- by Amber Rowe
Behind a rack filled with packaged breast forms, and piled boxes of size 14 pink patent pumps, Patricia “Paddy” Aldridge, 53, seats her client in a classic barbershop chair.
Paddy – the boy's name she received while attending an all-girl's Catholic school – is a statuesque figure of womanhood. At 6-1, her height challenges even that of her client “Lauren”.
Lauren, in his shiny, black high-heeled boots, has come to this row house at 161 Gerrard St. in downtown Toronto for his second transformation. Lauren wants to look like a woman.
“She's comforting. I feel safe with Paddy,” says Lauren, a tall man with short dark hair and a low voice. He straightens a wrinkle in his tasteful black dress. “She provides a welcoming, safe environment.”
“Yeah, I think I'm pretty special,” says Aldridge with a twinkle. She leans the seat back as though she were a barber about to give a close shave. Instead, she begins to smooth foundation on to his face.
When Aldridge talks, her voice has a slow, steady rhythm. It's the sort of pace that could ease even the most uncomfortable into her barbershop chair. Or the sort of pace one gets from having partied hard in the 70's, which, when it comes to Aldridge, is not too difficult to fathom.
“I used to tell people in the first five minutes of conversation I was a stripper,” she says as spreads the foundation.
“There were 400 places to strip on Yonge Street. I could literally do a show at Starvin' Marvin's get dressed, run down the street and do an another show at Le Strip.”
Soon after she began stripping, she travelled with a group of drag performers known as The Imposters. She would be booked at their venues and do strip shows as the afternoon entertainment, to be followed by The Imposters later that night.
“I was a showgirl type,” says Aldridge. “I used fans.” They were just one of the props she worked into her performances.
Aldridge's love of stage eventually led to her enrollment in the Theatre program at Ryerson. She continued stripping to pay for her education. “Even when I was off stage, I was on stage,” she says.
Aldridge steps back from Lauren and uses her wrist to push her bright-red hair away from her face. “After I graduated I hated theatre,” she says. “It was the same thing over and over. I thought it was boring.”
Then one day, a girl Aldridge worked with made a suggestion. The suggestion was to start a business that dressed men up like women. It would be called “Take a Walk on the Wildside”, and Aldridge, with her theatre background, would do the dressing up.
So she placed an ad in ELLE Magazine that said,
“Take a Walk on the Wildside. Who's that girl? It
could be you!”
“My phone rang off the hook,” says Aldridge.
Using a brush, she works a dark shadow over Lauren's eyelid. “I used to ask my clients, 'When do you turn into a woman? When the lipstick goes on or when the lashes go on?' Their answers were all different.” says Aldridge.
And her business Wildside caters to all. Since 1987, Aldridge has been transforming men into women and providing all the means necessary. Wigs, makeup, breast forms, “Jane belts”, shoes and boots (to size 17), corsettes, dresses, and skirts and tops. Everything a man - who wants to be a girl – could want.
Sometimes her customers are women who, like her, require larger clothing sizes. Some are transsexual and are seeking a more accurate reflection when they look in the mirror. And some are celebrities.
Wildside provided John Travolta's shoes for the film Hairspray, and taught Willem Dafoe how to sport a Jane belt - a device that hides away the male anatomy - for Boondock Saints. Wildside also supplied his wardrobe.
But Aldridge says that when it comes to cross-dressers and their reasons, no two are alike. “Every single one is different and it's not like a recipe,” says Aldridge.
“That's a beautiful answer,” says Lauren quietly from the chair. With a pair of tweezers, she picks up a thick row of lashes and lowers them on to Lauren's eyelid. His face looks lush, and darkly feminine – barely hinting at the plain face Aldridge began with.
Clients of Aldridge who cross-dress are all across the board. From singles to husbands. From motorcycle enthusiasts to boardroom executives. And the community of clients that Aldridge has amassed is a more than supportive environment for all.
But as Aldridge learned, though most just need a bit of encouragement, there are those whose insecurity about cross-dressing runs much deeper and much darker .
In the first six months of running Wildside, that fact was made clear when one of her customers, while enjoying his new appearance in the mirror, according to Aldridge, “got a strange look on his face.”
After having a complete $500 transformation, Aldridge's client began to verbally abuse himself and hit himself across the face. Hard.
Aldridge backs away from the chair to demonstrate. “It wasn't like this,” she says, giving herself a light slap. “It was like this!” She winds up and turns her open hand into a fist, directing it toward her own cheek. “I was f---ing shaken.”
The shop, that in the beginning was only equipped with Aldridge's old stripping get-ups, is now stocked with dresses and outfits – all products of her very own label.
“I started when I was 12,” says Aldridge of designing and making clothes. “I was a big girl. I could never get anything to fit.”
It was her Polish grandmother who, without knowing English, would take Aldridge's simple dress designs and help her sew an outfit perfect for her size. “But the sleeves were never long enough,“ says Aldridge.
She releases the chair to its upright position and rotates Lauren to face the mirror behind him. She takes a brown, shoulder-length wig from a nearby plastic bust and tugs it down onto his head.
The eye shadow, the fake lashes and the wig all together make his dark eyes pop. He grins.
“Thanks, Paddy,” he says quietly as he goes upstairs to get a better look in the full-length mirrors.
Tom Sloan, Aldridge's ex-husband who – when cross-dressing – is also known as “Roxy Wildside”, talks about her from the front counter of the shop. With a stern look on his weathered face, he says, “Paddy reminds me of my battle-ax grandmother, who was a fire and brimstone Baptist.”
Citing an occasion on which he bleached towels and, to Aldridge's immense dissatisfaction,
left them spotted, he adds, “She is a pompous, over-bearing control freak.”
Upon moving out from behind the counter, Sloan reveals he is wearing a pair of yellow rubber boots. Paired with some old jeans and a sweatshirt, on the whole he looks more like a fisherman who has seen
the decline of the industry in Newfoundland. A far throw from one who has ever worn a Jane belt to become a “Roxy Wildside”.
His feminine side Roxy has been interviewed on Q107 and has made TV appearances, such as on the now defunct Mike Bullard Show. Roxy, as she explains on the website, is the “TV model” for the business.
Sloan moves towards the front window and looks out onto the wet street. “We're still in love, but we haven't quite found a way to put our lives together yet,” he says.
He describes a marriage characterized by mutual alcohol abuse and a mutual strong-headedness. “In 1994, we convinced ourselves we were soulmates, but really, we were drinking buddies too.” Since their divorce in 2001, both Aldridge and Tom received help for their alcoholism, and now remain sober.
“We've started talking again, trusting each other again,” he says, his brow furrowed. “As a team, we're pretty tough.”
Sloan continues to help Aldridge around the shop, doing repairs and working at the counter. And though he takes credit for these roles in the business, he points to her as its main attraction and momentum.
“I can tell guys how to wear it, what to expect, but they come for Paddy's magic. They want a woman
to legitimize what they are doing,” he says. “It's that genius in her. She takes insecure guys and makes them feel comfortable.”
Despite such glowing remarks, Aldridge doesn't receive praise from every corner. When she returns home on visits to her Catholic mother and Protestant father, she will likely receive a blunt question about her work.
“My Dad always asks, 'Do you still run that business for queers?'” she says with a smile.
Aldridge however, doesn't seem to mind. “Some people rather than receiving encouragement, we are challenged,” she says. “Some people have a spirit that takes them where ever they need to go. That's the person I am.”
Sloan turns from the window and walks slowly towards the back of the shop, where Aldridge is settled beside a stack of hangers and a few new outfits. “Paddy's got stars up her uterus,” he says.