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Why do wigs on TV look so awful?

A Hollywood hairstylist on why onscreen wigs don’t look anything like they should.

Dominique McElligott as Queen Maeve on Amazon Prime’s “The Boys.”
Why are wigs on TV so ... wig-looking all the time?
Amazon Prime

Reimagining regular, human actors and actresses as superheroes for the big screen usually requires a few things: a sense of otherworldly gravitas, an intense exercise regimen, and excellent costuming, which includes wigs. On this last point, Hollywood struggles. Even in 2022, wigs in movies and TV are still coming up short.

A perfect example of this is the third season of The Boys on Amazon Prime. Throughout the latter half of the season, viewers are face-to-screen with Queen Maeve’s awful, terrible wig. It was just so ... wiggy. It didn’t look too far off from an image that could be found in an Amazon wig review. But Queen Maeve’s wig wasn’t a $30 wig received via two-day shipping. It was featured on a television show with special effects so high-tech that they recreated the inside of a man’s penis. Yet they were unable to get me to believe that Queen Maeve’s tresses had actually grown from her head.

There’s no limit to the number of bad onscreen wigs that we’ve seen over the years. Tyler Perry is often asked about the terrible wigs he allows on his productions, most notably Shemar Moore’s infamously horrific cornrow wig in Madea’s Family Reunion. The wigs in Twilight looked like cosplay at best. After dyeing her hair blonde and having to cut it off from the damage the hair dye caused, Jessica Alba donned a wig for the Fantastic Four sequel, and one critic described it as “a ridiculously bad wig that a neophyte drag queen from a small town in Nebraska would have turned her nose up at.”

What’s particularly irksome about being forced to look at godawful wigs onscreen is that if you take a quick look around, you can find plenty of examples of properly applied wigs. Whether it’s women (especially Black and brown women) walking down the street or the YouTube and TikTok tutorials that you can watch by the dozen to learn how to properly put on your first lace front, wigs can look good. Knowing what Black women can do with some HD lace (the part of the wig that meets the skin) , literally blending hairlines into the skin, why on earth are wigs on TV so bad?

Camille Friend, a veteran hairstyling professional who’s worked on films like Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Captain America: Civil War, says there are a few major reasons wigs end up looking so busted onscreen. One reason is the budget.

“If all you have for a wig budget is $10,000, that’s one wig,” she says. “Those are decisions people have to make. If you’re doing bigger movies, your budget is $100,000; it gives you leeway, and you can buy better wigs and get better looks.”

The second reason is skill. At the end of the day, it takes a lot of skill and time to make a cheap wig look good onscreen, but it’s possible. Friend runs Hair Scholars, which offers master classes and mentorship programs focused on specialty skills needed for the film and TV business. “There are so many tricks of the trade,” she says. “A lot of the time, people don’t get the knowledge. There’s always little things you can do to take an inexpensive wig and make it look expensive.”

But there are also things that contribute to wigs looking fake onscreen that are out of a stylist’s control. Friend says this is when a good relationship with other production staff comes into play. “You want to have good relationships with your DP or gaffer. I’m very vocal about good lighting, because lighting can make or break us.” Friend also stresses the importance of camera tests that play with color, which requires a set that is invested in the process.

Justin Dickson, a gaffer and lighting technician who has worked on the set of shows like Insecure, Snowfall, and On My Block, agrees that the relationship between hairstylists and other production staff is of the utmost importance. Dickson says it’s important to speak to stylists and get inside the hair and makeup trailer to make sure the lighting matches the color temperature of the lights on set. This requires a budget and schedule that prioritizes things like realistic hair and makeup — and, most important, hairstylists who know what they’re doing.

Imani Bee, a wellness advocate who acts, models, and works as a development executive at THORO Artists, says she has worked with stylists who seem to come from the Tyler Perry school of wig styling. When she works on sets, she usually brings her own wigs and extensions so that the stylists don’t have to do anything. However, when she was working abroad on one set in South Korea, the stylists told Bee they would be doing her hair. “I was so nervous about the shoot itself and I wanted people to like me and to get more opportunities,” Bee says. She had brought a wig, and when the stylist was finished applying it, Bee found it sitting halfway off her head. She didn’t end up saying anything because she was 19 at the time, and didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.

Bee says these types of experiences are made worse when there are few or no Black stylists or actors on set. “If it’s an all-white cast, nine times out of 10, they’re not going to put the budget toward the one nonwhite cast member,” she says. At her most recent gig, Bee did her own hair on set because she was told there was no one on set who could do it. Friend stresses the importance of having Black hairstylists on all kinds of sets. It’s one of her personal goals through her educational program Hair Scholars. It’s important that Black stylists don’t stay pigeonholed, only working on predominantly Black sets. Friend gives these stylists both the technical skills and the networking skills to make sure Black stylists are everywhere, from TV to million-dollar movie sets.

