Man of the Hose

From stockings to sequins, Studio Lites has cross-dressing covered.

It can be difficult to find pantyhose that fit properly when you're a 6'2", 220-pound hunk with lumberjack legs and large, flat feet.

This is a problem that Bill has learned to live with -- just one of the many sacrifices a girl-in-training must make for beauty.

"Sometimes I'll use something to take in my stomach, give it a little more shape. I have a little bit of a gut," Bill confides. "But I think I have fairly nice legs. I like wearing the pantyhose, even though they're awkward at first. You get used to it."

John Johnston
Boys will be girls: Rick Smith as Bianca (left) and 
Chris Gradford as Morganna.
Boys will be girls: Rick Smith as Bianca (left) and Chris Gradford as Morganna.

Right now, along with the pantyhose, Bill is wearing a mini-dress, modest heels and a sequined jacket that picks up the blue of his eyes. This is not his standard Thursday-night attire.

Bill spends most evenings with his wife of more than thirty years -- cooking, entertaining guests, talking with his three grown children and nine grandchildren. On weekends, he rides motorcycles and participates in civic activities in Evergreen. A former military man who jumped out of airplanes while in the service, he's a sports enthusiast in his sixties who's fond of wearing Army boots and jeans, as well as the proud owner of a big-ass truck -- a massive four-by-four pickup that takes up more than one parking spot. Tonight the truck is parked in front of Studio Lites, an emerald-green boutique on Broadway where Bill comes to turn into Betty.

"You would never think a big, masculine guy like me would like to do this, would you?" he says. "But it's just the most wonderful feeling. Imagine the best feeling you ever had -- that's what it's like. I just come here, and they make me feel so glamorous and great."

Sitting in a makeup chair, his thick ankles crossed demurely in a debutante pose, Bill admires the big, reddish wig that Studio Lites owner Christopher Gradford has just wiggled onto his head, covering his gray hair. Upswept foundation and rouge create shadows on Bill's broad face, suggesting contours and womanly cheeks. The transformation is more than skin deep. Bill becomes giggly and girlish in his chair. Smiling, he makes mock kissing faces into a mirror.

"Look at him; he's such a ham," says Chris. "A lot of men are so pent up, they don't smile. It takes them a while to wind down from man mode. But you put them in dress, it's like a weight comes off of them. It's like a whole different person comes out -- a happy person."

Bill isn't ashamed to admit it: He feels beautiful. This is a wonderful night, a special night, and he doesn't want it to end.

"Even if there were a pill or something that could make me feel like this, I wouldn't take it," he says. "It's a natural thing, in a way. There's just nothing like feeling the wind on your legs when you're wearing a dress."

Studio Lites is listed in five sections of the Yellow Pages, and they don't begin to cover it all. For starters, "cross-dressing" isn't an official Yellow Pages category.

But then, Chris says, "You can't sustain a business with a cross-dresser as your only client. You've to cross over into general fashion and other areas."

The layout of Studio Lites reflects its many missions; there are nooks and crannies for every off-the-wall cultural activity. There's the conservative front room, with wigs and handbags, costume jewelry and makeup -- a space as innocuous as any ladies' boutique. To the right, a large room houses club clothing and stripper wear, bustiers and cinchers for men and women, plus a display case full of magazines targeting the transgendered community. An area to the left features fetish and goth wear in vinyl and velvet -- dresses that look like what one might wear to a good old-fashioned bloodletting. Farther back, there's a room stocked with specialty hosiery, including crotchless bodysuits in every color, as well as plastic underwear and outrageously high heels. Most of Studio Lites' shoes are designed for the dance floor -- or the stage. Stripper supply is one of Studio Lites' major moneymakers.

"For a stripper, your clothes are everything," says Chris. "It sounds odd, considering they're just taking them off, but if you have a customer who likes you and comes to see you a second time, he doesn't want to see you in the same outfit. He'll get tired of you."

But catering to cross-dressers is the shop's true specialty. This is one of just a half-dozen boutiques around the country designed to provide one-stop shopping and consulting for clients like Bill: successful, straight men who like to dress in women's clothing. Six days a week, soft-spoken Rick Smith, Chris's partner, mans the counter, advising customers on what shade of eyeliner or hosiery would be most flattering, fielding calls from men who want women's undergarments discreetly shipped to their homes, or women looking for tips on what types of lingerie men like most -- for themselves.

Chatty Chris buzzes the floor all day long. He knows many of the people who step into the store and greets regulars with a mandatory "squeeze." And he's got plenty of regulars. Customers come from all over the country to sit in his chair and have him design their hair, makeup and wardrobe.

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