|Business: Celine Audebeau (left) at work. VNS Photo Lê Hương
By Lê Hương & Hồng Vân
There are few women with a smile as broad as Celine Audebeau. It’s a smile that not only says happiness, but also satisfaction.
But for most of her life she was far from happy. The 54-year-old company director was nothing short of miserable. Miserable because she was living a lie, hiding a secret that very few people knew.
Born in France in 1964 her name wasn’t Celine, and she wasn’t a young girl growing up playing with dolls like many others. Celine was born Christophe, a boy.
At the age of 6, the child knew something wasn’t right.
“I felt that something was wrong,” she recalled. “I was much more attracted to my sisters’ clothes. I didn’t tell anyone about that. The internet didn’t exist at that time and there was no way to share anything.”
In a desperate bid to fit in, teenage Christophe would throw himself into sports, hoping the feelings inside would disappear and he would lead a normal life.
But after playing rugby or volleyball he would return to his family home and in secret, dress up as a woman.
Despite his hidden urges, Christophe met a woman and they began a relationship and had a daughter. But after 12 years together, they separated, as he struggled daily to hide his feminine desires.
When he started seeing another woman, this time Christophe was upfront, telling her from the outset the secret he had harboured for so long.
“She accepted and she became my wife for 20 years,” she said. “I was happy because I was able to work as a man at the office and return home to be a woman in a woman’s clothes. All in secret.”
Despite being able to share his passion with his wife, he would never venture out in public dressed as a woman. Deep inside he knew his life wasn’t complete.
“I was really depressed, I put on a lot of weight, I was drinking, I didn’t see any way out of the problem,” she added.
A routine thyroid operation was to become Christophe’s Eureka moment.
Complications during surgery lead to his heart stopping on the operating table, but doctors managed to bring him back to life. This, he thought, was a second chance, a chance he would not waste.
“I could not be the woman I wanted to be,” she said. “Then I woke up. I came up with an idea.”
That idea was to change.
He quit drinking and started taking hormone tablets. He lost 26 kilos and began to physically change. But it still wasn’t enough.
|Joyful: Celine (centre) at a party with her colleagues to celebrate one year since her operation to become a woman. Photos courtesy of Celine Audebeau
|Big catch: Christophe had a passion for fishing.
|Past life: Happy Christophe as a little boy.
|Transformation: Christophe (left) in the past and Celine of today.
|Active: Christophe used to play various kinds of sport.
|Something wrong: He held a huge secret inside during his youth.
|Painful procedure: Celine after an operation in Bangkok last year
|New life: Present Celine is happier than ever before.
Christophe consulted a Hà Nội-based doctor and scoured the internet looking for information on transitioning a man to a woman.
Eventually he decided to undergo surgery and chose a clinic in Bangkok for a series of long and intense procedures.
This included facial reconstruction and creating a vagina. Christophe entered the hospital and left five days later, as Celine.
“There is no way to come back, now you have to be strong, to be yourself,” she said.
Before going under the knife she confided with friends and family to discuss the radical plans. She always needed the support of her colleagues and management at Red River Manufacturing.
The response she got was overwhelming. Even to the point it helped grow her relationship with her parents and her daughter.
“My daughter is careful to call me Celine and not dad but I told her that whatever happens I will always be your dad, nothing changed,” she proudly said.
“We often go to the restaurant together so it is quite funny when you have the mother, the daughter and the father as a woman.”
Now she arrives at work looking every inch the woman she always wanted to be. On her return to the office after completing the transformation, her colleagues greeted her with cheers and flowers.
“They were all here in my office waiting for me,” Celine remembered. “It was my first cry.”
And the tears that were flowing that day 12 months ago were not just coming from Celine. Her colleagues also shared her joy.
“I found no changes between Christophe and Celine after the operation, only the appearance,” said Đỗ Minh Hằng, Human Resource officer at the company, who has worked with Audebeau for seven years.
“I have been a close friend with Christophe. When he poured his heart out to me, I told him: Be yourself.”
Hằng picked up Celine at the airport when she returned from Bangkok.
“She cried, and I did too,” Hằng said. “I couldn’t imagine she would be so beautiful. We held a party to welcome Ms Celine. So far, everybody feels comfortable with her.”
“She’s getting more beautiful and gentle than before as a woman,” said Hou Yan Hua, the factory’s Quality Control Manager.
As for the woman herself, there was still work to be done. She needed a new identity, new passport and new permits for Việt Nam.
There was also the issue of her business. Christophe was a shareholder in the company where she works, but not Celine.
And now the transformation is complete. In name, appearance, body and soul.
Many say life begins at 40, but for Celine, her new life started the second she became a woman.
“I feel just the happiest woman in the world,” she said.
A new law which took effect from January 1, 2017 in Việt Nam, helps people who have undergone sex changes register their civil status while protecting their personal rights.
There are an estimated 300,000 transgender people living in Việt Nam.
This new law helped Celine a great deal in her transition.
But the issue of transferring company shares from Christophe to Celine was new ground in this country.
She believes she is the first person to have achieved this and is full of praise for authorities here in Việt Nam.
“It was really special because our lawyer told me it had never happened before in this country," she said.
“I am very proud to be the first one. Now everything is done. There is no mister anymore.
“It is perfect now.”
Giving back to community
Though Celine was not on facebook before, now she is an active member, helping others who have found themselves in similar situations.
She is also close to finishing work on a book, highlighted her story.
“My experience is so positive in comparison with experiences people shared,” she said, “I want to support others as much as I can.” VNS