'Uncle Frank' returns as 'Aunt Fran'
[SAN JOSE, CA] - Disc jockey Frank Bennett always liked to say that a woman in a billowy frock was God's gift to men on a windy day.
But that was years ago, before Bennett stopped being Frank and became Frances, whose favorite clothes are billowy frocks.
For almost 15 years at San Jose stations KOME-FM and KUFX-FM, Frank was "Weird Old Uncle Frank," a DJ "who had to be the hippest guy in the room, with the coolest car and cutest girl."
Frances, a transsexual who will complete her transition with extensive surgery next month, is much different.
"A stepmom at the school play, with a nondescript Ford and a partner of seven years," she said.
Fran - "Aunt Fran" is how she is pitching herself to stations - wants to reconnect with radio listeners. Frank has been off the air for more than seven months. Fran dreams of making her first broadcast.
"That would be the very last brick of the wall to come down," said Bennett, 48.
It's not just that she wants the public to know who she is now. She wants people to understand who she always was, underneath the carefully maintained male identity that was never real and never comfortable.
At KOME and KUFX ("KFOX"), Bennett cultivated a style with three key ingredients: a passion for rock music, some lecherous humor and good ratings, particularly with adult male listeners.
"He was the absolute best choice for afternoon drive in this market," said Laurie Roberts, KUFX program director.
Bennett began living as a woman over Labor Day weekend in 2000, while still working as Uncle Frank. It meant going to work at KUFX dressed as Fran - the staff gave her a dozen roses the first day - then going on the air as Frank.
That continued until Bennett was dropped by the station near the end of last year, when owner Clear Channel Radio made personnel cuts nationwide.
"No one here wanted to see him go. Not one person," said Roberts, who still gets e-mail asking where Bennett went.
In August, Bennett will go to Montreal for the surgery that makes her transformation anatomical.
"This is a success story," Bennett said. "This is hope. You can follow your dreams, no matter how difficult the obstacles may be."
After recovering from surgery, Bennett would like to get back on the air in September as Aunt Fran, during one of the year's key ratings periods. But getting hired has become far more challenging than at any previous time in a career that started at age 16 in Phoenix.
Bennett joined KOME in 1985 and spent eight years there. That was followed by a year on the island of Saipan, working as operations manager for an absentee station owner, and then came the gig at KUFX. After 32 years in radio, Bennett doesn't see any reason to just walk away.
People familiar with the radio business, including a well-known industry consultant who transitioned from male to female, say the hiring of a transsexual DJ might be unprecedented nationally.
"Fran would be the first that I'm aware of," noted Jaye Albright, 59, the Seattle consultant whose transition included adding an "e" to Jay. "She has my support. I'm rooting for her. But I'm not optimistic."
The conventional wisdom is that the odds of Bennett getting a DJ job are better in the relatively liberal Bay Area than anywhere else.
"If it can work anywhere, it can work in San Francisco," said Bob Kieve, 80, a longtime owner of San Jose radio stations. "In San Jose, it might very well work on the rock stations as well."
There's also a theory that corporate ownership has left many stations without any hiring prejudices except a DJ's ratings potential.
"If Shakespeare sonnets and Dr. Seuss rhymes got ratings, radio stations would be raiding English departments," said Tom Taylor, editor for a Web publication, M Street Daily, that covers the industry.
Of course, Aunt Fran's ratings are unknown.
Bennett says a lack of interest from stations she contacted recently made her worry for the first time that she may be shunned by radio executives, out of prejudice or fear of negative public reaction.
When and if Bennett lands any job interviews, there may be questions about the image she will convey or about the softness in her voice.
Tapes from Bennett's days at KOME pulsate with a distinctively male voice, not overly deep but vigorous and resonant. Hormone treatments, plus an obvious effort by Bennett to train her voice to sound feminine, have made Fran's voice much thinner, at least in routine conversation.
"I know how to project on the air," Bennett said, "and I have a killer ratings history. Just unleash me."
That said, Bennett also insists that her job hunt is secondary to the family life she has established in San Jose.
Bennett married Erika Taylor (no relation to Tom) Sept. 8, formalizing a relationship that began as platonic housemates in 1995. They met after Bennett joined KUFX as the afternoon DJ. Taylor was hired a short time later and was co-host of the morning show.
Taylor, now in public relations, says the uncomplicated part of her relationship with Bennett is an "unconditional love" that's almost oblivious to gender issues.
"The core personality of the person I fell in love with remains," Taylor said. "We still have Scrabble marathons. Fran still folds laundry and makes coffee the same way."
Both laugh about what has changed as well. Bennett jokes that she doesn't seem to be able to barbecue very well anymore, and she says her "billowy frocks" symbolize her freedom from the leering humor of her male camouflage.
Taylor, 34, says she has deep empathy for Bennett's identity struggles. As someone who once lost 200 pounds, Taylor said, she understands what it's like to feel as if there's an inner person who's misrepresented by the outer one.
"I know what it's like to cry yourself to sleep on a regular basis with shame," she said.
Other aspects of Bennett and Taylor's relationship are more problematic.
Both say Taylor's 9-year-old son from a previous marriage has adapted contentedly to the changes in Bennett's appearance and lifestyle. But they remain concerned about teasing or antagonism he may encounter from other children, particularly as Bennett re-emerges as a media figure.
They also recognize that their marriage and careers could come under intense public scrutiny. Bennett says worrying about it would force her back to a mindset of suppressing who she is.
"I spent too long running from myself to be negative anymore," said Bennett, who has a personal Web site (www.auntfran.com).
Bennett and Taylor say their families are supportive. They show off wedding photos of Bennett, as Fran, with her 23-year-old daughter from a previous marriage and her mother, who is 84.
Bennett's father, songwriter Johnny Lehmann, died in 2000 without knowing of his son's decision to become a woman. But Bennett's mother, Evelyn Knight, a former singer, has reacted with more than mere acceptance.
"She thinks I look like she did when she was my age," Bennett said proudly.