BANG. BANG. BANG.
Barbie Ramos jolted out of bed. She got up in a daze. It was 2 or 3 one morning in early 2007.
Her husband Chuck had been out all night in the workshop across the lawn working on a new idea. It was something about female body suits he had been obsessing over for weeks. His days and nights passed in a sequence of failed silicone mixes.
Barbie raced up the hall and turned into the kitchen. At the door, behind the square window, was Chuck. His hands were on his forehead, blood dripping down to his elbows.
Someone tried to kill him, she thought. There’s a madman out there.
She threw the door opened and yanked him in by his shirt, bolting the door behind them.
“What happened?” she asked, frantic.
“The pot blew up in my face,” he said.
A small pressure pot the size of a beer keg, in which Chuck was mixing silicone solutions, had exploded — leaving him with a four-inch gash extending from above his left eyebrow to his nose and requiring 17 stitches.
But what was worse: His experiment wasn’t working.
Just inside the Bible Belt in the languid pastures of Wildwood, 50 miles west of Orlando, Chuck Ramos II was creating a female body suit for men. Targeting an underground community of men who dress like female dolls, Chuck was hoping to make thousands of dollars from each suit he produced, if only he could find a way to simulate real skin.
His silicone distributors told him it couldn’t be done. His family was skeptical that he had abandoned his 15-year cabinetry business to chase a hunch. The recession had begun, leaving the Ramoses grasping for anything that could keep them afloat.
And their best hope had just blown up in Chuck’s face.
THE URGE TO INVENT
Chuck had always wanted to invent something.
Barbie spent decades following him on his wild pursuits. She met Chuck in 1982 at an apartment complex in Hollywood, Florida. She was 16, from New Jersey. He was 21, from Michigan.
As the family moved from Crossville, Tennessee, to Northport to Wildwood, Chuck invented dune buggies, foldout stages, laser light shows.
He was a small man, barely 5 feet 6 inches, bald, Puerto Rican and stubborn.
In late 2006, a late-night show about troubles in the transgender community caught Chuck’s attention. Many couldn’t afford gender-reassignment surgery, which for men costs about $25,000. Some committed suicide because they couldn’t have the operation. Others died as a result of botched surgeries.
Chuck Ramos was just the man to do something about it.
Barbie consented to the scheme, but with a condition: If a good job came along, he’d have to take it.
That job never came. So Chuck worked toward creating an anatomically correct body suit in the form of a woman to stretch over a man’s body, create the illusion of curves and produce the same satisfaction as gender-reassignment surgery, without the permanent commitment or costs.
He built a website advertising the suits to gauge demand.
Suddenly, the orders came.
The proposed suits were priced at $3,000. He contacted his first 10 customers and explained that he could produce them, he just needed the startup money and six to eight weeks for delivery. They agreed.
“The first suit was the ugliest thing ever,” Barbie said. “It had a zipper down the back.”
Adam, the Ramoses’ middle son, joined him almost immediately. He had been working in his father’s cabinetry business since he was 16, getting to know a man who had been a distant father to him. Of Chuck’s three sons, Chuck III, Adam and Alex, his first-born was the obvious favorite, all the sons agreed.
Now, they had something to unite them. They had a goal: Perfect the FemSkin.
But the Ramoses would soon learn what FemSkin could give and what FemSkin could take away.
By late 2009, FemSkin was taking off, validating years of innovation and struggle. Orders came in for five, 10, sometimes 20 suits a week.
Adam and Chuck created their dream suit, the FemSkin III: a silicone rubber body suit in five skin tones. The centimeter-thick suit feels like real skin and rolls over the legs, torso and neck with slits for the head, arms and feet.
It even has a belly button.
The upper body was molded from a German woman’s body, the bottom from a Brazilian’s. A rectum and pee pouch come optional. It can fit men as tall as 6-foot-11.
A complete suit costs nearly $2,000, with simpler versions going for maybe $1,400.
Barbie left her bookkeeping job that year to take care of FemSkin’s finances, prepare orders and work with clients. She worked peripherally while Chuck and Adam continued to improve the molds. Chuck III injected the suits with silicone; Alex painted on the nipples and vagina.
Today, FemSkin is the only U.S. seller of full female body suits, marketing internationally to countries as remote as Ghana. Their biggest client bases are in Germany and Australia. Most U.S. orders originate in Wisconsin.
The company has sold suits for lawyers, doctors and even two priests.
In July, they’ll be part of a Showtime documentary. In October they’ll host a DollCon conference for male dolls in London.
The suits found demand and a strong following in the transgender and masking communities. Maskers, or Living Dolls, are men who dress like female dolls, using FemSkins to create a female figure and masks to resemble women.
After years of searching, Chuck and his inventive mind had struck gold in the most unexpected of places.
Five years have passed since FemSkin took off, the ghost of its early days still visible in the silicone lab.
Barbie was busy filling vagina molds at the silicone lab in early March, a cabinetry hinge holding the two-part mold together, in front of a white board covered with formulas in fading brown Dry-Erase marker.
She’s 47 now, her curly blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wears the same thing every day: a faded pink tank top and stained khaki shorts.
On her right calf is a tattoo of Chuck’s face, beaming up, black sunglasses on his bald head.
“There wasn’t anything that man could not fix or tinker with to get it to work. Not one thing in this world,” she said.
