Profession: Circus Artist/Project Manager
Hometown/Region: Manchester living in Derby
Holly is a 6”4 transgender who grew up as a boy, feeling uncomfortable with who she was and how she looked. As a child she enjoyed dressing up in her mum’s clothes and by the time she was 25, after travelling away for work, she began living part time as Holly. This is when she started feeling like her true self and was finally happy in her own skin. However, transitioning into Holly came at a huge cost. Lifelong friends disappeared and for the first year of her transition, Holly was afraid to leave her house as she was verbally abused in the street.
The turning point came after Holly started learning to aerial dance. For the first time, Holly, found a space where she felt comfortable, could ignore how others viewed her and felt accepted for being different. She is now a three time aerial champion in aerial skills, winning the 2019 International Pole and Aerial Tournament Intermediate Skills, 2019 UK Aerial Performance North East and 2020 International Pole and Aerial Tournament Advanced Silks titles.
Since her transition, her confidence has grown and she has performed at Edinburgh Fringe Festival and burlesque shows. As SAS: Who Dares Win’s first transgender recruit, Holly wanted to use this experience to show the transgender community and wider audience that not all transwomen have to look the same and to inspire others to not feel ashamed about being different.
Tell me about your experience on SAS: Who Dares Wins?
It was one the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life both mentally and physically but I loved it and am so glad I did it. It was a very a brutal experience and the thing that struck me the most was how real it was. It was 24 hours a day, we were limited on our food intake, we barely slept and we never knew what was coming around the corner.
Then of course there were those dang Land Rovers which, when you’re 6’4 and have a 40Ib bergen to fit in, is pretty snug. The people were amazing though and it was such a unique experience that I’ll always look back on in a positive light even though I was cold, tired and my body hurt like hell.
Did you find it difficult? Was it more difficult than you expected?
Difficult is an understatement. I watched it for years and I always thought it couldn’t be that hard and what are they all moaning about? However, when you’re there and you’re running up mountains with kit and little food, while being shouted at, plus the beastings for messing up before even starting the task, you soon realise just how physically demanding it is. Then of course even if you’re physically fit, once you take your calories and sleep away it becomes a mental game.
It was more difficult than I expected in every way. I could have trained for years and I still would have struggled. Until you’ve experienced it and endured coldness, beastings, gruelling physical tasks, sleep deprivation and lack of food, you will never understand just how intense and difficult it is.
Have you ever done anything like this before?
I’ve always been a pretty adventurous person. I started training Tae Kwon Do when I was 7 and got my black belt when I was 12. I then gave it up to join the air cadets where I made Sargent, went flying, shooting, camping etc. I then spent three months in Malta working as a divemaster before starting Uni, where I got a pilot’s license. Then around four years ago I started aerial arts and am now a four time champion as well as performing professionally (well at least I was before COVID). So I guess I’ve always liked doing things that push me.
What made you sign up?
I turned 30 not long before signing up and as a transgender woman with mental health issues, who has been single her entire life, I guess I was really insecure in myself. Plus what woman wants to date a 6’4 trans muscle queen? So one of the reasons I signed up was because with my mental health issues and feeling like I was going to be single for the rest of my life, having never had a relationship, I needed to do something to prove to myself that no matter what life throws at me I’m going to be okay. I also wanted to make my parents proud and prove to them that I’m strong mentally.
What training did you do in preparation for this course?
On top of my usual aerial silks training, I worked mostly on upping my cardio game by trying to get in as much cardio as I could outside. So 5k runs, HIIT training and that kind of ordinary boring gym stuff.
Now that you have this experience, would you like to join the real Special Forces?
Well, as long as I don’t have to constantly jump into cold water and am issued with silent sleeping bags that don’t sound like a bomb going off every time someone moves 2cm in them. Seriously, having experienced it, I have nothing but respect for the Special Forces. They are amazing individuals and it was a privilege to get to spend the time I did with them. I do think though that if my physical stamina was up to standard, I would actually sign up because one thing that I like is the variety. There’s always that unknown which you can’t really get from ordinary life and that excites me. I guess that’s why I love the circus and performing aerial. There’s always that element of you that thinks you might not walk away from this routine.
