TV & Radio
THE ART OF TRANSFORMATION
Denaë Doyle guides clients on the path to new identities
- Meghan Maslocky, Special to The San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, December 18, 2005
Santa Cruz -- Being a stylish woman isn't easy, particularly if you were born a man. But for transgendered women and cross-dressers struggling with the finer points of hip sway, hem length and bra fit, Denaë Doyle aims to stop unsightly "man-in-a-dress" syndrome in its tracks.
Doyle, a femininity coach who has eagle eyes when it comes to the subtle differences between how women and men interact in social situations, coached "Desperate Housewives" co-star Felicity Huffman for her role as Bree, a conservative, ladylike transsexual, in the film "Transamerica," which opens in San Francisco on Friday.
While Doyle works with genetic women who want to improve their feminine demeanor, say in the search for a new job or mate, the bulk of her clients are male-to-female transsexuals, like Bree, and cross-dressing heterosexual men.
With help with their clothing, makeup, wigs, body language and voice, Doyle guides transgendered women from enduring many a sidewalk wince to "passing" in the aisles of Safeway.
"Happiness for me is my clients finding out what is true and real and striking a balance. And to help them not look embarrassing," she said recently at her Santa Cruz office.
"Let's back the baby up," she said. "How sexy is it to be homeless?"
Doyle wants her transsexual clients to be able to get respectable jobs and her cross-dressing clients to explore their feminine sides tastefully. The trick is to shed masculine mannerisms for feminine ones and not overdo it with overly feminine, flashy clothes.
Doyle lines her green eyes with slate blue makeup, tosses her shoulder-length ash blond hair as she talks, and walks with the natural sway of a dancer. On a recent afternoon, she wore a wheat-colored peasant-style skirt lightly spangled on the hem with gold sequins. Her voice is laced with the slightest Texan twang, like lemon in iced tea.
At age 16 and with hair dyed red at her father's urging, Doyle won her first pageant, in Houston, as Miss St. Patrick's Day. She went on to be crowned Miss Houston World. Before long, she was modeling for local television and on Neiman Marcus runways.
When she moved to Santa Rosa in the '70s, she founded her own modeling school and coached teenage girls on self-improvement.
But in 1996, her client base shifted when Dr. Mildred Brown, author of a popular book in the transgender community called "True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism -- for Families, Friends, Coworkers and Helping Professionals," contacted her. Brown, a psychologist who lived in the Bay Area until she retired several years ago, says her clients "desperately needed help with their wardrobes and feminine carriage," so she invited Doyle to speak to a group of transgender women at Los Gatos Community Hospital.
"I wasn't sure if it would be the same teaching a transgendered woman as a genetic woman. Now I can say, 'No, it's not,' " Doyle says. She devised new strategies for coaching men who dress as women, such as exercises to elevate the voice and hand positions that downplay large hands. "The way you move is more important than a closet full of expensive purchases," she purrs to the camera in one of her DVDs on feminine movement, available from her Web site, www.femimage.com, which also cover feminine foot positions, walking strategies, going up and down stairs, getting in and out of the backseat of a car and how to close a door.
Felicity Huffman and Doyle worked together for a day about a month before Huffman began shooting "Transamerica." In an e-mail interview, Huffman said that she was surprised by how much she had to learn about femininity.
"I approached it as a foreign language and consequently felt self-conscious and awkward, which worked out well for the part," Huffman wrote of her experience as a woman learning to be a man learning to be an ultrafeminine woman.
Huffman said that Doyle helped her to figure out Bree's walk and stance. Doyle, she added, "really mapped out for me the unspoken social cues that are so different for men and women."
The bottom line in body language, Doyle maintains, is that men "push" and "lead" with their heads and shoulders, while a ladylike woman pulls herself up, leads more with her hips and uses more gestures and facial expressions.
Movement and voice are the first priorities for Doyle's clients, who schedule private consultations, which cost $100 an hour. They practice walking in Doyle's office, and Doyle uses a microphone and audio software so that her clients can actually see the voice pitch and resonance that they should aim for. She often makes her client lie down on a chaise and covers them with a blanket. Then they hum together in different keys until they find a natural, easy tone. The big turning point is when they leave Doyle's home. "When we open the door and go outside, it's hard," she says. "They feel safe here with me."
So Doyle has a network of contacts at department stores and high-end wig salons that know her clients' particular needs -- say a foundation that counteracts "beard blue" or a jacket that conceals a beer belly -- and treat them respectfully.
Doyle shops with her clients not just to find clothing but also to practice being out in the world, just as they practice buying gas like a lady or dining out.
