Monday, September 25, 2023

Why do wigs on TV look so awful?

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

Re-imagining ordinary human actors and actresses as superheroes for the big screen usually takes a few things: a sense of otherworldly gravity, an intense training regimen, and excellent costumes, including wigs. Hollywood struggles on this last point. Even in 2022, wigs in movies and TV are still falling short.

A perfect example of this is the third season from the boys on Amazon Prime. Throughout the second half of the season, viewers come face-to-face with Queen Maeve’s horrible, horrible wig. It was just so… wobbly. It didn’t seem far from an image found in an Amazon wig review. But Queen Maeve’s wig was not a $30 wig shipped within two days. It was featured on a TV show with special effects so high-tech they mimicked the inside of a man’s penis. Still, they couldn’t make me believe that Queen Maeve’s locks had really grown out of her head.

There is no limit to the number bad wigs on screen that we have seen over the years. Tyler Perry is often early about the horrible wigs he allows on his productions, most notably Shemar Moore’s infamously horrific cornrow wig in Madea’s family reunion. The wigs in Twilight resembled cosplay at best. After dyeing her hair blonde and having to trim it from the damage the hair dye had done, Jessica Alba donned a wig for the Fantastic four continued, and one critic described it as “a ridiculously bad wig that a neophyte drag queen from a small town in Nebraska would have turned her nose at.”

What’s especially annoying about being forced to look at hideous wigs on screen is that if you take a quick look around, you can find plenty of examples of properly fitted wigs. Whether it’s women (especially black and brown women) walking down the street or the YouTube and TikTok tutorials you can watch by the dozen to learn how to properly put on your first lace front, wigs can look good. Knowing what black women can do with some HD lace (the part of the wig that touches the skin), literally blending hairlines into the skin, why are wigs on TV so bad?

Camille Friend, an accomplished hairdressing professional who has worked on films such as Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Captain America: Civil War, says there are a few key reasons why wigs look so broken on screen. One of the reasons is the budget.

“If all you have on a wig budget is $10,000, that’s one wig,” she says. “These are decisions that people have to make. If you’re making bigger movies, your budget is $100,000; it gives you leeway, and you can buy better wigs and look better.”

The second reason is skill. At the end of the day it takes a lot of skill and time to make a cheap wig look good on screen, but it is possible. Friend is renting Her scholars, which offers masterclasses and mentoring programs focused on special skills needed by the film and TV industry. “There are so many tricks of the trade,” she says. “People often don’t get the knowledge. There are always little things you can do to take a cheap wig and make it look expensive.”

But there are also things that contribute to making wigs look fake on screen that a hairdresser has no control over. Friend says this is when a good relationship with other production staff comes into play. “You want to have a good relationship with your DP or gaffer. I am very talkative about good lighting, because lighting can make or break us.” Friend also emphasizes the importance of camera tests that play with color, requiring a set invested in the process.

Justin Dickson, a gaffer and lighting engineer who has worked on the series of shows such as Uncertain Illustrations, and on my block, agrees that the relationship between hairstylists and other production personnel is paramount. Dickson says it’s important to talk to stylists and get into the hair and makeup trailer to make sure the lighting matches the color temperature of the lights on set. This requires a budget and schedule that prioritizes things like realistic hair and makeup — and most importantly, hairstylists who know what they’re doing.

Imani Bee, a wellbeing advocate who performs, models and works as a development manager at THORO Artists, says she has worked with stylists who appear to come from the Tyler Perry school of wig styling. When she works on sets, she usually brings her own wigs and extensions so that the stylists don’t have to do anything about it. However, when she was working abroad on a set in South Korea, the stylists told Bee that they would do her hair. “I was so nervous about the shoot itself and I wanted people to like me and get more opportunities,” Bee says. She’d brought a wig, and when the hairdresser finished putting it on, Bee found it halfway up her head. She didn’t say anything in the end because she was 19 at the time and didn’t want to disturb any feathers.

Bee says these kinds of experiences get worse when there are few, if any, black stylists or actors on set. “If it’s an all-white cast, nine times out of ten they won’t spend the budget on the only non-white cast member,” she says. During her most recent performance, Bee did her own hair on set because she was told there was no one on set who could do it. Friend emphasizes the importance of black hairstylists on all kinds of sets. It is one of her personal goals through her Hair Scholars educational program. It’s important that black stylists don’t get pigeonholed and only work on predominantly black sets. Friend gives these stylists both the technical and networking skills to ensure black stylists are everywhere from TV to multimillion dollar movie sets.

