Last month, gossip blogs reported that, according to an anonymous tipster, a 42-year-old woman named Taylor Lianne Chandler, an American Sign Language interpreter, was with Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps on Sept. 30, the night he was arrested for driving under the influence. While it seemed that the story would disappear into the ether, along with innumerable other poorly sourced celebrity gossip blog posts, a twist in the narrative emerged on Nov. 13. As the National Enquirer reported (and as Chandler herself confirmed in a lengthy Facebook post), Michael Phelps’ purported new girlfriend was intersex.
“I was born intersex and named David Roy Fitch at birth,” Chandler wrote in her post on Facebook, explaining why she was “freaked out” by news stories about her relationship with Phelps. “By the time I could walk and talk I made it clear I was a girl and dressed as one.”
Chandler also revealed that she went on testosterone blockers after she was diagnosed as intersex in her early teens, and underwent corrective surgery to remove her penis, also known as vaginoplasty, in 1993.
Since coming out as intersex on Facebook, Chandler has been met with a hailstorm of media attention, with tabloids and news sites breathlessly reporting that Michael Phelps’ girlfriend “used to be a man.” Many have questioned her claims of a relationship with Phelps, as the two haven’t taken any photos together. (Chandler alleges that she has a 68,000-page forensics report detailing evidence of their communications, but there’s no hard evidence supporting her allegations that they were romantically involved. Phelps has refused to comment.)
Over the past few weeks, Chandler has become a sort of de-facto spokesperson for intersex issues, with the Huffington Post and the Daily Dot publishing op-eds decrying the “used to be a man” headlines and the sensationalistic media coverage of her condition. (Chandler says she has always identified as a woman.)
Chandler has gotten used to the attention since she first made headlines. She has a Facebook page where she regularly posts links to stories about her relationship with Phelps, and she even made an appearance at a New York City strip club to celebrate her 42nd birthday. Now, Chandler claims she wants to take advantage of her newfound media platform to shine a light on intersex issues. We got in touch with Chandler while she was in New York City to find out more.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
What are some misconceptions people have about you that you want to clear up? What do you want people to know?
There’s so many. First of all, I was not born a man. I was not born a male. If they wanted to report I was born and assigned the name David Roy Fitch, I could’ve lived with it. It wouldn’t have been my favorite choice. But in this business, they’re trying to get traffic, so I understand.
Secondly, I never said I was Michael Phelps’ girlfriend. That comes from the very first article that was written, that I was his girlfriend [and was] with him the night of the D.U.I. That was a play on words. And I wasn’t with him when he was arrested. His D.U.I. was at 1:40 a.m. on the 30th, but I was with him the night of the 30th, after the D.U.I. had happened. He’d come home. His lawyers were in and out, his agents were in and out. But the way the articles made it sound, it was like I was a passenger or something. And that is not true.
So just to be clear, you’re saying you were never his girlfriend?
Well, you gotta understand, they [the media] gave me the title. Him and I started talking in the middle of August, and between him finishing up a swimming thing and me traveling as a sign language interpreter, it just wasn’t convenient. To be quite honest, when he pursued me on Tinder, I didn’t think it was really him. I recognized him, and I recognized where he was at [in his photo], because my dad’s a jockey so I can recognize a grandstand instantly, but it was like, “OK, is this real?” Then one day I gave him my number, and he started texting me, and once I had his number and address I ran it and it was Michael Phelps, so I was like “I’ll be damned.”
How did you know it was him?
The address, the name. The phone number. It all matched up.
So when did you end up meeting in person?
In the middle of September, we first met. I did not have sex with him at a Baltimore Ravens game during halftime [as many media reports have claimed]. I have been at his house and watched a Baltimore Ravens game with him. We have been intimate at his house more than once. But things with him and I were new. When you meet someone online, you talk about things you probably wouldn’t talk about if you met in person, so it accelerates knowing someone.
And then the first few times we were together, we talked about everything, because we have similar situations with our father. His parents got divorced in ‘94, and my mother died when I was three months old. My grandparents raised me, but I wasn’t close to my father. He wasn’t close to [his father]. My dad did horse racing, he owns thoroughbreds. It was all those things that brought us together.
What did you talk about when you first met on Tinder?
That kind of stuff, we talked about in person. Being online, it kinda accelerates things, versus [meeting someone on a date], if they picked you up and met you somewhere. So we had a connection before we actually ever met….but we weren’t trying to rush anything. Everyone’s trying to make me out to be a one-time thing, a hook-up. But I’ve been to his house four times now…If he hadn’t gotten the D.U.I. the following weekend, he would’ve met my friends for a Game Night. We were going to play Cards Against Humanity. I even invited him to my cousin Ashley’s wedding. But privacy was a big deal.
