Rebecca, Homelessness and Fame

Charlotte discusses Rebecca, a transgender homeless drug addict and internet celebrity, and the problems with her fame.

A few months ago I came across a YouTube channel called Soft White Underbelly. This channel was created by a photographer called Mark Laita, and is self-described as portraying “interviews and portraits of the human condition”. These interviews are mostly with those generally considered outcasts of society – drug dealers, homeless people, murderers, addicts, prostitutes and more. The videos mostly take place in his studio in LA where the interviewee sits in front of a plain background, facing the camera and tells their story, spurred on by Laita’s questions. The channel is very successful, with 5.33 million subscribers currently as I write this and a collective 1 billion views. I entirely understand the allure of his channel; it’s absolutely fascinating and I was immediately riveted by these interviewees and their life stories.

A large proportion of the people Laita interviews are homeless people from Skid Row in Los Angeles. Laita has spent so much time in that area of the city that he is known on those lawless streets. I had a very limited understanding of the homelessness issue in LA but the Soft White Underbelly provided a great deal of insight into that area, the people living there and their circumstances. 

Laita, when interviewed by Youtuber Peter Santenello in his 2022 video “Inside Skid Row – With Soft White Underbelly’s Mark Laita 🇺🇸”, gives his impression of the type of people typically found on Skid Row. He explains how the majority there have severe mental health issues caused by trauma (mostly from childhood) that is treated through drug use. The nature of homelessness in LA seems particularly unique. Because of the extreme wealth disparity, you can often find the homeless dressed in designer clothing because of either donations from the rich or dumpster diving. Alluring factors like climate and the vast size of the homeless community mean it is common for homeless people across the country to migrate to LA and settle on those streets rather than the colder, harsher streets of Chicago or New York City. The city officials are entirely aware of the severity of the homelessness issue in LA and so there are missions to help house them, yet Laita explains that this does not solve the problem. There are deeper issues that are much harder to fix than simply putting a roof over people’s heads – this merely provides a surface-level solution to the literal homeless problem, without addressing the reasons why these people are homeless. 

 

 

Laita’s perspective on why people lead this lifestyle is particularly interesting because of how contradictory he appears. There is a state of dejectedness when he says “I think it’s a waste of money, ultimately, because if you wanna make a difference is to think long term. Maybe help their kids or their kids’ kids” and “I don’t think that trying to fix all these poor broken people on the streets is going to amount to any good”. This is because “a lot of people are addicted to the streets, they love it down here”. The lack of responsibility is “attractive, it’s the freedom” to not need to play the role that everyone in civilised society must play: the role of man, woman, husband, wife, an employee, an employer, a homeowner, a hard worker, a contributor, a conformer. It could be argued whether there is cynicism or realism in Laita’s belief that ultimately there are those who will and won’t succeed in life, regardless of intervention, that expresses an inevitability to homelessness, to those living in poverty with addiction and mental health issues on Skid Row. Yet despite all this, Laita describes himself as “eternally hopeful”, and it is this hope that spurs him to spend all the money he makes from the Soft White Underbelly on helping the people he interviews, even when he knows it’s a “waste of money”. As such, we come on to arguably his most popular interviewee, Rebecca.

It is Rebecca, whom Laita has consistently interviewed since March 2020, who drew me into this channel. The titles of his videos were enough to pique my interest: “Homeless Transgender Woman Interview”. As a young, trans woman of colour with drug and mental health issues, Rebecca hits the jackpot in the identity politics hierarchy of oppression. Moreover, she encapsulates the homeless scene in LA, possessing a Hollywood glamour and all the allure of a star despite her atrocious living situation.

 

 

In Laita’s first interview with Rebecca, audiences are introduced to a trans woman wearing a big blonde long hair wig that’s very tangled and messy (she says she found it in the trash, like almost all that we see her to wear), alongside a bold red lip and bangle on her wrist. Information about her past is not entirely reliable as Rebecca’s stories change from video to video, but it generally can be discerned that she is from Egypt originally and was born in 1997. She has been living on the streets since she was 16, she grew up somewhat within the foster system and has highly complicated relationships with her parents. She mentions having lived in various cities from London, Paris, New York and now LA and her drug of choice is MDMA. When asked how she makes money to live, she says sometimes sex work, sometimes modelling gigs and sometimes panhandling. 

