In the 1970s, entrepreneur Elizabeth Carmichael set her sights on disrupting the auto industry with the Dale, a three-wheeled car that promised to get 70 miles to the gallon.
Given the fact the country was gripped by a fuel crisis at the time and that a Los Angeles woman was audacious enough to directly call out the titans of Detroit, Carmichael and the Dale instantly generated massive media hype. But that frenzy of excitement fizzled when a local news station started investigating shady dealings and allegations of fraud at Carmichael’s 20th Century Motor Car Company. Tugging that thread led to unraveling her rap sheet of past crimes and a penchant for running from authorities as high as the FBI—and the fact that she was a trans woman.
As stranger-than-fiction as Carmichael’s story is, it was largely buried over the years after the initial sensation of her trial over the 20th Century Motor Car Company and her running from the law, yet again, thereafter.
But directors Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker are reexamining Carmichael and the complexities of her legacy in a new HBO docuseries, The Lady and the Dale, debuting January 31.
Over the course of four hour-long episodes, The Lady and the Dale covers the sweeping breadth of Carmichael’s life and career and dutifully unpacks how her trans identity shaped her narrative then—and reframes how it should be seen today.
“The notion that she was a man masquerading as a woman to get away with fraud was so persistent that I think it outlasted her life,” Drucker says. “I wonder if the reason why she hasn’t been claimed as a trans predecessor is because maybe people didn’t even realize that she was trans? Maybe the notion that she was masquerading as a woman to commit a crime was too big for her to ever undo?”
The idea for The Lady and the Dale originated back in 2011 when Cammilleri came across an episode of Unsolved Mysteries from 1989 asking for information on Carmichael’s disappearance after her 20th Century Motor Car Company trial.
“I had 100 questions,” Cammilleri says. “But I got no answers to anything. And so I just got really pissed, and I kept looking and looking and looking. I became OCD about it.”
Although it’s probably for the best that Carmichael’s story is told today amid more nuanced conversations around gender identity, Cammilleri rightfully calls out the dearth of information as problematic.
“Trans history just gets erased,” he says. “That’s why it was so hard finding anything, because once the media is done exploiting you, they just throw you away.”
But once a complicated figure such as Carmichael is exhumed, the question becomes what to make of her story in the context of representation.
Too often, marginalized groups have to contend with the burden of being cast in a negative light for the actions of one. If a cis man commits fraud, it’s just fraud. If it’s a trans woman doing the same, suddenly the whole community is on trial. That said, it doesn’t serve a marginalized group to exalt only those in their communities that are considered the “perfect” examples.
To Cammilleri, Carmichael is the kind of antihero the trans community deserves to have more of. On the one hand, she did engage in unsavory business practices, but it was also clear she had a remarkably shrewd mind for business and an uncanny knack for survival.
“She’s this incredible protagonist, and she’s also her own worst enemy. I think we do such a great job of not shying away from all the warts and saying her complexities are what make her great,” Cammilleri says. “Not only antiheroes have to be white men. I think she deserves a place in that pantheon.”
“What makes antiheroes great is that they operate outside society’s norms because they say your rules don’t work for the way I live my life,” he continues. “So I have to go around you and carve out my own path.”
For Drucker, as a well-known trans activist and artist, working on The Lady and the Dale has left her feeling empowered to show her more complete self.
“Being a public-facing person in the trans movement, I’ve felt so restricted by this period of affirming storytelling and the expectation of needing to be the perfect role model. And I feel so much more allowance just to be messy and free because of Liz,” Drucker says. “I hope that this story gives people a feeling of allowance to be their truest selves and never to be a mystery guest in their own lifetime.”
When you watch the archival coverage of Carmichael’s trial and how her past was represented in the media, it’s hard not to see The Lady and the Dale as something of a redemptive and complete portrait of a woman who, despite her transgressions, deserved just that at the very least. That’s exactly why Cammilleri fought for nearly a decade to get her story out there and calls it the “greatest thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
“That history got erased, and it took dozens of some of the people at the highest level of this business to pull Liz’s story back and restore it because her trans identity was criminalized,” Cammilleri says. “These stories are here, and they’re worth fighting for.”
The Lady and the Dale premieres on HBO January 31.