What was the best part of the series for you?
The oil rig for sure!!! It was like being back at work but instead of friendly people, some angry men were pushing me down a hole over the North Sea with a rope that doesn’t quite go all the way down to the sea.
Getting to abseil off an oil rig directly into the North Sea was incredible. I just remember coming down, taking in the view and seeing the coast thinking f!ck me this is amazing, I’m never going to get to do this again. But that soon turned to f!ck me its freezing as I came off the rope and got a great big hug from the icey sea.
What was the hardest part of the series for you?
The hell run on day one for sure! We’d met at 3AM and before even starting the run up the mountain with full kit on, we had to run around some mud ring, crawled on gravel, spent time getting to know some puddles, been called every name under the sun, been beasted, hooded, not really eaten. Then we had to climb the mountain. I really struggled with that because I could feel the second we started that my legs were on fire and the muscles just kept getting tighter and tighter.
What is your biggest fear and has this experience helped you get over that fear?
When you’re in a situation that forces you to work with strangers and trust, you soon learn that actually people can be pretty decent. We were all different and had our own battles but we got on really well and I know for a fact if had it not been for the other recruits, I’d have struggled even more. So now thanks to this experience I feel more comfortable in social situations and am willing to open up a bit more to people.
I also feel that as a 6’4 transgender muscle queen, I don’t fit expectations. I have no intention of turning myself into a slim blonde Barbie doll to make it easier for society to cope. I identify as female but I don’t want an hour glass figure as I love my aerial circus disciplines which demand a strong physique. I always feel like people just want to put me in the male box because that’s going to make it easier for them. When I’m walking down the street people think it’s okay to snigger and openly ask if I’m a man or a women? Because I’ve decided to live life on my terms over society’s, I’m still going to have that fear of being alone. But after this experience and the respect I received from the other recruits, I feel a lot more secure in myself and my identity, so am more positive about the future now.
Do you think you found it harder than the male recruits?
I don’t think you can really break it down like that because it’s not just a physical challenge. Anybody who does the right training can complete a physical challenge regardless of their gender. It all comes down to how mentally strong you are as well and that’s something that gender plays no part in. So I think that everybody found it hard for their own personal reasons rather than whether they had a willy or not.
You had to share all your space with men for the whole time you were there, including sleeping and toilets. How did you find that?
I was really nervous about that because I just didn’t know how the other recruits would take me - a ripped, transgender person who is still transitioning, walking around in combat pants and a bra? I didn’t know if people would be confused and if I was going to be accepted as I was. However, I was very humbled by it because I was always treated with respect and the fact I was trans really didn’t matter. Having been ran ragged, screamed at and hooded, the last thing I worried about was having to sleep in the same accommodation as the men, or whether they’d see me without my top on. We were all just one unit trying to get through each hour and always on edge because we never quite knew what was coming around the corner. Gender didn’t come into it.
Would you ever do it again?
Yes and no. I think I’d love to do it again but one of the things that made it so amazing was the people and the bond we developed. I just don’t think it would be the same with different people but never say never
What do you think you’ve learnt about yourself?
So much. I’ve learnt that I suck at running and always will.
I think the biggest thing I’ve learnt is that my identity and story is a positive thing and I’m just as much as citizen as any cisgender person. I am just as strong mentally and physically as any cisgender person and I can inspire others.
I’m definitely stronger and tougher than I thought. I also feel like I learnt to accept help and that I don’t have to do everything on my own.
Has being on the series changed your life in anyway?
Massively. Since coming back I’ve been inspired to start a community circus organisation dedicated to providing a safe space and an alternative to the gym. We especially welcome the LGBTQ+ community and those suffering with mental health issues. We offer the chance to learn aerial circus disciplines and crossfly which blends crossfit with aerial circus disciplines.
I also feel so much more confident in myself and my identity. I can say I truly accept myself now, which for me is a huge step forwards.
I also have a lot of pride in my identity and my story which I hope is going to help give people the courage to step out into the world as there true selves.