What about the countless hairstylists on social media who seem incredibly talented and know how to make a wig look good? According to entertainment professionals like Friend, the wigs on movie sets are for a very different purpose than the ones you see online. When hairstylists put on wigs on social media, they usually use silicone glue to stick their hair on a wig cap so that they can wear it overnight or for a few days. And as Friend says, wigs on movie sets can cost upwards of $10,000. A wig that a stylist like Friend works with on sets uses the finest lace, finer than you’ll find on a ready-to-buy wig. That, on top of the quality materials used in the rest of the wig, can add up to a much more expensive product. Actresses don’t leave sets with $10,000 on their heads.

The other thing to keep in mind is that sometimes it’s not necessarily a bad thing that a haircut doesn’t look natural. “There is overlap, but you have to know your medium. If I’m going to do something on the red carpet or a photo shoot, I can come in there with big, bad [hair]’ says friend. This is different than when she’s doing styling for someone who should look like a normal, everyday person. There is a difference between something that looks like a good wig and something that looks like natural hair. Bee points to all hairstyles Insecure as an example of hairstyles not designed to trick the public into believing that the hair had grown out of the actress’s head. “It was one of the few projects I saw where I looked at the hair and was impressed. … I wanted to achieve the styles that Issa [Rae] had on that show,” Bee says.

There is a difference between realistic hair and a good wig. For productions with black actors, and especially black women, the goal of the hair styling is not necessarily realistic, but to portray the reality of how a black woman might actually do her hair.

On the other hand, a wig for actors of any race can be an integral part of the storytelling process. For example in Weird stuff, the character Elf’s hair represented what she went through on the show. In the beginning, Millie Bobbi Brown cut her hair in a buzzcut, which was an integral part of the show. Years later, when the story again called for her character’s hair to be buzzed, the show used a realistic, short-haired wig.

Which brings us back to superhero movies. Friend, who has worked on seven Marvel movies, says: “If you’re going to make a superhero movie, there’s already a blueprint because you have a comic book, fans. Things are already somewhat settled. … [The look is] something that has already been talked about and set.”

The base material for the HBO Max series Titans features an alien superhero named Starfire, known for his bright green eyes and even brighter red hair. In Titans, Starfire is played by Anna Diop, a black actress. In the first images released of Diop as Starfire, fans of her hair were shocked. The costumes, especially the hair, were shocking because it was so bad. (Separately, Diop faced a horrific deluge of racist harassment based solely on casting a black woman as Starfire. We’ll leave that out for now.) Thankfully, the second and third seasons saw massive improvements in her hair, which made for a better overall viewing experience.

It may seem strange that something as seemingly innocuous as a wig can affect the success of storytelling, but it’s true.

“One can be taken out of the story by looking at a bad wig. They forget what the story is about and look for ‘something isn’t right’, even though they don’t know what it is,” Dickson says.

And in the case of black characters with bad hair, it’s… embarrassing. As if there wasn’t enough care on set to make sure this person didn’t appear wild on camera. This becomes especially egregious when there are only one or two black actors on set, as Bee has experienced. If this happens on multi-million dollar sets, what does that say about how much these sets value black actors?

The sad fact is that in some cases, white people just can’t see what a bad wig is. When a stylist is on set thinking about how an audience might react to her, he may not be actively thinking about what it would look like to an audience that knows how to clock a wig. Even if the stylist can see the flaws, they may think they can get away with it. Unfortunately, for viewers who can tell the difference, they can’t help but notice. And putting the wig on one of the few black actors in a cast can make them look like a joke. The lack of diversity and inclusion for black actors is reflected in thousands of ways and sets, and wigs that look more like hats than hair are just one example.

The disastrous wig situation on screen appears to be due to a combination of failures – most of the time it’s probably the result of often low budgets and sometimes low effort from the production team. But from the silver screen to television, when bad wigs are put on actors’ heads, we all suffer. Instead of enjoying what we see, we have to tear our eyes away from horrible hairlines, visible lace and frizzy hair. It’s pretty obvious Hollywood has a wig problem. What remains to be seen is which productions are willing to invest to tackle this.

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