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Fab Magazine

feature - issue 289


Lady of the Wildside

All-girl Catholic school. Earning a living as a working girl. Marriage to a trans girl. Marriage to a guy who looked like a girl. Running a business for guys who want to dress like girls. For Paddy Aldridge, girl power was always the way to go

The very first time I ever saw a woman with a penis, I remember going, ‘My goodness, that’s odd!’ but now it’s no big deal. It was never a barrier,” says Paddy Aldridge, owner of Take a Walk on the Wildside, Toronto’s first transformation service for male cross-dressers. She’s leaning back in her chair in Paddy’s Playhouse, the second-floor lounge at 161 Gerrard St. E., where her transformation business has grown into a club, boutique, salon and bed-and-breakfast. A wall of mirrored closet doors reflects the light shining in the bay window that overlooks Allan Gardens. A low stage in front of the window supports a microphone stand, karaoke machine and speakers. Aldridge’s own paintings, bearing images of playful, cartoonish women (and performance artist Keith Cole), adorn the walls. Like her art, Aldridge is vivid and spirited, an imposing woman at six feet with a wild crown of long, dark auburn hair contrasting her fair complexion. Her wealth of worldly experience is offset by her genuine incredulity at the implausibility of her own life: “Every time I’m interviewed, I feel like I don’t know what to say because I just can’t believe it myself!”

As a child and young teenager, Aldridge attended a convent school in North York, but her life took a decidedly unholy turn when, at age 18, she moved into a one-bedroom apartment at Yonge and Eglinton with three gay guys. Aldridge’s staid Leaside parents were not impressed. “I used to bring Robby [one of her roommates] over to visit my mom and my mom would go, ‘You don’t move out and move in with a man!’ And I’d say, ‘Robby’s not a man; he’s gay!’” After about three months with the boys, Aldridge moved into the apartment next door with a transsexual woman named Nicki, who went on to perform with the Great Imposters. Nicki taught Aldridge her first trade.

“The boys said, ‘Paddy, you need to get a job,’ so I became a stripper,” Aldridge explains. It was an excellent career choice in the early ’70s, the golden age of Toronto’s burlesque scene. “There were 400 places to work in Toronto,” she recalls. “[You] would go into Le Strip, go into the dressing room, get dressed really quick into your outfit, go onstage, do a dance and take your outfit off. [Then you’d] put your outfit back on, put something on top, run down the street and go on that stage and take your outfit off again.” Working clubs from Starvin’ Marvin’s to the Zanzibar, Aldridge found commonalities between the world of strippers and her community of drag queens. “We wore huge negligees that we would just flash, and wigs and boas and gloves, just like the drag queens! I figure they modelled after us!” she says with a laugh.

Though Aldridge was primarily hetero at the time, the highly sexual atmosphere of her professional life had the opposite effect on her private life. “When you’re a stripper…sex is just there all the time,” she says. “After work, there wasn’t any eagerness to go home and get fucked; there was eagerness to go and dance to disco music in a gay bar.” Showing up at the nowdefunct Club Manatee after a night of stripping, still in her stage costume and makeup, the statuesque Aldridge was often mistaken for one of the drag queens with whom she worked. In a foreshadowing of things to come, Aldridge started hanging out with the legendary travelling drag troupe the Great Imposters. On the group’s jaunts to Kingston, Thunder Bay, Sudbury or any of the smaller towns they toured in the late ’70s, Aldridge’s agent would book her in a club and she would hitch a ride. “That let me see guys dressing like girls and how to do it.”

