Urban Legends: Is Jamie Lee Curtis a Hermaphrodite?

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Celebrities are always telling us that fame has its downsides, lurid gossip being one of them, and few could make a better case than actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who for two decades has been saddled with rumors that she was born a hermaphrodite.

These rumors are just gossip, and there's no evidence to back them up.

Definition of Hermaphrodite

The word "hermaphrodite" comes from Hermaphroditus, the name given to the son of the ancient Greek gods Hermes and Aphrodite. According to mythology, the nymph Salmacis loved Hermaphroditus so much that she prayed for them to be united as one person—and she got her wish. The two were transformed into one being who was both male and female.

First used as such in the 15th century, "hermaphrodite" is an all-but-obsolete medical term (clinicians now prefer intersex) for a set of conditions characterized mainly by genitalia which are either "ambiguous" (i.e., not clearly male or female) or at odds with the subject's chromosomal gender. Depending on the specific symptoms, hermaphroditism/intersexuality may be the result of a genetic anomaly or a hormonal excess or deficiency during gestation. It has been estimated that as many as 1 in 2,000 children born in the United States are diagnosed with ambiguous external genitalia, of whom a very small percentage undergo "sex reassignment" surgery in infancy.

The specific condition most often attributed to Ms. Curtis is AIS or Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. People born with AIS are genetically male (defined as having one X and one Y chromosome) but are resistant to androgens, the hormones responsible for male sexual development. As a result, they display female physical characteristics despite being genetically male. "In its classic form (complete androgen resistance), the person appears to be female but has no uterus, and has sparse armpit and pubic hair," states the Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia. "At puberty, female secondary sex characteristics (e.g., breasts) develop, but menstruation and fertility do not."

Why Jamie Lee Curtis?

It bears pointing out that Curtis was neither the first nor the last female celebrity to whom gender ambiguity has been attributed. Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Mae West endured similar whisper campaigns during their respective heydays, according to Paul Young, author of "L.A. Exposed: Strange Myths and Curious Legends in the City of Angels." So did '80s disco star Grace Jones, and, more recently, pop music divas Ciara and Lady Gaga. One thing all of these famous performers have in common is some degree of androgyny—either in appearance, behavior, or both—that sets them apart from other women. Curtis, who easily passes for "butch" when she dresses down for a role and has her hair cut short, has also been singled out for what film critic Bill Cosford once referred to as her "androgynous appeal."

And then there is the matter of her name. Some have speculated that she was christened "Jamie Lee" because it wasn't clear at birth whether she was a boy or a girl. Not so, according to Curtis' mother, actress Janet Leigh, who says the gender-ambiguous name was just a practical choice.

In 1998, Leigh explained her decision to Village Voice columnist Michael Musto:

"We didn't know ahead of time if it would be a girl or a boy, so when I was pregnant with Kelly, my best friend Jackie Gershwin said, 'Why don't you call the baby Kelly, so if it's a girl, it works, and if it's a boy, it works?' And she thought the same thing with Jamie. The babies were named before they were born because Jackie said, 'This way, we won't have to worry about it!'"

Speculation has also centered on the fact that Curtis and her husband, Christopher Guest, adopted their two children instead of conceiving—the implication being that perhaps Curtis couldn't conceive because of her allegedly "abnormal" physique. It's a question that will have to go unanswered for now—and perhaps forever—since neither Curtis nor Guest seems keen on speaking publicly about their reasons for adopting.

The 'Proof'

Without a doubt, the main driving force behind this gossip is the rumor that Jamie Lee Curtis's alleged intersexuality has long been spoken of as a given in medical school classrooms, even though her name has never appeared in a textbook or journal article in connection with intersex conditions. A rumor is still a rumor, even from the lips of a board-certified physician. All the more so, in fact, given that any physician who actually treated Curtis couldn't have revealed such information without violating patient confidentiality laws.

The only document that has ever been offered as "proof" was a 1996 op-ed piece in the Baltimore Sun written by William O. Beeman, associate professor of anthropology at Brown University, entitled "What Are You: Male, Merm, Herm, Ferm or Female?" The relevant passage reads as follows:

"There are perhaps millions of XX males and XY females living in the United States today. These are cultural males with male genitalia who are genetically female, and cultural females with female genitalia who are genetically male. The film star Jamie Lee Curtis is one well-known individual who is genetically male, but phenotypically female."

And there we have it in black and white, it would seem—except for two important caveats. First, according to Professor Beeman, the pertinent sentence was deleted from the published article. Second, the reason it was deleted was because Beeman's attempts to track down the plastic surgeons to whom intermediate sources had attributed the statement were "totally unsuccessful." In other words, Professor Beeman had simply repeated an item of gossip.

Which leaves us, at the end of our investigation, in exactly the same place we started: face-to-face with an unsubstantiated rumor. Twenty-odd years of hearsay later, there is simply no evidence to support it. Any honest appraisal of the facts must arrive at the same conclusion reached by "L.A. Exposed" author Paul Young—to wit, "the rumor that Curtis suffers from AIS (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) has never been proven and is almost certainly false."