Tatiana Alvarez had to pretend to be a male so people would take her DJing skills seriously. Photo: JOYCE LIM
Tatiana Alvarez shakes my hand gently, unremarkably: I hardly even notice the gesture. "This is how I would shake your hand as Tatiana, a woman," she says. "But as Matt [her male alter ego], this is how I would shake your hand." She takes my hand and yanks it down as though it were a particularly recalcitrant toilet chain.
Alvarez is both woman and man – at least as far as her career as a DJ and producer goes. A few years ago, when she found that she had little credibility as a female DJ, she decided to relaunch herself as a male DJ called Matt Muset, aka Musikillz. She wore men's clothes, taped down her breasts and added a wig and facial hair. Suddenly everyone sat up and listened.
After she revealed herself she was hailed as a female version of Tootsie, and now Warner Bros has purchased the rights to the story of blazing her way in the competitive male-dominated EDM (electronic dance music) market. A film about her life is in the works starring, Alvarez hopes (perhaps a touch optimistically), Jennifer Lawrence.
Alvarez divides her time between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. We meet at her temporary home in the Hollywood Hills, perched high up near the Hollywood sign, which she shares with friends in the music business. Heavy techno music pounds out of the house, and in the doorway a stick-thin blond girl is feverishly kissing a good-looking man; inside the recording studio adjacent to the house, the smell of smoke is heavy in the air.
Alvarez is striking and decidedly feminine today, pretty with long dark hair and long legs encased in black tights and leather micro shorts, which she has teamed with a tight black T-shirt (slogan: help me) and heavy make-up. She could be any age between 25 and 40, and is not keen to let on. "My age is a secret," she says. "I don't age."
The daughter of a Cuban policeman and a French-Canadian dental assistant, Alvarez grew up in the small town of Agua Dulce, near Los Angeles. Her grandmother was a singer, her uncle a guitar player and her great-uncle was a Cuban musician with an orchestra band who had worked with Celia Cruz, the Cuban-American salsa singer. "I remember the smell of his studio in Miami, with the timbales and bongos. We weren't really allowed to go in there but, when I did, it felt warm, safe and good."
Music became her obsession and at school she started cutting tracks and making mix tapes for her friends. At 17 she went to her first rave, where she was captivated by the DJs. "It was all guys and I thought, 'I'm going to do that.'" She bought a turntable and taught herself. Her parents, whom she describes as "very conservative", were confused. "What is a DJ?" her father asks in a mini documentary that has been made about her life. "I tell her this is crazy."
At 18 her life changed abruptly when her sister Jennifer died. "We were super close, like twins, but she was killed in a car accident when she was 17." It changed her perspective on life. "I feel like it's fuelled a lot of what I've done. I live life in a less conventional way, I live in the moment. I'm very passionate about what I'm doing.
Alvarez dressed in drag as her male alter ego, Musikillz (TATIANA ALVAREZ)
She left home shortly after her sister's death. "My dad would get mad because I wasn't grieving the right way, I keep my emotions inside…" Nevertheless, to keep her parents happy, she went to college and became an English major. "My dad wanted me to be a lawyer," she says. But after graduating she joined a wave of female DJs, including DJ Diamond, and toured with Hot Import Nights (a car show) but found the resulting publicity uncomfortable.
"We'd do photoshoots for FHM and they'd want us all to be sexy in dresses and heels. I was showing up in baggy pants and T-shirts and Converse. I was more into skateboarding. I'm 5ft 10in and stilettos aren't comfortable for me. I don't have that body type. The guy who owned Hot Import Nights would say, 'You need to be different.' I was miserable."
In a change of direction, she hired a publicist to help her get gigs playing and producing underground techno music in New York. He passed her tape around, without giving her name, and she quickly found herself booked on the strength of her music but then rejected when they found out who she was. "They said, 'F— that girl, she is sexy, she's only used her looks to get ahead.' My publicist was like, 'It's her tracks on there – you were going to book her as a guy.'"
Furious, Alvarez decided to reinvent herself. "I thought, 'I need to be a guy, I need to look like a guy, I need to be the opposite of anything that's sexy.' So I put on guy clothes and cut my nails. I didn't want to cut my hair, so I used a wig. I am the right size for a guy, other than having hips and boobs. So I taped down my boobs using a sports bra that was too tight: it has to hurt a bit because that's what affects your posture. The only way to really breathe is to keep it shallow."
