Judi Maisel understands that a cancer diagnosis is traumatic, and the resulting loss of one’s hair to chemotherapy tends to confirm a woman’s sense of defeat.
“Every woman deserves the dignity of a full head of hair,” Maisel says. “I find it very rewarding that I can give someone back a sense of pride.”
Maisel, who was born in London, has been helping women find the right wig for whatever reason for the last 27 years. She lost her own hair 20 years ago for no known reason (diagnosed as alopecia), and it never came back as full as it was before, so she understands why a woman would want to wear a wig. She owns the wig shop Secrets of a Duchess and the small thrift shop next door.
“I look better in a wig, so I wear a wig,” she tells a new customer. “Without my wig and makeup, I look just like my brother.”
She removes her own wig to reveal thinning gray hair, tied into a ponytail and pinned up.
“Having this little ponytail gives me something to pin the wig to,” she says. “It means I can do 83 miles an hour in a speedboat and not worry about losing my hair.”
As she speaks, she shakes out a wig and places it on the customer’s hair, fussing with it a bit.
Within moments, the customer, who appeared nervous when she sat down, is smiling and admiring herself as a redhead, then with her own strawberry-blonde color, then contemplating a gray wig. She decides to wait until chemo starts to make a decision and thanks Maisel again and again before leaving.
Maisel has a way of putting people at ease, says friend and customer Joannie Madison, who began going to her shop in 2013, soon after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since she is one of only 12 percent of people whose hair never regrows after chemo, she is still a regular customer.
“She has a natural empathy and compassion,” Madison says. “[Maisel] just puts people at ease, and she’ll keep trying wig after wig until a customer sees herself just the way she wants to look in the mirror. You know, we all like our own hair, even when it isn’t perfect.”
Maisel believes every woman should look healthy, even when she’s battling cancer.
“You go out with a bald head, and people are going to ask what’s wrong with you,” she says. “But if you have a full head of hair, no one’s going to bat an eye, and you have the option of sharing or not.”
Some medical insurance policies cover the cost of a wig for women who lose their hair to chemotherapy. For women who have no insurance and little money, Maisel often discounts the wigs in her shop, sometimes selling them at cost. She has several deeply discounted wigs in the thrift store.
“No one should have to go around bald if they don’t want to,” Maisel says.
She mentions that she owned a bar in the Bahamas for many years before coming to North Carolina, and she ran a women’s clothing store before opening her wig shop.
But once she needed a wig herself, Maisel realized she had a new calling.
“I have put wigs on thousands of people for any number of reasons,” she says.
Most of her customers are women with cancer, but a significant number just want to wear a wig. Asheville resident Pat Bordon, who has been a customer and friend for about a dozen years, is in the latter category.
“I think what I find most endearing about her is her ability to put people at ease,” Bordon says. “She lets women come in to get their heads shaved and have a party — you know, invite friends, have wine and cheese and lots of laughter.”
Maisel admits that helping women who have cancer is particularly rewarding.
“I hate cancer,” she says. “My father called it ‘The Beast,’ and I agree. Anything I can do to help someone with cancer feel better makes my day better.”
Maisel, who declines to reveal her age, thinks about retiring but doubts she can find someone to take over the business and run it the way she does.
“I don’t want to think someone needs a wig and won’t be able to get one because they can’t afford it,” Maisel says. “The work I do here is important to my customers, and they are important to me.”
Secrets of a Duchess
1439 Merrion Ave., North Asheville