The Rebecca we first meet is very nonchalant about everything. She insists on her youth as a justification for her lifestyle, declaring “I wanna have fun”, “I have two good years of fresh young blood in me” and “I’m young and wild and free” currently and she will later, once older, get a job and move to the suburbs and be boring. This attitude, when taken out of context, is not unfamiliar in society. Typically, we assign our youth as the time in which to go crazy, try everything, drink, party, go wild. But there is a time limit for how long this is socially acceptable. There is an expectation that once you reach a certain age, you must give that life up and settle into the humdrum of adult life. Rebecca is not crazy for having this mentality, yet one may argue she takes this life mantra to the extreme. It is clear that this life is not as great as she makes it out to be – she casually brushes off “[if] you get raped, you get raped” to which Laita asks “You’ve been raped before?”. Her response of “Why not? Yeah, sure. I’m not a victim, people get raped” is so indifferent to this pain (Rebecca repeatedly says how much she hates pain) that one can easily tell her drug taking and lifestyle is a numbing agent, a distraction from the pain she has from severely traumatic experiences. 

 

 

In this first video, Rebecca is quite calm and normal in her speech, comprehensible and easy to talk to. This is not always the case in Laita’s videos. Because Laita has now over thirty videos talking to Rebecca over a four-year period, audiences get to see all facets of this woman. She varies in her level of sobriety throughout, constantly fluctuating between fairly cognizant and entirely incomprehensible and disturbing. When at her worst, Rebecca is very jittery, emaciated, gruff looking with red bloodshot eyes, chapped lips, black feet from walking barefoot everywhere, she is constantly moving, with her limbs flailing about uncontrollably and her speech is fast and slurred. She has little awareness of her surroundings, is unable to answer Laita’s questions, drooling, her genitals are exposed (Laita censors this) and she just constantly adjusts her outfit or incessantly rubs her feet, which are causing her great pain. These videos are really difficult to watch. Laita struggles to talk to her in this state, always repeating his line “You have so much potential”. They are often followed by Rebecca the following day when she has mellowed out a bit, still jittery and difficult to talk to, but at least not so hyper. As she calms down, she becomes sadder, more contemplative and often disinterested in speaking, which she apologises to Laita for. She’s aware of the responsibility she now holds to be an interviewee for Laita’s videos and it is not always easy to tell if she is sorry for her behaviour when ridiculously high or if she is sorry for ruining Laita’s ‘content’ on Youtube. 

Over the past four years, Rebecca has garnered a fan base. She has charmed many, including Laita, with her excitability, her aura, her glamour, her intelligence and insight into fashion, gender identity, art and life in general. A typical comment one might find under one of her videos is “she has SUCH a tortured but beautiful soul”. Concerningly, it very much feels like people have started to project onto Rebecca, painting her to be a sort of manic pixie dream girl. And as much as it is clear that Laita does really care for her and try to help her, he encourages this flattening of herself in his statements like “I just see you as an interesting creature”. There is a disturbing element of voyeurism that I cannot avoid acknowledging with regards to this parasocial relationship that many, including myself, have developed with Rebecca. One can watch a video of Rebecca flailing about on a pavement in LA out of her mind, and then simply turn off their electronic device and continue with live their lives, go to their jobs, be with their families, sleep in a bed under a roof with heating. Rebecca does not have that option and the hundreds of thousands of people who watch her videos are essentially just watching ‘content’ on social media. Rebecca is, in many ways, now an influencer. 

 

 

The strict line between watching Rebecca through a screen and reality does blur. There are numerous comments like “Mark! I bought Rebecca a meal at a taco truck downtown on Saturday night 12/18. She seemed pretty out of it but was as sweet as ever. I reminded her how loved she is and how many thousands of people are wishing her well” and “I have come and checked for Rebecca everyday. I was recently in LA and looking for her”. Her audience are seeking her out the same way paparazzi stalk traditional celebrities – at least she often gets a meal out of it. And Rebecca reads the comments and watches herself back on Laita’s videos, in fact Laita gets her to read them out in one of the most recent videos. She said there “was like the same old pity, which I don’t mind”, not wanting to sound rude to her fans, but suggesting “it’s more proactive to be like ‘hey, how about I help you with your clothes or whatever’”. The repetitive insistence on Rebecca’s potential that comes from Laita and the comments section feels futile, especially as these random strangers on the internet slowly grow entitled and hold expectations of Rebecca.

