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Hair artist Marsha McHenry Carroll on legacy, psychology, and the art of hair wear

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Styling hair requires a lot of intangible skills. Of course there’s the artistry of the craft itself. There’s also plenty of psychology involved. Good hairdressers listen. They keep our secrets. They boost our self-confidence. Sometimes they push us out of our comfort zones and encourage us to try something new. My own hairdresser, who I’ve seen for more than 20 years, told me many clients (often men) have cried in her chair. “I think it’s the intimacy of me touching them while not looking directly at each other,” she says. “It gives them permission to let their guard down.” Plus there’s something about a scalp massage that’s inherently maternal and comforting.

On top of all that, hair is deeply personal. So much of our identity is tied up in those strands on our heads. Hair represents health and beauty. It can signify wisdom and experience. It’s sensual. It’s cultural. There are over five-dozen references to it in the Bible. American men often associate their hair with virility, women with desirability. And, as a counterpoint, its loss or damage can evoke shame. Especially in Southern California, whose cultural currency often centers on appearances. 

Imagine all the artistry, psychology, and marketing that go into hairdressing, and then multiply those attributes onto the woman who works with wigs, and the clients who seek her services. Even the word “wig” evokes something visceral. In the 1960s, it may have been a flirty accessory. But today we often associate wigs with illness, aging, or disease. Whether due to alopecia, cancer treatments, medications, or normal aging, 35 million men and 21 million women suffer hair loss. 

Hair artist pink wall

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Marsha and shop manager Charlie

It takes a unique person, with a unique set of skills, to rewrite the narrative around wearing a wig. Meet the woman behind the hair you wear – Marsha McHenry Carroll, owner of Charles’ Wigs.

Entrusted with a legacy

Longtime Laguna locals will likely recognize Charles’ Wigs. Even if they haven’t availed themselves of its services, the 55-year old institution has made its mark on our town. Nestled in a historic spot south of Mozambique restaurant (on PCH and Pearl Street), the building has been around since Coast Highway was still a dirt road. 

Hair artist sign

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The iconic shop tucked inside the historic building on PCH and Pearl Street

The original owner, Charles Thompson, ran the business for 45 years, opening the shop in 1965 during the heyday of hairpiece fashion. At only 19, Charles began perfecting the intricate art of creating custom wigs for his clients. 

Personalized hairpieces, unlike strict hair styling, require a lot of consideration. Skin tone, eye color, bone structure, and facial shape are all considered when crafting the ideal look. And, of course, the client’s existing hair must blend into the mix to create a seamless and authentic appearance. Natural hair rarely has a uniform color. Roots differ from tips, the under layers aren’t like the outer coat. Gradations of color need to be woven in just the right ways. Charles was Orange County’s expert.

Royal hairdresser Richard Dalton joined Charles around 2004. Dalton spent eight years as Princess Diana’s personal stylist, becoming solely responsible for her tresses and traveling with the Royal Family after Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles. It was Dalton who gave both Prince William and Prince Harry their first haircuts. He also served as stylist for such notables as Sophia Loren and Katy Perry. 

When longtime hairstylist Marsha McHenry Carroll met Thompson and Dalton in 2010, she knew plenty about hair but nothing about wigs. Marsha had decades of experience as a professional hairdresser. Hair wear, though, was entirely new territory. 

But it was a business she believed in running. Marsha’s husband, John, laid down his savings to buy the shop. “He gave up his motorhome money,” Marsha says. “He bought it for me.”

Though it was a personal passion, it was also a scary step for Marsha. “I didn’t know anything about wigs,” she says. “To step into a 45-year-old business that was flourishing – I had no idea what I was getting into. My clients wanted me to succeed because they needed me. There aren’t that many people who really understand how to work with wigs and hair pieces.”

She started studying at the hands of the master. “Charles was a guru, and I’m honored to have learned at his feet, but I had to step into those shoes,” Marsha says. “My clients really taught me.” 

In addition to his skilled profession, Charles played the role of Jesus in the Pageant of the Masters’ finale The Last Supper for over 30 years. Marsha laughs about it now. “I’d often ask myself in those early years after Charles retired, ‘What would Jesus do?’”

After she purchased the business 10 years ago, and Charles retired to New Mexico, Richard remained as Marsha’s manager for another eight months. “[Richard] was so talented,” Marsha told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “He’s just magic with the way he works, whether it’s hair on a head or a wig.”

But the notoriety Dalton received after Prince William’s engagement to Kate Middleton – when the AP ran a story about his professional relationship with the late Princess Di – made him a hot-ticket item. As his profile skyrocketed and demands for Dalton’s services grew, Marsha soon found herself in search of another assistant.

In the beginning 

Turns out, Marsha needn’t have worried. She definitely had the talent and temperament to fill those impossible shoes. Born and raised in the South, Marsha was the daughter of a Navy dad, which meant they moved a lot – Charleston, Savannah, Memphis. Shortly after graduating high school (and deciding college was standing in the way of making money), Marsha began training in hair salons. Her friend was a stylist and introduced Marsha to a school in Virginia Beach. 

Those were transformative times in the salon industry. Women went from getting their hair styled each week to seeing their stylist once every six weeks. “I began an apprenticeship with one of the most reputable schools,” Marsha says. “They ran 10 hair salons and two beauty schools. I was an assistant for a while, learning about business, how to build a clientele, and how to handle clients. You can spend a lifetime learning those skills.”

Hair artist four wigs

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Every style and hair color is customized to the client’s unique look

When she came to California, Marsha continued styling hair but went back to college in her 40s to earn her undergraduate degree. She aspired to be a journalist and was published in Orange Coast Magazine the week she graduated – a feature piece on Laguna Beach architect Fred Briggs. She began writing for various publications but, when the recession hit, Marsha returned to her original passion.

