It’s a hot summer night on South Street but it’s cool and dark inside Tritone bar, where the lineup is a rowdy variety showcase of GLBTQ acts. Musician Steph Hayes hangs out offstage, waiting to be introduced. It’s a bit of sly showmanship, really—everyone in this bawdy crowd already knows Steph.
In the years since first breaking out in the early 1990s with seminal Philly band Stargazer Lily, Hayes has graced almost every local stage and countless others across the country while playing in different projects: There’s the solo stuff, sometimes with back-up band the Good Problems, plucking bass with Chris Schutz and the Tourists, plus a regular gig singing back-up alongside Stargazer Lily co-founder Sue Rosetti for slide-guitar impresario Slo-Mo.
Socially, a relaxed rock-star swagger and a chiseled porcelain face has long made Hayes a heartthrob to lesbians in this town.
But while almost everyone in Philadelphia knows Steph Hayes, it’s just now becoming common knowledge that for years, Hayes struggled with a secret burden.
The drum rolls theatrically. With all the gusto of a commenter calling a boxing match, the host announces, for one of the first times ever in public, the artist formerly known as Steph Hayes.
“Introducing Mr. Stephan Hayes!” the host trills.
As Hayes starts to play, the physical changes from seven months of hormone replacement therapy are noticeable: The shape of his face has changed; its skin is rough. He’s broader and more muscular from a regimen of push-ups to build up pectoral muscles. In more ways than one, Stephan Hayes (pronouced Steph-in) is a new man.
The 37-year-old singer straps on his signature Guild acoustic with the blue-star-studded guitar strap and rips through catalogue favorite “Big, Big Dreams.”
“I live inside my head with the part of me that’s dead and my big, big dreams,” he sings. “I feel left out but I don’t want to come in.”
He careens through the song, throwing each line off like it might smother him if he didn’t.
His eyes close. “I can tell you a secret but it requires that we barter and I don’t know what you’ve got,” he sings. “It’s impossible to be me.”
The crowd whistles and hollers. When Hayes finishes singing, the host teases him.
“Honey, I thought you said, big dick dreams!”
Hayes laughs, grabs his crotch Michael Jackson-style and shouts back. “I have those too!”
A few nights after the Tritone show, Hayes is hanging out where he’s been every Monday night all year: hosting open-mike night at the Grape Room in Manayunk. He’s off tonight, but decided to pop in to say goodbye to the staff and the regulars. If the show at Tritone was an introduction to the new Stephan, tonight is a goodbye, in a way, to the old Steph. In a few days, he’ll undergo a mastectomy and recovery will take a full month. “It’s a bilateral mastectomy, double incision,” he explains, fingers sweeping across the front of his rib cage. “It actually looks pretty brutal, but I’m having a male sculpting done, [in which] they trim the nipples, and re-place them up higher.”
As Hayes and Majesta Bianco, his fiancee, hang out upstairs at the Grape, the music from newly minted musicians downstairs figuring out how to be on stage bleeds up through the floorboards. Like most professional performers, Hayes says he feels more comfortable on stage than anywhere else. But off stage, he insists, he’s shy. Then he throws his hands in the air in mock exasperation and smiles. “No one believes me when I say that. I don’t know why. It’s true!”
Meanwhile, because he is a musician in the public eye, he’s had to talk to hundreds of people about an extremely personal issue. “There’s just no way for me to drift into anonymity with it, you know?”
Over the last few years, as he started presenting a more masculine appearance to the world, his natural shyness gave way to anxiety as strangers reacted dramatically to his increasingly androgynous appearance. “Going on tour, going around the country, it was a real problem,” he says. “I was terrified of restrooms. Not only could it be uncomfortable, it could also be dangerous if I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”