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Wig Maker to the Stars Changes Focus

New hair provides self-esteem and hope to cancer patients

Merria Dearman works with a wig client

Courtesy Merria Dearman

Merria Dearman prepares a wig for client Annie Goodman, who had triple negative breast cancer and brain tumors. Goodman lost her cancer battle 18 months after the two met.

Merria Dearman gets emotional about wigs — not just because it's been her profession for 13 years, but because of the journey she takes with her clients. She experiences the highs of a client elated over a new wig and, sometimes, the lows of losing a client to cancer. Overall, she’s grateful to provide high-quality, personalized solutions to her clients suffering from hair loss — some of whom are dealing with life-threatening illnesses.

According to the American Hair Loss Association, women account for 40 percent of hair loss sufferers in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 650,000 people undergo chemotherapy in the United States — a treatment that often leads to hair loss. With millions of women suffering from hair loss due to heredity, aging, hormones, stress, medical conditions or medications comes a plethora of options. One tried-and-true remedy remains a popular alternative: wigs.

Enter Merria (pronounced Mariah) Dearman, a master wigmaker in New York. Dearman honed her craft with top-tier “wig masters” from across the country, including Amanda Miller of Saturday Night Live and Jeanna Hurd of the American Conservatory Theater and San Francisco Opera and Ballet. 

Ask Dearman how long it takes her to complete her masterpieces, and she recalls the time she spent 70 hours creating a 40-inch hair addition for a photo shoot for model Naomi Campbell. (Her standard time line is 40 to 50 hours.) While Dearman can certainly drop a few celebrity names, it’s her work at her salon, Hår by Merria Dearman, with clients that include women who are losing their hair because of cancer, that brings her the most satisfaction. Dearman also is doing her part to ensure that the craft will continue with future generations. She works with the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, which has a highly regarded wig-making program, to train students via internships. 

Read more about Dearman’s “wig master” journey.

How did you get into wig-making?
I was an award-winning hairdresser, and I wanted to explore my hairdressing talents, and I also did makeup, so I went into film school in Vancouver [Vancouver Film School]. Part of the course curriculum was hand-making mustaches and wigs for character design, so I began learning to ventilate [tying strands of hair into a lace base] and to make traditional wigs. 

When did you decide to become a wig master?
I spent a long time unconsciously working toward it because I had a passion for it. What happened in film school was I saw the wigs and was sort of like, “I can’t believe these things are so realistic. Why aren’t they available to the public, and why as a hairdresser have I never seen something this real?” I didn’t know about the craft. Then toward the end of my schooling my aunt got cancer, and we fixed a wig for her. I did all these things to it and she wore it to a party. She said it was comfortable; she didn’t feel like it was going to fall off her head. She said this is what you have to do with your life. That was my aha moment. 

You offer “transformative hair care.” What does that mean?
Transformative means it’s so hyperrealistic that we can take [clients] back to looking the way they looked before their hair thinned. Not take them and make them look like Jane from a wig off the wall, but actually take Sarah and turn her into Sarah five years prior to her hair loss. And that’s something really powerful.   

You work with women of all ages. Do your clients over 50 have specific concerns? 
Everyone that suffers from hair loss feels that same feeling of insecurity, despair and same struggle. My clients over 50 have struggled with finding a solution.... They’ve tried a lot of things that haven’t worked before they get to me. My older clients are so grateful to have found something that works, because the hair loss industry is so hard to navigate. I find them to be more confident in terms of walking out the door and wearing it, because maybe they’ve worn a wig before or they know a little bit more. They’ve been on the planet a little bit longer. They know that Ava Gardner wore a wig! 

Merria Dearman works on a wig

Courtesy Merria Dearman

Merria Dearman spends an average of 40 to 50 hours creating one wig.

Are you seeing any wig trends for women over 50, like particular cuts or styles or colors?
I can’t say that there’s any set trend or style, but I can say that I’m seeing women who want to invest in their appearance, but they don’t want to change their appearance. It’s sort of like when you’ve had really great plastic surgery and no one knows that you’ve done anything, they just know that you look better. Most of the women who come in here, they’re beautiful already. They’re looking for a solution, and at the end of the day they really just want to look like a better version of themselves.  

What has changed that’s made more women use wigs — even if they’re not losing hair?

The taboo is breaking down. We all know that Beyoncé wears hair. We know that Jennifer Lopez doesn’t have 6-inch hair one day and 24-inch hair the next day. Whether it’s extensions or whatever, celebrities are embracing it for this fun change. Why wouldn’t you want to be blond one day and a brunette another day without having to damage your hair? And wigs have changed. Lace wigs are unbelievable; they’re made to fit and are totally undetectable. You can’t tell it’s a wig. That lends itself to more changing the stigma that’s attached to it and just having people embrace it. 

What are some telltale signs of a bad wig?
No. 1 for me is if it has too much hair. The way the wig is placed, meaning how you wear it on your hairline. Sometimes the wigs are pulled down too low, which I think can really be a telltale, and not exposing a hairline or a part. And when it doesn’t move. 

Where does a woman who want to invest in a wig begin?
You have to be realistic about what you want to spend. There’s no regulation on hair, meaning someone can sell you a wig that says it’s human and it’s not. So you have to be really careful about purchasing something for too much money, because there’s no guarantee. Online there’s so much stuff it can be kind of overwhelming, but I tend to go to a direct market, meaning something like, because at least if you don’t like it you can return it. 

There are often times people will buy something less expensive online and then they take it to a good hairdresser who knows how to work with wigs. Hairdressers can do amazing things with wigs to make it look more real for you. 

Your aunt gave you your “aha moment” as she was dealing with cancer. Can you talk more about the work you do with women who have cancer or who’ve lost their hair due to illness?
You develop this unique attachment to them and intimate moment with them, because you see them lose their hair, which is something they don’t want everybody, obviously, to witness. In the medical side of things they’re poked and prodded and cut open. All these other things are going on when you have cancer. You’re having surgery done. You’re having radiation done. You’re going through chemo. You’re still trying to raise your kids and be with your husband and maybe you still have a job. You’re trying to keep some sort of normality.

The hardest part about this job is losing people, and it gets harder every year. Taking time to grieve and all that stuff has been something that I really wish I made more time for, but it’s the motivating factor. Because if you can just give people a moment to just be happy even though they know they’re fighting, potentially dying. The thought of comforting people keeps me doing it. There’s nothing more rewarding, and I have a relationship with them forever. The celebrity stuff is fun and it’s going to continue, [but] I would rather sit behind my chair every day and deal with people that really need me.