Finding Comfort and Confidence in the Wigs I Create

Originally published on Catapult on November 5th, 2019. 

https://catapult.co/stories/rachel-anne-warren-wigs-wigmaking-androgenic-alopecia-health-style 

When I first meet a client, I usually remove whatever wig I happen to be wearing, and the tension settles.

When I started performing as the lead singer of a rock band in my early twenties, I wore basic blue jeans, a black tank top, and little-to-no makeup. The shows were low-key affairs, and I was more concerned with my performance than my appearance. But there was going to be a photographer at our first big gig, so I teased my wispy long wavy hair as far and wide as it would stay, in a shell of hair spray and topped with a handmade flower crown. The frizzy hairstyle took up so much space, I felt covered.

Then I saw the photos a few days later and I felt humiliated. I would need to wear a wig on stage from now on or not be on stage ever again. From every angle, in every shot, I could see straight through to my shiny scalp. My hair loss was further along than I had realized, and the stage lights revealed what I had thought was hidden.

In a panic, with another show coming up, I bought a blue bob wig from a vintage store. Then I bought a pink bob before the next show, until I was buying a new wig for each gig: a white one, darker blue with glow-in-the-dark highlights, jet black, red. As a cover for why I always performed in a wig, I created costumes dripping in sequins and Christmas lights. Suddenly, every show was a spectacle.

Some of my bandmates joined in the fun of dressing up, and our cabaret rock band quickly became something new and different. I felt a healthy pressure to come up with a unique look for each show. Reviewers and showgoers appreciated it. The wigs gave me so much confidence, it felt like a superpower. But after every performance, I’d undress alone at night and avoid looking at myself in the mirror.

My hair started falling out a year or two before the band got together due to a condition called androgenic alopecia, which can be brought on by hormonal changes, stress, or genetics. I had a stressful year that started with dropping out of college and joining a street-theater circus across the country, and ended with caring for my longtime best friend who had been diagnosed with leukemia.

To put one foot in front of the other, to brush my teeth, to simply wake up each morning, I had to bury my sadness and fear so far from my eyes and heart that it almost didn’t exist. I was in a fog of grief where each day blurred seamlessly into the next. I felt disconnected from my physical self. So I didn’t immediately notice the hair loss.

When I did finally notice, I didn’t talk about it. Talking about it made it real. When I was overweight growing up, I learned that the less attention I brought to my size, the less it mattered. I hoped I could perform the same invisibility trick with my hair loss. I started wearing a baseball cap at all times, even when I slept with someone. When I wasn’t on stage, I wore dark and simple clothing and stood against the back walls of clubs with larger and stronger and more drinks to ease the growing anxiety I felt.

Sex was impulsive and fueled by alcohol. I couldn’t imagine anyone would love me for the long haul, knowing that I would lose my hair entirely and inevitably. I figured anyone who would tolerate my defect must be the worst kind of person. An equally unlovable person. A liar, maybe a cheat. And for a long time, that was true.

But I couldn’t understand why I felt like I was choking and drowning most of the time. As my anxiety became chronic and self-medicating cured less, I hit a wall. I needed to start real medication and stop drinking. The first few months I was sober, I went out with a few men who seemed familiar instead of better. Talking about not drinking became easier, but talking about my hair was still impossible.

Then I met my current boyfriend, Adam, through a mutual friend. He is tall, brawny, a board game and DnD enthusiast, and a studious piano player who works in criminal justice. His stability felt enormous and foreign to me, so I wiggled under the weight of it. But I also really liked it. I fiddled with my headband throughout our first date before promptly bringing up my hair situation. Something about him, and our date, felt different enough that I was compelled to come clean. His reaction was not memorable, which I appreciated. A month or so in, while on a walk one day, he adjusted my headband where it had fallen back exposing my scalp. More than embarrassed, which I initially was, I felt cared for.

Adam’s two tween boys live with him during the week, and I knew I would have to be serious early on if I were to meet them. Adam was eager to introduce us and, although I was terrified, I was already in love, so I met the boys over pizza. I was surrounded by blue eyes and budding testosterone, mentally recalling scenes from books and movies featuring the evil stepmother.

Over time, we got to know each other. We took walks, just me and the boys, and they took turns doing daredevil stunts to see how easily I would scare. The first time I talked with the boys about my hair loss, to explain why I always wore my hair a certain way, was more nerve-wracking than any date. They said they had noticed, asked me a couple of questions, and since then have been gleefully disinterested in talking about hair, mine or otherwise.

I felt smaller in the world in a good way. My hair loss was just a blip on the screen to them. I started to realize, through their eyes, there is so much more to living than any single detail. And I felt a responsibility to be kind to myself because I wanted to set a positive example for them.

When I moved out of the city, away from everyone I knew to live with my guy and his boys, my general outlook fundamentally changed. I was a couple of years into sobriety, getting comfortable, and instead of tall buildings, there were trees; instead of people, bunnies; instead of my constant anxiety, relief. It was like finally finding the right size bra; I had outgrown my old self in nearly every way. The fresh start seemed like a good time and place to experiment with alternative hair options; in a smaller town like this, bright blue bob wigs wouldn’t fly.

