Q&A: Judi Maisel on her life in the wig industry

DUCHESS OF BUNCOMBE: Judi Maisel, owner of the wig shop Secrets of a Duchess, shares stories from her life in the wig industry. Photo by LA Bourgeois

Throughout her life, Weaverville business owner Judi Maisel says she was the black sheep of her family. “I traveled the world. I worked and did whatever I had to do,” she explains.

Raised in England, Maisel graduated from the Lady Eleanor Holles School for young ladies in 1958.

“My father always told me if I got in trouble and wanted my fare home, I could call him, and he would send me the ticket,” she recalls. “But he said, ‘Otherwise, you’d better behave yourself. I’ve given you the best education I can afford. And now you’re on your own.’”

Eventually, Maisel’s world travels led her to Fort Myers, Fla., where she met Scott Schaeffer, who operated The Wig-Wam. In 1999, Maisel purchased the wig shop from Schaeffer, who remained on as a cosmetologist. The two business associates relocated to Weaverville in 2006 and renamed the business Secrets of a Duchess.

Now, after 23 years in the business, Maisel is ready to retire, though she hesitates to close her business. “There is a great need for wig shops,” she says.

Schaeffer concurs, noting that the majority of their current clients come to the Secrets of a Duchess due to health conditions that have led to significant or complete hair loss.

But with both eyeing retirement, Maisel is hopeful to find someone interested in taking over the business.

Xpress recently sat down with Maisel to discuss her origins as a retailer, how she got involved in the wig industry and the story behind her regal nickname.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Xpress: What type of work did you do prior to wigs? 

When I was 16, I owned a perfume shop in the English countryside, 30 miles from London. I had to take the Green Line from London because I couldn’t drive myself. I wasn’t allowed to drive until I was 17. My mother came with me. And I couldn’t stand the family on top of me, so I gave up the shop.

Around that time, I happened to have an interview with somebody from the Bahamas, looking for someone to open up shops in a hotel down there. My father tried finding the name of the hotel in some of the tourist books. But he couldn’t. He said, “Well, Judi, it must be so exclusive that poor English people can’t afford to stay there.”

Well, when I got there, I found out this hotel had been owned by an Englishman called Billy Butlin, and he was famous for his cheap holiday camps.

How did you get involved in the wig business?

I lost my hair. I couldn’t find wigs, and I wanted to get my pride back.

One of my friends was Joan Collins, the actress. We both used to wear three hairpieces. And we’d sit on Saturdays at the hairdresser — everybody in the late-1960s went out on Saturday night — and we’d both always be sitting there so we got friendly.

It was very hard to get yourself a happy wig in those days. It was terrible. Wigs were not as good as they are now.

These days, they’ve got lace fronts and they look like they’re growing out of your head.

How did you come up with the name “Secrets of a Duchess”?

Scott, who’s been with me for 25 years, always thought that I should have a nickname. We were located in the flea market in Florida when I bought his business. It was in a great location, and I wasn’t working too hard. I loved it. All these little ladies said to me, “You’re so regal for this market. Why don’t they call you ‘Queen?’”

I said to them, “Ladies, look around. This place is full of queens. And they call me ‘Duchess.’”

And that’s how it came about. When we were here with a painter to paint the sign, Scott said, “Secrets of a Duchess.”

Is there a particular memory you’ll hold onto from your days running the shop? 

When a person’s face lights up when they find the right wig. I say it’s Oprah’s “Aha” moment.

I’ve also had some funny experiences. One time Scott was having color done to his hair inside the shop when a little old country couple came by to get a wig for the wife because she had lost her hair on account of chemo. Nobody else was there, so I asked Scott to serve them. And he did with his robe on and paste on his eyebrows and everything.

As they were leaving, the man said, “I told you if we lived long enough, Flora, we’d see everything. And now we’ve seen everything.”

You could imagine them going out and telling that story at dinner. There’s some things that stand out like that. We have a lot of fun.


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