Heads held high: UNCSA professor and her class make wigs for those with medically related hair loss
Editor’s note: The Winston-Salem Creative Startup accelerator with Center for Creative Economy (CCE) is the organization that Christal Schanes worked with not the CCL. The following correction has been made to the online version of the story.
A Winston-Salem woman has taken her passion for wig building and created a system to help those who have lost their hair due to medical conditions. If you’re a big fan of Saturday Night Live, Spiderman 3, or Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, then you have more than likely seen her works. Christal Schanes is an Emmy-award winning wig and hair artist and a professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
Schanes owns CHRISTALine Studios and FEATHERlight Wigs & Services, which donates 20 percent of proceeds from every wig to the WIGwell initiative. Schanes said anything she does through her company, 20 percent goes back to WIGwell. WIGwell provides custom wigs to patients with medically related hair loss through a course at UNCSA that Schanes set up and partnered with Novant Health Derrick L. Davis Cancer Center.
“Everybody deals with the same emotions when you are talking about hair loss in a medically related way,” Schanes said. “So to be able to give clients a custom wig that is an extremely realistic quality is really the crux of it for me.”
Schanes said she came back to work at UNCSA after her SNL days and got in touch with a woman she had built a medical wig for before she moved to New York.
“She had been working at the Derrick L. Davis Cancer Center with Novant Health, and I had this brainstorm of wanting to be able to provide a class for my students in the wig and makeup department at UNCSA on medical wig building,” Schanes said. “I had at least five students I was mentoring on the side (that wasn’t for class credit), to be able to help them build medical wigs. They all had either a friend or family member going through cancer that they wanted to be able to provide a wig for. I had done in building medical wigs on the side of all the entertainment excitement, but it is something that has always spoken to me. In my wanting to be able to provide more medical wigs for people, the one issue was the price point.”
Schanes said each custom wig uses donated hair and is hand-tied entirely by her students. “Within the WIGwell wellness experience, in the first consultation, I’ll bring in a client and talk with them about shaving their head so I can then take their hair if they haven’t lost it yet, for a medical wig build and then immediately before they leave, I’ll set them up with a temporary wig,” Schanes said. She said wig building could take about 125 hours and would cost about $5,000.
“The majority of the cost is materials–hair in general, but also labor,” she said. “It is extremely expensive.”
In addition to expensive treatment such as radiation and chemo, she said, purchasing a $5,000 wig is out of the question for some people.
“Through the classroom experience, I felt like that might be my way,” she said. “If I were able to create a relationship with Novant Health and the Derrick L Davis Cancer Center to where I could utilize their clients as my models in order to facilitate the education side of things here in the classroom, I’d also be able to benefit the clients.”
In spring 2016, she got a grant and started the medical wig building class at UNCSA, which is now going into its fourth class this coming semester. Since then, there have been about 57 free wigs made for clients who couldn’t afford one otherwise. Schanes said her students hand-tie all the wigs and form relationships with clients.“I teach them my design, and help them with all the consultations,” she said. “Each one of the clients is paired up with one of my student wig builders, so it is a one-to-one ratio, and the class has been consistent in holding 12-14 students enrolling in each spring term.”
Schanes said that after she goes over the syllabus, she talks to the students about “what to expect” when working with a client such as side effects, the treatment they are undergoing, and proper procedure, such as sanitation when a client comes in for a fitting.
“I’ve always wanted to provide the wigs for free, but I just don’t have the financial means,” she said. “So finding a path to make this happen has been extremely rewarding.”
Schanes said inexpensive wigs that are synthetic would always get judgmental looks from people. By providing “extremely realistic, full, custom wigs with every hair hand-tied,” to patients, she said it helps them look more like themselves again.
“So then they can really continue to live their life and focus on their treatment,” she said. “Most of the clients that I have seen in providing the free custom wigs, they are still working full-time and only taking time off when they have treatment administered. It is very rare that I find clients that take a year off, or six months off, it is just not a reality for most people.”
One of Schanes’s clients, Kathy Vaspory, said she has been going through chemo for four years and started losing her hair two years ago. Her granddaughter, Grace, was diagnosed with trichotillomania, which the Mayo Clinic describes as “a mental disorder that involves recurrent, irresistible urges to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows or other areas of your body, despite trying to stop.” Vaspory said Schanes reached out to her while helping Grace, (who later became Schanes’s student for a year) and set her up with a temporary wig while Schanes started the process of making one.
“Losing your hair is devastating,” Vaspory said. “It is like losing an arm; it is apart of you, it identifies you. I was feeling very bad losing my hair, but the temporary wig helped. It was similar to my hairstyle and coloring. But when Christal called me in and gave me the wig that was fit especially for me. It was amazing. It was like my hair. The wig fit so perfectly, and people did not even know I was wearing a wig. Even when I would go in for my chemo treatments.”
Vaspory said her wig gives her confidence and has made her feel whole again. She said she had been back several times for adjustments and for styling.
