Wild about Vanity’s
by Sylvia Stewart
“Yvette” has made a three-hour journey from Corpus Christi to get a makeover, fashion advice, and buy a wig in the Heights. She sits down in a stylist’s chair and listens intently as makeup fundamentals are explained prior to application. There are makeup studios and boutiques in Corpus, but Yvette is a male-to-female cross-dresser (or CD, as we commonly say in the cross-dressing community) and, wanting to present as authentically as possible, has engaged the professional services of Vanity Wilde.
Vanity’s business, named Vanity: A Transformation Studio, is located on Yale Street in what can be appropriately described as a neighborhood…“in transition.” Its nondescript exterior belies the energy and excitement that is generated on the inside as these MTF cross-dressers prepare to convincingly pass as female. It is a magical place where Chuck becomes CharLee, or “Big Mike” morphs into Mikki.
As a teenage CD growing up in the ’60s, I was in a precarious time of repression. A newspaper article revealed that what I did made me a “transvestite” (a typically derogative term rarely used anymore), a repulsive lifestyle thought to be curable through “electric shock.” I suppressed my feelings.
Now, decades later, the CDs who comprise part of the transgender umbrella have seen much progress, as evidenced by the recent passage of Houston’s equal-rights ordinance. Since most of the focus in the past has been on the “L” and “G” side of the equation, increased recognition of the “T” community brings with it increased scrutiny. Who are we? What do we do, and why? And is there an agenda beyond lobbying for legal protections when entering women’s restrooms?
The first useful recognition of CDs came from the large women’s clothing chains. At one time, a cross-dresser’s only option when shopping was to enter a store and tell the female associate, “I’m buying for my wife and she’s my size.” Or we would order by phone (and now online); anonymity was key. Then some makeup studios began paying attention to this niche market and offered their advice…and their products. Still, much of this was self-serving, with sales associates eager to make the sale and move us on and out.
What CDs who wished to get advice on “passing” really needed was a place that accepts us for who we are—a place that truly values us not only as customers, but as human beings hoping to fulfill deeply seated needs. Vanity’s studio is such a place. Designated male at birth, she is well known throughout “the community,” and has shared the expertise that she has gained through lived experiences with her customers for 17 years. I first met Vanity at the now-defunct Halloween Ball held at the Magnolia Ballroom. Dressed as an ancient Egyptian Queen, her makeup artistry was nothing short of genius. Anyone who meets her comes under the spell of her compassion, thoughtfulness, and knowledge about feminine presentation.
Her own Halloween parties became legendary, and she instituted the Ms. Transgender Houston pageant. We lauded the fact there was no age discrimination associated with the pageant, and talents like dancing and discussing how we could improve our city were as important as feminine presentation. While there is absolutely nothing amiss with our “drag sisters,” this is not drag. We dress to emulate a positive and tasteful feminine ideal, and not to be exaggerated and amusing.
Once a year, Vanity hosts a fashion evening for Tri-Ess (or Society for the Second Self), a support group for cross-dressers.
As petite Yvette evolves into a Latina babe (and loses about 30 years in the process), the conversation turns to feminine presentation. Many of us dress in a hyper-feminine way that is dated and can lead to us being “read” (or taken for male when presenting female). I’m 6’ 1” so I classify as “statuesque.” With an above-the-knee skirt, flashy top, hose, and one-inch heels, I do get looked over. Vanity notes that very few of us “pass,” and “passing” could be a dated concept. The well-put-together women can be found in downtown office towers or fine restaurants; the rest of the time, it’s athletic shoes, jeans, and tees.
As Vanity says, “Most biological women have experimented with makeup and putting outfits together since high school.” These are not disciplines learned quickly, and if the CD is serious about presentation, professional assistance is needed. Her boutique section offers a complete selection of clothing, jewelry, and shoes. Large sizes are available, from 14EEE pumps to 50DD bras.
Fashion consultations, a makeup studio and boutique, lockers—does Vanity have plans to stop here? No, she plans to open an upscale TG lounge called Wilde. [Editor’s note: lockers operate on the principle of a kind of key club for CDs. They are places where one can keep their feminine clothing (or bring it with them) and transform for a day or evening out. It is an indispensable service to a CD, whose spouse might disapprove.]
Providing a place of solace and encouragement is another one of Vanity’s gifts. When a wife finds out her husband is a CD, Vanity explains that the reaction can be extreme—varying from “Is he going to become a woman?” to feelings that the wife has a sister instead of a husband—and he becomes someone to compete with.
Wednesday evenings at the studio are a time of feminine socialization. “A place where girls can come to relax, socialize, then head out for an evening,” Vanity says. And head out knowing they look good. As Sara and I talk about Siamese cats, Yvette is finally ready for her first night out. Five of us dine at Barnaby’s, then go to Guava Lamp to mix with a very young karaoke crowd with some accomplished rap performers. Being more of a traditional gurl, I’m used to performing “Scotch and Soda” by The Kingston Trio and “Witchcraft” by Sinatra. It isn’t my audience. Still, nothing beats a night out after a makeover at Vanity’s.
Sylvia Stewart wrote about her life as a cross-dresser in the July 2012 issue of OutSmart magazine.