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The PI Wears Prada: One Woman's Midlife Career Change

career change entrepreneurship money paige williams purposeful living Apr 07, 2009
light in woods

by Paige Williams

photo via pixabay

When her job in real estate soured and her kids got older, Jeanene Weiner followed a dream and started her own detective agency.

On the Case

The doctor’s wife often slipped away in her Porsche to shop, play tennis and visit friends. And when she drove away from the two-story colonial in a posh Atlanta neighborhood, a petite blonde in a Mercedes often followed stealthily. The blonde had secretly installed a global positioning unit in the Porsche’s dashboard; if she lost the car in traffic, she could track it from her computer. But the blonde didn’t lose her. Jeanene Weiner hardly ever loses anyone.

What Weiner found—and photographed—after only days of surveillance in 2003, was what she almost always finds: a lover, a tryst, the start of another painful end. The doctor’s wife had rendezvoused with her former college sweetheart at his house, at a museum and at restaurants, where they held hands over glasses of wine. “When I told her husband, he was almost relieved, because she had convinced him that he was crazy for suspecting anything,” Weiner says. “It still surprises me that so many people can outright lie about what they’re doing. I don’t know how they sleep.”

The Path to Private Eye

Weiner, 44, is what some Southern women call darling: warm and attractive, with a lilting drawl, impeccable manners and expensive tastes. These are traits that make her an unlikely, yet perfect, candidate to sidle up to a target couple in a bar, order a Chardonnay, and pretend to be waiting for a friend.

On any given morning, Weiner is at her desk by 8:30, assessing cases and deciding which investigator in her all-woman agency, Busted, to pair with which assignment. If the case calls for a nurturing mom, she sends Yvonne, a mother of two who brings brownies to the office. If Weiner needs someone to do surveillance in a rock club, Denise goes—she used to date a sound engineer. Back at the office, the debriefings—reports of hookups, hustles and one particularly unforgettable 14-minute blow job behind a suburban grocery store—often get as bawdy and loud as a late-night sorority party. “We like to call it Estrogenville,” she says.

Weiner turned a keen eavesdropping talent into a career as a private investigator three years ago, joining the increasing number of American women making their livelihood in the field. The trade magazine PI estimates that 15 percent of the nation’s 60,000 private detectives are women, and most of those are over 40. Weiner found her place in that demographic almost by accident. After two decades as a real estate appraiser and landlord, the mother of Brittany, 18, and Brandon, 13, began to feel as though her life had become routine. “In the beginning the rental houses that I had bought over the years kept me busy and satisfied,” she says. “But after I fixed them up, all I would get were calls from tenants at eight a.m. saying, ‘My toilet is clogged.’ That got old fast.” When one of the houses burned down after a young woman had left a candle burning, Weiner gave up her $120,000 annual income and sold the properties, “I thought, ‘This is stupid. What if that girl had died?’” she says. “My kids were also getting older, and I wasn’t needed as much. I was craving a new purpose.”

Leafing through a continuing education catalog one night, Weiner saw a course on private investigation. “Remember Moonlighting, with Cybill Shepherd?” she asks. “I always wanted to be her.” She enrolled in the class the next semester, although rather than sexy stuff, Weiner studied esoteric differentiations between state and federal law: that you can videotape but not audiotape someone without their knowledge in Georgia and that, by state code 16-11-60, hidden cameras cannot be placed where there is an expectation of privacy, such as a bedroom. “I loved it so much that I always came to class early,” Weiner says. Half of the students were women, but Weiner likes to point out that only two of them became private detectives. “It was probably harder than they thought, or not as glamorous,” she says. “It takes a certain kind of person to sit at a stakeout all day and not get discouraged.” During downtime, she can’t read a book or even file her nails—her eyes must always be on the target.

After becoming licensed as a private investigator by the state of Georgia, Weiner rented a 900-square-foot office in a small suburban complex. She set up a website,, and advertised in the Atlanta Yellow Pages. It took a few months before the phones began to ring.

Garbage Woman

Her first case was garbage—literally. Weiner was hired by a woman who suspected her boyfriend was married. On trash day, Weiner cruised into his neighborhood and waited for the Heftys to hit the curb. “I was terrified,” she says. “I must have driven by his house 10 times. A lot of people were walking their dogs and going to work. But the minute I jumped out of the car, I couldn’t look around—I just had to do it.”

Weiner had brought several dummy trash bags (white and dark) stuffed with newspaper. After the suspect dropped his garbage, she made the swap and took the suspect’s bags back to her office. The trash confirmed the client’s suspicions. “I didn’t get caught,” Weiner says, “but I caught him.”

