I met Tea Uglow on a misty day in New York City, where tourists in Chelsea were braving the threat of rain for sidewalk cafés and city strolls. Uglow herself was coming from the second of two brunches when she met me at Soho House, squeezing in meetings before she flew back to Australia and her role as Experimental Person in Charge at Google Creative the next day. She brewed – appropriately enough – tea in blue china cups.
Perhaps it was the rainy day and comfy armchairs, which dwarfed us as well as our cups and saucers, that gave me the sense of time traveling into a British novel. But maybe what was really transporting me to another world was the feeling of talking with Uglow, who, in an age of glib answers and press-ready catchphrases, pushes at the unfinished edges of ideas like time, self, and creativity. “This perspective would change massively if you interviewed me on a different day,” she told me. Her ideas are shifting and in progress, just as Uglow herself – and all of us – are ever-transforming works in progress, from who we are to our creative output.
In our conversation, we returned often to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Welcome to a transformative cup of tea with Tea Uglow.
Q. Your one bio says, “She writes, talks, arts, geeks, queens, parents, and humans.” What does it mean to human?
A. There are lots of things we are expected to do that don’t make all that much sense to me. Well, they do make sense within the conventions, the values, and the expectations of society. But often you don’t really know where these things come from. We don’t stop and examine them. “Humaning” is where you do all the things that don’t really make any sense to make everyone else understand that you are also human. If you weren’t human and you came to be human, it would be a fairly fundamental culture shock. We see that in sitcoms all the time: “Hey, it’s an alien in a human body. Aren’t humans weird?” And you go, “Yeah, they really are.”
Q. That’s not at all how I expected you define humaning.
A. What did you think I was going to say?
Q. I think people sometimes say things about working to be more human in a more true-to-themselves sort of way.
A. I don’t really buy into the self thing for mental health reasons. I don’t have that solidity of self, that constancy that you’re talking about, that idea of having a set of values or a set of principles. I’m not amoral, but I have assorted value sets, and they’re often in conflict with one another. When I’ve had nervous breakdowns, often what happens is you strip away – especially if you’re transitioning – lots of ideas of identity and self, anything which you feel is being constructed by society, which you’ve been told you have to be. And you find yourself with very little. There is very little. My friends might call it the spirit or the soul. The only thing I really thought I had was certainly not a sense of self; it was the place that ideas come from. It’s why I’m comfortable with the notion of creativity.
Q. Can you describe that for me?
A. Yeah, sure. We often ask ourselves, “Who do you want to be?” For me, that’s always been a very collaged thing. I am different things for different people at different times, which is difficult – partly because I’m trans. From the age of three, I’ve been assembling myself as a boy to fit in, to get along, and to not get killed. You learn to assemble the self according to what is asked of you, not what you feel you are. I never really had an opportunity to find that idea of true self. As I was transitioning, I assumed that’s what would happen: I would find my true self.
Funny enough, having gotten to rock bottom and stripped of all the things I thought I was to other people, all the things I was scared of losing – Who am I without those things? Will you still like me? Will I still have any meaning? – it’s very like getting naked, but getting all of your invisible armor off as well. It turned out there wasn’t really anything there, apart from this thing I clung to: The ideas were still there. The things that I thought about remained constant. I still think about time. I still think about space. I think about information and how we relate information, culture, and art. So that’s what I had. And all the other bits are quite constructed. So I don’t really believe in self.
Q. It sounds like a very unnerving process to go through.
A. I wouldn’t recommend it. Our idea of self and identity is armor. I think that it’s fundamentally something we construct in order to keep ourselves sane.
Q. You gave a talk a few years ago, and you mentioned that moving from England to Australia and physically distancing yourself allowed you to experiment and think about new things.
A. I don’t have those memories. I remember the talk, but I couldn’t tell you one thing I said in it. Someone else completely gives my talks. I have no idea who they are. They’re very good at it. They just turn up, they do the talk, and then they move on. And every now and again they turn up in emergency situations, like I had to give a little speech at a pronoun party and it was really not going very well, because who likes doing public speaking? I was really struggling and started to cry and all of that. And then someone who was just significantly more comfortable and confident than me turned up and was like, “Oh, get out of the way.” And gave a very good speech. I don’t really know what she said.
Q. Can you describe her?
A. Yeah. She’s about a foot taller than me, and more confident, more present. She’s funny. She understands how to do work with audiences, and she’s watching for stagecraft. I’m not; it’s wild. They’re just more competent and funny. They’re quick on their feet. They know how to move on. And it’s why I quite like being on stage.
But that thing of moving to Australia was really important. You physically extract yourself from a place where people have expectations of you – where you can limit control and access to you. I didn’t realize it at the time, but clearly, based on my work and for my personal transition, that was an essential step: to go find somewhere a really long way away, where we could just cocoon ourselves and get through this.
