We are sitting in a dimly lit bar, down an alleyway, down a stairwell in the backstreets of Soho. Our conversation is repeatedly interrupted by customers. "That'll be pounds 3.50,'' says Vicky, and they drop their money into the tin that boosts the balance books of the Wayout Piano Bar, the Wednesday night haunt for cross-dressers. A survey of 5,000 British men, carried out for a national women's magazine, found that 25 per cent of men will cross dress at some time in their lives and 8 per cent will do so regularly. The Wayout bar is part of a growing industry for men who want to do more than just try on their wives stockings in the privacy of their own homes.
Some of its customers are tall, skinny "women", with crooked wigs and beards, who stare at the floor in shame. Others are buxom, with pouting lips and swinging hips, and proud to be transvestites. ''There has been an explosion on the tranny scene over the past five years,'' says Vicky. ''When we started here we had 10 trannies on a Wednesday night. Now we can get up to 200.''
Vicky believes the boom in the tranny industry is part of a general, social move towards acceptance and liberalism. ''It's okay to be a single parent. It's okay to be gay. So why shouldn't it be okay for us to express the feminine side of ourselves and wear women's clothing?" Vicky says. She [transvestites are partial to the use of the feminine pronoun] and her business partner Stephan are an integral part of the boom in the transvestite industry. Last year they published the 160-page Transvestite Guide. This year they've called it the Tranny Guide, because "being a tranny is trendy and the word tranny is more trendy than transvestite". It calls itself the "world's best international listings guide for cross-dressers and their friends", costs pounds 9.95, and tells you everything you ever wanted to know about cross-dressing. Last year they sold 10,000 copies. This year they've got a bar code on the cover, they've approached WH Smiths and other mainstream newsagents and they've told the printers to keep the presses running. Vicky is convinced they will sell thousands more copies.
The guide provides information not just for the flamboyant drag queen, but also for secret cross-dressers. It includes every specialist service - from fetish clubs to nightclubs, from helplines to the frosted-glass front of Adam as Eve on Chalk Farm Road (where "Cross Dress, Wear Away Wonderland" is written in huge gold letters on the red painted door).
Four months ago, Adam as Eve was a massage parlour, but its owner, Josie Cahill, saw a niche in the market for a new cross-dressing service, closed down the parlour and opened a place where cross-dressers can while away a morning or an afternoon as "women".
Through the front door, you enter the minute reception area, separated from the main lounge by a heavy wooden door, to safeguard the privacy of the customer.
''How discreet are you?" is the question most commonly asked by men who call us up,'' says April, himself a cross-dresser who takes care of Adam as Eve customers. April, Anna and Angela are all employed by Cahill to advise customers on their clothes, wigs and make-up. April takes me through a typical scenario.
''A lorry driver with tattoos might come through the door and want to be made to feel like a beautiful woman. We show him this list and give him the choice of outfits.''
She points to a list on the wall: Water Baby Look, pounds 80; Blooming Look, pounds 60; Black Thrill Look, pounds 80. April takes me through to the wardrobe. ''What,'' I ask, ''is the Water Baby Look?'' April points to a swimming costume. ''We put them in a bathing suit and stick them in the sauna.'' And the blooming look? "It's the pregnant look. We dress them up and stick a pillow up them.''
She takes me upstairs and shows me the wedding dress, used for the bridal look ... a rather nasty white lace affair, locked away for safekeeping. ''It costs pounds 100 to spend an afternoon in this,'' she tells me.
Outfits chosen, they are taken into a mirrored room where one of the "girls" will make them up and help them choose a wig. And what then? I ask April.
''Then we tell them they look pretty. It's what every woman wants to hear, isn't it? And then they have four hours here as a woman. They can sit in the lounge and chat, they can browse through the mags,'' says April, pointing to a table littered with copies of She and New Woman. ''Or they can watch a video.'' April can't find the videos, but tells me they provide tips on cross-dressing.
The lorry driver walking out of Adam as Eve will scrape off his make- up, slip off his wedding dress and leave as he came. So where does he go if he wants make-up and women's clothing for keeps? The Transvestite Guide lists Fenwicks and Hennes, Harrods and Hyper Hyper, but for men who feel embarrassed, for men who don' t want to have to say, "I'm buying this for my wife'', half a mile up the road from Adam as Eve is Transformation.
As soon as I walk in, the manageress spots me. ''It is difficult enough for men to take the step to come in here,'' she says. ''They will feel most uncomfortable seeing a woman who is not staff. You have five minutes.''
But five minutes is long enough to price the nipples, the breasts, the cache sexe and the hormones for the cross-dressers who want to take it that little bit further. Silicone nipples start at pounds 149, and silicone breasts (available in four sizes) cost between pounds 179 and pounds 600. The cache sexe, designed to flatten and hide the penis, range from pounds 29.99 for a lace one with a padded gusset to pounds 89.99 for a seriously effective rubber one.
A cross-dressing customer overhears the manageress throwing me out of the shop and follows me outside. ''I'm not into the glamour cross-dressing,'' he says. ''I just feel so much more comfortable in a denim skirt than a suit. The accessories are becoming so expensive, particularly breasts. As being a cross-dresser becomes more trendy, we are more and more exploited.''
Back at the Way Out bar, this time at the even more popular Saturday night cabaret-cum-disco, Vicky Lee agrees that cross-dressing paraphernalia is far too costly. She reaches over and removes two packages wrapped in tissue paper from a plastic bag. "Feel these,'' she says. "Real silicone. They might cost a fortune in the shops, but we're starting a mail order catalogue and selling them for only pounds 80 a time. Oh, and the whole catalogue and our guide will be available on the internet.''
But once the trannies have donned their silicone boobs, their Derma blend foundation and their costly wigs, where, apart from Way Out, can they go to dance the night away?
Bambina, behind the Hippodrome, is the hottest tranny spot in town.The entry fee is pounds 12 but it's so dark and smokey that much of the effort the customers have put into their appearance is wasted. Dancing, drinking and smooching in disguise, the cross-dressers appear to have found a place where they can be themselves. ''Lilly Savage on Breakfast TV has done wonders for our world,'' yells one cross-dresser through the deafening decibels of, "Like a Virgin".
But Sira Dermen, a psychoanalyst at the Portman Clinic who works extensively with cross-dressers, remains cynical. Even if there is a boom in the transvestite market, she says, even if cross-dressing is becoming less "shameful" and more mainstream in an anything-goes society, cross-dressers will often feel a very deep sense of desperation.
Deborah, boogying away at Bambina, doesn't agree. ''I love this world. It's fun, fun, fun. I wish transvestite shops would start selling sanitary towels. That would just complete the picture.''
8 Wayout Piano Bar: 11 Kingley Court, London W1; Adam as Eve: 38 Chalk Farm Road, London NW1; Transformation Ltd: 52 Eversholt Street, London NW1; Bambina: 13-18 Bear Street, London W1