The yellow-brick boutique across from the Arlington Heights Village Hall was the talk of the town when it set up shop 12 years ago. It's a simple affair, built in the geometric style of an '80s strip mall, with "Transformations" scrawled in white across the black awning. Sandwiched between a red-brick house and a photography studio, where framed families flash toothy smiles from the window, the building is, well, ordinaryfrom the outside.
Transformations by Rori (110 S. Arlington Heights Rd., Arlington Heights) is the only full-service commercial shop for transgender women in the Chicago area. (Its sister store is located in Key Largo, Fla.)
The boutique is a refuge for those who have long embraced their inner chic and for those taking their first teetering steps in stilettos. It has two dressing rooms and a beauty bar where the staff works their magic. In walks a suit and tie; out walks Kimberley, Gina or Erica.
The shop still draws looks of incredulity when dropped in conversation among Arlington Heights residents.
Having stepped inside on a Monday, and it was as though the Stepford wives had reassembled for cocktail hour.
Olivia Connors, the sales associate, was a picture of poise from her flawless foundation to the rounded tips of her manicured nails. She was carefully arranging a blond mane around the shoulders of a teenage girl while the girl's mother looked on approvingly. Olivia glanced up from her work to flash a Crest Whitestrip smile.
"Meet Katie and Lyseth. They'll be able to help you out while I finish up here," she said, gesturing to two ladies engaged in conversation by the cash register.
Connors works the store every Monday, and her entourage starts to trickle in around 2 p.m., usually staying until close. They sip wine and trade the latest gossip. The shop's owner, Rori Scheffler, is visiting Transformation's Key Largo location, so Connors has been working full-time for the past several weeks.
The scene was a little too perfect. The two cash register conversationalists were accessorized to set off airport metal detectors, and their hands had only just left the manicurist's table, their clothing perfectly pressed and coordinated.
A stately woman more than six feet tall, Connors was like a modern June Cleaver. Her habits include sipping her martiniswith a single olivethrough a straw so as not to smudge her lipstick. She opts for a delicate gold chain with a diamond pendant or the occasional strand of pearls to complement her attire, which consists of a teal V-neck sweater, black slacks and black velvet boots with a small heel. Her blond hair has that tousled look, as though freeze-framed in a light breeze. She answers the phone with an upbeat "Transformations, Connors speaking," imparting an inflection in all the right places.
Connors "dressed out" as a female for the first time in her early 20s. She got involved in the transgender community 23 years ago. She's coy about her age, but the ladies periodically refer to themselves in the over-50 bracket.
And like many ladies, she's not shy about tackling the tasks where she feels nature came up short. Her methods include hormones, electrolysisa process she describes as excruciatingto remove all facial and chest hair, and several facial surgeries. Her femininity isn't a product of science, however. It is a part of her identity, one she reinforced by selecting a new name.
In fact, none of the names in this story are birth names. As Connors explained, they're as much for creating a new persona as for protection against a critical society. Like most people, she works hard to keep up appearances.
"It's an image thing that we all have, and you want to keep people thinking that's who you are, because it really is who you are," she said.
The other ladies refer to her affectionately as "O." The moniker calls to mind another Chicago woman in the business of helping people get comfortable in their own skin. However, Connors doesn't need a book club or a media empire to shell out encouragement, support and sometimes tough love. She recognizes that for many going "in femme" is not a fetish or dress-up dateit is a necessity. She's describes customers coming into the shop literally shaking with pent-up emotion, anxiety and shame.
"On Dec. 9, 2001, I reached the point where it was do something or cease," Lyseth Brandt, one of the cash register conversationalists, recalled. She vividly remembers the night she made the decision to come out. The cost was heavyher marriage.
"When my wife found out this couldn't be cured, that was the end of it," she said matter-of-factly.
"She fell out of love with me, I never fell out of love with her," she said later. Lyseth's youngest daughter shared the father-daughter dance with her stepfather at her wedding. And Lyseth wasn't asked to escort their daughter down the aisle. Her former wife didn't want her there.
However, Lyseth harbored no regrets, "I look at those girls and I know, I know without reservation that their mother and I were meant to be. Those girls were meant to be in this world," she said with conviction.
Lyseth knew she was different from other children at age 3 or 4. But with a family to think about and 21-year career in the Navy, she waited more than 50 years to come out. "It's a part of who you are, and when you're repressing yourself, it can go anywhereit can go as far as suicide, and it has," she said.
Lyseth identifies as bi-gender, meaning she creates a timeshare between identities. Today she is sporting coral lipstick, a brown broom skirt and dangly silver earrings. Tomorrow she might be himthe grandfather with a penchant for building models and computer design work. She sits erect on the stool, a legacy of her Naval training with her calf-high brown boots carefully crossed at the ankle.
