Renate Leuschner handles hair the way a grocer handles fresh endive, the way a haberdasher fingers Italian silk. Each time her supplier receives a new shipment of human hair, in cropped bundles, she hurries down to pick through the lot.
"The best hair comes from poor countries where the women still wear it long and will sell it," Leuschner says. "These women get paid almost nothing."
Some strands are too thick and difficult to weave. Dark hair must be chemically treated, bleached and dyed, making it stiff. Only fine brown and blond locks from Eastern Europe suffice.
This stock ends up, sorted by length and color, in clear plastic containers that line the shelves of Leuschner's Burbank studio. And this is where well-known actors come when they need a wig to make them look curly or sexy or prim, when they need a wig to look like they were born on a different continent or in a different era.
In this tiny workshop--down the driveway, through the back yard and above a three-car garage--Hollywood's fantasies are reduced to the stuff of their facades.
Sharon Stone amounts to nothing more than a pile of brown and blond bundles.
Robin Williams is a dummy's head, carefully measured, made of gray cloth and featureless.
"And big," Leuschner says. "Robin, even for a man, has a big head."
Theater and wigs share a long history. Greek characters marked themselves by the color of their coif: black for the tyrant, blond for the hero and red for the comic servant. Modern actors don wigs to protect their natural hair from stage lights and to avoid the damage of continual cutting, styling and coloring with each new role.
The hairpieces they purchase from Leuschner are custom-fitted and hand-sewn, strand by strand, at a price of $3,000.
On a recent morning, the wig-maker and her two young assistants, Natascha and Hildegard, hurried to finish an order of seven wigs for a fashion show. The girls were sewing while their mentor brushed and clipped a completed piece. There was very little talk, all of it in thick accents, while insistent Chopin played from a stereo in the corner.
Scissors and combs lay scattered about the place, along with gray head forms. In addition to the Williams facsimile, used for his "Mrs. Doubtfire" curls, there were faceless likenesses of Bette Midler, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, who needed a wig for "Interview With a Vampire." Demi Moore was there--in form--too.
"Tiny head," she says. "You can hardly mistake her for anyone else."
The names of actors mark many of the containers on the shelves: Ann-Margret, Melanie Griffith, Carol Burnett. Other containers are noted by color: "Light blond to medium light blond."
Each wig that Leuschner makes begins with a fitting session, during which she measures the actor's head and takes note of his or her facial features.
Perfectly even hairlines are good. Wide foreheads are bad. Oval faces, yes. Round faces, no. Cher, it seems, was put on this earth to wear a wig.
Next comes a form-fitting lace cap, the edges of which can be blended into skin with makeup. Hair is sewn into this cap in much the same way a rug is hooked, one strand at a time in front and several at a time in back.
To look real, a wig must include strands of various shades and the roots must be darker than the ends. A brown wig, for example, will contain a quantity of brown hair as a base, with darker and lighter strands to provide the highlights. But before the sewing begins, a sample of the hair must be screen-tested.
Bright lights and camera filters can alter hue. When Bette Midler was cast as a witch in the 1993 film "Hocus Pocus," she ordered a red wig from Leuschner. Midler's scenes were shot in dim lighting to simulate night and a truly red wig would have shown up purple on film. Renate used strands that were dyed fire-engine red and orange.
Once the color is perfected, the hair is sewn onto its lace cap. This can take a week or more and is often performed by the assistants. "I like hair," Hildegard says. Then Leuschner must return to the movie set to fine-tune the styling. For "Mrs. Doubtfire," the fine-tuning required numerous visits.
"We had to adjust certain things to make him look feminine and not like a drag queen," she says. "Honestly, it wasn't easy."
Trained as a stylist in her native Germany, she came to Hollywood and grabbed the only job she could find, in a wig shop. In 1972, she was hired to work on "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" which, short of garnering an exclusive contract with Dolly Parton, was pretty much the Valhalla of wig-making.
"I've made 100, maybe 120 wigs for Cher over the years," Leuschner explains. "She has always been my major client. And when I was doing that show, everyone wanted to look like Cher, so that's how my business got started."
Eleven years ago, she gathered a large enough clientele to open shop behind the Spanish-style house she shares with her husband, an engineer, in the foothills of the Verdugo Mountains. Clients must walk past her barking dogs, one of which bites and is locked in the house when visitors are due.
And it does not matter if her customers are charismatic or quirky, if they act charming or difficult, as celebrities are sometimes wont to do.
"I don't have to deal with difficulties in people, only with the difficulties in the shape of their heads," she explains, brushing a newly woven thresh of blond locks, clipping and styling to create a Marilyn Monroe look. "I get the easy part of that bargain."