To build on the performance skills she already had as a stripper, Aldridge enrolled in Ryerson’s theatre program in 1981. Though she was still stripping at the Zanzibar and occasionally running into her classmates there, Aldridge soon found a new way to cover her tuition costs. “A friend of mine got busted, so she asked me if I wanted to inherit her half of [a callgirl] business in this penthouse at 86 Gerrard,” Aldridge says. “I would go home at lunch and make $150 and I’d go back to school in different clothes. I’m glad I did it,” she adds pragmatically. “I have friends who are carrying student loans that they still haven’t paid off!” Clean and sober for the past three years, Aldridge recalls the party scene of those years of sex work with wonder. “Everyone was taking uppers, downers, they were trying to lose weight…did you ever see Boogie Nights? It was just like that!” she remembers. “Oh my God, in those days I’d have candy dishes with magic mushrooms!”

After graduating from Ryerson in 1986, Aldridge bought a house at Woodbine and Danforth. Renting out three bedrooms paid the mortgage, and Aldridge earned extra income by painting murals for bars and working an erotic phone line. The service soon started sending her the callers that no one else wanted, especially the cross-dressers. “If you can imagine how personable I was,” she muses, “personable to the point where I could put [men] from all over the world, all ages, all walks of life…at ease on the phone so that they could…tell me something that they had never told anyone before: ‘I cross-dress.’” A transsexual woman with whom Aldridge worked was the first to articulate an idea that had been percolating for years: “She said, ‘You should open a business and call it Take a Walk on the Wildside and do makeup for men to look like women.’”

The idea made sense. “I already knew so many drag queens,” says Aldridge. On August 1, 1987, Aldridge placed an ad in NOW Magazine that read: “Take a walk on the wildside. Who’s that girl? It could be you,” followed by her phone number. “The phone rang off the hook. Unstoppable!” Armed only with her old stripper outfits and wigs, and the makeup skills she learned in theatre school, Aldridge was soon overwhelmed by the response. “I charged $250 for two hours and people showed up, four a day. I had to hire another girl to help me and another girl after that!” The business boomed, so much so that within six months, Aldridge realized that she was in over her head and decided to travel to the US to learn more about cross-dressing, transgenderism and transsexuality. Business quickly became pleasure, however, when en route to a conference in Boston, Aldridge met and fell in love with a transsexual woman named Veronica Brown. In a whirlwind romance, Aldridge sold her house, closed the business and by 1989 had moved to Massachusetts to be with her new partner. Living in the US, Aldridge had access to a much larger pool of information and research on cross-dressing and gender identity. She attended conferences and seminars with everyone from the International Foundation for Gender Education to the Tiffany Club of New England, a club for cross-dressers.

Within a year, Aldridge and Brown moved back to Toronto and reopened Take a Walk on the Wildside in their two-bedroom apartment on Jarvis, where their storage closet of false nails and eyelashes served as a store. After a year there, during which Aldridge and Brown were legally married (a feat they were able to manage after they spent three months proving that Brown had XY chromosomes, had fathered a child and was divorced from the wife she had been married to as a man), they relocated Wildside to Dundas Street East, and from there moved it to its current home in 1994. “Veronica taught me discipline,” says Aldridge. “Get up every morning, open the store. I was used to being the party girl.” Though Aldridge and Brown divorced not long after Wildside took up residence on Gerrard Street, Aldridge quickly found new love with Roxy, a bio-male who came in to the store for a transformation. Aldridge and Roxy were married in 1996 in a lavish, two-bride ceremony at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Though they, too, divorced after five years, Aldridge remains grateful to Roxy for stepping into the media spotlight on behalf of Wildside. “Roxy would just dress up and go on the Mike Bullard Show,” Aldridge says, also listing The Phil Donohue Show, The Jerry Springer Show (which sent a crew to cover her wedding with Roxy), Breakfast Television, Kink and Rick Mercer’s Monday Report among the media outlets that have covered Wildside. Her husband’s love of the spotlight left Aldridge free to produce videos and magazines on cross-dressing. “They were good partners for me because they were good for the business,”

Aldridge says of her ex-spouses. “The business is still here because of that. [But] I should have realized that I was getting a business partner and not a life partner, because everyone I became a partner with worked for the business.”

