Melanie Steele, Wig Master
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Steele, a Colorado native, moved eleven years ago to Austin, where she is now the wig master for the Austin Lyric Opera. She has toured the U.S. and Mexico with the Broadway production of The Lion King and served on the beauty crew of the world premiere of Elton John’s Aida, and these days—for fun and extra money—she tends to the artificial locks of several drag queens.
I never knew I could make a living with wigs. When I was in college, in North Carolina, I wandered into the school’s costume shop one day. The crew needed help with wigs for Amadeus. I told them I could handle it. I thought I could. My grandmother had worked at the Estée Lauder counter for years, inspiring my interest in makeup and hair, and I’d taken a few drama classes. How hard could it be? As soon as I found out, I went to the library and copied pages and pages of information about wigs.
I had a lot to learn. First, I had to know how to put on a wig. The short answer is front to back. But as I learned when I apprenticed at the Santa Fe Opera, really the most important part of getting a wig on is having a good foundation. So unless you have very short hair, you should do pin curls. That’s when you loop your hair in circles around your finger and pin them to your head. Then you get a wig cap. You know when you see pictures of drag queens before they put on their wigs and all their hair is under something? That’s a wig cap. Some people use panty hose. Anyway, once you get all your hair up beneath the cap, fix the wig cap to the curls with bobby pins. Get it tight. You’ll know it’s on right if you feel like you’ve had a mini face-lift. That’s what we call a prep.
If it’s a good wig, it’s got a lace front. That makes the person wearing it appear to have a true hairline. When putting the wig on, pin through the lace, which is very fine mesh, into the cap. The reason for doing that is to keep the hairline from moving. There are four large pins to stick in: two at the crown of the head and two at the nape of the neck. Finally, I’ll use double-sided tape or spirit gum and affix the mesh to the face.
If I’m working on a show, I will do all of that several times a night. Sometimes I’ll do all of that thirty times in three hours. During my apprenticeship, if a wig fell off, that meant an F. The wig master told me that if a wig was pinned on properly, it should survive both a hurricane and a night of break dancing.
I’ve been doing opera wigs for more than fifteen years all over the country. I also tour with Broadway shows and work on productions that come through Austin. Right now I’m working as local crew on the road show for Beauty and the Beast. I’ve got about fifteen wigs to take care of. When I get to the theater, at five-thirty or six in the evening, I wash and restyle and repair the wigs. They can get pretty damaged over eight shows in a week. In the course of a big show like this one, an actor might wear two to twelve wigs in a single night. Every time a performer becomes a new character, they get a new look, even for just a few minutes.
After I do the touch-ups or sew in new hair, I review my “track”—that’s the places I move to and from backstage during the show to meet up with actors. Throughout the performance, I’m running from one side to the other. While Lumière the candlestick is singing “Be Our Guest,” for example, I’m at stage right putting three wigs on chorus members and holding four huge hats with two-and-a-half-foot knives, forks, and spoons all over them. In the dark.
I do my most creative work when I’m working on an opera. I’ve been the wig designer at the Austin Lyric Opera for ten years. We’re doing Turandot in April. It’s going to be a lot of work, because everyone is supposed to look Chinese, with fantastical wigs. There will be a large number of performers, with about sixteen principals, seven or eight secondaries, and then a huge chorus. Each principal will come in for their own hair and makeup session about two hours before curtain, and every single person will be wearing a wig. And there’s only one wig master. That’s me.
The actors in our productions come to Austin from all over the world, and they are here only a few weeks before production. In fact, we get only four rehearsals in the theater before it opens. So all the wigs have to be made without the actors around. I have to get the measurement of everyone’s head, which is not their hat size. You get a head size by taking a measuring tape and going all around the hairline. It’s usually between 21 inches—that’s like a ballerina head—and 25 1/4 inches. That’s the biggest head I’ve ever worked on; it was Hulk Hogan’s. I built a wig for a Hulk Hogan stand-in for a wrestling video. They actually sent me a bust of Hulk, and I measured that.
For the leads in Turandot, I’ll make their wigs from scratch if I don’t have something in my studio that’s perfect. First, I make or buy a foundation cap and sew in stays—like collar stands—to give it shape. Then I take a ventilating needle—it’s like a craft hook—and add one strand of hair at a time and literally build a head of hair. I knot each strand of hair to the cap; it’s like latch-hooking, on a smaller scale. It’s a little time-consuming, and you can’t just sit down and do that for eight hours straight. It’s hard on your eyes and wrists and hands. It can also be meditative, if you really like it. I can see why people like knitting.
When I started making my own wigs, a small side business opened up. Singers, burlesque dancers, and drag queens started calling and asking me to make them one. I once sold a wig for $1,300. It was all blond human hair. That’s the hardest to find. This was a long wig, so it was extra expensive. Most human-hair wigs are made from Indian or Asian hair, and that’s hard to get blond. Companies will just bleach and bleach and bleach the hair until it’s light. The process ruins the integrity of the hair, and it becomes a nightmare to work with.
But whether the hair is real or fake, I haven’t ever gotten an F on one of my wigs. They’ve all stayed on.