My first realistic wig was synthetic. It cost thirty-five dollars, which seemed like a lot for a wig at the time, and I sent my sister some selfies from the parking lot. She approved, so I wore it around a discount clothing store to see if anyone gave it a second glance. Strangers’ eyes tell a more honest story than family feedback, so this is my litmus test to this day. I liked it enough, but it was very thick, so I bought thinning shears and unintentionally butchered it.

The next few wigs suffered the same fate. In each instance, I wanted to change something—the wigs were too thick, the wrong color, the wrong length, too big. So I experimented. I didn’t wear these wigs out because I was so aware of their shortcomings. I needed it to feel right before I could take the next step and incorporate wigs into my daily life.

Although my biological hair was not great, I was at least familiar with it. I started taking wigs apart, figuring out how they were put together, making adjustments, and buying pieces to start building kit style wigs. These kits were comprised of a couple of pre-made pieces, where hairs are knotted paint-by-numbers style into lace, and you put the pieces together to create and customize the shape of a wig.

The more I learned about wig construction, the more I wanted to know about how to make the pieces myself. I wanted the knotting to be more natural instead of mechanical. I wanted a certain color pattern, density, or texture that wasn’t readily available. I watched YouTube and followed traditional wigmakers on Instagram for months, picking up what I could. I still wasn’t wearing my kit-built wigs out in public yet, but I started wearing them to gigs, performing with a few bands who circuit weddings, corporate events, high-end private events, and upscale bars and restaurants.

I was feeling confident in my budding abilities as a wig maker, and my partner supported taking this to the next level. Although the boys were becoming frustrated with hair taking over the living room floor and their socks, they offered encouraging feedback with each finished wig. I was unabashedly proud of my work and eager to explain the process with anyone who would listen. The more I shared, the more I realized hair loss touches everyone in one way or another at some point. I realized then, by taking an honest and active role in talking about my hair, I could help others.

Once I felt I had learned as much as I could from what was available online, I sought out a private teacher. My teacher, Michael Meyer, is a German-born wigmaker living in Nashville. His resume is quite long and impressive, and we had a mutual friend. We started Skype sessions and I ordered new supplies from Switzerland. He showed me where to buy supplies from and where to source hair before he taught me how to build a mold of my head.

Next, he taught me how to re-front a manufactured wig. In film and TV, where wigs are extremely common, this is the most time and cost-effective way to build a custom-fit wig. By taking the top half of a manufactured wig off, and using a custom mold, a wig maker can lay lace and knot hair to any specification.

Finally, he taught me how to build an entirely lace single-strand, double-knotted, and crown-swirled penultimate custom wig. This is the most time-consuming process, but produces the most realistic wig. An entirely lace wig is the most lightweight and fits perfectly to the head without glue or tape. Single hairs are knotted into the entire cap by hand, and the whole process takes up to 100 hours to complete. During the long quiet hours that I was building my first fully customized wig, I dreamed of seeing myself with a full head of natural-looking hair. Gazing at myself in the mirror the night I finished my first piece, I felt beautiful for the first time ever.

My collection of wigs in a huge variety of colors, styles, and types of construction grew, and I started wearing them out in my daily life. I got a thrill walking around out in public with this precious secret. I also started taking jobs for a DC-area wig designer who works for many of the equity theaters in town. I helped build everything from a ten-foot Rapunzel piece to a witch’s eyebrows to wigs for ballet dancers. Working in the realm of fantasy reminded me of my early days wearing wigs, so it was nostalgic and fun, but the most rewarding work came when I started helping people replace hair they have lost from medical reasons—work I continue today.

Every client comes in with their own story. When we first meet, I usually remove whatever wig I happen to be wearing, and the tension settles. Without saying a word, we understand each other in a small but important way. This is as healing for me as I think it is for them—an opportunity to share not only my love of wigs but also my journey of acceptance.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had the honor of creating a couple of end-of-life wigs for women who were terminally ill. One woman, Alice, came to the studio looking for a replacement for her beautiful fluffy white hair, which she had lost after one round of chemo for stage five pancreatic cancer. After searching high and low for something readily available, and coming up short, I decided to re-front and style a wig for her by hand as a gift. She hugged me and said how happy she was that she could feel comfortable leaving the house. She spent the remaining weeks of her life with family and friends rather than hiding away.

Of the many people I meet and share this vulnerability with, I especially love working with children who are undergoing medical treatment. I see every opportunity with a young girl as one where I can plant empowerment and confidence. It has taken me a long time to find my way, but I hope to serve as a positive hair loss example.

I recently met a young lady who has business plans and is crafty as they come. Her parents and I worked together to come up with a wig that would match her natural hair, but I stuck a couple of my crazy blue and pink wigs in the bag just in case.

Her eyes lit up. The beat-up blue bob I’d worn for countless rock shows suited her perfectly. Just to be sure, and as her litmus test, she put her unicorn headband on before stamping her approval.

I spent far too much time in denial, but now I face hair loss every day like a magician who invents and patiently practices tricks. I’m starting my life over, this time by hand. No machine can build a wig or knot the hair—it takes the time it takes. And I’ve used every moment of the meditation to round the angles of my broken heart while building myself an unconventionally beautiful future.

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