“But he couldn’t fix himself.”
In March 2010, Chuck started to complain of pain in his back. He urinated blood. Kidney stones, Barbie guessed.
At the hospital, doctor’s found a more lethal culprit: At 49, he was diagnosed with Stage III kidney cancer. The cancer spread to his lungs, to his brain.
In March 2011, Barbie found him having a seizure on his white leather armchair while watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
At the hospital, he couldn’t remember why he was there or what had happened.
“I told him the truth,” Barbie said. “I never lied to him, ever.”
He held her hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
By June 22, their 29th anniversary of being together and 15th anniversary of marriage, family trickled into the Ramos home.
“If he makes it a week, you’ll be very lucky,” the doctor told her that day.
On Tuesday morning, June 28, Barbie left the room to blow-dry her hair.
She took one step, five, 10.
The nurse’s screams called her back.
“As soon as I walked in, he took his last breath,” she said.
It was 10:17 a.m. He had made it exactly one week.
“If you can imagine a ship that has a captain and that captain’s gone, what do they do now?” Barbie said.
Six months before his death, Chuck had signed the company over to Barbie. But with Chuck gone, FemSkin floundered.
Her three sons felt like they had been robbed of something that was rightfully theirs. They had built the molds. They had built the suits. They had built the company.
When it was clear that Chuck was dying, Barbie took a more active role in the business, one her sons assumed would be temporary. After Chuck’s death, her position became permanent and tensions began to boil.
“This was their company with their dad,” Barbie said. “This wasn’t my company. So coming into it was hard, kind of like the new kid at school.”
The boys were pushing to see how far they could go, she said. It was three of them and one of her.
They insisted that someone who hadn’t helped build the company wasn’t fit to own it.
“Guys are different than girls, when they hurt they get angry and they need to take it out on somebody,” Barbie said, “and for them, it was me.”
Barbie wanted to implement her ideas into the company, changing the one thing that still tied the boys to their father.
“My dad’s shop had always been ‘the boys,’ ” Alex, the youngest, said. “She wanted it clean and sophisticated.”
Chuck’s preference for his firstborn, Chuck III, meant he focused on providing for his younger sons and not much else. They had grown up closer to their mother, but when FemSkin took off, so did communication with their father. Their relationship with Barbie took a backseat.
When Barbie entered Adam’s workshop, he pushed back.
“How is she going to tell me what to do in here? She can’t do anything in here!” he said.
Barbie’s control extended to every part of business, including finances.
FemSkin makes roughly $20,000 a month in profit. Barbie and the boys each get paid $500 a week, with monthly bonuses depending on how well the company is doing.
Chuck III, 29, injects about 10 suits a week, making $50 on every $1,200 suit. FemSkin doesn’t pay his bills.
Three years have passed since FemSkin’s change in ownership, subduing the tensions of the past.
Adam insists he doesn’t care. He rarely cares about anything at all. As long as no one touches what he does in the workshop, he agrees to the arrangement.
“Boys are different than girls,” Barbie repeats, over and over, like she’s trying to understand it herself.
She wants to understand her sons, but in the 4.5 acres of property, in the middle of fields and forests, she feels alone. Chuck always swept the workshop. He understood her.
They have forgotten the more difficult times, but she remembers them vividly. She wears the scars from her sons’ rejection.
They resent her for being the one who survived, she said.
“I told them, I’m sorry that I lived and your dad didn’t, but I can’t change that. Me dying is not going to bring him back.”
It’s 8 a.m. one early April day, and Barbie is leaving. The house is quiet. The boys are sleeping.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m floundering and I need to stop,” she said.
Staying at FemSkin on a daily basis becomes harder and harder without Chuck. She is surrounded by the memory of her husband.
His office is intact. On display on the shelves above his desk are photos of his sons, drawings. A few titles down from a large blue book titled Sealants, Adhesives, and Fasteners reclines a smaller white volume: The Cancer Cure That Worked!
On the coffee table in the living room are two Snapfish albums of Chuck’s 49th birthday, his last. Barbie’s pink tank top was bright then. His urn sits on another coffee table.
“When you get married you prepare yourself to be with that person for the rest of your life and you don’t think the rest of your life is 49 years old,” she said.
When Chuck died, she lost herself. She is stuck there, unable to escape a home decorated as a testament to his life.
“When you have heartache in your life you try to protect the people that you’re around every day the most,” she said.
She recognizes she has overprotected the boys without meaning to.
“I think if I distance myself a little bit, they’ll be safer,” she said.
Her April trip to Tennessee, five days with her niece and her niece’s daughter, would decide if she moves to Chattanooga to join them.
She has given her life to FemSkin, to Chuck, to her sons. But FemSkin’s life isn’t with her. It’s with Adam, who would take over in her stead.
What she didn’t understand in that moment, what she understands now, is that she can’t leave it yet. FemSkin is not ready to function without her.
Five days later she would be back in Wildwood armed with the knowledge that for now, she can’t leave the boys. FemSkin is still the right place for her.
That April morning she didn’t see them on her way out.
She slipped out of the house.
On her leg, the grays of Chuck’s tattoo dulled against the morning’s hues. The black letters tattooed on a ribbon under his face bounce as she walked to the car. In bright black against the budding day, they glowed: “Family is forever.”