Erica is perched on the makeover stool, opening and closing her eyes at Beth’s command.
Open. On goes the moisturizer, which Erica has learned is what women put on their faces before applying makeup.
Close. On goes the eye primer, which will help eye shadow stick to her 62-year-old lids.
Open. Thick orange paste is smoothed across her jaw, over her chin and under her nose to cover the stubble of her beard.
“I’m seeing more hair here than usual,” Beth tells her softly.
“Ugh,” Erica says and sighs. “I just got electrolysis last week.”
Her facial hair, her unwanted, ever-present beard, feels like the only thing holding Erica Fremont back. The beard belongs to George Menefee, a man who knew — through two marriages, two divorces, three children and a retirement — that he was happiest dressed in women’s clothes. That he was happier being Erica.
So now, she was sitting in her monthly appointment at Makeovers With Elizabeth Taylor, a place spoken of with deep reverence in much of D.C.’s transgender community — a leader in the emerging market of services for people starting lives in a different gender.
Beth serves her clients wine, makeup lessons, wardrobe coaching, mannerism training, photography sessions and, most prized of all, acceptance. She calls them she. She asks them who they are and who they want to be. She waves her stubble-covering wand and assures them, “It’s no problem.”
“And what kind of makeup look are we going for today?” she asks.
Erica looks around the room filled with dresses and feather boas, cameras and pearls, breast-forms and size 13 heels, and answers.
When Beth Taylor found this job, she had just finished an 11-year career in the Navy. While taking MBA classes on her GI Bill benefits, she kept hearing about the importance of listening for customer demand to discover potential business opportunities.
She realized she had already heard it: A friend who experimented with cross-dressing had recruited her to do his makeup — and the results were so fabulous that his friends would always ask her, “Ooh, will you do mine?”
Beth, now 35, traded the MBA program for photography classes and opened her transgender makeover studio that year.
The customer demand is not just for makeup lessons. As more and more transgender men and women decide to make themselves known to the world, entrepreneurs seeking to cater to this population have followed.
Their customers are a community that’s more visible in popular culture than ever: the debut of Caitlyn Jenner openly discussing her transition; “Orange Is the New Black’s” transgender star Laverne Cox; the media-savvy group of transgender teens who have crusaded for their rights. The list of examples is growing longer by the week.
“As visibility and social acceptance increase, we will certainly see more people coming out as transgender,” said Jody Herman of the Williams Institute, an LGBT research center.
While there isn’t much data on how many non-famous people are identifying as transgender — the most-cited estimate is about 0.3 percent of U.S. adults — the uptick in businesses catering to this community is a tangible indicator that the number of those living transgender publicly is on the rise.
Therapists, plastic surgeons and endocrinologists who provide hormones are the obvious benefactors. But doctors who made names for themselves as transgender experts are seeing more competition from mainstream practitioners such as Paul Ruff, a Georgetown plastic surgeon.
Like many doctors new to this burgeoning market, Ruff started doing transgender surgeries such as facial feminizations or tracheal shaves after one of his previous patients came out as transgender.
“It’s a very small community that, up until recently, hid in the shadows,” he said. “But the level of acceptability and awareness has changed significantly.”
After just three years in the business, he doesn’t need to advertise. He sees transgender clients at least once a week, nearly all of whom find him by word of mouth or online forums. They all pay out of pocket, because most plastic surgeons in this line of work don’t accept insurance, even though some insurers are more inclined to include transgender care.
There are also voice coaches who teach how to speak like a woman without sounding like Mrs. Doubtfire, or how to speak like a man without sounding like a bad impersonation of Johnny Depp. Kathe Perez, a speech pathologist in Denver, has built a career on feminizing voices. She has launched two voice-training apps and plans to unveil a third this month. Her customers frequently discover her through YouTube, where hundreds of channels show off the results of trans surgeries or helpful tutorials. (Pro tips: “Watch soap operas with the sound off to see how women move their hands” and “men use fewer words in their sentences.”)
Many lawyers have already developed specialties working with gay and lesbian clients. For some, a new subspecialty has developed in helping transgender people transition in the workplace or in sight of their landlords without negative consequences. Some are running clinics to walk clients through the process of legally changing their names; many states require applicants to jump through a variety of hoops, such as requiring them to advertise name changes in local newspapers.
Hair-removal specialists are of a particular interest, especially to transgender women (the term for males transitioning to females). In Dallas, an electrolysis clinic that caters specifically to the transgender community alters its machines to make it possible to completely remove a beard in six to eight appointments for around $20,000.
