Week In The Life: The Wig Fitter - New York

The man who keeps everyone's hair on
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The Independent Online
ROBERT CHARLES Vallance calls himself a "hairdresser to leading ladies". That means he styles the locks and wigs of stars on Broadway. But these days, Vallance, 42, juggles two other related responsibilities, both, in their way, missions of mercy. One is acting as a volunteer chaperone to lonely actresses far away from home. The other is restoring hair - and dignity - to victims of cancer in Manhattan high society. One recent Wednesday found Vallance directing his energy to two of his three duties.

At midday, he attended a brunch for nominees in this year's Tony Awards. Among those forced to penetrate the scrum of journalists and fans on a high floor of the Times Square Marriott Hotel were Samantha Bond, currently portraying Amy in David Hare's Amy's View, and Dame Judi Dench, who plays her mother. Vallance must arrange the women's wigs every night backstage at the Barrymore Theater for the full run of Amy's View.

Bond, homesick for London and her two young children, has been nominated for the Tony - Broadway's equivalent of an Oscar - as "featured actress". So today she requires Vallance for extracurricular moral support.

First there was the zoo at the Marriott, then something more important still: scouring New York for a suitable outfit she can wear at the Tony ceremony itself on 6 June.

The shopping went well - Loehmann's department store, a treasure trove of discount designer label wear, obliged with a shawl and a chiffon jacket. From there it was a dash back to the Barrymore for the 8pm performance. Bond has matinee performances on some Wednesdays, but happily not this one.


THURSDAY IS a cancer day. With his partner, Jonathan Bailet, Vallance leaves for the Upper East Side apartment of a 55-year-old woman in her first month of chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. She has bought two wigs from Vallance and Bailet, and one of them must be collected for a wash and restyle.

The pair - Bailet himself works as a colourist at Elizabeth Arden on Fifth Avenue - stumbled into the cancer sideline four years ago, after Vallance helped with an annual Broadway breast cancer fund-raising gala called "Nothing Like a Dame".

They now have about 14 clients, most of them women, some men and one child, and buy natural hair from South America and Asia. A special feature of his wigs, developed for his theatre business, is a heat sensitive prosthetic band that molds to the head: he has dubbed it a "Memory Band".

The service is unique. "It doesn't exist on the market," says Vallance. And it is as much about hand-holding and sympathy as it is about hair. Thursday's client is one of those who have an intensely personal relationship with Vallance and Bailet.

At the session, they discuss the hats she would like for outdoors in the summer. One will be a baseball cap with a pony tail extension, the other a wide-brimmed picnic hat with a false fringe.

Come late afternoon, however, Vallance must return to the day job - or rather night job - at the Barrymore.


FRIDAY BRINGS an appointment with a new customer, a Wall Street executive who is due to start her chemotherapy next month.

She had heard about Vallance through Thursday's client - they both attend the same clinic. It is agreed that he will keep in touch with her doctor about her treatment. If her hair begins to fall out - some patients suffer no hair loss - he will be ready.

Vallance admits that his clients are mostly wealthy, although the price of one wig, styled and coloured, seems reasonable: $1,500. And the patients are thereby saved the embarrassment of having to brave a wig shop.


SATURDAY IS a double-stint day at the Barrymore: the matinee at 2pm followed by the evening show at eight. As always, the theatre is jammed - with nine more weeks to run, Amy's View remains one of the hottest tickets in town.

Vallance has the restyled wig of his Thursday client in a carrier bag and dashes to her apartment to deliver it between the two performances.


SUNDAY MEANS a 1.30 brunch at the Barrymore before the afternoon matinee. This has become a weekly ritual for the cast and crew of Amy's View, where, according to Vallance, the camaraderie is more in evidence than at any other production he can remember working on.

Before Amy, he was Nicole Kidman's personal hairdresser for the New York run of The Blue Room.

With the matinee done, he runs to the Upper East Side to a client he has been looking after for a year. Her chemotherapy has been completed and some of her hair is coming back. Vallance must devise a way to integrate the new hair with her wigs.


MONDAY IS a Dame Judi day. She is to receive the Golden Quill Award for acting at a gala at the Barrymore that evening. At 10am, Robert and Jonathan arrive at her temporary East Side digs to give her a wash and set. They bring the scones, she provides the coffee.

The evening is very grand, with appearances by Zoe Caldwell and Christopher Plummer, and the reading of a message from Sir John Gielgud. Worn out, Vallance skips a party afterwards across the road at the ritzy Supper Club.


THERE IS no let-up on Tuesday. Still no time for the coffee-table book Vallance is working on about the worst wigs in Hollywood, entitled Toupee or not Toupee. In the morning, he must ship wigs to New York's public television station for a historical drama that is just beginning production. In the afternoon he runs for a rendezvous with a client briefly in town from her upstate home for a visit to her cancer clinic.

The Barrymore, mercifully free of the usual backstage tantrums, is a haven of peace. On this night, however, disaster is narrowly averted. The glue pops on the front of Dame Judi's wig in Act One and the piece begins to slide dangerously. She gets through to the intermission, however, and nobody notices - except for Dame Judi. Vallance is appalled. "It has never happened before," he insists.

David Usborne