Lace-front wigs are the next "miracle product" designed to give black women what society tells them (and what many now believe) is perfect hair. Meaning, long and straight.
The fad started with transvestite RuPaul almost a decade ago. Within the last five years, many silky-maned black celebrities, from Halle Berry to Vivica Fox, began wearing the wigs.
The lace-front wigs grew in popularity mainly because they give the impression that the wearer's hair is growing directly from the scalp. So once the wig is fastened securely around the hairline, a woman can part her hair or pull it up into a ponytail without fear of exposing indentations where the hair has been sewn or glued in (otherwise known as tracks).
"It just affords me more options," said Andrea Wright, 42, as she sat in Lisa Johnson's chair at the Wyndmoor salon Shapes -N- More.
Wright, an event planner who lives in Mount Airy, walked into the shop sporting a short, relaxed style. She walked out with straight dark brown hair that fell well below her shoulder. Her face was framed with soft curls.
"This is so nice. It's not so severe a look for me. I can put it in a ponytail and still feel professional ... feminine."
When lace-front wigs first hit the scene, they cost anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 because they looked so real. But these days, the wigs, most made from human hair, can be found for $300 to $1,000. There are demonstrations on YouTube.com that show people how to apply the wigs themselves and Web sites that tell people where to find them.
The wigs come in different shades, from dark black to white blond, and a variety of hair textures from kinky/curly to straight. Some wigs are real, some are synthetic. Most of the hair used to fashion the wigs comes from women of Asian descent, and most are manufactured in Asia.
In some of the wigs, the lace is very fine, with pin-sized holes that mark where each strand comes from. These are called bleach knots and cost hundreds of dollars more.
There are several ways to attach the hair, although most applications start with a stocking cap on the head. The wig is then glued along the cap's perimeter with a special kind of adhesive. It takes about an hour to have the hair applied then cut and styled. That's a fraction of the time it takes to get weaves and braids.
Because of the cost, most women keep the wig on for at least three months (wearers should remove it then so they can wash their own hair). The wig can then be reapplied, without looking shabby, for up to a year.
"You can work out in them and swim in them and everything," said Dayna Cherry-Smith, 35, a mother of two who lives in West Oak Lane.
About four years ago, Cherry-Smith had health issues that caused her hair to thin out. How did celebrities have so much hair all the time? she wondered. She read the glossy mags, then did some online research.
Her search uncovered a Chinese company, and she ordered a wig for herself online.
"I felt better about myself," Cherry-Smith said. "The wig was undetectable. You couldn't tell that I had a wig on and when I looked into the mirror, I felt a sense of my old self was back."
Cherry-Smith ordered more wigs for herself. Then she started ordering wigs for her friends, and their friends, and her business grew. Now Cherry-Smith is a lace-front-wig broker, of sorts. She has sold more than 500 wigs on-line and to local salons. She charges about $350 each.
Local stylists say lace-front wigs started to become popular here within the last year. At first, stylists resisted the requests as salon owners want to be known for promoting healthy hair on their clients' heads rather than attaching someone else's mane.
But then Mary J. Blige hit the cover of Essence magazine with an article that said she wore them. Tyra Banks admitted she wore them on her show, and Beyoncé released her B'Day CD, featuring eight singles that showed her moving, grooving and shaking all that reddish-blond hair.
Immediately the salons started getting calls.
Olivia Hughes, owner of Shapes -N- More, says she fields at least five requests for lace-front wigs weekly.
Karen Wilson, who owns Simplicity, a Germantown salon, says she has five or so regular customers with the wigs, as well as walk-ins every day who ask about them.
"I just started doing them this year," said Wilson, who charges $900 for the wigs and the application. "People are seeing them and they just want them."
It's not just the celebrity influence that's drawing customers to the wigs. Women suffering from alopecia (hair loss) and those who have lost their hair from chemotherapy are also drawn to the wigs' realism.
But not everyone is happy with lace-front. Some stylists point out that the wigs have the potential to be very damaging to skin and hairline.
Anika Thompson, who owns Ryan Foster Inc. in Germantown, refuses to do the applications in her salon. The bonding adhesive can be damaging to the skin and scalp, and sometimes, Thompson says, when the wig comes off, the hairline comes off as well.
But even more damaging than losing hair from a bad application is the loss of self-esteem that can come from wearing someone else's hair on your head for months at a time, Thompson says.
"These women come to me with wigs they have removed. ... [and now they have] no hairline," Thompson said. "The skin on their face is broken out from the adhesive and their own hair is matted and broken off from rubbing up against the stocking cap."
Still, there are people who say the lace-front wig gives them courage to express themselves.
Tuere Brown, 37, had a miscarriage that she said caused patches of her hair to fall out. The Southwest Philadelphia mother wanted a look that wouldn't stress out her hair and would appear natural. So she chose an off-black bob with chestnut-brown highlights that falls just above her shoulder.
"I feel great with it on," she said. "It looks how I used to wear my own hair. I love it."
Is a Lace-Front Wig for You?
This Sunday, Dayna Cherry-Smith will host Diva Cherry's Secret Is Out Hair Event: A Lace-Front Wig Seminar from 1 to 6 p.m. at the Holiday Inn at 1305 Walnut St. in Center City. Tickets are $10. For information, call 215-871-3611.
For information on lace-front wigs, check out these Web sites:
- Elizabeth Wellington
Andrea Wright shares her experience with lace-front wigs in a video interview at
Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or email@example.com. To read her recent work, log on to http://go.philly.com/elizabethwellington.