In her first year alone, Weiner tracked a mother who had taken her newborn to the Philippines and then went missing, found four runaway teenagers for frantic parents and documented about 60 cases of cheating husbands, wives and significant others. Weiner thrives on the opportunity to help women, in particular, take control of their lives. “It’s a natural fit for Jeanene,” says her husband, Bruce, 47, a former bubblegum company owner who now works in private investing. “She has an aura of ‘You can tell me anything.’ And people do.”

A Few Good Women

Of Georgia’s nearly 600 private investigators, 114 work in metro Atlanta, and many of them are former police or military men. “When I started the business, I had to wing it,” Weiner says. “I didn’t know which camera was really best; I had no one to guide me through a surveillance report. I went to these crotchety old guys, who decided I didn’t know what I was doing because I wasn’t in law enforcement or the army. I vowed, ‘I’m going to prove them wrong.’”

Running the Numbers

  24-7: Hours on call. Often works nights and   weekends that's when people cheat.

  3: Investigators on all-female staff

  $75: Hourly rate

  $3,800: Average client bill

  $100,000: Total spent on surveillance equipment

  0: Bathroom breaks on a stakeout

With her caseload steadily building, Weiner used the $200,000 profit from the sale of her rental properties to buy a three-story office building in December 2005. She moved Busted into the third floor, and hired three women her age—Denise Rhodes, Gretchen Lane, Yvonne Stephenson—who, like Weiner, are sharp, attractive mothers with strong intuitive skills. “That’s the most important quality: a good gut instinct,” she says. “Women also tend to be more patient and nurturing, so when clients come in and their lives are falling apart, we often have an edge over men. And we smell better.”

Gretchen Lane, 46, worked in the banking industry before a divorce and frustration with her corporate job nudged her toward a career with Busted. She and Weiner had been friends for years, and last spring, Weiner talked her into getting licensed as a private investigator, a move Lane doesn’t regret. “Although you have to be prepared for the best and worst of results,” Lane says, “the emotional payoff is high when you solve a case.”

To date, not one of Busted’s investigators has had her cover blown during surveillance. “Women aren’t noticed as much,” Weiner says. “They’ve got soccer-ball stickers and carpool numbers on their windshields. When you drive a station wagon, you don’t stand out.” They also haven’t let the seamier realities of the business influence their own marriages. “I’ve never suspected Bruce of anything, and I never will,” Weiner says of their 19-year union. “In all the years that he was traveling for his business, if I ever really needed him, he was on the phone. I might be more cautious if I were newly married, but it’s not even a question with Bruce.”

‘Where is My Wife?’

Just as many men as women hire Busted, and they phone at all times, even Christmas Day. “I’ll be helping Brandon with his homework, and somebody will call and ask, ‘Where is my wife? Check the GPS,’” Weiner says. “I’m lucky because my children are patient, but the work and family balancing act is not always easy.” Nor predictable, it seems. “Women between 38 and 46? They cheat like crazy,” she says. “They’re making more money, they’re more independent, and they want to know that they are still attractive.” Weiner finds the trend so alarming that she’s planning to write a book for women her age. “There’s a self-help guide for everything else: how to get over an eating disorder, how to deal with a father who isn’t nice to you,” she says. “Why not something on alternatives to having an affair at midlife?”

The private eye hired to follow these women doesn’t drive a standard station wagon. For surveillance, the Mercedes Weiner drives is a CLK55 sedan. And she may be the only private investigator in Georgia who goes to work in Prada sandals. Weiner declines to discuss her annual income, but she will say that she works 15 to 20 cases at a time—at $75 per hour—which can take only a few hours or many months to complete. PI magazine reports that the average annual income for a private investigator without a law enforcement background starts at $40,000 and can top $120,000.

Weiner has actually let many a hard-earned hour go unbilled. She can afford it. Bruce sold his company, Dubble Bubble, to Tootsie Roll Industries in September 2004, so the couple has a nice nest egg. But even if they didn’t have the financial safety net, she wouldn’t trade her dream job. “This is 100 percent it for me,” she says. “I wish I had thought of it when I was 20, so I could have done this longer.”

Weiner’s clients tend to linger, even after she closes a case. The Atlanta doctor with the cheating wife? Weiner believes the affair is over, but the doctor isn’t convinced. Three years later, he still has Busted on retainer.


Republished with permission of More magazine. © Copyright 2009 Meredith Corporation.


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