LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - One of the biggest characters in international boxing is back - just weeks after completing the transition from male to female.
Boxing promoter Kellie Maloney - formerly known as the loud-mouthed, wise-cracking Frank - once guided Lennox Lewis to the world heavyweight title at the height of an illustrious career.
But the death of her father, breakdown of her second marriage and a suicide attempt compelled the 62-year-old finally to confront the truth - that she identified as a woman.
Having fully transitioned, and traded the glitz and glamor of championship bouts in New York and Las Vegas for an amateur fight in Glasgow, Maloney has returned with a point to prove.
“I needed to show the world that I hadn’t undergone a brain transplant, but just corrected something that went wrong at birth,” Maloney tells the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the sun-soaked lounge of her flat in Bromley, south London.
Maloney’s return to promoting boxing follows a tumultuous two years in which she went public with her transition to avoid being exposed by the media, appeared on reality television show “Celebrity Big Brother” and almost died during cosmetic surgery.
Sitting in her lounge - surrounded by family photographs, artwork and Buddha ornaments where boxing memorabilia might once have taken pride of place - Maloney says she missed the sport which dictated and defined the first 60 years of her life.
She was persuaded back into boxing by Tony Jones, an amateur fighter who knocked on the transgender promoter’s door and asked her to manage him, and made her comeback in a low-key event in the cramped hall of a Scottish leisure center at the end of May.
“Hearing my name read out as Kellie when I entered the hall was a relief... it was great to be back in boxing as myself.”
“ESCAPED THE WORLD”
From an early age, boxing’s larger-than-life personalities, tales of legendary fighters and tight-knit community helped Maloney to cope as she struggled with her gender identity.
“I knew I was different from about the age of three, but I didn’t know what it (being transgender) was or meant... it was a taboo subject and even gay people weren’t accepted at the time.”
“At the boxing, I felt at peace and ease - like I had escaped the world and my troubles.”
Growing up in a working-class family with two brothers and a sport-loving Irish father, the prospect of sharing her secret was unthinkable, leaving Maloney no option but to suppress her feelings and resist the urge to be herself.
“I do remember thinking I had three choices - either accept how I felt, beat it, or let it kill me,” Maloney says flatly.
Despite her passion for boxing, Maloney flitted between jobs as a young man - street trader, delivery boy, apprentice chef - until her parents’ divorce led to her leaving the family home at 18, giving her the freedom to live as Kellie.
Maloney smiles as she recalls how 1970s fashion trends - long hair, flared trousers, platform shoes - allowed her to pass for a man at work and with family and friends, but to identify and introduce herself as a woman elsewhere.
After 18 months of living as Kellie, Maloney received a call from her father which changed the course of her life.
“Dad said he needed to move in with me as he had nowhere else to go.... I panicked, got my hair cut and returned to my local boxing club... and it (my career) just grew from there.”
Having guided Lennox Lewis to the pinnacle of boxing in 1999 and also managed a string of British and European champions as Frank, Maloney attributes her success to her way with people - and her fear of being outed.
“I was always trying to be the best and be seen as a jack-the-lad... because I was always hiding something, I could never ever let my defenses down,” she says in a calm and soft-spoken manner that belies her previous life as Frank.
“The manager of the heavyweight boxing champion of the world being a transsexual would have been some headline and a story that would have run for quite a while.”
After her heyday in the nineties, Maloney’s status and celebrity lifestyle started to fade, leaving the boxing promoter without her public stage, and without her escape from reality.
Maloney speaks about her father’s death in 2009 as a huge turning point, like a pressure valve being released, because of his influence on her life and the pride he took in her career.
Two years later, Maloney’s second marriage broke down as she struggled to contain the truth.
“Tracey thought I was having an affair, or gay, but I said ‘No, I‘m just like you, I identify as female, and can’t fight it any more’. We both sat there and cried,” Maloney says tearfully.
After living as Kellie in her house in Portugal, Maloney was surprised to receive an invitation to Christmas dinner with her family in 2012, and thinking Tracey might want her back, she decided to lock all her female clothes away.
Maloney says she misread the situation, and after drinking all afternoon, she stuffed her pocket full of pills, grabbed a bottle of wine and told Tracey she was going to walk the dogs.
“I got very light-headed as I kept popping pills and I thought ‘This is all going to be over soon... I’ll be out of everyone’s lives’,” Maloney says dispassionately, casually recalling the suicide attempt as if talking about someone else.
“I survived and I now realize that I could have hurt and mentally scarred my children... I can never get that low again.”
Just one month later, in January 2013, Maloney decided to quit boxing, to leave behind the pressure and public scrutiny, and start the transition from a man to a woman.
The hardest part was telling her two youngest daughters, Sophie, 20, and Libby, 14, and the fear of losing them.
”They were shocked and didn’t understand it at first... but I was surprised at how they adjusted and came to terms with it.
“We agreed that they would still call me dad, because I am their dad, and we can’t change that,” Maloney says, pointing towards a framed photo of her as Kellie embracing her daughters.
If Frank’s garrulous and arrogant personality reflected the pressure he felt, Kellie is light-hearted and laid-back by contrast as she describes the support she received on her return.
“I even got told ‘You’re not bad looking Kellie!’ and ‘You’re a lot better looking than Frank was’”, she says playfully as she strokes her two dogs, Louis and Winnie.
While Maloney enjoyed the buzz around her comeback, she is unsure whether she will pursue boxing as vigorously as she did before.
Yet she hopes that her high-profile return to the male-dominated sport might inspire lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people who are struggling to come out.
”I‘m not looking to challenge people’s views, I‘m just looking to get people to respect transgender people.
“As far as society is concerned, I am transsexual. But I will not label myself, I am a human being,” she says firmly.
To see the video of Kellie Maloney's story, please visit: youtu.be/AFYsxjo9xuQ
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Tim Pearce; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org