Trans entrepreneur and Paul Mitchell The School - Chicago Alum Kinley Preston lives her truth

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Trans entrepreneur and Paul Mitchell The School - Chicago Alum Kinley Preston lives her truth

Source:, Kinley Preston

Written by, Gretchen Rachel Blickensderfer at

A self-made U.S. billionaire and co-founder of the Paul Mitchell line of hair care products and Patron Tequila, John Paul DeJoria once advised people, "Remember that, once something good happens for you, success unshared is failure."

In 2009, he heard the story of Kinley Preston—the only transgender woman in one of the first classes at the then-newly opened Paul Mitchell The School, Chicago in University Village. Preston had only recently arrived to the city from her home town in central Nebraska, and nothing good was happening for her.

Far from the support system of her family at home, what little self-confidence she had was robbed through a daily persecution of her appearance even while she was minding her own business on the bus to and from class.

The harassment was so crushing that, when Preston caught bronchitis the following month, she was too terrified to go to the hospital. One night, while standing outside of a Lake View nightclub, Preston was attacked by a man and defended herself with a can of Mace. She told Windy City Times that she was arrested by officers from the Chicago Police Department ( CPD ) for using a particular grade of Mace which they maintained was illegal in the city. Preston added that she was told this only after the arresting officers discovered she was transgender. While in custody, she asserted that she was beaten mercilessly. She recalled leaving the police precinct the following day with over 17 cuts and bruises, adding that an officer had kicked one of her breasts so severely that it forced the implant to shift down several inches. The case against Preston was dismissed in return for her not filing charges against the officers in question.

Unable to find a job, penniless and despondent, Preston fell back into her old coping mechanisms of drugs and alcohol. In order to survive, she engaged in sex-work and, eventually, she stopped going to class altogether. But the co-founder and co-director of the school Steve Cowan refused to give up on her. At a conference for heads of Paul Mitchell schools across the country, Cowan told Preston's story to the co-owner of the Paul Mitchell Schools Division, Winn Claybaugh. Determined that his schools should gain a better understanding of their transgender students, Claybaugh wrote about Preston in the Paul Mitchell newsletter and, during a dinner with DeJoria, he talked about her life.

Growing up in an evangelical home in an early-eighties conservative Christian Nebraska town with a sum population of 341 ( as of the 2010 census ), Preston already felt isolated from the rest of the world. Her mother was a labor and delivery nurse and her father owned a farm and trucking company. The eldest of three children, Preston's earliest memories centered around something being different about her. However, the word 'transgender' was alien not only to Preston but the rest of the town. Because she had secretly enjoyed playing with her sister's Barbie dolls and dressing up in her mother's clothes while pretending that the home's basement was a modeling runway, Preston assumed she was gay.

Her education from kindergarten through her senior year in high school was spent in the same building with the same class of only 23 students. Preston had to attend church on Wednesdays and Sundays. There, she was drilled in her religion's opinions of homosexuality.

Conflicted and riddled with shame, Preston spent her school days trying her level best to avoid the bullies who tormented her on a daily basis. "I was one of those people who would try to find a table at lunch with no one else at it," she said. "I would be late for school because I would avoid the parking lot and the hallways."

She found a small measure of comfort in caring for, training and showing horses. Meanwhile the home of her beloved grandparents 67 miles way became Preston's safety zone. "They were the biggest supporters of my life," she said. "I spent every weekend with them. They were completely liberal and the first ones I came out to."

After graduation, she spent the fall of 2001 at her father's alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Kearney, studying to become a nurse anesthetist. She began drinking heavily and dropped out in the spring of 2002. Remembering the success she found showing horses, she transferred to the University of Findlay in Ohio—one of the top equestrian colleges in the country. "My first semester started really well," Preston said. "Then I met a boy. He was a closeted homosexual and he started pursuing me. We became best friends and then it grew intimate."

