Watching Monica Prata and Bree Benz together is a bit like watching girlfriends catch-up. Benz sits at a glass vanity, fresh-faced and full of anticipation, while Prata arranges an array of MAC Cosmetics in her sun-splashed West Village apartment. The next few hours are filled with makeup, wardrobe, and lots of conversation.
As time goes on, it’s clear their relationship is somewhat serendipitous. “The irony in all of this is that your soon-to-be ex-wife is the one that found me for you,” said Prata, a feminine image consultant, for clients who are transgender, transitioning or exploring gender fluidity.
“She also named me,” Benz says of her spouse. “I was out walking with my wife, back in 2014 during the summer, and she was trying to be sarcastic, I think, and she says ‘Oh, I suppose your feminine name is going to be Briana,’ and I was like, ‘Briana. Bree. Oh my god, that’s brilliant.'”
The women share a laugh before returning to business. “Close,” directed Prata, before smoothing bright eyeshadow over Benz’s eyelids.
Prior to launching her company, Nouveau She, Prata worked at Nordstrom where she often assisted men who told associates they were shopping for “wives” or “girlfriends,” but quietly looked for women’s apparel for themselves. “I would go through the store and pick clothing out that I knew would suit this man who was coming to me,” said Prata. “I would also pick up a pair of khakis and put them in a fitting room and let him go in.”
She later worked at MAC Cosmetics, honing her makeup skills, before accepting a position with Dr. Douglas Ousterhaut, a facial feminization surgeon, in San Fransisco. “It kept snowballing from there and now here we are,” she said.
During the makeup session, the pair talked about nailing Benz’s “day look,” sans eyeliner — something Benz still struggles with — and a recent outing with some of Prata’s other clients. Benz’s final look highlights her eye color in a way that was not noticeable in her initial interview — in jeans and a checkered button-up shirt, the last items of men’s clothing she owns.
Until 2015, Benz presented as Brian, a married father of two and CEO of a modest mid-sized company. Today, her life is remarkably different. Over the last year, she relocated from Connecticut to Manhattan to work closely with Prata and has begun hormone therapy. Benz even sold her company — a decision that allowed her to have the financial means to move forward with her upcoming transition.
But the last six months also wielded an immense mental shift. “I was still terrified to walk down the street as Bree,” she said. But through sessions with Prata, it’s now where she feels most comfortable. Under Prata’s guidance, she’s learned to embrace her stature, become comfortable shopping for clothing and dining out at restaurants, and developed the courage to let family and some of her oldest friends meet her, something she would have never done before. “Beyond fear is freedom,” said Benz. “If you can get over that fear, I do find that it’s wonderful on the other side.”
“When I first met Monica, it was all about the physical piece, how I present, which is why I was so worried about how I looked,” said Benz. “As you learn sort of an intimacy, as you learn how to relate, as I pick up how she views femininity, you start to pick up a little bit of those pieces and you understand it’s internal,” she said.