Q. When you say “get through this,” are you through it?
A. Sort of. The trans bit’s fine. Apart from this weird sense that, every now and again, you forget quite how persecuted trans people are all around the world. And then you forget you’re one of them, which is obviously ideal, because ideally you would forget. It’s like being tall or being Welsh; it shouldn’t really affect your life.
But it does affect your life in these huge ways. Because people kill trans people. And I’m very, very much aware that I am out and proud and public and happy to represent for that community. But I’d rather not have it painted on my forehead.
Q. I read that one of your favorite ways of getting correspondence is via postcard.
A. This is true. I like all the postcards. It is something that gives me great joy.
Q. What is it about postcards?
It’s the physicality of the thing. When we were at university, I had friends around the world, and we used to send each other really strange things through the mail to see if they’d go, like lumps of wood. Or you’d send a T-shirt where the address was on the T-shirt. Someone sent tea bags and those sorts of things. Tea bags were actually very common because it’s like a thing where you’re going, “Oh, tea. We’re having a cup together!” I used to get letters and cards, and my mother has always been a great writer. This is before email. There’s a certain sort of tragedy to the decline of physical mail, because there’s something really lovely about that. I really like it when people send me odd postcards. All of that thought and effort that’s gone into that. It’s quite meaningful. The best ones, obviously, are the ones where you draw something.
Q. It’s ironic, given that your career is so founded in totally new digital concepts.
A. One of the weirdest things about my career is this opportunity to try to make adverts for things that people didn’t know were things. Like Chrome. When we started trying to get people to use Chrome, people didn’t know what a browser was.
Q. Is there a particular project that was fun to work on?
A. It was one of Google’s early adverts. When Google Plus came along, we really wanted to explain to people that all this photo stuff was bundled into it. There’s a setting so that when you take a photo, it uploads to an album that’s in the cloud. The whole idea was really novel, and we were trying to think why this would be useful. Up until that point, humankind had managed fine without phones that automatically upload your photos. And then we found this lovely story of this guy. He had a kid. He took lots of photos of the kid. And then he lost his phone. All the photos of his kid were on the phone, and he thought he’d lost all the photos of his kid. And then it turned out that he had the feature turned on. So he gets back home and finds all of the photos have already been saved.
Q. That’s a perfect little nugget of a story.
A. Yeah. But he didn’t want to use the photos of his kid for the story. And I had just had a kid and I was taking a lot of photos. My partner at the time was like, “What’s it going to be used for? Is anyone going to see this?” “No, no, no; it’s just an online ad,” I said. “No one watches these.” So she said yeah. And we uploaded them. And then it got shown on TV at the Grammys or Oscars or something. It’s had like 20 million views and it got translated into Portuguese. I’m not sure whether the firstborn will be more bothered that we used his photos to sell the company, or whether his younger brother will be more upset that he doesn’t have a video. That’s the lot of the second child.
Q. Was becoming a parent transformative?
A. Oh, it’s astonishing. You’re not aware how much your goals will change, how much your life will require you to take on new value sets, and how hard it is to remember that other people who don’t have children don’t share those values. Every child turns every new parent into a very new being. And it will – almost without fail – affect relationships and change how you relate to the world. For me it was peculiar, because that whole idea of performing gender immediately became tighter; there was less space for me to not be this idea of masculinity.
We generally don’t talk about it being a difficult time, but it’s incredibly difficult. And we don’t give moms space to struggle, or we don’t give moms credit for doing it in the first place. It’s really difficult for me to talk about because I’m not the mom. I’m not their mom; I’m their parent. And I have enormous love and respect for their mother, who is doing an incredible job.
Q. In a funny way, has Google been one of the most consistent things in your life?
A. Yes. They’ve been incredibly supportive. Their main thing is like, “What can we do?” You read about people who transition or have mental health problems or disabilities or anything. We spend most of our lives at work. The idea that that would be a hostile environment to a challenge that you’re facing just feels wrong. Why would that ever be the case? But it is.
Q. There’s a trope that goes around the creative world a lot, which is the idea of bringing your whole self to work. What do you think about that idea?
A. The idea of bringing your whole self to work should really be understanding that every single person is completely different, which is much more what it is, because there’s no point in bringing your whole self to work if it’s not accepted. “Yeah, maybe not quite that much – perhaps half of yourself. How about these selves? Can you just do these parts?”
If you make sure that the environment that you’re working in is supportive, and that people believe that it’s alright to be in a caring environment when they’re at work, it makes it easier. And I have never met anyone who’s taken advantage of that. You don’t repay that by exploiting it; that’s not what you do. You tend to respond to love with love and creativity.