He pressured her to come out but, saddled with the unmanageable guilt that life in a small, conservative town had bequeathed to her, Preston quickly tumbled into depression that left her unable to function at school. "I couldn't get out of bed," she said. "Physically and emotionally, I was just shut off."

She left before her second semester and returned to Nebraska.

In 2003, Preston's guilt and shame began to take her apart and she attempted suicide at her parent's home. "I got super drunk one night," she recalled. "I had a bunch of Zyprexa. I took two bottles of that and downed it with booze." She woke up in the ER, where her stomach was pumped. She was remanded to a psychiatric hospital for a week and placed on a suicide watch.

After she was released, Preston found work with a women's fashion store at a local mall. "I started wearing some of the t-shirts and the girl jeans, just pushing the boundaries," she said.

Her desire to "kick the door down" provided Preston with the impetus needed to come out as gay to her family. While her grandparents were supportive, at home the news was met with chaos. "Mom was crying and yelling and I said 'yes I'm gay, just deal with it!' My mother was attacking me from a religious point of view and I got to the point where I just didn't care."

Preston eventually came to understand that her mother knew absolutely nothing about the transgender experience. Her frustration with her daughter was motivated almost entirely by a combination of her evangelical religion and the gay stereotypes being floated around by the media. "Everything she was doing, she thought was the right thing to do and based on her love for me," Preston said. "She wasn't trying to hurt me. She'd turned to the church and they were telling her to rely upon scripture. It got to the point where she pretty much said that I was going to hell."

Instead, Preston packed up her things and drove to Dallas, Texas, in order to escape small town life. There, she met her first transgender person and, suddenly, things began to make sense. She began to dress in the evening, reveling in the liberty it offered and the friends she had never before imagined existed.

One of those new friends was heavily into drugs and it didn't take the impressionable Preston long to join her. "We were partying every night. You know, drinking and cocaine," she said. "I couldn't hold a job. I had no money."

Her health deteriorating, her weight alarmingly low and all of her worldly possessions pawned, save for her car, Preston ended up on the streets often going without food for days at a time. One evening, she snorted what she thought was a line of cocaine but turned out to be something much worse. For four days, she laid on a couch in an abandoned apartment in the Cedar Springs neighborhood of Dallas unable to move. She had reached the bottom of a personal abyss and the experience was to become the first turning of her life. "I remember thinking that, if I came out of this, I would call my parents and ask them for help," Preston remembered. "In the middle of the night, I literally crawled on my hands and knees to a payphone to call my father."

Her recovery at home took a year and, throughout, her desire to transition began to consume her. Trying to find comfort in religion, Preston returned to her church. A pastor who had moved to her community after spending thirty years in the LGBTQ community in Chicago was sitting in the pews behind her during one particularly vitriolic gay sermon. "He saw that sermon just suck the life out of me," Preston said. "He reached out to me and became a confidante. He helped reconnect me with my mom."

The pastor also assisted her in coming out to her parents as a transgender woman. Through his efforts and the information he provided them, this time the waters were a lot calmer.

Nevertheless, the attitude of the town towards her legal name change and her attempt to secure a new ID, convinced Preston that she could not remain there and expect to survive. At the age of 25, Preston decided to leverage a burgeoning talent with hair and makeup into education. She chose the Chicago campus of the Paul Mitchell School and relocated there during a brutal 2009 winter with only $400 in her pocket and the clothes that her mother had helped her to buy.

DeJoria had battled through his own adversity in order to reach the heights of success. In an interview he gave to journalist Kaya Morgan, he recalled "one of the most frightening times in my life. I was homeless twice, mainly because I was too proud to ask anybody for help. In my early twenties, when it was just me and my son, we had no place to live."

DeJoria refused to let society dictate the course of his life. He co-founded John Paul Mitchell Systems with a $700 loan, hawking his wares from the trunk of his car. Today, Forbes estimates his current net worth as $3.2 billion. Something about Preston's story touched a nerve because he tried calling her but she didn't recognize the number and so never picked up the phone. DeJoria finally contacted the school. "I had been so angry at the world. I mean I was hurting," Preston said. "The fact that I was even worthy of a conversation was a moment when I understood that people care. It was a feeling of 'wow. Not everybody is out to get me'."

