Being trapped in a man’s body made radio presenter Simon Hirst want to die. Reborn as Stephanie, she tells Grant Woodward that she’s embracing life for the very first time.
SIMON Hirst always made a point of coming clean with his serious girlfriends.
“I’d tell them how I felt, but it was always with the caveat that I was never going to do anything about it. And then one day, I did.”
Simon is now Stephanie, the popular Yorkshire DJ having undergone a gender change after opening up about his inner torment live on national radio a year ago this month. This new life hasn’t come easy, but in the end it was a straight choice between living as a woman or not living at all.
“I was driving home from my radio show every morning and would quite easily have driven my car into the central reservation,” says the 40-year-old. “The only thing that stopped me was the thought that other people could get hurt.
“I wanted to die but I didn’t know anyone with a gun and thought if I used a rope I’d probably get it wrong. So I started Googling stuff.
“Then eventually I was like, I shouldn’t have to die just because I was born in the wrong body. Once I reached that point there was only one option.”
As cheeky chappie DJ “Hirsty”, Simon had enjoyed a hugely successful radio career. Making tea for “mullet-haired” DJs at Radio Aire in Leeds at the age of 12, by 16 he was presenting the overnight show.
Moves to other Yorkshire stations followed and three years fronting the commercial Top 40 chart show brought with it national attention.
But living a double life took its toll and it was while hosting Hirsty’s Daily Dose breakfast show on Capital FM Yorkshire that a crossroads was reached. Finally, Stephanie took a deep breath and announced her transition to becoming a woman on BBC Radio Five Live. The public support was immediate and overwhelming. She was taken off air while she went through her gender reassignment (which took place while her home extension was being done, much to the bemusement of the builders), but a year later the career she feared might be killed stone dead has never looked brighter.
As well as a weekly show on BBC Radio Manchester, she is a regular on ITV morning show Lorraine, helping viewers who want to make some sort of important change in their lives.
A recent appearance on Jeremy Vine’s BBC Radio Two show, meanwhile, drew widespread praise for her courage and candour.
“I wish I had done it in my teens or twenties,” she says now at her home in Barnsley. “But the world was a very different place back then. “There was no internet to look any of this up on, just one book. There was certainly no one living near us who had ever transitioned.
“I was bricking it, but the reaction has been fantastic. Every time I go to the supermarket people come up and say well done and give me a hug. There are a few what I call ‘keyboard warriors’ on Twitter, but it’s only a handful and everyone else quickly stands up for me.
“The important thing was that I wasn’t going to hide away,” she says. “I’m still me, but my world is now in colour. I don’t have this fog around my brain any more.”
Brought up on a Barnsley council estate, it was at the age of eight that Stephanie remembers having her lightbulb moment. She borrowed a pair of rollerskates from a girl who lived around the corner and something just “clicked”.
But her feeling of unease went back much further than that. As a three-year-old she had asked her mother: “Why aren’t I a girl?”.
Since going public, a friend of her late mother has told her that her mum discussed it with close colleagues at the factory where she worked, but it was never mentioned to her father.
“That was parenting in the 1970s,” Stephanie shrugs. “I was told I was a boy and that was that. But I knew inside it wasn’t right and lived in fear of talking about it.”
Her parents have both given her their blessing. She told her mum what she was planning to do shortly before she died a couple of years ago. Her father, she says, has been wonderful and supports her “a million per cent”.
The fact that other high-profile figures including former boxing manager Frank (now Kellie) Warren and reality TV star Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner have undergone the same process has also helped. “People would say to me, ‘Oh, so it’s not kinky then?’,” she laughs. “They thought it was a sexual thing, that I got a thrill from putting the clothes on. It’s nothing to do with that, it’s about my body. I used to see women walking down the high street and feel envious of them. You feel you don’t fit in and there’s only so long you can do that for. It drives you nuts.
“I think people are now starting to understand that it begins in the womb. It’s a birth defect. Your body goes in one direction and your brain in the other.
“It’s a biological problem but it becomes a psychological one too. I threw myself into radio because it made it go away for a while. It was like a sticking plaster, but you just feel you’re lying to people the whole time. Now it’s like I’ve got a blank piece of paper.”
A year on, thoughts are turning to the prospect of a relationship as Stephanie, rather than Simon.
“I went public on October 11 last year and I only realised the other day that’s my ex’s birthday. I was with her for 13 years and we still speak occasionally, I still speak to all my exes bar one.
“They all knew so they understood. I split with my long-term girlfriend in 2007 when I realised this was starting to be a problem, but I then started going out at weekends partying.
“All my relationships were with women. I did have a one-off thing with a guy when I was 16 or 17 but it didn’t do anything for me while I was still presenting as male.
“Now, with all this oestrogen, I’ll see a woman and think she’s beautiful but then see a guy and think he’s gorgeous too. It’s like I had diesel running through me for 30-something years, but now I’m on super unleaded.
“I’m not looking, but if I meet somebody who’s a good human being with a good soul and they treat me well then who knows? If it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
For the moment, Stephanie is looking no further than the foreseeable future, though she freely admits that she is one of the lucky ones.
“Hopefully seeing how the public have responded to people like me will give others the confidence to go to their GP and tell them how they feel, because that’s the first and most important step.
“But at the moment there’s a 72-week waiting list in Sheffield to be referred to a local gender identity clinic and in Leeds it’s three years. “To take that first step and then be told it’s a three-year waiting list... I know the NHS is stretched but there needs to be a will to do something about it.
“People are now starting to put their hand up and say, yes, I feel like this too and I need to do something about it. But they need the help to be there when they do it.”
“You have to hold friends’ hands”
STEPHANIE Hirst believes the examples set by Caitlyn Jenner and Kellie Maloney have made the public more accepting of those who are transgender.
But she says she tried to focus on those around her as much as herself.
“You might feel as though you’re going from a caterpillar to a butterfy but those closest to you may feel as though they’re losing the person you were.
“People go into a mourning process. You have to hold your friends’ hands because it’s often just as hard for them.
“It’s important to remember it’s not all about you.”
Stephanie Hirst presents Nothing But The Nineties on BBC Radio Manchester every Saturday from 10pm-12am.