The company in rural Sumter County that makes FemSkins, life-sized, lifelike, rubber female body suits for men who want to feel like dolls, was featured this year in a documentary on English TV. Ready-made viral fodder, it hit the British tabloids, the Daily Beast, BuzzFeed, Gawker, Facebook, Twitter …
And the phone of owner Barbara Ramos started to ring.
When I called, she sounded busy. Wary, too. The amount of attention had taken her by surprise. She figured it was on TV in England, so English people would see it, not people in Florida. She said she was concerned about the ramifications of any stories she called "local."
It was an unexpected sentiment coming from someone whose business is a possibility only because the Internet exists. Now everything is everywhere always.
"We don't have a storefront. We don't advertise," she told me. "Nobody knows we're here, and that's the way we'd like to keep it. Let's face it, we're in the Bible Belt."
The Villages, the sprawling domain of conservative retirees, is just up the road. Whether the golf-obsessed community with an above-average rate of STDs would be offended is open for debate.
"We just don't want to be hassled by anybody locally," Ramos said.
She kept talking, though, and what she said was that her husband seven years ago started Sculpted Mold Works — that's the company's official name — because his cabinetry business had dwindled because of the recession. One night he was watching the news and he saw a story about transgender people, and somehow that triggered an idea in his head to make these suits, for these men …
"FemSkins are very soft, strong and elastic," it says on femskin.com. "Tight and stretchy like pantyhose, they are silky smooth and will shape your body for a sexy female form."
They're specially designed for the transgendered, according to the site, and "the female genitalia, breasts and anus are super realistic." Other options include a "urination pouch kit." A package deal costs $1,850.
"We're the only ones in the world who do it," Ramos said. "The only ones."
"We" being Barbara Ramos and her three sons, Chuck III, Alex and Adam, the vice president, the CEO and the CFO — but not her husband. He died in 2011. Kidney cancer.
"It's basically his legacy," his widow told me. "So me and my sons keep going."
Rubber body suits and the men who wear them to feel like dolls? That alone, I told her, is not necessarily a story. Just another bauble on the conveyor belt of media distraction. But a woman and her three sons making these suits, serving what had been a frustrated, under-accommodated market, in an effort to honor their late husband and father? Now that, I told her, is a worthwhile story.
She agreed to a visit, and with a photographer, too. But then she called to postpone. And then she stopped returning calls. And then she finally sent an email saying she was sorry. "I've been swamped," she wrote. She gave me a time to call. No answer.
"I know I've been avoiding you," she said in another email, "because I'm really nervous about anyone finding out where we live …"
I looked up her husband's obituary. Charles G. "Chuck" Ramos Jr., a Michigan native who moved to Florida from Tennessee in 2005, was 49. The obit said he liked playing his guitar and working in the garden and mechanics and physics and trying to understand how things worked. It said he was in "the glass and mirror industry." It called him an entrepreneur. The founder of FemSkin sounded like a family man, a resourceful small-business guy who tried to make ends meet in a changing world, and did.
Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.