What kind of woman would you be?
What female elements would you incorporate?
How would you incorporate them?
These are the questions posed in Veronica Vera’s latest book, Miss Vera’s Cross Gender Fun for All. Her motto: “Trans isn’t just for trans people.” Rather, she explains, it can help us all learn about who we are as human beings by accessing other parts of ourselves.
Miss Vera is the author of two other books on cross-dressing, and she’s the founder of Miss Vera’s Finishing School for Boys Who Want to Be Girls — the world’s first transgender academy and cross-dressing service — operated out of her Chelsea apartment. A former trader on Wall Street, Miss Vera created the academy in the early 1990s to serve the needs of the thousands of men who want to break through gender barriers and explore their feminine side — some for a day, others for a lifetime. About 60 percent of these men describe themselves as straight and married, though Miss Vera is quick to point out that lines between such labels are blurry.
“Some of the finest minds in the country have come through our doors, but most have preferred privacy,” she says. Actor Paul Dano came to prepare for his role in the Extra Man. And one of the academy’s first students was James Pritzker, the ever-private billionaire and heir to the Pritzker fortune, who transitioned to Jennifer Natalya in 2013 and later donated $1.35 million to the University of California at Santa Barbara to study the feasibility of transgender people serving in the military.
We recently spoke to Miss Vera about cross-dressing’s earliest, most hidden days, the critical role wives play at the academy and those hazy lines separating the designation between “gay,” “straight” and “bisexual” — and even “man” and “woman.” Here’s what she had to say…
Most of my students stay invested in their lives as men while honoring the part of them that wants to live as women. The people who come here want to see that transformation — that first look in the mirror when they can see that this part of themselves is real. That’s why at the academy I always have great makeup artists; it guarantees that when they first see themselves, they will see someone beautiful and their true soul.
There’s a thin line between straight, gay and bisexual. A lot of people who come to the academy will say, “In my daily life, I’m a heterosexual man, but when I’m here, anything goes.” Many students have a sexual orientation toward women but don’t feel an emotional connection with them. Some want to experience the female part of having sex with men, but not have an emotional connection with them.
Wives are welcome at the academy. And we’re having more and more couples come to the academy. Many people who live in both worlds would like a place where their wives and partners can come to talk to each other. It’s important for people who come here to accept that it’s part of who they are, and that includes couples. We had a student named Pat/Bianca, a married father of two in his early 40s from the Philadelphia area who came here initially because his wife, Leigh, found us on the internet and urged him to come. Leigh said she could see how becoming Bianca lifted the weight of the world off his shoulders and released stress by adding balance to his life. She recently explained to NPR how that benefits both her and their children.
Miss Judy is our dean of voice. She teaches students how to speak with emotion and to be be more descriptive. She doesn’t concentrate on making people have more falsettos, but rather on things like stretching out vowels, using a bit more breath and speaking in the front of your mouth instead of the back.
The most important part, however, is learning to express yourself with more description and emotion than you might as a man.
Miss Mariette is the dean of photography. I call her the Margaret Mead of trans because she’s documented the movement for 35 years and has published three books. When I started the academy 25 years ago, we used Polaroids, which were perfect because students were so nervous about having their photos out there. Now, my students are totally cool posting and sharing on Facebook.
Finding a new name is important, too. Sometimes when a person comes in, they’ve already picked out a name. A lot of times, though, they haven’t, so we all get together to help them find a name. I remember after we transformed one student, I said, “You look like a Jackie. Not Jackie O, more like Jackie Stallone.” The student looked at me and said, “Jackie is my mother’s name!”
My students make their first public appearance at a restaurant. I call it the Dining Debutante. I prepare them with voice pointers (“raising the chin just a bit encourages a slightly higher pitch without straining the vocal chords”) and a walking lesson with an emphasis on outdoor challenges: “Avoid subway grates when wearing heels; when entering a taxi, it’s buttocks first.”
I’ve definitely had some difficult students at the academy — for instance, a student who was gung-ho about “finding his Debby,” but who ultimately turned dark. A misogyny came out in him. Miss Bridie noticed it first; this student seemed to really want to undermine my authority. Not long afterward, I found a list of characteristics misogynists have: Not being able to handle a woman in authority is at the top of the list. I’m often reminded of this student in our current political climate — the whole thing with Trump and Hillary and the “nasty woman” comment. This student really considered me a nasty woman.
Cross-dressing has a shady past, but the future needn’t be. This was historically considered a perverse thing to do. A lot of the time people were repressing these feelings, and the only way to access them was in their fantasies. The organized movement wants to separate the sexual aspect because we don’t want it to be considered a movement of perverts. That said, when people went to find information in the past, they went to adult bookstores. It’s a real past, and there’s a real connection to sexuality that doesn’t come from people being perverse. It comes from people really wanting to become more in touch with a part of themselves they’ve connected to their whole lives.