Life as a pop star is now a distant memory for Nikki Lee Carlson. And so is life as a man.
Many will remember this stunning beauty as Nik – the handsome male crooner with the smooth voice who captivated audiences during the 2005 season of New Zealand Idol, coming in second place to winner Rosita Vai.
But gone are the stylish suits and screaming fans. These days, Nik is living life as a woman named Nikki Lee, following an incredible transformation – one that has been quickly embraced by her close family and friends.
And although the Masterton-born singer didn’t win the popular competition, Nikki Lee has become an idol of a different kind. By sharing her inspiring story exclusively with the Weekly, Nikki Lee hopes to make it easier for others who are coming to terms with their own sexual identity.
“I’ve comfortably lived both as a man and now as a woman. I enjoyed being Nik, and Nik is who I am biologically,” explains Nikki Lee. “But on the inside, I had a feminine soul and there was a sadness in me that I wasn’t born female.”
Nikki Lee admits she was so nervous about being interviewed by the Weekly, she didn’t get any sleep the night before – but says she knows how important it is to make the road easier for others.
“This is a very hard process to go through – the feelings and emotions are intense. But I’m honouring my truth. I’m realising my dream of becoming a woman.”
Nikki Lee says the deep longing to be a female was one she had harboured since childhood. “It started at primary school. Most of my friends were girls, and I wanted to look like them, to be one of them. On the other hand, I was comfortable being a boy. I never hated my masculinity – I never felt that I was trapped in a man’s body.
It’s just that I always knew there was another part of me. I always knew that I would eventually evolve into a woman.”
The first stage of accepting herself came at the age of 16, when Nikki Lee revealed she was gay to her close friends and family. Although she expected some resistance, her family surprised her by embracing and supporting her.
“My mum told me they already knew, and my dad said he loved me, no matter what. It felt amazing to receive support from my family during one of the hardest moments of my life.”
But it was more difficult identifying as gay when it came to publicity during New Zealand Idol. Nik quickly became the male heartthrob of the competition, but in media interviews, questions around sexuality were strictly off limits.
“There was a lot of speculation, but I just didn’t want to give that part of me to the rest of the world.”
Nikki Lee adds that the motivation to do well on the programme wasn’t the fame and fortune it might garner, but to bring joy to her grandmother, Sue Treasure, who was dying of lung cancer at the time.
“She was one of my biggest supporters. I wanted her to have something to look forward to. She passed away two weeks after the final.”
It was another death, years later, that inspired Nikki Lee to finally take the plunge and live life as a woman. In 2009, her father Craig passed away after a short battle with bowel cancer. His love and support meant the world to Nikki Lee and she was devastated.
“Up until that point, I didn’t know what the future held. But Dad dying shocked me to the core. It made me reassess my life. I decided to take that giant leap and become the woman I felt I was.”
Nikki Lee gradually became more feminine – growing her hair and wearing dresses and make-up. A year ago, she changed her name and came out for the first time as a female.
“Taking the name Nikki Lee has given me the confidence to say, ‘This is who I am and this is how I’m going to live my life.’”
Nikki Lee is open to making the change permanent. For the last 18 months, she has been on hormone therapy to physically enhance her feminine features.
She hasn’t ruled out the possibility of gender reassignment surgery in the future but acknowledges “it’s a long journey”.
And she hopes there is love in her future. Although she knows she won’t have children of her own, Nikki Lee is extremely close to her niece and nephew, and her godchild, Oceana Olsen – another reality show star. The 10-year-old was a finalist on last year’s New Zealand’s Got Talent, and just like Nikki Lee, captivated audiences with her talent.
“I’m best friends with her mother, and she’s my ideal child. She’s also had to deal with being different [Oceana suffers from pseudo chondrodysplasia – a form of dwarfism]. We have that connection.”
These days, the more Nikki Lee opens up about her life, the more comfortable she feels.
“Deep down, I’m still the same person,” says the singer. “Honouring your desires takes a lot of courage, and I’m living proof it can be done.”