Since the age of six or seven, Wendy Roome knew something was terribly wrong about her. It was the 1950s. And she was a girl trapped in a boy’s body.
Then known as William, she felt uncomfortable, nervous, and withdrawn and kept even family and good friends at arm’s length lest they find out her deepest, darkest secret.
She would sneak into her mom’s closet and try on her dresses. When Roome graduated from college, she worked enough nerve to buy women’s clothes, but only at stores 50 miles from home and she paid in cash.
“I was so paranoid that I would shred the receipts,” she said.
Now 66, the New Jersey resident has fully transitioned into her truest self, a stylish and gregarious lady, and is happily married to another transgender woman. And much of the credit to her transformation is owed to a finishing school that caters to women just like her.
Situated in a ranch house within the leafy suburb of Piscataway, N.J., the Le Femme Finishing School aims to teach transgender women and cross dressers the finer points of how to be a lady, from the best makeup to clothes for each body type and also feminine etiquette and how to walk in heels.
Owned and operated by Ellen Weirich, known professionally as Lady Ellen, the school has had countless clients since she first started the business in 2005. Much of her students are from the New York City area and work a range of jobs such as waiters, computer scientists, and even one who works in international diplomacy. She has had clients from all over the world, including Ireland and India, who are drawn to her via word of mouth and her website. Average age ranges from 45 to 65, with her youngest client at 18 and the oldest in her 80s.
“Lady Ellen was the first person who saw the real me,” said Roome about the effect Weirich has had on her life.
Past the living room and into Weirich’s sunroom, stacks of clothes from evening gowns to business wear hang from hooks while wigs of soft hair, in colors such as strawberry blonde and jet black, grace a corner. Storage containers hold a treasure trove of mascara, lipstick, blush, and other makeup. Another holds corsets, girdles, waist cinchers, hip pads for a more womanly shape, and realistic-looking breast forms for every size. Shoes are neatly stored in a rack.
The business, a part-time endeavor, is a labor for love for Weirich, who only started making a small profit in the school’s seventh year.
“It grew very slowly. Each year, we have had more clients,” she said. “At times, I ask myself why am I putting all this time and effort. But then, I would look at the letters that people have sent. They were able to move forward, accomplish goals, and meet friends. Yes, this is why I do it.”
Weirich started the business after meeting a woman who considered herself genderqueer but was born a man. She had a side business where she rented out an apartment and taught cross dressers and transgender women how to put on makeup and clothes.
“That sounded so much fun. I want to do that,” said Weirich.
She began teaching herself how to apply makeup through books and videos. Especially theater makeup, which calls for a heavier foundation, in order to cover stubble and contour a masculine face into a softer one. Her business started in a suitcase, where she kept her supplies. And then it spilled into her basement and garage. Eventually, Weirich had to kick out her jacuzzi and plants from her sunroom, where she now holds court.
Her services include a makeup session for a night out for $50. Women can also pick and choose a menu that includes image consultation, shopping assistance, photoshoots, feminine movement classes, full transformation, and pre-party makeovers. With many of these services topping at $200.
Her daughter, Elaina, 24, a trained costume designer and makeup artist, helps out by sewing clothes.
“It's like giving a physical gauge to a feeling they have inside. To give them that is amazing because they don't know to express a part of themselves,” she said.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Weirich was giving a makeup consultation to Robyn Fox, a middle aged, rotund crossdresser who had squeezed herself into a black leather mini-skirt and a tight top - clothes that Fox supplied herself. Weirich covered Fox’s bald head with a wig cap and applied tape to her forehead in order to give Fox’s eyebrows an arch. Makeup softened Fox’s male features and a wavy, black wig completed the look.
Fox needed help. Weirich said whenever she saw Fox, she was wearing something too tight. That day’s dress was an improvement over the first outfit Fox had worn in front of Weirich: a tight, see-through pink dress that had ripped at the seam and shoes that hurt.
Ally, a past client and friend, said her first instinct was to wear loud, hippy clothes when she first started taking Weirich’s classes. Growing up as a teen in the 1960s, she had yearned to wear the same clothes her girlfriends wore. But Ally knows better and dresses tastefully for her age and body type now.
“In the first meeting, you are a barbarian. I knew nothing because I did it in private. I didn't know how to present myself physically,” said Ally, who dresses as a woman but also wears men's clothes for her children.
Roome was just as unpolished when she signed up for Weirich’s services in 2009. She had not used wigs or makeup and sported a huge amount of body hair and a five o’clock shadow.
“I took baby steps. I was scared out of my mind,” she said.
But those baby steps took her out of the closet. She used electrolysis to banish the prickly hair from her delicate face. She learned to dress herself. She came out to her family, friends, and work colleagues, who welcomed the real Roome. Through Weirich, she also met her wife Alice Levine, also a transgender woman. They married on December 19, 2013 after a romantic “Walt Disney” kind of courtship, they both said.
“I had this horrible secret and it colored everything I did,” said Roome. “I had to watch everything I said so I wouldn't give away this horrible secret. Once I got over that hurdle, it was as if a huge weight had lifted and I was not scared anymore. It made a huge difference in my life.”