in my post so why would you feel the need to admonish me on that ?

I also never said a quiet normal life was not attainable. I did (and still do) advocate for pride and living "out" in society as that is the best way that I have seen to make progress and positive change.

I would ask you now please,

if you want start an argument please have the decency to do so in private and not here.
Kathy Padilla
October 20, 2011
Thanks for this profile of the gracious Ms. Watson. She's an inspiration for a life well lived in the face of adversity.

Cei Bell
October 08, 2011
I remember asking Tenika after the accident what happened and she said that no one even bothered to ask if she was all right. It was very easy to forget that she is human.

I also do not like being referred to as a transwoman or anything other than a woman. That is a personal choice that should be respected. People do not have the right to define you to fit their agenda.
October 07, 2011
With all due respect to the lifestyle choices made, I do not agree with DJML. Not every woman desires to become a "transsexual fetish performance artist".

For those who are young and forced to confront and deal with their issues, they should know that their dreams for a quiet life as a NORMAL WOMAN are VERY, VERY ATTAINABLE.
October 07, 2011
Things are different now than in 1972.

Now there are computer data bases that keep track of your entire life. You can only keep your past life a secret for so long before someone finds out. But mostly, transsexuals these days in 2011 don't have to live their lives in any closet except the ones of their own making. You can be out and proud an unashamed of who you are and how you express it now, much more so than 1972. It's not a perfect world, far from it. But the many advances that have been made were by the many women and men who were brave enough to live out and proud. The best proof of this is the fact that now we talk about trans kids. Children as young as 5 or 6 (maybe younger) allowed to be who they are and live their lives unashamed and supported by loving parents and health care professionals who understand. Would any of this be possible if every post op transsexual just faded into the woodwork and disappeared from the conversation.

And for the adults, isn't it better to be able to ponder and wonder, to come to terms and grips with your gender issues on your own terms and time frame, rather than the terms of some Doctor who has never dealt with the feelings you are having. Isn't better to know what you want when it's right for you, rather than pretend just to appease some gate keeper?

With all due respect to Ms.Watkins even she by default admits she can not live under the radar.

Would anyone be interested in her life story if it did not include the details of her life that made her a tabloid sensation in the first place?

But that is my point.. in silence, nothing happens. But if you speak out, the world is your oyster! and then that's where the real work begins. And that's when things start to get done.
Salty Taffy
August 28, 2011
It was great to finally hear her side of things. I can relate to being "old school" LOL, and how things used to be different in the transsexual community. You didn't live your life telling everyone you are a TS, nor would you hang out with other transsexuals, but simply lived and worked as a female. I think some of this had to do with the Harry Benjamin Standards, too (having to live and work as a female for a year or two before you can qualify for surgery. Now transsexuals simply go overseas and lie about how long they've lived as a female, if at all).

However, I also agree a bit with Hatton that there are many gaps in her story. I would be curious what type of jobs she had over the past 30 years (I know some articles said she was a nightclub singer, then others state she was trying to be a model), Also, any serious love-interest? I hope her book will fill in everything. I would love to read it.
Hatton Mann
July 05, 2011
I really believe that Ms.Watson was the victim of circumstance...and people who dissed her so as to support Pendergrass in his embarressment for being involved with a transgender woman. But there are questions not answered in this story. How did she really meet Teddy? Was the relationship really as light-weight as she states? The brakes failing on a Rolls-Royce? Really, c'mon! What was the real story there. This was a ok interview, but a little too protective. Just a little less softball would have been better.