Each appointment lasts at least 18 hours, during which technicians almost always hear their customers’ histories. That’s a big part of working in the transgender business, said Denise McCaa, who co-owns the clinic with her sisters.
“We always joke about all of the hats we wear,” McCaa said. “We’re counselors, therapists and friends to them. We cry with them, and we celebrate with them, too.”
She says this nurturing vibe is what sets her company apart from the four or five other trans-focused electrology centers that have popped up around the country in the past few years. It takes four months to get an appointment with her. To grow your clientele, you have to provide more than what’s on the brochures.
For now, the most crucial step to being accepted as a woman is to look and act like one.
Open, Beth is asking Erica again. Erica leans back in the makeup chair, occasionally adjusting her platinum-blond wig or her leopard-print blouse. Her favorite store is Forever 21, but this shirt is from Nordstrom.
“How is the gel liner working out for you?” Beth asks.
“Well, I’m doing pretty well on the bottom, that’s an easy target to hit,” Erica says, tapping her stilettos on the rungs of the chair. “The top is causing me some more problems.”
In her earlier life, Erica was a computer systems administrator for Pepco. Transitioning didn’t seem like an option until after the divorces and retirement. When the last kid moved out, the empty house — and empty closets — gave George the confidence to become Erica.
“Now, Erica’s closet is overflowing into George’s closet,” she says, laughing.
She has spent more than $3,000 on clothes and $1,000 on wigs. Though her hormones are covered by insurance, hair removal runs about $500 per month. If she decides to go through with surgery, she will be looking at prices like $5,000 for a tracheal shave, $8,000 for breast augmentations and $35,000 for a full facial feminization. “Bottom surgery” — the popular term for genital reconstruction — is about $20,000 and up.
But even after that, learning how to be a lady is work. Remembering to sit cross-legged, gauging how much hair spray is too much, perfecting the art of painting the nails on your dominant hand, discovering (the hard way) what dress shapes fit best — gender-born women have their whole lives to develop these skills, their formative years filled with slumber party makeovers, glossy magazines, the unspoken cues from older colleagues about how to dress for the workplace. For about $60 an hour, Beth aims to make up for that lost time.
“Yes,” she comforts Erica as she spreads the eyeliner. “It’s easy to mess up. A Q-tip is your friend.”
Coaches like Beth go beyond teaching the things that women learn as girls — e.g., red shoes probably won’t work with a hot-pink dress — to helping navigate the specific dilemmas that men becoming women need to know. It’s okay to try on women’s clothes in the men’s dressing room, just hide those hangers full of skirts under a pair of pants. If you want to stand like a woman, put your weight on one leg, the other slightly bent. Broad shoulders? Dresses with 10 percent Lycra, or spandex, will stretch to fit.
With the persona of the girly, wine-loving best friend, Beth has dished her expertise to more than 500 clients in less than two years. She encourages them to create Facebook accounts for their feminine sides, where they can show off their new selves — and Beth’s handiwork — with friends who understand. Her grateful clients do all the advertising she needs.
In return, she is a mirror for the way they want to see themselves and a sounding board for the baggage that comes with that transition. With each layer of makeup, her clients tend to pour out the complications of their lives — the awkwardness of coming out at work, the shame they felt for years before embracing a transition, the guilt they feel toward wives.
The first time Erica planned to go out in public as a woman— beyond a few giddy vacations in Las Vegas — she hired Beth to get her ready. But then she got too nervous and scrubbed the makeup off in Beth’s bathroom. The next time, Beth encouraged her to book an appointment before a party hosted by tgirlnation , a group that runs events for transgender women in the District. There she found a tightknit community, made up mostly of women who, like her, led financially successful lives as men before transitioning.
Erica is out to two of her children and her most recent ex-wife. Now comfortable enough to do her own makeup, she goes out as a woman two or three times a week. Every time, she worries that passersby are looking at her and wondering if she is a man.
“I’ve been out at the mall a couple times,” she says. “And when I pass somebody I’ll be glancing at them to see if they’re looking at me.”
Close, please. On goes the finishing spray, Beth’s final touch. In this studio, it’s only Erica’s opinion that matters. She steps up to the mirror and gazes at the woman staring back. Blond hair, silver-dusted eyes, no beard.
“It’s rather subtle,” she says. “Good subtle. I like it.”