Tommy Dorfman recounts the 'dysphoria and shame' she felt as a male model: 'I kept having to be like, 'I'm not a man''
Tommy Dorfman is getting real about the "miserable" years she experienced in the industry before transitioning.
During a recent appearance on Emily Ratajkowski's podcast, High Low with EmRata, the actress and writer, 30, who came out as a transgender woman in July 2021, reflected on her journey toward sobriety and discovering her true self, and the lessons she's learned in the process.
When discussing the years of masking her pain and "body dysphoria" with drugs and alcohol, beginning at age 11, Dorfman said the experience led her to feeling "lost" and "alone" as a male model for Calvin Klein at the height of her 13 Reasons Why fame.
"I knew that I was trans when I was 6," she told Ratajkowski. "People asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up as a kid and I was like, 'I wanna be a girl. I wanna be a princess. I wanna be a girl. I wanna be an actress,' like, everything was really feminized, and my parents, bless them, were just like, 'OK. We have a weird kid,' like, cool. But they didn’t know what trans was."
Following her star-turning role as Ryan Shaver, a gay male high school student on Netflix's 13 Reasons Why, Dorfman said she felt "really stuck" in being the cisgender male "public figure" she was introduced to the world as, which ultimately became overwhelming as more opportunities came her way.
"I was making money off my body, literally, for Calvin Klein, like, as a hot boy," she said. "I felt like the twink of the moment and I was capitalizing on it. But I was filled with [body] dysphoria and shame. I did not think I was attractive. I was kinda confused as to why I kept booking men’s campaigns for stuff. I kept having to be like, 'I’m not a man.'"
Dorfman, who's said publicly that she would have likely transitioned sooner had she not booked the Netflix series, recalls feeling "suicidal" before making the choice to take feminizing hormones and undergo gender-affirmation surgery.
"These careers are not promised, as you know. It always feels like it could go away any moment," she explained of the anxieties she faced around how the industry would accept her. "I was really scared. I was like: What am I gonna look like? What am I gonna be like? What if no one wants to work with me? What if I don’t want to work anymore? So much unknown. Like, should I disappear?"
Thankfully, the actress, who divorced ex-husband Peter Zurkuhlen in 2021 and is currently engaged to a woman, said she found peace by recognizing the blessings she already had in her life.
"I have this husband, I have a house, I have a career, like, that’s enough, isn’t it? That should be enough," she remembered thinking. "And yet, I was suicidal and miserable, and having these quarterly breakdowns around gender and being really frustrated, and being like, I'm out [as a gay man]... and I can wear Tom Brown skirts to the MTV Awards. People are accepting of it and celebratory of it, but I remember talking to a stylist who I wanted to work with and she was like, 'Yeah, I only work with girls.'"
"I remember always wanting to say, like, 'I am a girl' and 'What you don’t understand is I need help,'" she explained.
Now, at 30 years old, Dorfman said she's been "sober for almost as long as I was using for," after checking herself into rehab at 21 following years of reaping the "consequences" of "putting myself in dangerous situations."
"Any time I’ve been raped or assaulted has been under the influence, which on one hand is like, great, I don’t have the clearest memory of that experience," she explained of those years. "But on the other hand, I’m not responsible for that. I can zoom out enough to be like, oh, if I wasn’t living in my addiction and alcoholism and I didn’t go to that drug dealer's house in Bushwick at 5am, I might not have ended up in the situation I was in."
"There’s a level of shame, but I also had to realize that I was responsible for pieces of the puzzle," she said, adding that many of these realizations happened after experiencing what she called a "spiritual awakening" while in rehab.
"I realized what maybe I don’t have [in life]," she said. "I actually had a lot of fear being an actor or a writer or anything creative or anything that felt unstable. I felt like I was being told that that wasn’t a good trajectory for me, as an addict at this time."
"When I started practicing yoga, I was like, I can do this, I can be a yoga instructor," she said. That dream ultimately saved her as she was encouraged to leave rehab a week early to train to become an instructor. Dorfman said that level of structure helped saved her by reminding her that she is — and always has been — in control of her life.
Ultimately, she put her yoga dreams aside to forge a new path for herself in Hollywood, describing her 2021 "coming out" story for Time magazine as one of the most "affirming" experiences in her life.
"It felt really good to rip that Band-Aid off," she said of the experience. "Those photos were the only photos where I saw myself... I remember looking at the monitor on the day and being like, ‘That’s me.’”
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