For the most part she tries to keep things separate, stashing the makeup and clothes out of sight when her grown daughters come overalthough her oldest daughter still refuses to set foot in her house. Still, the two worlds overlap on occasion.
Connors takes her seat behind the store counter after wrapping up the consultation and sending her teenage client away with a new head of hair. The topic of conversation turns to the Chicago Gender Society's monthly social tomorrow night at Bogie's Ale House in Mount Prospect. It's a night when the girls get to dress up in their finest and go out on the town.
"How much is that red jersey dress in the corner?" a blond with short, curly hair asked, motioning toward a slinky number hugging the curves of a mannequin in the corner.
"How much did I charge you for the last one?" Connors asked. "$125?"
The blond shrugs it off; she has too much red anyway. The inquirer, Katie Thomas, is happily married with a supportive spouse. Not everyone is so lucky, she said. Thomas retired from a career as a successful salesperson and now has more time to devote to being Katie and her other favorite rolegrandpa. At 71 she could easily pass for someone a decade youngera gift she attributes to the estrogen and good genetics. She came out, or "blossomed," 11 years ago and doesn't have any regrets.
But Thomas, like many transgender people, had to bide her time. By kindergarten she knew her gender identity didn't match up with her assigned gender. "But in those days you didn't tell your mom, 'I want to be a girl.' That was unheard of," she said. So she kept quiet.
As a newly married 20-year-old she tested the waters for the first time by dressing up as a girl for Halloween; her wife got suspicious after she tried on the outfit five or six times. "I knew I had to say something. … She didn't have a clue what it meant and nor did I," Katie explained. So for years Katie only came out in hotel rooms during business trips or the basement when the kids were asleep. "I will never forget one time I looked in the mirror and I didn't see the guy self, I just saw the girl," she said. "And then an hour later you scrub it off, and there's that gray-haired old man again, and that's the hard part," she added.
She has put the painful past behind her, and can don a dress in public these days without shame. "I can't tell you how freeing it is. It's beyond belief. It can bring me to tears sometimes just thinking about it," she added.
If pressed to sum up Monday afternoons, they're quite simply girl talk. Conversation ranges from the latest scandal to shopping. And weight gain is an ever-present worry. Lyseth bemoans the addictive powdered-sugar Chex mix for sabotaging her waistline. A glass of red or white doesn't help either, stocked for special occasionsand emergencies.
Despite the light atmosphere, there is an undercurrent of regret. What if they had been born with their gender in sync physically and mentally? "You still have that behind you, all the what if's, 'Well gee, what if I was a girl when I was 20 years old?'" Katie said. But she's quick to dispel those ghosts by pointing out her childrenwho would never have existed if Katie came first.
Kellie Edwards sauntered into the shop sometime later. Not being a drinker, she selected a Mike's Hard Black Cherry Lemonade, which the ladies eyed with some skepticism. She was more reserved than the others and settled onto a black, velvet over-sized stiletto chair apart from the group.
Her long brown hair is her own and, at 43, she's younger than most of the group. Clad in a light blue Columbia fleece, jeans and white Keds, she is at home in the cabs of dump trucks and snow plowsshe drives them for a living in Wilmette. She can maneuver a snow plow with a skater's finessea fitting comparison as Kellie also figure-skates. And slinging around a dump truck like a shopping cart has its perks, "Boy, do people stop and look" she said. She is out at work and has a female driver's license. She's planning to take it a step further with facial feminization surgery.
With starting costs around $35,000, facial surgery isn't an option for many transgender women. And for older folks, chipping away at the skull translates to sagging skin and another $25,000 to pin it all back up.
The night of Chicago Gender Society's social, Lyseth and Connors met at the store. Connors sipped on a vodka tonic, resplendent in a little black dress with a matching cardigan that reveals her upper back through a lace cutout. A raven-haired newcomer was busy applying a jeweled flower decal to the back of her own shoulder. Her curls swept to one side, she peered over the top of her Sarah Palin-like glasses at the tiny sticker, carefully arranging the rhinestones above her black-and-white, off-the-shoulder blouse. Connors introduced her as Lisa Peterson, Rori's daughterfor tonight, anyway.
If she's not in the mood, she simply swaps in the hair and makeup for Soto Petropoulos, Rori's son.
"Those earrings are fabulous. You're going to have little parakeets sitting in them before the night is over," Connors said, appraising Peterson's oversized hoops. Lyseth nods in agreement.
However, there was a small crisis.
