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Death by Silicone

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As she stepped toward him, wisps of fog rose in front of her. The nearer she got, the harder she became to see. And just as she sashayed close enough to touch — whoosh — her figure rippled away.

It was always like that. When the dream concluded, he would sit up in bed, angry. Like a playground bully, his subconscious was taunting him. He didn't want to sleep with the woman; he wanted to be her.

Donnie Hendrix was born February 18, 1969, in the tiny Baptist town of Walhalla, South Carolina. The younger of two kids, he "worshiped" his mother, Brenda, who "aspired to be a Southern Martha Stewart." Donnie says his father was an emotionally distant pavement contractor who wore his brown hair slicked back like a greaser and encouraged Donnie to pursue math. "He would drink," Donnie says. "Honestly, I just remember him fighting with my mom." They divorced when he was 6.

Donnie didn't like being home, so he would escape on a gold and black 12-speed bike.

Brenda won't talk about Donnie's childhood. Nor will she comment about her son. "[Donnie] ain't got nothin' to do with me" is all she would say when New Times phoned her. Then she hung up.

In fall 1982, while Donnie played football with his cousins in a field next to a gas station, an above-ground gas tank exploded. It scalded about 60 percent of his body — mostly his legs — sending the 13-year-old to the emergency room with third-degree burns.

Not long afterward, he began having the dream more frequently. "I felt like a girl with a birth defect," Donnie says. "Mine just happened to be my penis."

Still, he was popular with girls at Walhalla Middle School. He had bright blue eyes and muscular legs from biking. "Me? Oh, I was a hottie," Donnie remembers with a sassy tilt of the head. "Honey, I would have asked me out."

When Donnie was a high-schooler, he sulked into the kitchen one night as his mom washed dishes. Brenda noticed her son's mood and asked the 16-year-old if he was pining over someone. Donnie replied he had gotten into a fight with his best friend, a handsome fishing buddy. "You're in love with him," she said matter-of-factly. Donnie remained quiet.

By that time, Brenda had married a construction worker named Buddy. His name was tattooed across the outside of his left wrist, and he used the word faggot to describe the guys in town he didn't like.

Donnie didn't yet understand his sexuality. He took an older girl named Kim to the prom, and she seduced him on a friend's living-room floor after a couple of ecstasy pills. She became pregnant and had a baby girl. "I just remember flashes of her on top," Donnie says in a hushed voice. "I was intimidated."

Six months later, Donnie began buying female hormones from a family friend. He persuaded his older sister, Debbie, to shoot one milliliter of estrogen into his arm once a week. When his pecs swelled into small, pointy breasts, Donnie says, he "freaked... because [his] male anatomy fell asleep."

Around that time, Donnie began making regular trips to the Castle, a gay club in Greenville that blasted techno music and featured drag-queen performances. At the bar on a Friday in 1987, he met Mark Hawkins, who had a 5-o'clock shadow, a helmet of thick brown locks, and a knack for arranging flowers. They bonded over a shared interest in gardening and began to date. Mark's parents, unlike Donnie's, accepted that their son liked to date men.

"We were a stylish gay couple," Mark, now out of prison, remembers in a soft Southern accent. "Donnie was a surfer-looking dude, really tan and clean-cut, but he always felt there was something missing."

Soon the couple moved into a brownstone apartment in downtown Greenville. Mark had a cleaning business, and Donnie played the housewife. After befriending transsexuals at the Castle, Donnie finally made the decision: He would become female for good: "I wanted everybody to forget Donnie." So he became "Viva."

After several months of estrogen, Donnie's skin became softer and his features less angular. Body hair thinned, and his Adam's apple shriveled. He grew a long, wavy, blond mane and flipped his hair-sprayed bangs into a wave. The transition made his "brain change," and he felt awkward, so he didn't leave home much.

Mark wasn't thrilled. "Those hormones make you irritable," he remembers. "He went from being rowdy to soft. She'd see a Hallmark commercial and cry her eyes out. Our gay friends didn't get it. They thought, You're gay. Why the hell are you with a girl?"

A few years later, Donnie was out and about as a woman — and getting into a bit of trouble. In August 1993, she was arrested in a Simpsonville, South Carolina, nursery for stealing plants, records show. The charge was shoplifting. A small fine was paid. (Donnie insists she did it to please Mark.)

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Natalie O'Neill

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