Savannah Smackdown, who is hungover from celebrating her 21st birthday the night before, walks with me into Wigland on Northeast Broadway. Smackdown, who acts older than she is but still doesn't have a driver's license, recalls her dismal shopping trip days earlier.
"I went to all the vintage and thrift stores and didn't find anything," she says. "It was the most horrible, desperate shopping trip of my life."
Smackdown and I are the first to arrive at Wigland for this field trip of the Rose City School of Burlesque. Wig shopping is surprisingly fun. It's a lot like shopping for sunglasses—in moments you can totally change your identity—but the owners of Wigland must be tired of catering to lighthearted browsing. They've forbidden taking pictures and they've crammed all the fun Katy Perry wigs in an inaccessible corner.
Smackdown, who has a cool swoop of Anderson Cooper gray hair, almost instantly finds something that she both loves and finds antithetical to her character: a long, blonde wig of ringlets that makes her look like a storybook Goldilocks—totally opposite the superstar boxer she plans to portray.
That's part of the problem of forming a new persona: Who is it that you really want to be? Already in this burlesque class, at least two students are crafting a second, new identity: One is already a drag queen and one a bio queen (a woman who performs as a drag queen). Give a man a mask and he'll tell you the truth, but which mask brings out the best truth?
Another student, Moxie, wants to be blonde. At the class's second stop, Mid-K Beauty at the corner of MLK Boulevard and Killingsworth Street, she asks the wig attendant, Arkeshia, to pull a blonde wig from the top shelf of a wall crammed with hundreds of black ones. Arkeshia steps away from two guys shopping for the Red Dress party and uses a 10-foot hook to grab the mannequin head by the neck. Moxie looks at the price tag: $230. She quickly hands it back.
"I got more stress than the law allows," Arkeshia says later to a coworker. Still, she goes to the back room and pulls a selection of blonde wigs. One of them is a winner for Moxie, and she heads for the checkout.
Smackdown leaves empty handed again; the Goldilocks wig isn't just right. I find something, though: a $30 shag named George that instantly turns me into a Monkee. Transformation accomplished, but I'm reminded the wig trade isn't costuming for most people.
"Do we get a discount for burlesque?" Moxie asks at the Mid-K register.
"What's burlesque?" replies the clerk.