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"American Horror Story" And The Extraordinary Journey Of Erika Ervin

Playing Amazon Eve is just the latest remarkable moment in Erika Ervin's amazing life. Ervin — an actor, model, lawyer, and fitness instructor — talks to BuzzFeed News about what she has learned along the way to Ryan Murphy's Freak Show.

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FX
FX

When Erika Ervin auditioned for the role of American Horror Story: Freak Show's Amazon Eve, the original call sheet was asking for a large man who would play a woman. So Ervin, who stands at 6'8", auditioned dressed as a man — she bound her breasts, pushed back her hair, and deepened her voice. And she nailed it. Only after Ervin won the role did she tell the casting director she is transgender.

Ervin came out to her family as trans in 2004 and most of them reacted by cutting off communication with her. "I've created a new family," she told BuzzFeed News via phone. "I have friends all over the world now. They're my family of choice, and in many ways they're much closer to me than my family of origin. I do periodically keep in contact with my brother. … He's watching the show and he's just so proud of me."

Ervin struggled with her height as a teen: At 14 years old, she was 5 feet 11 inches, towering over her peers and most of her teachers. Over the next four years, she grew nine more inches. "I used to see myself in many ways as a bit of a monster, similarly to Frankenstein's narrative," Ervin said. When asked about the significance of Amazon Eve, Ervin pointed to the intersection of height and sexism. "A woman of my height in the 1950s would be pushed out of the narrative of being able to play a supportive role to a man. And really, why should she have to?"

As the world's tallest professional model, Ervin is still acutely aware of cultural pressure on women to physically shrink themselves. "The things I've done in the past, wrestling, boxing, and physical training, they've all been responses to imposed demands on me," she said. In addition to her work as a fitness instructor, Ervin also studied law. She spent years fighting for health care reform for transgender people living in California. People like her. Today, she considers advocacy a separate part of her life. "I'm starting to be framed as a spokesperson in this community, and all I ask is that people let me choose to decide to be a spokesperson. Let me decide to venture into that arena."

Currently, Ervin happily stands in the arena of American Horror Story: Freak Show, where she is reunited with an old acquaintance, Jyoti Amge who stands at 2 feet 1 inch and weighs 11 pounds. Amge, the world's smallest woman, co-stars as Ma Petite on the series. Both women met on a TV show in Milan about the Guinness Book of World Records. Ervin finds thats she's consistently inspired by her co-star. "I'm very much friends with Jyoti," Evin said. "If you've seen Guardians of the Galaxy, we're Rocket and Groot. We are the living embodiment of that friendship. I knew this when I saw her, when I first met her. I put her on my shoulders and I just saw magic happen. Meeting her was part of my journey."

Another step in that journey was Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, a book Ervin's co-star Mat Fraser, who plays Paul the Illustrated Seal, loaned to her. Ervin is now comforted by what she has discovered about people who live in "extraordinary bodies," including the following life-altering fact: "Monster comes from the latin root monstrum which means divine omen. Not evil."

Ervin believes she has survived the worst of her self-doubt in regards to her size, and hopes she and her co-stars will inspire a compassionate response in others. "It's beautiful that we get to share these differences on screen and let you know you're one of us too," she said. "And we come from you. We're a part of you. And you get to see that in a beautiful story — though it may scare the shit out of you."