story and photo by Dana Cooper
Maddie Waters is not your average 18-year-old. Her sunny disposition belies the world of adversity she has overcome to get to where she is now. We met at Memphis Pride Fest on a gorgeous September morning, and she was excited about what the day held.
“I love being part of this community,” Waters said, “and Pride is such a great day for us to come and celebrate being ourselves. But we should celebrate it every day.”
Born in Bulgaria, Waters was adopted just past the age of two. As a young child, she very much wanted to emulate her mother’s love of pageants and modeling. Sadly, her mother’s unexpected passing in 2011 upended the stability she had come to know. Her father’s rapid remarriage and subsequent signing over of his parental rights to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services added further insult to already injurious circumstances. “I spent a few years being institutionalized,” Waters said.
Having spent time at Youth Villages as an adolescent helped Waters understand the meaning of family, and she still maintains close connections with the friends she made there. With some hard work and after navigating a few changes, including having been adopted by a new, totally loving and accepting family, Waters graduated from Bartlett High School in May.
“The staff I met [at Bartlett] was totally amazing,” Waters said. They always called me Maddie or Madeline, and always used ‘she’. It was just incredible.”
Waters said that her experience in living her truth has been largely positive, despite enduring these setbacks that would have easily derailed anyone’s progress. Her natural strength is reinforced by the emotional support she said she now receives at home.
“My family finds things for me to do, and they say, ‘I think Maddie would really like this,’ and then they get in there and do it with me. I pinch myself every day and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I am in a house full of accepting people, and I get to walk out being a woman!’” All this support and togetherness means that hanging out with her family is one of her favorite things to do in her spare time.
Of course, spare time may be a hot commodity for someone as busy as Waters is these days. She is currently a cosmetology student at Gould’s Academy, and after her graduation, she hopes to work for a high-end salon and put her hair and makeup skills to work. “I just love makeup,” she said. “Sometimes, I’ll go into my bathroom and take off all my makeup and then put another layer on. It’s so much fun.”
Not surprisingly, the glamorous world of YouTube makeup tutorials has not escaped Waters’ notice, and she enjoys watching videos by James Charles, Cover Girl’s first male spokesperson, and NikkieTutorials.
In addition to her skills in making others feel beautiful, Waters models every once in a while. Among her recent modeling credits is strutting the catwalk in condom couture for Condomonium, which benefits CHOICES Memphis. At this year’s event, she and her designer mother, Connie, won the award for Best Use of Condoms for her fabulous mermaid-themed frock. “That’s such a funny story,” Waters said, laughing about her experiences participating in the event. “We waited until the last minute for everything, and literally crammed everything into that morning.” That is an impressive feat for an award-winning design.
Though she is a young woman, Waters has wisdom beyond her years, and she offers sage advice to others who are walking the same path: “As a trans woman or a trans man, I think you have to step out of your comfort zone and be firm with your answers so you can get what you’ve always dreamed of,” Waters said. “Find your true self, and once you do, find the people you connect with naturally, and everything will fall into place, I promise.”