Man of the Hose
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."
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.
"Chris is a professional -- probably the best artist for cross-dressers in the United States," says Bill, who's had makeovers in Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle. "He makes you look so beautiful, you actually feel like you're a woman. And he gives me pointers and tips so that I can try to re-create the look on my own, at home, so I don't need to come in here all the time.
"There are a lot of people out there who say they want to help the cross-dresser," he adds. "They work secretly, sell you things out of their home, do your makeup, whatever you want. But most of them are just out to take advantage. They overcharge; they don't really care how you look when you leave. They could just slap a wig and some terrible makeup on you. You don't look beautiful; you just look like a man in a dress."
A Studio Lites man-to-woman makeover costs between $200 and $400 -- and that includes dressing, makeup, wig styling, nails and a photo session. For a little extra, Chris will even take his client on a chaperoned excursion into the real world. Many of the men who come to Studio Lites for makeovers want to take their new look out on the town, perhaps to a stageside table at cross-dresser-friendly clubs like BJ's Carousel. But others have more mundane aspirations: One particularly macho customer wanted to don a dress and head for the tool aisle at Wal-Mart.
"The fantasy is whatever the individual wants, whatever their definition of womanhood is, or whatever they encounter in day-to-day life," Chris explains. "So if you have a CEO, you're going to have a fantasy that's shaped by a CEO mindset. He may want to wear a nice little coat and some pumps and go out for a classy dinner. Or the working-class guy is going to want something a little trampier: a mini-skirt, maybe, and big breast forms. What I do is help them realize whatever that fantasy is and not to judge."
Most of Studio Lites' cross-dressing customers are family-oriented men who lead otherwise conventional, often conservative lives. The closely guarded client list includes politicians, prominent business owners, cops, firemen and servicemen. According to Chris, business has gotten a boost recently from GIs stopping by for Studio Lites makeovers during their R&R breaks from Iraq.
"We had one guy who's in the Army, and he came in here after he'd been discharged from Baghdad," he says. "He'd just executed his first kill in the field, and he was very confused and stressed about it. He came in here, we dressed him up beautifully and took his picture, and you could just see some of that anxiety and unhappiness melt away. He was like a different person."
Rick can relate to Studio Lites' military customers. He spent 23 years in the Navy Reserve -- secretly dressing in drag much of that time.
"The majority of our customers are well-educated, high-class professionals who, in a lot of cases, have very masculine personas in their day-to-day life," says Chris. "We have people coming through town to go skiing, or they're in town for a convention and they find us. Often it's the men who have the most macho roles in real life who seem to have the biggest need to express the feminine side of themselves. We once had a party for a bunch of our clients, and when they turned up, they discovered that they were all Denver cops. It's something no one ever talks about, but it's really quite common in a lot of these little pockets of our city culture."
"I think the Denver cross-dressing community is very, very large," agrees Phyllis Spiegelmeier, who operates Phyllis' Fantasies, a cross-dresser makeover business, out of her home in the Baker neighborhood. "We have a very large population of people who do this, and in most cases, they are successful, upper-middle-class men who are oftentimes high-profile. I think people would be very, very surprised to learn that their neighbor is into this, but he is."
Chris himself has been into this a long time. A native of Mississippi, he studied fashion and worked as a runway and print model in Japan before moving to Denver in the early '70s. In appearances at drag cabarets and clubs like BJ's, he honed his performance as a platinum-headed bombshell named Morganna.
"I'm black as well as Indian and a mix of other things, and I was a blonde way before anyone ever heard of RuPaul," Chris says. "But then when everyone started learning about RuPaul, they thought that's where I'd gotten the idea for my entertainments, so I had to kind of get away from that.
"Back then, drag was very beautiful; it was very glamorous," he recalls. "But it's gotten to the point where it's sort of ho-hum; people don't take as much care with it. There's not as much interest in the element of female illusion -- really trying to create a believable character. It used to be you'd study the mannerisms, the voice, everything about the persona of the person you were trying to emulate. Now, you slap a blond wig on, and suddenly you're Marilyn Monroe. People hear about a drag show now and they're like, 'So what?'"
Chris opened Studio Lites in 1978, in a storefront at Broadway and Ellsworth that's now occupied by Freaky's smoke shop. With his mother, Elizabeth, working alongside him, he spent the next ten years cultivating a far-flung and loyal clientele. He cut hair and did makeup for both men and women, sold cards and gifts and stocked clothing for strippers and drag queens.
In 1987, Chris met Rick, who became his partner and Studio Lites' financial manager. Soon after Rick came on board, the pair noticed a niche that no other business was filling.
"We used to do makeovers for Halloween, and that was a very big time for us," Rick explains. "There was one couple that came in one year, and they both wanted to be cats, so we made them cats. But the next year, she wanted to be a cat, and he wanted to be a woman. It was like, 'Hmmm. Well, maybe this is something we should be doing all the time.'
