By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Donnie didn't like being home, so he would escape into Sumter National Forest on a gold and black 12-speed bike. "He was real mischievous," Edward says. "That kid was always trying to get out of work. He had to be the top dog."
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 on 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."
Nevertheless, he was popular with girls at Walhalla Middle School. He had muscular legs from biking and bright blue eyes. "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 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 five-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 the 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.)
The couple soon moved into a well-kept gray house with a pool in a modest Greenville neighborhood. Neighbors believed they were straight and married.
Donnie had one close friend at the time: Julie, an assertive middle-age transsexual who had learned from a doctor/boyfriend how to pump "body shots" of silicone. "It was the only way on this planet I could change my body," Donnie says. Soon she got professional breast implants, a lip job, and a nose job.
Donnie nervously paid Julie $500 for the first set of injections after asking "a thousand questions." There was a slight pinch when the three-inch needle entered her hips. "It only goes halfway in," Donnie says. "All the transies did it. It was so fucking stupid."
If you believe South Florida prosecutors, who would later indict Donnie, she learned how to administer the shots in 1997. Once a month, she and Mark would pack up a jar of industrial-grade silicone and syringes and travel to Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami, or Homestead. They likely garnered tens of thousands of dollars per trip. Clients lined up at the homes of "handlers" — like Cookie — where the procedure was priced per shot. Hosts would get a percentage.