Viewers noticing the discrepancies in the stories Rebecca tells often do not appreciate the lying, but as one comment says, “Whether these people’s stories are ‘real’ or not doesn’t matter. These ppl don’t owe us the truth or anything really. What they choose to tell use is what we get and is still part of their story.” Unfortunately, the majority of commenters fail to understand this, and their parasocial relationship with Rebecca seems recently to have backfired. Whilst videos depicting Rebecca extremely high in the past have stirred pity, the most recent videos of Rebecca in a similar state has seen lots of her audience turn against her. 

One Redditor says “She used to be interesting to listen to, but it has become progressively more and more draining and frustrating to listen to her.” In January of this year, a video of Laita’s in which Rebecca is particularly high and agitated because of concerns around immigration and deportation has garnered a lot of ridiculous complaints such as “I have followed Rebecca’s story from the beginning. However, I believe this video is the last I’ll watch of hers. It seems she feels entitled and expects Mark’s help, rather than appreciates it anymore.” There has been full transparency from the beginning that Rebecca is mentally ill and a drug addict. How on earth can a stranger impose expectations onto Rebecca, a woman under a great deal of stress out of fears of deportation (Egypt does not treat transgender women very nicely) to be a bit more polite? Despite spending so much time investing in Rebecca’s story and her life, there still seems to be a great deal of obliviousness to the cruel and ugly nature of addiction. When Rebecca is rolling around on the streets singing to herself, she is a sweet and tortured soul. But when she shows her pain and anger and stress, she is not a good person and therefore not deserving of love and support anymore. It’s quite disgusting how a good chunk of Laita’s audience fail to recognise their own entitlement in their treatment of Rebecca. She is not just a freak to watch from afar in horror and awe, this is a human being stuck in an awful cycle struggling to get by.

 

 

The relationship between Rebecca and Laita is quite significant regarding this disconnect with audiences. It is apparent that a genuine love has developed between the two; both joke about Laita being her sugar daddy as he frequently picks her up off the streets of Skid Row in his Jaguar and drives her away, the passenger window down so she can shout to those left behind “told you I was rich, bitch!” He tells her he appreciates how she doesn’t hassle him for money the way most people on Skid Row do – she is better than the rest because she accepts her scarcity and does not beg for more. That being said, as the videos progress, we frequently see Laita buying her hotel rooms and mobile phones to sort herself out, all quick fixes that amount to little as she always ‘loses’ the phones and rarely stays in the hotels. He repeats “I’d love to see you realise some of your potential” and offers to help her do so but, significantly, he rejects or dismisses a key part of her identity: her transgenderism. 

Rebecca has made clear in so many videos that “I just wanna be a woman, goddammit.” Her gender dysmorphia is not aided by the fact that her financial positioning prevents her from making cosmetic changes to her appearance that will give her a more feminine look; for example, we frequently see Rebecca with a full beard because she cannot shave when living on the streets, never mind wear makeup. And as much as Laita expresses love and care for Rebecca, he is not convinced by her female identity. Whenever this comes up in conversation, Laita questions Rebecca’s belief that “what’s in my way is not being a woman.” He says “I have a hard time understanding that whole mindset you’re in […] I don’t know what this whole lifestyle’s about, it’s all confusing to me.” Slightly odd how a man who spends much of his time with homeless drug addicts is struggling to understand the lifestyle of someone who is trans. When Rebecca says “I’m not a man,” Laita retorts “I’ve seen what’s between your legs, you’re a man”. As empathetic as he seems, there is a blatant disregard for the degree of distress Rebecca’s inability to embody her true gender creates. He seems to see Rebecca’s transgenderism as a symptom of her lifestyle, saying she has a lot of potential “but by wearing a wig and demanding that you need to be a woman and doing so many drugs,” as if her desire to be a woman is comparable to her drug addiction. Laita thinks that Rebecca will no longer believe herself to be trans once she becomes more mentally stable. I find it really disturbing to watch him speak like this to her, one of the few people in Rebecca’s life who is actively trying to help her and whom she cares about is so blatantly blind to her gender, which is such a fundamental part of her identity. The earlier videos released on Laita’s channel often describe her as “a cross dressing young man”, despite Rebecca stating herself in those videos that she is a woman. Laita’s own heteronormative biases as a straight man become glaring when he suggests Rebecca just dress up other women rather than dress up as one herself, or describes Rebecca as such a “handsome man”.  It’s just disrespectful, and this dismissal of her trans identity fails to understand the plight of trans people in relation to homelessness. 