What inspired you to come forward, then, if you had those privacy concerns in mind?
The media was going to out me regardless. The National Enquirer had all the information it needed about me to print the story with or without me. I don’t know if I’d call it a mistake or what at this point, but I was on the phone for 15 hours at least with [Enquirer Senior News Editor] Alan Butterfield. I explained to him intersex, the fundamentals of everything. Then the article came out, and it looked totally different. And the headline was: “Michael Phelps’ girlfriend used to be a man,” my absolute worst nightmare. Then another story, another story.
How did the National Enquirer find out you were intersex?
Digging. I had a crisis management team in the beginning, and we think a girlfriend from my past who knew my name was Paige Victoria Whitney, and once they had [that] they knew my name was David Roy Fitch. Then it led to a trail, and the rest is history. It must’ve been someone who had an intimate connection to my past…Because I’d worked in the government as an interpreter, and I worked for the University of Memphis, so I’ve been background checked since 2008, and none of this showed, because my life is as Taylor Lianne Chandler. I always told employers that I had a D.U.I., but nothing else would show.
But you’ve had other criminal charges in the past. [In 1992, Chandler was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison on extortion charges, which she says she did to fund her surgery. She served 33 days, and was given two years probation. By her own admission, she was also arrested for D.U.I. and writing bad checks when she was 18.]
Yes. I wrote about that in an open letter on Facebook, after I knew the National Enquirer was coming out. My ex-husband flew home from Afghanistan, because he works for the State Department, so we could tell our daughter.
How much of that story did Michael know about?
None of it. He knew I had a D.U.I., we had that conversation. The bad check thing was a mistake. I was 18 years old. I’m 42 now. Everything bad that happened in my past, happened 23, 24 years ago. You gotta keep in mind, I left home at 15, I got emancipated from my parents and my grandfather at 16, and I was a child living in an adult world, leaving a privileged upbringing [to be] out on my own, working three jobs and not understanding the value of a dollar. With the check, [what happened was] I wrote one, there wasn’t enough money in the bank, then years later, that check came back to haunt me. Then I got a D.U.I. because after I fell off a horse, I was on painkillers, I was drinking Alabama Slammers, and I got caught. Then I moved to Maine, and I thought it would be a good idea to ask someone for $10,000, because I knew something bad about someone. Obviously you know you’re doing something wrong, but I don’t think you understand the consequences of that wrong. Now I would never do something like that, but then I did, and I was arrested and charged with blackmail.
Was it more of a violation from your perspective for the media to reveal your criminal past, or that you were intersex?
Intersex. Oh, God, yes. The criminal past—it is what it is. I did something wrong, and I did what I had to do to make it right. It was half my life ago. But something so personal—I’ve never even used the label intersex. Even though I was born that way, as soon as I could walk and talk, I was a girl. There were times when my grandparents tried to force me to be something else, because they were listening to what the doctors were saying, and they thought there was something that could be fixed. It’s like, so what, there’s no testes, big deal. But I also had a scar down the backside of my penis, which is where my vagina would’ve been, that had to be sewn up when I was born. That’s just what they did back then: Whatever was easiest, whatever was the quickest way to take care of it. But the thing is, you really don’t know how [the] brain differentiates in the first trimester until the child speaks for themselves. So it’s kinda dangerous to do surgery right away, because you don’t know, which is why a lot of intersex people stay intersex.
Have you known your whole life you were intersex?
I always knew I was a girl. I didn’t know I was intersex until I was diagnosed in the early 80s. Although I didn’t have testicles, I still had to go on testosterone blockers, I don’t remember the details why. But I was late to start puberty, so it wasn’t until I was 14 or 15 that they actually started estrogen, because I produced it, but I didn’t produce enough. So [having had] corrective surgery, I’m a girl. I’m a woman. I always was. There was nothing different about me, so I felt like there was no reason to ever talk about it. My exes didn’t know. My girlfriends didn’t know. But this wasn’t something I talked about. Michael did not know till I told him.
How did you tell him?
I called him through Drew, his agent at Octagon. I left him a message and said, “Things have gotten out of control, and the media has dug up some stuff from my past. I really would like to tell Michael over the phone.” Drew did nothing. So I sent him emails and then I hand-wrote it and sent it to his house. What I put on Facebook and what I sent him was very different. What I sent him was far more detailed, far more intimate. I felt like I was going to lose him by telling him this.
Had you ever told anyone you’d been with you were intersex before?