"There's one old guy -- I'd say he's in his seventies now -- and he was our first official cross-dressing customer," Rick adds. "He'd come around and peek in our windows. I said, 'Um, Chris? There's a man outside the store in a dress. What do we do?'"
By the time they moved Studio Lites to its current location, at 333 Broadway, in 1993, male-to-female transformations had become a focal point of the business. Today Chris does several makeovers a week for both local men and visitors who find the store through the Internet or advertisements in cross-dresser publications such as Transformations, a she-male skin mag. Although Chris does the bulk of the imaging, Rick adds his own expertise as Bianca, a blonde with a taste for glamorous evening wear.
Chris and Rick sometimes appear in drag together, although usually not in the store. But they'll occasionally invite clients to the house they share in Highlands Ranch, a sprawling show home once owned by childhood TV star Gary Coleman.
"That was definitely a selling point," Chris says. "One day we were puttering around the house, doing some painting and some other work, and there was a knock at the door. It was Gary Coleman. He was in town doing a dedication, and he wanted to see the old house. He's really just so very small; he's really cute. And unlike how the media makes it out, he's a very sweet and gentle, loving person."
Chris and Rick are willing to give just about anyone the benefit of the doubt. And they regard their clients as true friends.
"I've spent my life doing people's hair, so I know how to talk to anyone," Chris explains. "That's been the most important element of what I do: My clients open up to me, they trust me; they can tell me anything, and they know I'm not going to judge them. That's a big issue when you're talking about cross-dressers in particular; they're doing something that society would absolutely shun them for and make them feel guilty for, and I become the person who helps them celebrate it rather than shaming them."
The first time Bill came into Studio Lites, he looked around the store, then ran out and didn't return for a year and a half. Now he's one of its most loyal customers, coming in about once a month for a makeover. His wife isn't crazy about his cross-dressing; it's something they've worked through in their marriage. But Bill's wife has met Rick and Chris, which helps. They've even gone to Bill's home for dinner.
"I was in the closet for fifty years," Bill says. "For me, it started when I was a little kid: having an interest in my mother's clothes, maybe buying one or two items at Christmas as I got older, saying they were for my wife. You always feel ashamed doing it, like there's something wrong with you, but you can't stop. Studio Lites helped me realize how many other people there are who do this. It's helped my wife realize that, too."
"A lot of the wives have a really hard time with it," Rick says. "We'll get calls from women who are looking at their credit-card statements; they want to know what this place is. I always tell them, 'That's something you'll have to talk to your husband about.' It can be very confusing for the women, which I understand."
"Your average cross-dresser is not gay," Chris continues. "That's the major misconception. People ask me for advice all the time: 'Is my boyfriend gay? I found him dressing up in women's clothes.' That's the number-one assumption that most women make, but in reality, about 99 percent of cross-dressers are straight. It's not a sex thing for them; it's a femininity thing -- opening a window. But I always tell them that one of the rules is that they shouldn't look prettier or more glamorous than their wives. Because then you can introduce resentment, then there's a rivalry there, and that's only going to compound the problems in the relationship.
"The whole goal is to go in somewhere, sit down and blend. It's an experience, a pleasure moment, the whole thing."
But some customers pay a heavy psychic price for that pleasure moment. A few customers ride the bus in order to avoid parking their cars in the Studio Lites lot. One client, whom Chris describes as a "high-profile local politico," will come to the shop only after normal business hours.
"Some of them are terrified at the notion of being seen here," he says. "They'd rather hop a fence than have their car spotted back there. But who knows? They could be coming in to get a wig for their mom, or a hairpiece for their dad. Some of them will explain, when they walk up to the counter with some ruffled panties or whatever, 'Oh, um, these aren't for me. They're for my girlfriend.' And my thing is, I don't care who they're for, I just want to make sure they fit."
Studio Lites fits seventy-year-old Flora Lee Curly just fine. Diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in April, she'd lost the motor skills necessary to brush and style her own hair and spotted the store while riding the bus down Broadway. Since then, she and her husband, Dennis, have bought three wigs.
"If I had to go anywhere else, I think I would just stop wearing wigs," Flora Lee says. "Christopher and Rick are just the sweetest, most caring, loving people you've ever met. The first time we came in on the bus, they insisted on driving us home after we'd shopped. I had planned to buy a blond wig, because I've always been a blonde, but Chris suggested a darker one, and I tried it on, and he cut and styled it just right, and it was just perfect. I love it.
"My appearance was always important to me when I was younger," she adds. "And now that this has happened to me, I'm just taking each day as it comes and waiting to see what happens. But these two young men have helped me continue to look good and to feel good, and it's just a wonderful thing."