 

 

According to End Homelessness, the number of trans individuals experiencing homelessness has increased by 57% since 2017. The charity Crisis say that 25% of trans people have experienced homelessness at some point and 77% of LGBT youth stated “family rejection, abuse or being asked to leave home” as the cause of their homelessness. A study was taken by the National Library of Medicine in the US called ‘Substance Use in the Transgender Population: A Meta-Analysis’ in which results showed the risk of physical and sexual victimisation in the trans population as higher than the cis population, alongside a lack of legal protection which makes trans people especially vulnerable and therefore they have a higher risk of consuming substances like drugs and alcohol. The higher prevalence of substance abuse amongst the trans community comes from an “emotional regulation or maladaptive coping mechanism to deal with traumatic experiences,” particularly amongst transgender women. Furthermore, compared to the cisgender population, trans youth are more likely to have been victims of child abuse, something which Rebecca discloses in her interviews as being the case in her own childhood.

All of this information shows how fundamental Rebecca’s transgenderism is to her identity, her mental distress and her lifestyle. A trans woman from a Muslim background, who has spoken about her difficult childhood in snippets, now living on the streets and addicted to drugs, not just avoiding the responsibilities of society but also the severe trauma of her past and present life. She is not in the body she believes she belongs in. She says she hates her penis. She frequently asks Laita to choose between famous women: Marilyn Monroe or Jackie Kennedy, Naomi Campbell or Kate Moss, Mary Kate or Ashley Olsen. He often has no opinion sees this is as just a part of Rebecca’s quirkiness. She loves pop culture and women. But really this comparing and differentiating of women, often seen as opposites or two sides of the same coin, shows a desperation to categorise femininity in order for Rebecca to identify her own femininity and place within the canon of iconic women. Is she more of a Marilyn or a Jackie? What kind of woman does she want to be, does she see herself as? Rebecca’s gender identity permeates her entire existence. This severe discomfort in one’s own skin has seen her intoxicate herself to escape that feeling of displacement within. This is so crucial to understanding Rebecca and why she is where she is and yet Laita never gives this the attention it deserves. Laita dismisses Rebecca’s need for gender reassignment surgery as just a part of her messiness, the same way her desire for drugs is messy and irresponsible. 

By elevating Rebecca to a mythical creature to be fascinated by, removed from her gender identity, Laita and many viewers will never be capable of seeing Rebecca as a real, multifaceted person. She is just an image on the screen for most people. When we finish watching these videos, feeling sorry for Rebecca, we make no active changes in our own lives to help people like Rebecca. There are millions of Rebeccas everywhere and yet they all are ignored on the streets. They are real and their freakiness is not appealing. But when we have our screens, they are no longer real and we can enjoy the freaks. The people who failed to do The Thing. Be upstanding citizens in society, follow the rules, live the way we were all told to live. 

I truly hope Rebecca gets the help she needs. While Laita is not perfect, he is trying and I do appreciate that. His videos have made me so much more aware of the lives of the ultimate outcasts, the homeless. I only ask that people stop romanticising this woman who is struggling and see her as a real human being.

Comments

comments

14 thoughts on “Rebecca, Homelessness and Fame

  1. Optimize Your Farm’s Water Management with Bwer Pipes: Bwer Pipes offers a comprehensive range of irrigation solutions designed to help Iraqi farmers maximize water efficiency. Our reliable sprinkler systems and durable pipes ensure uniform water distribution, promoting healthier crops and sustainable farming practices. Explore Bwer Pipes

  2. Saglotech is a professional web design and digital marketing agency based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Our primary focus is to create robust and effective websites for our clients, while utilizing digital tools to drive relevant traffic to their businesses.

  3. Every time I visit your website, I’m greeted with thought-provoking content and impeccable writing. You truly have a gift for articulating complex ideas in a clear and engaging manner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

THE STAND