The Velvet Underground's John Cale 'made me a woman'

Rhiannon Lowe

Helping to change a man into a woman is probably not something John Cale would list if asked about the most notable achievements of his career.

The Velvet Underground musician may not even remember a short, and seemingly insignificant meeting in Cardiff seven years ago.

Yet, for Rhiannon Lowe, now 42, it was the catalyst for her undergoing a gender reassignment operation after a 20-year identity battle.

A pop-up art exhibition at the city's Queens Arcade called John Cale Made Me a Woman celebrates the role the meeting played in her long and difficult journey.

It happened in April 2009, when Ms Lowe was project-managing Wales's entry in the Venice Biennale art exhibition.

Mr Cale was representing the country and she picked him up from his hotel to look at filming locations around the city, keen on building rapport.

"I'd got a posh car and spent a lot of time making a compilation CD with bands I liked, like Hefner," she said.

"They weren't necessarily songs I thought he would like, but I was hoping to talk about them and make a connection with him."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Carmarthenshire-born John Cale formed influential rock band the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed in 1965

But she said these hopes were dashed when Mr Cale spoke only about work, mainly with his manager, and asked for the music to be switched off so he could concentrate.

Ms Lowe said: "He was just being the ultimate professional.

"I had probably made the rash assumption that music was always in the lives of musicians.

"But I think he was maybe worried and out of his comfort zone (as a musician making a film) and wanted to focus."

Looking back, Ms Lowe believes the incident helped bring to a head a time when she was increasingly struggling with her work and who she was.

She said: "He was not the reason, just a part of the period of time I can pinpoint when I went seriously downhill.

"Everything was collapsing and I had to make a decision. I am grateful to him.

"I don't know him and never got to know him, but the relationship is very important to me."

Following the meeting, she quit her job and returned to live with her parents in Harrogate, Yorkshire, spending nine months in bed, depressed, before deciding to have a gender reassignment operation.

Image caption Ms Lowe's exhibition includes a 'shrine' to John Cale on her dressing table from home

As she sits in the exhibition space, passers-by look at the sign, read it out loud, give a confused shrug and walk off.

Ms Lowe, though, beckons them all in, keen to talk about art that represents feelings she repressed for so long.

Her struggles began when she was 13, a teenage boy who "wasn't settled" and "didn't see a connection between myself physically and mentally".

"I got a book out of the library [on gender reassignment surgery] but was utterly scared," she said.

"It was amazing yet seemed another world where people would have an operation and change parts of their body so radically.

"It was far too frightening to get involved in."

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Media caption"Shrine" to musician John Cale

So she concentrated on playing hockey, making sure she had a girlfriend and having the "generic student life" while studying fine art in Lancaster.

She said: "I was hoping to find someone to marry, have kids maybe, get a job and get on with the day-to-day life, trying to be content.

"But I was always turning my life upside down, jacking in jobs, trying to make relationships work and then pulling them apart."

Ms Lowe would make "beautiful friends", but "nothing was ever right" and she would constantly move on looking for "the real me".

She lived in many places in Yorkshire, Lancashire, north and mid Wales, before arriving in Cardiff in 2002.

Yet it was not until 2009, at the age of 35, that work pressures brought to a head a battle she had been having with herself for more than 20 years.

Image caption Ms Lowe's exhibition includes items of her clothing embroidered with the words John Cale Made Me a Woman
Image caption Ms Lowe produced much of her artwork as a way of focusing on something other than the thoughts that were tormenting her

After returning home depressed, it took nine months for her parents to "drag" the truth out of her, which was when she finally started to come to terms with things.

She had dressed as a woman before but felt simply doing this permanently for the rest of her life would just be a pretence, so saw a specialist doctor in early 2010.

"It takes a long time but they make sure people know what they are doing," Ms Lowe said.

"They prescribe hormones, there's second opinions and real life experiences, living as the gender you aspire to be.

"Then I changed my name in documents, like my passport, and told people at work. The whole process was a relief."

But the gender reassignment procedure was not a success and she experienced "horrendous, serious complications", which still affect her now.

Ms Lowe needed a colostomy bag for 18 months and endured nine further operations to correct issues.

"I kept thinking, 'what on earth have I done?'. I felt like my body had beaten me and had the last laugh," she said.

'No guide book'

"I'm not a roaring success physically, I live on pain killers.

"Years ago, I had a vision of who and what I'd be. I imagined being a lovely, pretty woman, with a lovely, pretty woman.

"I had to aim for it, but didn't get anywhere near. I feel I'm half way there and doing the best I can."

The process has been difficult and she has not had a relationship since 2008 as she comes to terms with her new self.

"I'm still learning. It's not so much the change in gender, but the unforeseen stuff I was not prepared for," she said.

"It took its toll physically and mentally. Maybe I'm expecting far too much of myself to be over it by now."

There are positives, though, like the fact she has had her current job for two years - an achievement by past standards.

It is "a journey with no guide book", she admits, but one that owes much to a seemingly insignificant meeting with a famous musician, who she has now thanked through her art.

Image copyright Ric Bower

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