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Actress Josie Totah on finding her true identity in the Hollywood spotlight

For years she played a boy on TV. Now the 18-year-old is thrilled to explore roles that reflect who she really is.
Marie Claire Honors Hollywood's Change Makers
Only 18, Josie Totah already has a long list of TV credits, and a lot more on the horizon.Amy Sussman / Getty Images for Marie Claire
/ Source: TODAY

For years, Josie Totah was pigeonholed as a flamboyant, young boy in acting role after acting role.

Then, she told the world to stop — after all, she's not a boy.

This year, we are honoring Totah as a Groundbreaker, one of our 18 girls under the age of 18 who are breaking down barriers, for International Day of the Girl.

The 18-year-old penned a moving essay for Time in 2018 in which she revealed that she identified as female; her pronouns are she, her and hers. Not that it was a huge surprise. After all, her friends and family had long known that Josie was transgender.

"A lot of people assumed that I was living a totally different life. All of a sudden, it was like, 'I'm different now, I've changed!'" she told TODAY Style of the moment that's — wrongly, in her opinion — perceived as her coming-out story. "But really, the only thing that changed is that I'm allowed to be myself outside of my home. Because I've always been this way, but no one knew except my family and friends.

"I think the best part is just getting to leave my home and go to the grocery store and not have to worry about what I'm wearing or what I look like," Totah continued. "I can just be me now. And that's all I ever asked, to exist as myself. But it's a hard journey to come by."

30th Annual GLAAD Media Awards
Josie Totah attended the 30th Annual GLAAD Media Awards on March 28 in Beverly Hills, California. David Crotty / Getty Image

Totah has said that her parents knew she was transgender when she was just 3 years old.

"I never sat them down and had to explain anything to them," she said. "And I think that just speaks to how nurturing and loving my parents are, and how they let me methodically experience my life for myself and find myself."

Totah, who lives in Los Angeles and just started her sophomore year in college, grew up in Davis, California, as part of what she describes as a loud and loving family.

"I have a super big Arabic family so we were very wild and very crazy," she said. "I was raised with a family that was supportive, accepting, loving, and throughout my entire childhood, my siblings and I were always told we could be whoever we wanted to be. That's an integral part of who I am today."

Disney Channel's "Jessie" - Season Three
Totah in the Disney series "Jessie." The now 18-year-old told TODAY she's excited to play female roles going forward. Tony Rivetti / Getty Images

As a kid, she participated in a stand-up comedy troupe. She met her manager in the audience, and started auditioning for TV roles from there.

"I always knew I wanted to entertain," she said. "I was just really an insane person — I still am. And that was kind of the only avenue I could give that energy to, and cultivate that energy and carve it into a craft."

Totah is known for roles on "Glee," the Disney series "Jessie," and for starring as Mindy Kaling's son on NBC's short-lived comedy "Champions," among others.

But at college, where she studies film, she's still able to maintain a relatively low-key presence, she said. Even her own roommate sometimes forgets Totah is a celebrity until she stumbles across her face on an advertisement in a department store, which recently happened. "She was so confused," Totah said, laughing. "She called me and couldn't believe that my face could be somewhere. I was like, OK, I have a job."

Now Totah is looking forward to playing female characters. She recently filmed a pilot for "Good People," an upcoming Amazon show in which she stars alongside Whitney Cummings and Lisa Kudrow.

"I'm not being cast as any form of a boy anymore — or gay," she said. "Because I identify as a female and I go out for female roles."

2016 Outfest Los Angeles Closing Night Gala Of "Other People" - Red Carpet
Totah announced that she is transgender in an essay last year. She got her start as an actor at a young age, after participating in a kids' comedy troupe in California.Greg Doherty / Getty Images

Not that she looks down on her previous gigs: "They were fun roles, but they weren't roles that represented me," she said.

Since clarifying her identity, Totah has become a role model for other young people in the LGBTQ+ community.

"We just want to live a normal life and be our truest self," she said. "No one has any ulterior motives or is trying to force negativity on anyone else. If someone just wants to live their best life ... why stop them?"

Totah knows that she is one of the lucky ones. She had the support that many other young people, especially those who are transgender, lack within their families or communities.

"It's definitely a giant privilege that I recognize," she said. But she encourages other young people who may be struggling with their identity to be their truest selves, and find a support network.

"The world is already moving forward so much more than we think it is," she said. "It is scary. But recognize that people are more accepting than you think they are."

Meet the rest of the TODAY Groundbreakers: 18 girls under 18 who are breaking down barriers, changing the world and inspiring others, despite – and because of – their young age.