Lyseth lost a nail. "I'm going to let you in on a little secret," she said, turning over the mutinous square of pink plastic. She pulled out a set of tweezersshe never travels without themand deftly removed the strip of glue from the back, replacing it with a spare that can be purchased at the shop. "I can fix anything. Where's the duct tape?"
The tweezers re-emerged a half-hour later at the table in Bogies Ale House. This time, they were hard at work repairing a clip-on earring that fell victim to the seat belt shoulder strap on the ride over. Lyseth diligently bent over the intricate task while the other 20 or so ladies sip on their drinks and admire each other's ensembles.
It was not a young crowd, and everyone seemed to know each other. There were several cisgender (non-trans) women presentincluding Katy's spouse, Shelly.
Shelly was demure and almost timid. She had a halo of hair that glowed whitish-blond. Katie summed up their relationship with a line from Sex and the City II: "Never mine, never thine." Shelly chimed in, and they finished together: "Always ours." Katie described their marriage like any loving partnershipbased on acceptance, not perfection. Not everyone is so lucky.
The process of the transformation is an art the shop has perfected, and a businessperson flew in form Boston on a bitterly cold Friday evening for a turn in the magical black barbershop chair.
The client resembled any other, middle-aged, business-class traveler on a Chicago-bound plane: salt-and-pepper hair, a thick Boston accent and a coarse but engaging laugh that punctuated each joke. Connors welcomed "Erica"who wore a suit and tieand showed her into the dressing room.
A few minutes, later Erica emerged in a black mini-skirt, black heels and a tight white, turtleneck sweater.
Soto, Lisa's male alter ego, performed the transformation. He whipped a black cape over Erica, hiding the female figure underneath. To Soto, Eric's face was a blank palate.
He started with liquid foundation, and the harsh lines and tell-tell traces of stubble disappeared under the nude-colored cream. He added a dusting of gold eye shadow over the lid and under the eyebrow. "I need you to look up for me sweetie," he said and applied a thick coat of mascaralong lashes appeared in the wake of his brush. "Okay, close your eyes for me." He carefully applied a thin line of jet-black liquid eyeliner.
Connors stepped in to add the final, critical touches: lipstick and hair. She chose a lip pencil of Bright Sienna and rubbed it over a makeup light above the mirror to soften the tip before outlining Erica's lips. She plucked a tube of Cinnabara nice, warm shade to match Erica's Italian coloring. "I'm going to pizzazz you right now" she said, dipping a brush into the small canyon of color. She carefully painted on a pair of ruddy lips. Erica's face glowed, but something is still missing.
Nearby, a white mannequin head modeled a curtain of strawberry blond hair with a fringe of bangs. Connors pulled out a strip of nylon resembling a panty hose thigh, formally called a wig cap. She pulled it over Erica's head and lifted the red hair from the placeholder head as though preparing for a coronation. With a bit of ceremony, she gently settled it on Erica's head.
She pinched a tress between her fingers and held it up vertically; with a green plastic brush she combed toward the scalp, creating a snarl in the process. She repeated this across the top of Erica's head. The process is called teasing, and the result is two inches of volume.
Erica rose from the chair and admired herself in the mirror. She was headed for a night out at Hunter's Night Club. "There's no point unless you go out," she said.
The ladies reassembled for their usual Monday gab session several weeks later. It was the day before Edwards' facial-feminization surgery, a seven-hour ordeal during which doctors will shave her forehead, lift her brow, fill in her temples, angle her nose, narrow her chin, shave her trachea, reshape her lips and lift her cheeks. The process is painful, expensive and requires a one-month recovery period.
"Look at the upside," Lyseth said. "When it's really nasty and ugly your eyes will be swollen shut and you won't be able to see it."
For Kellie, it was worth the pain, believing her facial features will more accurately reflect her feminine identify. She did not drink and decided to exit early; she had to be at the doctor's by 7 a.m. the next day. "If you need a ride, let me know. I'll take you," Connors offered. As Edwards got up to go, the ladies gave her a hug and wished her well.
Transformations mirrors its clienteleyou can't judge the business from the outside alone. It's not just a shop selling frills to the fringes of society. Transformation's true trade is in affirmation. It's a place where folks can shed the gender-role straight jacket and don a dress of ambiguity. From the high school student with two lip rings looking for a place to wear his wig, to the timid, middle-aged person who has finally found an outlet for the nagging sensation of being wrapped in the wrong color blanket at birth, there's a place for everyone.
And when you walk in the door Connors will ask, "Can I get you a glass of wine, honey?"
Find out more about Transformations by Rori at www.transformationsbyrori.com .