A version of this story ran in the April 2014 issue.
Above: Stephanie Caillabet
Stephanie Caillabet is a 40-year-old special-effects artist, wig maker, and owner of Art of Wigs, a custom medical wigs company in Dripping Springs. Growing up in Kingwood, north of Houston, her mom gave her a book on theater makeup application that inspired her to make fake blood for Halloween, “because it was fun to scare people.” After high school she studied at London’s Greasepaint Makeup School and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts with an emphasis on wig making and makeup application. She created hobbit hair for The Lord of the Rings, built dead bodies for the TV series Six Feet Under and constructed muppets for Jim Henson.
“Between my junior and senior year of college I went to Los Angeles. I knew one person in the industry and I called him on July 4 when nobody else wanted to work. I never stopped working after that. I lived in L.A. for almost 10 years and learned from the masters. Eventually my husband and I decided we wanted to have kids, and you can’t be pregnant in the shops—it’s too toxic. So I got a job as a character makeup teacher and did random jobs on the side while pregnant. My daughter’s nursery at one point had four half-human zombies hanging above her crib, just like a mobile. When you take your work home with you that’s what you get.
“We eventually moved back to Austin. I had a 4-month-old baby and a 2-year-old, I was ready to retire. But then I got a call from my friend who said she had a student whose hairdresser had a client named Andrea McWilliams, who is a pretty well-known lobbyist. I didn’t know her from Adam, but she needed a wig. Well, this woman calls me and said, ‘I need you to build a wig for me because I’m pregnant and I have cancer, and I don’t want anybody to know I have cancer because I’m a lobbyist. It’s hard enough in this boys’ world out here, especially now being pregnant, too.’ So I said OK. I built her wig in two weeks, just slammed it out, nine hours a day. When I put that wig on her, she looked in the mirror and grabbed her husband’s hand and said, ‘I think I can do this. I didn’t think I could do this until now, but I can do this.’ She looked at me and I thought, ‘Oh, wait a minute, what I do is freakin’ awesome. I can’t quit.’
“Now I’m hooked, building medical wigs for my clients, some that come in here with alopecia when they’re just 16 years old. They don’t think they can have boyfriends, they’re stressed out at school. I put a topper [partial wig] on them and it’s just, ‘oh my gosh,’ because their whole life changes.
“I only make custom wigs from real hair. I used to get four donations a month and now I get 10 a week. It’s madness. They come from everywhere. I just had a woman from Australia send me her hair. I will ship off samples to a company so they can match it. Then I can buy the rest in bulk, because it takes 10 ounces of hair to build a wig and about 100 hours, from making the cap to tying all the hairs, one by one, just like a latch-hook rug.
“I love that random hair, I love that split end. If you’re looking at someone and you see a gray hair in the top of their wig, it’s not a wig anymore. I try to make sure it looks like that person. Maybe you had a cowlick in the front of your forehead that used to drive you crazy but if you don’t have that, it won’t make you feel like yourself. We’re going to put a damn cowlick in there, because when you feel crummy you want to look in the mirror and see your old self, not your sick self.”