"I've been in hiding," the wide-eyed young mother said as she stared at herself in a mirror. She had driven 15 hours from Michigan and was pouring her heart out to Flora Shepelsky, a woman she had just met.
She dreaded running into friends in her small town. She didn't want to attend church. She was too embarrassed to give her full name.
"Jane," she said.
This was her last resort: Design by Flora, where Shepelsky has taken wig-selling to a new level, turning her salon into a refuge for women like Jane, who are tormented by hair loss. Here, they find informal therapy while shopping for wigs crafted from ponytails snipped off heads of women in eastern Europe and shipped to New Jersey, rubber bands still in place.
It is called "virgin hair" for its pristine condition, and it covers the walls, counters, shelves and heads in the store. Red-lipped mannequins sit shoulder-to-shoulder, their heads displaying chestnut waves, straight blond strands and glossy black curls. The locks shine beneath fluorescent lights.
At the center of it all is Shepelsky, who opened Design by Flora in 2005 with her husband, David. Last year, they opened a second shop, in Los Angeles on La Brea Avenue.
But the New Jersey store is the heart of the business because this is where Shepelsky, 46, can be found most days, answering customer calls, teaching first-time wig wearers how to put on, take off and wash their new hair, and listening to women share their stories of going bald.
Customers come from as far as Australia and New Zealand, and are met at the airport by Shepelsky. She does not advertise. Her prices are high — the least expensive wig in the store is $2,000, the priciest more than $7,000. There are none of the trappings of a fancy salon. Inside the shop, a TV is tuned to the History Channel, barber chairs sit like sentinels, and there's a kettle in the back for coffee and tea.
But Shepelsky has more customers than she can count, women she greets with a hug as they walk into the shop.
"Thousands," she said, waving her canary yellow fingernails through the air. "Tens of thousands."
Shepelsky's passion for hair might seem odd considering her own. It is boyishly short. But Shepelsky, who was born in Moldova and spent much of her childhood in Israel, always loved playing with long hair and twisting it into braids and buns.
She enrolled in beauty school in New York when she was a teenager, and after working for others, she struck out on her own. Shepelsky and her husband, who is Ukrainian, used their contacts in eastern Europe to find a supplier who buys "virgin hair" from women in remote villages, where they don't use colors, highlights or irons.
It doesn't come cheap.
"You're looking at about $50,000 worth of hair," David Shepelsky said, standing at a table covered in ponytails.
Women suffering hair loss and orthodox Jewish women comprise most of her clients. Shepelsky does not work with men unless they are transgender. That's because of the pressure most women feel to have lovely locks, a pressure she says is not applied equally to men.
"In this country, hair loss is a taboo subject for everyone, but it's an especially hard place to be for a woman," Shepelsky said. "You feel very alone."
As she spoke, Shepelsky showed Jane how to put on the wig she had chosen, one that matched the shoulder-length, blond curls that Jane had until a few years ago, when it began falling out because of illness.
Shepelsky clipped the wig's front to a black band wrapped around Jane's scalp. She had Jane lean forward so she could fasten the wig's back to the band at the nape of Jane's neck. Then, she directed Jane to sit up quickly and throw her head backward, like a swimmer tossing a soaking mane out of the way.
"You look like yourself," Shepelsky said approvingly.
Jane had turned up unannounced that morning, her thinning, wiry-looking hair bearing no resemblance to the thick mane in a "before" picture she had brought. She was lucky: Shepelsky had one blond, curly wig on her shelves, and it was nearly identical to Jane's original hair.
Usually, customers contact Shepelsky in advance and send in photos of themselves pre-hair loss, and Shepelsky designs a wig for them or finds one in-house to send out.
"I don't always have the luxury of having them in my chair, so when I do, I put them through hell," Shepelsky said as she ordered Jane to remove the wig and put it back on herself, again and again.
As Jane practiced, fumbling blindly with the back clip and tossing her head back and forth, she recalled the day she realized her hair was falling out. Using a hand-held mirror, she had checked the back of her head and saw a balding spot.
"Wrinkles don't bother me, but being a bald woman?" Jane said. She had tried cheaper wigs, with dismal results. One turned orange. Another had heavy bangs and was too straight.
"The worst thing someone can say to a woman who is losing her hair is, 'It's only hair,'" Jane said. "It's not only hair. This is me. I'm losing myself."
A voice from the next barber chair chimed in. "It consumes you," said a customer named Jeanne, who began losing her dark hair seven years ago because of a thyroid problem. "She really saved my life," she said of Shepelsky.
The wig Jane bought cost $3,800.
"I just want to play with it for awhile," Jane said, running her fingers through the strands.
Shepelsky put a bare Styrofoam head into a bag and handed it to her. She also gave Jane her phone number, in case she ran into problems with the wig later. "Call me before you freak out," Shepelsky said.
The women hugged goodbye like long-lost friends. Then, Jane walked into the sunshine, her golden curls blowing in the wind.