“Anytime I need anything, I just call Christal, and she works it out and sets everything new again,” Vaspory said. “She is such a wonderful person, and this- I call it a ministry- because it is so helpful to people who are going through this. It is bad enough going through cancer and chemo, but when you lose your hair, it is devastating. [WIGwell] just kind of resets everything so you can have a positive outlook. And I am really thankful for Christal’s services.”
Vaspory said Schanes had touched her family in a positive way.
“Christal incorporated some of [my grandchildren’s] hair in my wig, which has made my wig very special,” she said. “Just knowing that when I wear my wig, I’ve got a part of my grandchildren in there too. And that they see a need to donating to this cause. She has touched this family in a marvelous way; we are all very supportive of Christal.”
Schanes said she has realized through the class experience that she is limited. For instance, she can only provide as many free custom medical wigs as she has students to enroll in the class.
“I am talking to angel donors and also companies so that I can create longevity through other people who want to see this mission succeed,” she said.
Schanes said that WIGwell is in the process of getting its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. In the meantime, she has worked with the Winston-Salem Foundation to be able to take in tax-deductible donations in a temporary fund called the WIGwell Fund.
“So anyone that who would like to make a tax-deductible donation can write a check to the Winston-Salem Foundation and in the memo line of the check they would write WIGwell Fund,” Schanes said.
She said any donation helps, and she is looking for any kind of sponsorship to help sustain WIGwell longterm.
Monetary donations benefit not only clients but also the students who work hard on making the wigs. Schanes said she would like to retain as many students as she can on an employment basis.
“Start-up costs, operational costs, facility up-fits and most importantly, particularly right now, is my personnel,” Schanes said. “I am doing this all on my own right now, and it is a lot for one person to take on, being that I have a full-time job, doing this all on the side it is 120 hours a week, and three small kids at home.”
Schanes realizes not everyone can afford to give. The most important material of a wig, human hair, can be expensive. So, she also accepts the donation of hair. She said white hair and virgin hair (hair that has not been chemically altered) is scarce and in high demand. Schanes said she accepts all types of hair: all textures, chemically treated and even colored hair. She said to donate, the hair must be bound and at least 3 inches or more in length.
“I’m realizing very quickly that people with textured hair don’t feel as though they have an opportunity to donate and I just want to say plainly that I take all hair donations,” Schanes said. “Straight, curly, kinky, and any color.”
Schanes recently launched a fundraising campaign on Dec. 11 called The Wacky Wig Challenge and is seeking out participants. The Wacky Wig Challenge is set up through the platform Pixgift.com, with a large photo of Grace and Vaspory divided up into smaller tiles. Each tile is $20, and participants can select however many tiles they would like. A photo of participants with a wig, or “anything on your head with purpose,” is then uploaded in that space.
“I want this to go viral. If it goes viral, that many more people will learn about this mission,” she said. “The idea is to share smiles through the whole campaign, and generate interest.”
She said the money raised through this campaign would go toward supporting wig materials and labor costs to ventilate hair into the wigs, but it will not cover the overhead costs.
Vaspory said The Wacky Wig Challenge is a worthy cause and a simple way to help others.
“I have talked with my hairstylist, and he has given me hair from some of his clients so that I can give it to Christal and people that I work with has given me some of their hair,” she said. “I encourage everybody to participate in this challenge to raise money and awareness of what she is doing.”
“I feel like its something that needs to be provided as a service to the loved ones we have in the community and broader, in the world that deals with something as horrible as cancer, trichotillomania, or alopecia. It is not going away anytime soon, but we can help,” Schanes said. “We can make it more palatable, so these clients can then truly focus on their treatment and trying to get back to their day-to-day life.”
Looking to the future, Schanes has secured a physical space for CHRISTALine Studios at the 1001 S. Marshal St. building, and she plans on opening it in January 2019. In the spring, she is planning a special comedy benefit featuring a celebrity host.
“I have been so incredibly impressed with all that Winston has going on to be able to support the arts, nonprofits, women-owned businesses– it has been incredible,” she said of the community’s support. “I went through the Winston-Salem Creative Startup accelerator with Center for Creative Economy (CCE) last year.”
Through those channels, I have been learning a lot more of these connections and how supportive everyone is of new entrepreneurs.”
Vaspory would like for people who have been diagnosed with cancer or have lost their hair to know that there is still hope and life. She hopes that her cancer won’t be wasted and that she can use it as encouragement to other people.
“Cancer does not have to be the end,” she said. “It may beat some of us in the end, but through the process and with the Lord’s help–I give a lot of credit to my savior who has blessed me and given me strength and allowed me to have a positive outlook through cancer– it doesn’t have to defeat or devastate you. There is hope, and there is life with cancer. This is just a small part of what Christal does, giving that hope and encouragement and that life. You can keep being useful and be an encouragement to other people through the cancer process.”
Katie Murawski is the editor of YES! Weekly. She is from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in film studies from Appalachian State University in 2017.