No. I hadn’t. My ex-husband knew, because we’d known each other since third grade. We reconnected on Facebook years later, so I didn’t have to tell him much. He has a daughter who I think of as my daughter, who I’m very close to. I felt it was important that my family knew before this story broke, and that was very, very difficult, to say the least. The only thing I’ve ever told my exes is that I was sterile, that I couldn’t have children. Because I didn’t have ovaries, I didn’t have eggs, and I didn’t produce semen, because I didn’t have testicles. So they knew I wasn’t having children either way.
Were you surprised by the media’s treatment of intersex issues?
I guess it doesn’t surprise me that they would do something to sell a magazine, but it did because I’d given them all the correct information. It was more of a betrayal. And of course, the story has gone in a million other directions, and what people fail to realize is, people are just writing off the first story, or hearing part of the story. They’re not talking to me. They don’t have quotes from me. But right now, my focus is trying to change this narrative and get away from talking about Michael and bring it back to intersex issues, since I have this platform.
How did you feel when the conversation turned from “Here’s a woman claiming to be Michael Phelps’ girlfriend,” to “Here’s a woman claiming to be his girlfriend…and she’s intersex”?
Who’d want to be outed? I’ve never lived my life that way. I work as a sign language interpreter, where my job is all about privacy, confidentiality, and being invisible. This has destroyed my livelihood. I’ve worked on the Hill. I can’t be standing three and a half feet from the President when I can no longer be invisible. People recognize me everywhere I go. I’m 5’8’’, I’m blonde, I have big boobs, I’m used to people looking at me. I’m used to attention, male attention. I’m a label person, I live in Gucci. But now when people look at me, I’m thinking, “Do they recognize me? Have they seen me on the web? Have they seen me in a newspaper, a magazine?” For all of October, I’ve been in bed, medicated. This has been very debilitating for me.
Yet lots of people are saying that you’re trying to cash in on the media attention, or that you’re making this relationship up and it never existed.
I’ve seen all that too. The thing is, people are going to write stories about me, whether I want them to or not. I have Google Alerts, I get at least 50 a day…I’ve been vilified in all this, but I have not made a dime, even from the National Enquirer, when I talked to them. And in return, I’ve lost my own livelihood. When I see people saying all these things about me, it’s so frustrating. But I’ve learned from the very beginning [that] to defend myself is futile. They’re going to believe what they want to believe, no matter what.
Well, there’s the issue of you not having pictures with Michael on your phone.
I have pictures of Michael. Michael has pictures of me. There is not a picture of us together. There was never a time where it would’ve been normal to do it. We’re sitting on the couch, watching TV, and what, I’m going to say, “Let’s take a selfie?” He’s asked to take pictures 24/7. I didn’t need that. If he hadn’t gotten a DUI and went up to meet my friends and played Cards of Humanity, I’m sure we would’ve taken pictures. But up to that point, we didn’t do anything or go anywhere that would’ve warranted taking a selfie. People have made such a big deal about that, but you know what? Even if I had them, I would not share them. At this point, we’re not together, but I can assure you, it’s not because I’m intersex, and it’s not because of the media hype, and it’s not because I did anything wrong. That is Michael’s story, and it’s for him to tell. If I tell it, it’s going to make this even messier.
Are you surprised that he hasn’t? Are you surprised you haven’t heard from him?
Oh, I never said I never heard from him. I heard from him when he was out of rehab, before the media knew it. But that’s as much as I’m going to say about that. At this point, we are not talking. I would love closure. I would like to know why he did some of the things he did. But I probably never will, and that has to be OK.
We’ve talked a lot about what you saw in him, and what you wanted from him. But let’s turn it around—what do you think he saw in you? What do you think this gold medalist, who presumably could have a one night stand with any woman on the planet, wanted from you?
I don’t know. I’ve been with him more than once, so I always find it funny when people think it was a one-night stand. We talked every day. I think a lot of it is my body. I work out a lot. I eat very clean. You could bounce a quarter off any part of my body. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures that are more risque. I’m very fit. Before all this happened, I was a size 6. Now I’m a size 2. This weekend has been the first time I’ve been able to eat since this all began, because I’m not at home, I’m not surrounded by the solitary thoughts, by the triggers of the past, by the memories of all that has happened with him.
There must be something you like or enjoy about the media attention, because you’re doing this Headquarters thing, and I saw your Facebook. It has all these links to news stories about you.
Because what happens is, once you’re in this news cycle, you either need to lean into it, or it’s going to destroy you. Once I told my story, I thought it would take the wind out of the sails of there being any interest, because I thought, “I’ve told my own story. You can’t do anything to me now.” Then it just blew up like fire. My Twitter went from 400 people to almost 15,000 in 24 hours. I had over 1,000 friend requests on my private Facebook, and my publicist said we should create a Facebook profile to keep my lives separate. My main reason for being here has to do with negotiating a book deal, which has nothing to do with Michael Phelps. It’ll be about my life, my story. Michael Phelps would be the last sentence of the last chapter: “And then she met Michael Phelps.” My life is sensational enough as is.
