Under The Rug: Toupees Continue To Be A Conversation Piece

It's one of life's great unsolved mysteries: How come we can send a space probe to Mars but we can't make a decent toupee?

Or, more to the point, how can ABC newsman Sam Donaldson earn $2 million a year and still have such ridiculous hair?

As a public service, the Los Angeles Times recently dispatched me - Roy "I'm not bald, I just own a vicious, hair-eating Cabbage Patch Kid" Rivenburg - to investigate this continuing fashion conundrum.

Among my discoveries:

-- Ancient Egyptian mummies wore hairpieces.

-- The National Enquirer once ran this headline: "Bald Burt Reynolds Almost Blinded as Toupee Catches Fire."

-- Animals sometimes attack men's wigs.

Hiding hair loss always has had its peculiar side.

In the third century, Christian theologian Tertullian condemned wigs as "inventions of the devil," according to Smithsonian magazine.

And during the 1700s, when skyscraper-like hairpieces sometimes soared 2 feet over the wearer's scalp, thieves trained monkeys to snatch the costly rugs off people's heads.

Modern toupee owners must cope with a different set of perils, including stand-up comedians and roller-coaster wind shear, in which the phrase "hair-raising thrill ride" takes on literal meaning.

Baldness loves company

Despite such risks, the artificial-hair hall of fame is a crowded one: Julius Caesar, Louis XIII, Ricardo Montalban, Humphrey Bogart, Lyle Menendez, William Shatner, Pat Boone, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Klugman and former Sen. Bob Packwood, for starters.

In contrast to bold advances in surgical and chemical baldness remedies, toupee technology has crept ahead more like a slowly receding hairline - unless you count the invention of snap-on hairpieces, which clip onto surgically implanted sockets to prevent unscheduled toupee liftoff.

The earliest known rugs - found by archaeologists in the tombs of Egyptian mummies - were made from such materials as plant fiber or metal, say hair historians.

Today's toupees use yak fur, polyester or human tresses.

"The men who want human hair are usually dating," explains Ralph Sampson, owner of Wilshire Wigs in Los Angeles. "Married men don't care."

Human hair feels softer, but fades in sunlight and needs a dye job about every six weeks. Synthetic coifs hold a tint and style much longer, but have a less natural texture. Yak is a popular substitute for white hair.

All can be hazardous to health.

Blazing manes

"Don't stand around open barbecue fires with your rug on," warns the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Intense heat can actually melt the base onto your noggin."

In a similar vein, the National Enquirer once reported that actor Reynolds endured a "terrifying ordeal" when his phony fleece ignited during a television stunt.

Another potential danger: animal attacks. Squirrels, cats and Rottweilers all have been known to pounce upon pseudo-shags. Apparently, perspiration buildup can create an odor that causes the creatures to believe the rug is another animal.

But the biggest problem faced by toupee wearers is believability.

Mismatched colors and too much hair on top are the usual dead giveaways.

"Thinner is more (realistic), especially if the client is older," says Del Roberts of Celebrity House, a custom-hairpiece maker in West Hollywood, Calif.

Rug retailers blame operator error for most of toupeedom's bad rap. Some men are all thumbs trying to style their faux manes, Sampson says. Others keep their "hair-replacement units" on life support long past the typical one- or two-year life span.

But with millions of toupees in circulation - ranging in price from $69 for a one-size-fits-all mop top to $10,000 for Elton John's custom hairdo - it's obvious that many go undetected.

Even people who have been in the business for decades sometimes have trouble spotting impostor curls. For example, a few allege that Ted Koppel's pelt is bogus, while others - including a spokeswoman for ABC News - insist it's real.

David Letterman is also a mystery, thanks to recurring jokes on the show about his "toupee." (For the record, CBS officials say the hair is natural.)

A few years ago, a group called the Bald Urban Liberation Brigade began "outing" follically challenged celebrities by putting up posters that declared transplant and toupee-wearing actors "absolutely bald." Victims, according to news reports, included Larry Hagman, Charles Bronson and Ted Danson.

The entertainment industry is, of course, rife with synthetic body parts, including hair. Roberts says his father once outfitted Bogart, who came down with alopecia (unusual hair loss) during the filming of "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," with fake arm hair, eyebrows and "three-day beard growth."

Other celebrities suspected of covering up their reverse mohawks: Steve Allen, Charlton Heston, Fred Astaire, George Burns, Liberace, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Charles Grodin and Bing Crosby, who inexplicably donated four of his rugs (in a box marked "Crosby toupees") to alma mater Gonzaga University in Spokane.

Still, Hollywood isn't the capital of male pattern vanity. That title apparently belongs to Japan, which is said to be the world's largest toupee market.

The Japanese also invented "kanekalon," the fiber of choice for synthetic hair because "it can be teased, thinned and set in hot rollers," says Ron Zagon of Cal East Imports, a Beverly Hills, Calif., wig mart.

Making toupees is a laborious process. Strands of hair must be hand-tied to a polyurethane, nylon or silicone mesh base using a small, crochetlike needle. Because a typical piece takes weeks to construct, most are assembled in Asia, where wages are lower.

(One label at Wilshire Wigs reads: "Rene of Paris, Van Nuys, Calif. Made in Thailand.")

`Howard' on top? Or `Marco'?

Some hairpieces are tailor-made, based on molds of customer heads marked with instructions for color, density and direction of hair growth. Others are off-the-shelf models, marketed under such style names as "Wall Street," "Leading Man," "Howard" and "Marco."

Customers batten down their hatches in several ways: ouchless double-sided tape, glue or hidden clips. A few decades ago, suction-cup wigs enjoyed a brief run.

At chains such as Hair Club for Men, rugs are glommed onto existing hair and must be adjusted every few weeks. Although the prices are far higher than those in traditional toupee shops, "the product is exactly the same," says Anthony Santangelo, president of the Chicago-based American Hair Loss Council. "It's all marketing."

Still, Santangelo credits Hair Club with reinventing the toupee's battered image and fueling "fever-pitch growth" in the estimated $280 million-a-year U.S. hairpiece industry.

As for the future, various innovations seem plausible. How about a Velcro toupee? Or magnetic rugs for men who have metal plates in their heads?

In the eyes of comedians, of course, a more likely scenario is the one in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" - a civilization so advanced it can send spaceships to the far reaches of the universe, disable enemies with phasers and beam citizens from one location to another, atom by atom.

Yet it can't give Capt. Jean Luc Picard a head of hair.