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More than just Hollywood celebs are flipping for wigs

Posted Monday, Mar. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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It was the best hair day of my life, and I was working it, tossing my head like a supermodel, twirling strands around my fingers, admiring myself in store windows. At home, my doorman said, "Looking good!" My husband greeted me with, "Jennifer!" as in Aniston. My teenager muttered, "That's a little sexy, isn't it?"

I enjoyed the attention. I posted a photo of myself on Facebook. Then I removed my hair, put it in a box and went to bed.

I was wearing a custom wig, cut and styled just for me, in a honey-brown shade with subtle coppery highlights. My own fine, midlength hair is perfectly serviceable. But the wig, with face-framing layers that cascaded over my shoulders, was its platonic ideal.

In trying it, I temporarily joined an unofficial sisterhood of glamorous women who pop wigs on and off like dresses.

"Everybody wears a wig" is too strong a statement, but more women than one might think turn to them at least occasionally. Celebrities like Christina Aguilera, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga achieve their wildly colored, sculptural coifs with wigs, and Kim Kardashian has experimented with platinum and red versions -- and those are just the celebrities who own up to it.

Less publicly, Britney Spears appears to have been wearing a full or partial wig when she introduced her new brunet color on Oscar night (her PR representative isn't saying). Socialites, models and everyday women wear them on the sly, not to disguise thinning or sparse hair but for fashion and convenience.

"It's not necessarily about poor-quality hair -- it's actually about time," said Peter Gray, a New York editorial and commercial hairstylist who spent an evening outfitting me with my wig (a loaner he will reuse).

Human-hair wigs (the gold standard of wigdom) are part of Gray's regular bag of tricks for photo shoots and fashion shows. They can provide a new look in an instant, without commitment or damage. They can be washed and styled with regular products and lengthened with extensions.

"They've become so high quality, you can stand a foot away from someone with a wig on and not be able to tell," he said.

These features come at a high price. The style I tried (actually called Jennifer), from a Vista, Calif., company called Jon Renau, retails for $1,300. Wigs created entirely from scratch can cost five figures.

About a head and a half's worth of human hair, likely from India, Asia or Europe, goes into a decent wig, Gray said; the highest quality comes from what is called Remy hair, strands that have been kept in the same direction after harvesting, as opposed to being tossed into a bag every which way. In expensive wigs, each hair is then painstakingly hand-tied to a sheer, tullelike cap and can be parted in any direction.

The cost doesn't stop with the wig's purchase. Unlike synthetic versions, human-hair wigs arrive unstyled, to be cut by a hairdresser, first on a wig stand, then on the client's head.

"It's like designing a dress: You customize it to the body," said Frank Galasso, a Los Angeles hairstylist who outfitted singer Kelly Rowland in a long, shiny, wavy wig for the Essence Black Women in Hollywood lunch last week. Because a wig can't grow back, the work can be nerve-racking.

"You've got to be so careful you're not messing it up," Galasso said. "Sometimes I'll take four or five haircuts, getting it right."

After that, there's upkeep. At the Julien Farel Salon in New York, Andre Davis, a stylist, cuts, colors or maintains four or five wigs a week on average.

"People drop them off, or they bring them in when they're getting their own hair done," he said.

On a recent afternoon, he was with Christine Young, a longtime client, removing grown-out extensions from her shoulder-length hair to be replaced at a later appointment. And a colorist was painting lowlights onto Young's flippy, layered champagne-toned wig, to better match Young's current darker blond. After the color was done, Davis conditioned the $5,000 wig, snipped in a few more layers, blew it dry and sent it and his client on their well-coiffed way.

Young, a life coach, is 45; her natural hair is neither as blond nor as voluminous as she would like, she said. She spends $8,000 to $10,000 a year on wig maintenance -- an indulgence, she admitted, but worth it. The wig (Young and Davis refer to it as "she") is insurance if Young doesn't have time to fix her hair after the gym or is overdue for a color appointment. Her boyfriend knows about the wig and thinks it's great, she said: "I don't try to trick him. What good would that do?"

For some wig aficionados, though, coming clean can backfire. Kim Zolciak, 34, has never kept it a secret that she wears wigs.

"It was always known on the show," said Zolciak, a former cast member of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. (She left the series in December and will star in a forthcoming spinoff.)

Zolciak owns about 60 wigs in various lengths, textures and shades of blond. She has named them: Demi, Farrah and so on. She is even working on her own line of mixed synthetic and human-hair wigs, which she hopes to introduce this year for sale in the $400 range.

But, she said, wigs do bring constant gossip about what is going on underneath. Last summer, tired of the speculation, she finally appeared au naturel in a dramatic televised reveal.

For the record, her real hair is shoulder length, blond and healthy. But even that hasn't set the world straight.

"People still say I was wearing a wig," she said.

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