The way you’re talking about it right now, it doesn’t sound like you’re unhappy with the media attention.
In the beginning it was tough. I didn’t know what to do. It was kinda like I had two options: I could hide and jump off the balcony, or lean into it. But the narrative started changing. When the Huffington Post started attacking how the media was treating me, the pronouns they were using, it changed the narrative. And I can tell you today, out of everything I’ve done, there’s been a little conversation about Michael Phelps, and the rest of it has been all about me. That’s what needs to happen, so the conversation can be about intersex and people dealing with difficulty on the spectrum of gender in general. If I could not turn this into something good, I could not live like this.
What do you want people to know about intersex issues? What’s the hardest thing about growing up intersex?
I honestly don’t know. I can honestly only tell my own story. I’ve had a lot of organizations reach out to me to come speak, but I don’t know all the terminology very well because I’ve never lived this way. I’ve never lived out loud, so to speak. But I’ve been careful so far to only talk about myself, because—and you know this very well— if you say the first wrong thing, you mislabel someone and that’s all that’s heard.
The thing is, most intersex people live [in] stealth, and they want to keep it that way. They want to have rights. They don’t want to be stigmatized. So they see this as an opportunity. I do see that, but because of everything I’ve gone through emotionally, it’s one more pressure on my shoulders, because I don’t want to hurt anybody or do anything wrong. And I don’t think I have so far. My daughter said it better than anyone: She told me, “You’ve done nothing wrong. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Why would you think you’d have to keep [the way] you were born and being intersex a secret?” That’s how I’ve tried to be, but there’s good days and bad days.
What kind of messages have you gotten from intersex people so far?
Very positive. “Keep going.” “Keep your head up.” “We love you, we’re so proud of you.” A lot of them say, “I can’t imagine putting my story out there,” even though it was forced upon me. Those make up for all the negative comments.
What do those say?
“Die.” “You don’t deserve to live.” “You’re ruining Michael Phelps’ life.” “You’re a fame whore.” I guess I understand it, if you’re on the outside looking in. People read articles and they think everything is the gospel, which you and I both know is not the way the media works. The worst is the quote about how being with Michael Phelps made me feel like a true woman. I never said that. I said, “He didn’t see me as different. He saw me as l whole.” And it had nothing to do with being intersex. I felt comfortable with him. I didn’t feel like I had to hide scars from my accident, or be conscious of anything.
What would you say to him, if you could talk to him now?
Well, it’s kind of a Catch-22, because there are some things that I’d like to say that I don’t want to talk about. But on a simple level, there is part of me that misses him. With everything that’s happened, I do miss him. Even though I feel wronged, given the chance, had all this other stuff not happened, maybe we could’ve had a chance. Maybe it would’ve ended, like all his other relationships. Maybe there was too big an age difference. There would’ve been the issue of children….That’s probably my one regret: That I don’t have a child of my own. I love children, I’m a big kid at heart. Because I didn’t have a good childhood. And maybe that’s the reason why I liked him. Since he was seven, it was swimming, swimming, swimming. He didn’t really have a childhood either.
What about your childhood made it so unhappy?
I have no problem talking about that. I’ve talked about it once before. I was molested from the time I was 2 till I was 12. I suffered incest from my uncle when I was 14 on a trip to Busch Gardens. I wanted him prosecuted, and my grandparents didn’t want that, because of appearances. That was the final straw. I wanted to hear them say what he did to me. I wanted to be free of it. So my grandparents gave me $3,000 and I bought a one-way ticket to Maine. My grandfather died 30 days after. And my family blamed me for it…As a child, it was so bad for me, when I wanted to go to the bathroom number two, I would sit on the heel of my foot to stop it from happening because it hurt so bad. I would do that until there was no way to stop it, and I would be in so much pain, bleeding. They should’ve known. They should’ve protected me. I mean, when there’s blood in the bathwater…
I guess that gives you a better understanding now of why intimacy and feeling comfortable with someone has always been so difficult for me. Sex to me, has always been a negative, in some way, shape or form. I was brutally raped in 1993 and put in the hospital, which just about killed me…That’s when I changed my name, from Paige Victoria Whitney to Taylor Lianne Whitney. I wanted to be free of the past, have a boring, normal life. And I think Michael represented someone for the first time. [Crying.] It felt normal. It felt organic. I felt so comfortable with him, like I didn’t have to be anything I wasn’t. And I miss that. Regardless of everything that’s happened, I miss that.
Photo via Taylor Lianne Chandler/Facebook