Now in its 20th year of making guys into girls, Take a Walk on the Wildside has its own boutique and private members’ club. For $50 a year, and $15 per visit, men can come to Wildside and change into their girl clothes and makeup while enjoying the company of like-minded patrons. Lockers upstairs provide discreet storage for those who prefer not to keep their girl clothes at home, while large mirrors, narrow counters and strong lighting provide the perfect environment for transformation. Wildside also has four rooms that club members can rent for overnight stays, something that the business has always offered and encouraged. “We always had people coming over from other places in the world,” says Aldridge. “Japan, Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Bogota.” Aldridge once answered a call from a man who announced himself only as “Huus, from Vroot.” “Vroot is in Sweden,” she explains, recalling how they collected the man from the airport and took him out for dinner on Church Street. “He took a tape out of his purse, gave the tape to the DJ at Crews, got up on the stage and did a drag show. Couldn’t believe it!” Aldridge crows. “He stayed for a week!”

Despite the incredibly positive response from the community and the media, the girl business hasn’t all been sugar and spice – the intense emotions that cross-dressing evoked for some men had Aldridge seeking escape in drugs and alcohol. “I would be doing lines and drinking, ’cause everyone was going, ‘Oh, Paddy, oh, thank you, Paddy. You’re wonderful, Paddy.’ And how much of that can you take?” she says. The wives of her straight clients often confided their discomfort with their husbands’ crossdressing, sometimes viewing it as a challenge to their own sexuality. “Women were coming up to me and going, ‘I’m not gay!’ and I’d be thinking, ‘What the fuck does she mean?’ Well, maybe she thinks because her husband dresses like a woman, he is a woman. But I had nobody to ask.” As the lady of the Wildside manor, Aldridge felt pressured to be everything to everyone, to have the answers to all the questions and to maintain total control over herself and the business. “How many other women are teaching men to cross-dress? It’s not like we have a support group! I wasn’t getting counselling; I was just taking drugs and drinking to cope.” In 2002, an addiction to crack cocaine finally drove Aldridge to seek help. Leaving the business in the hands of trusted friends, Aldridge checked herself into a treatment facility. She stayed away from Wildside for an entire year, allowing herself time to regain her physical health and emotional equilibrium.

Three years into her recovery, the lens of past addiction now tints her perspective. Pointing out the karaoke machine in the front window, Aldridge says, “The karaoke is something to do instead of drinking. I get bored way too fast to sit around and not do anything and…I would drink. But I can get up there and sing for six hours and I’m not bored.” She now views even her business through the frame of her recovery, with concerns about the potential for addiction among some cross-dressers. “[Crossdressing], well, it’s a ride. And once you get on, where are you going to go? And is it good or bad?” Aldridge asks. “It’s normal for me to drink, [but] I try to live my life without drinking. Some people can give up cross-dressing, and if it’s better for me not to drink, it must be better for some people not to cross-dress.” But she concedes, “I don’t know where to draw the line to say when something’s affecting your life,” and she adds that it isn’t her place to do so anyway.

While Aldridge herself has changed over the years, the fun and sense of theatre involved in running Wildside have remained constant. Pride in the pleasure her business has brought to the many men who once thought their interest must remain a shameful secret is never far from her voice, nor is the laughter that bubbles over when she remembers the unlikely scenarios she’s encountered.

“At a [Wildside] Christmas party, I had a York University student in fine arts, and I sat him down at a table and introduced him to one of his professors!” she recalls. On another occasion, a man drove up to the store in a late-model Mercedes Benz to buy a pair of breast forms. “He said, ‘I’m not a crossdresser, I just always wondered what it was like to have tits.’ Isn’t that sweet?” says Aldridge tenderly. As she has since 1987, Aldridge set about making the man’s dream come true. “I gave him a bra and the breast forms and he got into his Mercedes and, goodness knows, he might have put them on, driving along, feeling himself up!”

Andrea Németh is Fab’s Associate/Literary Editor.

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