She called a make-up artist friend, Andrea, and asked her to complete the transformation. "She made my nose wider and did an Adam's apple and put hairs on my eyebrows, all with make-up."
They took photographs of the finished result, but something still looked wrong. "She said, 'Your pants are not sitting right' – even though they were baggy skater pants." Andrea suggested going round to her neighbour's house to borrow some trousers. "I thought they'd think I was some weird tranny," Alvarez says, "but they hardly even noticed me. They were like, 'Hey dude, what's up?' and I was thinking, 'Holy f—, I'm a dude.'"
But the trousers still looked wrong. "I realised the problem was I didn't have a penis, so they didn't layer right. I went to a sex store and saw these things called packing devices – it's like a flaccid penis. It feels like skin, so I put it in a jockstrap and then I had this bulge."
Satisfied with her new image, she started reaching out to people for bookings. She created another alter ego – an agent called Maya Feder – to say she was representing Musikillz. "I had a lot of different things going on," she says, laughing. Did it get confusing? "No, because I did almost everything by email. Also, when you're dressed like a guy your body feels different. It hurt, which put me in a bitchy mood, which totally helped."
Feder was instantly successful in getting bookings for the talented new DJ Musikillz. As a "man" Alvarez was treated differently: offstage, she was ignored ("People don't look at you as much"); onstage, she was trusted to do the right thing. "When you're a female, there are always other people on stage watching what you're doing. They think you're stupid and say the most condescending, amazing things, but when you're a man they just leave you alone."
Concerned that her feminine voice might give her away, she persuaded a friend to pose as her "girlfriend" and brought along other friends to clubs to buffer her. "I couldn't be accessible to people, I just had to get up there and play. I studied Eminem and tried to become as unapproachable as him."
As for using men's bathrooms, she says that was a bridge too far. "I just wouldn't go to the bathroom at all. I would hold it until I got home." The moment she returned home each evening, she would take off the disguise and the make-up. At the time she had a new boyfriend but he couldn't handle the transformation. "When he first saw me dressed as a guy he was freaked out and couldn't look me in the eye. We never got together again after that."
Alvarez's housemate Richard walks through the room as we are talking. "Hey," she calls over to him. "When I was a guy, what was it like?" Richard shakes his head. "It was hard to digest. I was weirded out." The guise never made her question her own sexuality. "I like dressing as a man and I think it's cool I can look so much like one but still be this feminine woman. Sexually, I really like men better, although I love being round gay people. I once tried being in a relationship with a woman after being in a bad relationship with a man. But it didn't work out."
After a year as Matt, Alvarez felt she had proved her point. By now the anger had subsided and she dropped the guise. "I got sick of it. I had done what I said I was going to do: I had booked gigs and played out but I wasn't really 'showing' anyone, as no one knew I was Tatiana."
So she returned to DJing as Tatiana Alvarez, feeling more determined than ever. Now firmly established in the international EDM world, she has mixed live on radio shows worldwide and played to crowds from Mexico to China. She thought little more of her social experiment until last summer when Warner Brothers, having got wind of her story, purchased her life rights in a pre-emptive bid for the producers Mike Medavoy, Brian Medavoy and Erwin More.
Alvarez describes Mike Medavoy's enthusiasm. "He said, 'I passed on Tootsie back in the day and this is a perfect film.'" Alvarez will serve as the music supervisor and says that she feels the film validates her. "It is the biggest sign to me that I am on the right path and I can't stop fighting."
Despite all her efforts, she believes that DJing is still very much a man's game. "There are a lot of women DJs now, but they're not making a lot of money. There are some girls who should be blowing through the roof, playing every festival." If women want to be taken seriously, Alvarez says, they should rely less on their looks and learn to produce as well. "No one is going to book you just to be a DJ. You have to make music."
She is scathing about the rise of celebrities such as Paris Hilton as part-time DJs. "I'm repulsed by her," she says. "Even blindfolded I can DJ better than her."
She says she has seen a list of actresses who are being considered for the role of Tatiana/Matt. "Every actress was on there, from Shailene Woodley to Jennifer Lawrence to Scarlett Johansson. Scarlett is gorgeous but she has huge tits and a very feminine mouth. We have to think about who can authentically play a guy.
It has to be a girl who has something about her. Someone like Jennifer Lawrence. I want the best actress out there and I like Jennifer Lawrence. She keeps it real." She dismisses the idea that Lawrence might be too busy to take on the film. "If I was an actor I would think this would be an amazing role. It's not like being Batman – it's a true story."