What about the countless hairstylists on social media who seem incredibly talented and know how to make a wig look good? According to entertainment professionals like Friend, the wigs on movie sets are for an entirely different purpose than the ones you see online. When hairstylists on social media apply wigs, they are usually using silicon glue to adhere their hair to a wig cap, so they can wear it overnight, or for a few days. And like Friend says, wigs on movie sets can cost upward of $10,000. A wig that a stylist like Friend works with on sets uses the finest lace, finer than any you can find on a wig ready to purchase. That, on top of the high-quality materials used in the rest of the wig, can contribute to a much more expensive product. Actresses are not leaving sets with $10,000 on their heads.

The other thing to keep in mind is that sometimes it’s not necessarily a bad thing for a hairstyle to not look natural. “There’s overlap, but you have to know your medium. If I’m going to do something on the red carpet or a photo shoot, I can come in there with big, bad [hair],” Friend says. This is different than when she’s styling for someone who’s supposed to look like a normal, run-of-the-mill person. There’s a difference between something looking like a good wig and something looking like natural hair. Bee points to all of the hairstyles featured on Insecure as an example of styles that are not designed to make the audience believe that the hair had grown from the actress’s head. “It was one of the few projects I watched where I was looking at the hair and was impressed. ... I wanted to achieve the styles that Issa [Rae] had on that show,” Bee says.

There’s a difference between realistic hair and a good wig. For productions that feature Black actors, and Black women specifically, the purpose of the hairstyling isn’t necessarily to be realistic as much as it is to reflect the reality of how a Black woman might actually do her hair.

On the other hand, for actors of any race, a wig can be an integral part of the storytelling process. For example, in Stranger Things, the character Eleven’s hair represented what she was going through on the show. In the beginning, Millie Bobbi Brown cut her hair into a buzzcut, which was narratively integral to the show. Years later, when the story again called for her character’s hair to be buzzed, the show used a realistic, short-haired wig.

Which brings us back to superhero movies. Friend, who has worked on seven Marvel movies, says, “When you go do a superhero movie, there’s already a blueprint because you have a comic book, fans. Things have already been somewhat established. ... [The look is] something that’s already been talked about and set.”

The base material for the HBO Max series Titans features an alien superhero named Starfire, known for bright green eyes and even brighter red hair. In Titans, Starfire is played by Anna Diop, a Black actress. In the first images released of Diop as Starfire, fans were startled by her hair. The costuming, the hair in particular, was shocking because of how bad it was. (Separately, Diop faced a heinous torrent of racist harassment, based solely on the casting of a Black woman as Starfire. We’ll leave that aside, for now.) Fortunately, the second and third seasons saw vast improvements in her hair, which made for a better overall viewing experience.

It may seem odd that something as seemingly innocuous as a wig can influence the success of storytelling, but it’s true.

“Someone can be taken out of the story by looking at a bad wig. They forget what the story is about and zero in on ‘something’s not right,’ even if they don’t know what it is,” Dickson says.

And in the case of Black characters with bad hair, it’s ... embarrassing. Like there wasn’t enough care on set to make sure this person didn’t show up on camera looking wild. This becomes particularly egregious when there are only one or two Black actors on set, as Bee has experienced. When this happens on sets with budgets of millions of dollars, what does that say about how much these sets value Black actors?

The sad fact of the matter is that in some cases, white people just can’t tell what a bad wig is. If a stylist is on set and thinking about how an audience might react to hair, they might not be actively thinking about how it looks to an audience that knows how to clock a wig. Even if the stylist can see the flaws, they might think they can get away with it. Unfortunately, for viewers who can spot the difference, they can’t help but notice. And if the wig is being applied on one of few Black actors on a cast, it can end up making them look like a joke. The lack of diversity and inclusion for Black actors is reflected in thousands of ways and sets, and wigs that are more like hats than hair are just one example.

The disastrous wig situation onscreen seems to be due to a combination of failures — most often, it is likely the result of commonly low budgets and occasionally low efforts on the part of the production team. But from the silver screen to television, when bad wigs are applied to actors’ heads, we all suffer. Instead of being able to enjoy what we’re watching, we’re having to rip our eyes away from terrible hairlines, visible lace, and frizzy hair. It’s fairly obvious that Hollywood has a wig problem. What remains to be seen is what productions are willing to invest to address it.