The passionate personality of an artist

Passionate is the right word to describe Marsha. It takes a vivacious and somewhat sensuous personality to imbue clients with confidence, and Marsha is full of fun. She’s the woman who, in 1973, turned Elvis Presley down. Her friend was living with Elvis’s half-brother, David Stanley, when Marsha met the King. This was later in his life, and Elvis had gained a few pounds. Marsha was only 19 and Elvis 42. “I call it ‘The Night I Said No to Elvis,’” she laughs. “One of my claims to fame.”

No wonder she caught Elvis’s eye. Marsha had just been selected as Miss Virginia USA’s State Finalist. “One didn’t need a talent like Miss America,” she says. “Whew!” 

She’s also the woman who bravely stepped off Florida’s shore and onto a 39-foot Shannon and sailed to Havana, Cuba with three acquaintances – an adventure not for the faint of heart. 

And little surprise that in the 1980s, Marsha ran The Wonderful Me Charm Academy for local teens living in group homes.

Marsha is also the woman who, in 2009, implored OC Register readers to support her campaign to become the next Real Housewife of Orange County. And who still, even after a knee replacement, can do the splits. 

Hair artist Charlie

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Marsha, sporting one of her creations, and Charlie both remain timeless 

“All these questions and you still haven’t asked how old I am,” Marsha says towards the end of our time together. She seems almost giddy to see my response. “I’m 66!” More accurately, Marsha is timeless. If age is a construct – a simple state of mind – Marsha still fully inhabits her 20s.

It’s probably why she doesn’t love the word “wig.” “It sounds old-fashioned,” Marsha says. “Like girdles as opposed to Spanx.” Spanx, she says, are fashionable and trendy. Girdles are for older women. She prefers the term “hair wear.”

The art and science of hair

There’s good reason Marsha refers to her shop as an “atelier” – the French term for a workshop or studio (especially one utilized by an artist or designer). Hair wear is both art and a little science. These aren’t your grandmother’s manmade wigs, though they’re still easy enough to apply in a hurry.

Hair artist blondes

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More unique and stylish creations by Marsha

With some exceptions, hair sourced for the pieces is human (as opposed to synthetic). To my surprise, another common source is yak. 

Marsha is a stickler for quality products and sources. She requests several samples before purchase and carefully inspects the length, texture, and consistency. Blonde shades are more costly than brunettes. Soft texture, long and consistent strands, and a comfortable weight all play into the equation. The current crown jewel of Charles’ Wigs – the “Bentley of Wigs,” as Marsha calls it – runs $10,000. Even at that price, the piece must be serviced every six months to repopulate the strands and ensure the proper stitching.

Hair artisit Bentley

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The “Bentley” of hair 

Top pieces for men run around $700 (and over half of Marsha’s clients are, indeed, men). People typically purchase a few pieces to ensure they have a spare when one piece is being serviced. Women’s wear can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000. The “voila,” a unique piece that simply adds length to existing hair without the weight and damage of hair extensions, can be had for less than $1,000.

But considering how much Orange County women spend on their hair, it’s an investment that might pencil out in the end. An average cut can cost $60 to $100. Color treatments exceed $100 and require frequent upkeep. Balayage, Brazilian Blowouts, and Kerasilk treatments – all intended to achieve the looks afforded by Marsha’s pieces – cost hundreds and don’t last forever. One-time blowouts or single updos can run $75. And none of this accounts for the money spent on hair products. Or the time.

Hair artist short

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Shorter styles and brunette pieces are significantly less expensive

“Imagine never having another bad hair day,” says Marsha. “Imagine getting ready in a few minutes instead of an hour. Grocery shopping, carpool pickup, a surprise guest. Everything gets easier.” I must admit – it’s compelling.

The hidden secrets of running a successful wig business

Because I’m inherently curious (or maybe just nosy), I ask about the weird bits of this business that the average client may never know. Marsha doesn’t disappoint. 

First, help isn’t easy to find in this industry. Ironically, those who have worked in the hair and beauty industry are the most difficult to train. “Hairstylists assume they know everything there is to know. One day, I watched a man walk out of the shop with his piece on backwards,” Marsha says, shaking her head. “Not everyone is teachable.”

Discretion, of course, is critical. Marsha ensures her clients’ privacy with secluded rooms and a back door with onsite parking for guests to exit. Tyler McCusker, general manager at KX FM, jokes that people go into Charles’ Wigs but they never come out. “I don’t know what’s going on over there,” he tells Marsha. 

Hair artist interior

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Discrete rooms and a private courtyard and back entrance ensure clients’ privacy

There can also be a bit of buyer’s remorse in the hair trade. One client, after investing thousands on an extremely customized piece for his ailing wife, lost her shortly afterward. “He tried to return the wig,” Marsha says. “I had to explain we don’t do returns.” 

Some are squeamish about the source of the hair. Someone else stole thousands of dollars of product. Then there are those who simply dump bags of used wigs on Marsha’s doorstep, as though doing her a favor. 

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Grass never grows long beneath Marsha’s feet, and though Charles’ Wigs will endure, its longtime location in Laguna Beach will close on April 1. Marsha and hubby John moved to Ventura, and she’ll take a little slice of Laguna with her to her new home. “The name will remain,” she says. “It will always be Charles’ Wigs.” She’ll also open a private salon in Laguna Hills and see her existing clientele there by appointment. Regardless of her location, Marsha will remain the artisan of luxury hair wear. 

To find Marsha and her business, follow her on Facebook (“Charles of Laguna, Charles Wigs”) or www.charleswigs.com.

 

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

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