Flora Lee isn't the first customer to visit the Studio Lites wig room for medical reasons. The space also stocks breast forms for women who've undergone mastectomies. Rick, who has a degree in gerontology and worked in a Navy chemotherapy lab used by military men and women and their dependents, helps out with many of the shop's customers who have medical needs, some of whom are referred to Studio Lites by their doctors.
"We'll take time to get to know them, if that's what we feel they want," he says. "We'll try to figure out if they've had a treatment before, how it's going for them. We'll sell them a wig, then maybe they'll come back in another six months to get a different style, because everyone likes to make changes in their look. We might teach them something about changing their makeup, because some chemo treatments will take the color out of your skin. We'll give them some red tones, some lip color. Maybe they've had radiation and they've lost all of the hair on their body. We'll sell them eyebrow pencils, eyelashes if they want them.
"When you've got a chemo patient coming in, you'd better be ready with that box of tissues," adds Rick. "It takes an understanding of where they're coming from psychologically. It's almost an unspoken thing: For many of them, if they can feel that they look good on the outside, they automatically feel better on the inside. You can see them change right before your eyes. When they leave, they're beaming."
The medical clients rarely cross paths with the cross-dressers. "A lot of our customers -- our strippers and drag queens -- they don't even move before noon," Chris explains. "So a medical client may not even see them or have any idea that we cater to them."
"Studio Lites is probably one of the most unique places I've ever set foot in," says Maris the Great, a performance artist who's never seen out of his elaborate, and macabre, zombie costume -- complete with green face paint and lots of fake blood. "I buy all of my makeup there, and I'm always wearing it when I go in. Those guys never even flinched when they saw me. They have an incredible ability to pick up on things about their customers. They know exactly how to treat each person. And they love to talk and tell stories. I always tell them, 'This is the place that I come to get freaked out.'"
And there are some parts of the business peculiar to cross-dressing. For example, Rick says, "We had to install a vent system because there were so many men coming in here, so nervous they were just sweating profusely."
Then, too, there's the pantyhose issue. "A very good percentage of the guys who come in here already have pantyhose on," says Rick. "When we first started, I had to go on hose-wrapper duty in the parking lot, because where are they supposed to put their hose on? They can't do it at home. They don't want to do it at work. They'll come here, buy a pair, then go out in their car and yank them on.
"There used to be a mechanic shop next door, and I heard that one of them said something like, 'You know, it's the oddest place, because you could have one car pull in, and out comes a man. Then two hours later, you see this very tall woman with big hair come out, get in the car and drive away.'"
Right now, there's a real woman with a long ponytail in the lingerie room, carefully studying the merchandise. Chris asks if she needs any assistance. "I'm looking for some multi-colored hair extensions that I can braid into my hair," she says. "I really want to find something I can take home to freak my parents out."
Chris leads her by the arm into another room. He's got just the thing.
Bill's transformation complete, Betty and Chris leave the shop and head down Broadway to the Atrium Bar and Grill, a neighborhood beer joint that Chris is slowly turning into a cabaret club. Last month it began hosting drag shows, burlesque and other performances under the name Studio 554. The Atrium's owners have entrusted Chris to reshape the place into a meeting ground for the same eclectic mix of people served by the store: gay, straight, cross-dressing, transgendered, he-males, she-males -- everyone.
But tonight it's still got the feel of a run-down dive. And when Chris and Betty walk in, men with scraggly beards and smudgy glasses of draft beer stare, both buzzed and confused. Betty paces the room in a cat walk Bill perfected with Chris's help but never makes eye contact with any of the people at the bar. Betty didn't come here for conversation; she came to look good, and she does.
"Betty is one of my biggest challenges, because Bill is large and very mannish," says Chris. "But we always manage to make him look great. He's so enthusiastic. He loves it. I swear, sometimes he races down the mountain to get here. He can get to Studio Lites from Evergreen in fifteen minutes. He just loves it so much; it makes me feel so good."
"I do think I look good," Betty says. "I think I have pretty nice legs. It's like va-va-voom! It's just like everything else that you worry about in your life just goes away."
But reality will cut this night short. Bill's wife has a dead battery, and he needs to shift back into man mode, drive to the suburbs and give her car a jump. So they return to Studio Lites, where Betty goes into the ladies' room, emerging as Bill, dressed in a heavy coat and worn jeans.
"Sometimes I think I just want to dress all the time," Bill says. "But that's another thing that Chris does for you. He puts the brakes on. He says, 'Keep it a fun thing. Don't let it take over your life. You have too much too lose.' Still, it's sad to take it off when the night's over."
Bill puts a baseball cap on his head, climbs into his truck and revs the huge engine.
He's left his pantyhose on.
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