She and DeJoria finally connected. He advised her not to let society's negative image of who she was limit her potential and control her future. "He was once an outcast who proved everyone wrong," Preston said. "Talking to him was my second turning point."

Preston started showing up to class, even going to night school to make up the hours she missed. She ended up graduating with honors. Meanwhile, she scoured local media for free LGBTQ events and galas and attended dressed in thrift store outfits that she reconstructed into a gown. "I just started to show up," she said, "and people didn't forget me."

Confident that her skills could get her hired anywhere, Preston spent three months after graduation looking for a job. Despite her qualifications, Preston said that her gender identity led to her being repeatedly turned down for jobs even in Lake View. The experience crushed her and might have once again got the better of her had her parents not stepped in with the money she needed to start facial feminization surgery. The confidence she was able to gain by walking down the street without being read made all the difference in the world. "People pray on the weak and, when you have confidence, they tend to leave you alone," Preston asserted.

She discovered a knack for the business side of the industry and found an open building in Lake View. With Cowan, DeJoria and her parents endorsing her efforts, she secured a loan and signed a lease in 2011. That summer, she also got a job as a performer at the Kit Kat Lounge on Halsted. "It helped me figure out who I was and helped me to own that," Preston stated. "Performing gave me the confidence I needed to be successful in everyday life." The opening of Preston's business Vanité was a red-carpet event—at the only Paul Mitchell focus salon on the North Side of Chicago. Preston organized an army of Harley Davidson motorcycles as homage to DeJoria who provided Preston and her staff with an autographed photo wishing them the best.

After years of living on the precipice of self-destruction, something good had finally happened for Preston. Determined to follow DeJoria's example and share her success with others, she became the first transgender person voted onto the Board of Directors at the Lake View Chamber of Commerce—using her influence to ensure that transgender people in Lake View would no longer suffer hiring discrimination. She also joined the Chicago House Board of Trustees and the organization's TransLife Center Advisory Board and became the co-chair for GLAAD's Chicago Leadership Council. She was asked to be the Chicago ambassador for the dot429 Gay and Lesbian Professional Networks and quarterly magazine and is a blogger for's transgender channel. Not content with confining herself to the LGBTQ community, she reached out into the arts world, becoming a member of the Joffrey Ballet Auxiliary Board and the Lyric Opera Young Professionals.

Today, she works between 60 and 80 hours per week, has reconnected with her spiritual side and her now proud parents visit her regularly. Preston and her mother have found an understanding and peace with each other. "My mother has become a rock for me and one of my best friends," Preston said. "She has done a 180 and is now one of my biggest supporters."

In September, Preston announced that she had joined the cast of a new VH1 untitled docuseries following trans* women in Chicago. Co-produced by Tyra Banks, filming is currently underway around the city and the show is expected to premiere in 2015.

"It all comes down to John Paul DeJoria," Preston said.

In a 2013 interview with Forbes, DeJoria handed out a few business pearls of wisdom that he gained from his own journey. "You're going to run across a lot of rejection," he said. "Be prepared for the rejection. No matter how bad it is, don't let it overcome you and influence you—keep on going towards what you want to do—no matter what."

Preston has lived through and overcome that rejection. She hopes her example and the lessons she has carried from middle Nebraska, to the streets of Dallas to a wretched first winter in Chicago will help another transgender individual to own her/himself and show up. "It's OK to fail, to make mistakes as long as you remember to get back up," Preston said. "Keep pushing and let no one tell you 'no' because you don't need anyone else's approval. If you are scared of something, that's the reason to do it.

DeJoria's influence upon her will power Preston for the rest of her life. "That man and that school saved me," she said. "I can't stop now. I owe it to him, Steve and my family to make sure I never do."

Written By: Gretchen Rachel Blickensderfer,

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