"Let's go out and eat," Doyle says. "Are you eating like a guy? I have to tell them they look bad."
One of her earliest clients, Doyle recalls with tenderness, was a pre-op transsexual who was 6 feet 3, 300 pounds, balding and arrived at Doyle's doorstep with rotten teeth and a stained blouse. She'd just lost her job. "She told me she had a tree picked out and a rope in her trunk," Doyle says.
Two years after that first meeting, Doyle ran into her. She'd had sexual reassignment surgery, gotten a partial wig of human hair, lost 75 pounds and got her teeth fixed -- and been hired for and held onto a good job.
For Stanford computer networking specialist Rosalea Roberts, one of Doyle's clients, fear of losing her job prevented her from pursuing her dream of becoming a woman for years. But when the time was right for her professionally to transition, "I sought her out and said, 'Help me, please,' " says Roberts, an attractive woman in her 50s whom few would peg as a former man. "I realized while I'd been going out (as a woman) casually a lot, I had no work clothes."
So during the first six months of her transition, Doyle assisted Roberts with her wardrobe, referred Roberts to her own hairstylist to find the right style for her thick and lustrous silver hair; taught her how to sit, walk and dance; and "hooked" her on Chanel products.
"Denaë really made my life a lot easier when I was changing," Roberts says.
In addition to local people struggling to hold onto jobs in the midst of a gender transition, Doyle has worked with transgenders from as far away as Thailand and Ireland, as well as cops, surgeons, engineers and politicians, people with "high-powered jobs who are making a full transition and can't afford to look like a guy in a dress or a drag queen."
It takes many clients years to dispense with overly sexy clothes and heavy padding and makeup and settle into a casual, appropriate style. If a transgender hasn't moderated her teenagerly euphoria within three or four years, maybe she should consider keeping it private, she says.
Doyle strides to a closet by her front door and pulls out half a dozen synthetic wigs in shades that "scream rayon" and a girdle with ample embedded hip pads, all of which she's vetoed and confiscated from her clients.
She calls this "the closet of shame." A heavily sequined number peeks from a crack in the door. "You know how many of these I've taken off people?" she asks, waving a girdle.
Doyle says some cross-dressers get "gender relief" just by wearing women's underwear or a pink shirt, or taking a mild dose of estrogen from a health food store, but for those undertaking serious cross-dressing, she wants her clients to think hard about what it really means to be a woman.
"Would you want to be a woman in difficult circumstances, in another country, not with a garter belt? Do you only want to be a sexy woman? If you take away the sexy, what are you going to be?"
But gender dysphoria is, Doyle says, a huge issue to deal with. "It's a mess, and a lot of people are in it."
And sometimes, she says, the mess is downright macabre.
One cross-dressing client, she recalls, traveled from out of town several times for consultations. Then he told her he'd been diagnosed with terminal liver disease and wanted to meet with her one last time.
After he arrived, Doyle says, she realized that he wanted to shop for clothing to be buried in. He dressed in his new clothes, made himself up and lay down on her floor with his hands crossed for Doyle to photograph.
This client, Doyle says, said he made a deal with God that if he got a liver transplant and lived, he'd stop cross-dressing. He lived, but before long, he was dressing again. She never felt comfortable working with him again.
Moreover, while Doyle's affection for coaching transsexuals and serious cross-dressers is abundant, she expresses emphatic distaste for working with drag queens.
"If they're going to walk around looking trampy, that's not being a woman," she says. "I don't agree with that. That's not being transsexual. I don't think a true woman would want to degrade women. I can't work with transvestites or horny guys off the street."
So she weeds out transvestic fetishists (those who dress for sexual arousal) and those who cross-dress, and, to Doyle's eye, still look like men in dresses but look at themselves in the mirror and say, "Wow, I'd have sex with me."
"They see this person in the mirror, and they're in love with her," she says, adding that a man's tendency to be sexually aroused by the image of himself as a woman is called autogynephilia.
Being sexy is hard work, Doyle says. It saddens and even insults her when she sees transgendered women descend into sloppiness. "Being a hot mama requires a corset and 5-inch heels," she says, adding that transgender women sometimes stop caring about their appearance when they realize they can't look sexy all of the time, or in the case of transsexuals, when lack of testosterone kicks in and they lose their sex drive.
That tendency toward slovenliness, she says, separates the men from the women.
She shows a reporter a videotape of a workshop she attended and points to a tall, overweight woman with thinning hair, dressed in jeans and a wrinkled T-shirt, who looks lost and despondent as she tries to dance next to an exuberant miniskirted drag queen.
"See?" Doyle says, pointing at the tiny swaying figure on the screen. "No one tried to help her."
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