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Consider the Merkin: A Brief History of Pubic Wigs in Hollywood

Attempting to confirm a cinematic merkin has to rank among the most delicate tasks of reportage: One thinks they know fakery upon seeing one, when perhaps they’ve merely glimpsed a hippie.

The first time I got introduced to the term “merkin” was through the wonderful late Ben Gazzara, who always referred to his toupee as his merkin: “It’s time to put my merkin on!”
—Nicki Ledermann, Emmy-winning makeup artist

Merkins have a murky history.

The Oxford Companion to the Body points to 1450 as the year “malkin” — from which the name for a pubic hair wig derives — first appeared. Perhaps due to shame-related reasons, no one can say with absolute certainty when the first merkin prototype was fashioned and worn. Independent of the puritanical need to hide our goodies, it is fair to speculate that the first small mane of falsies was sported with an aspirational air.

Journeyman film and theater wig stylist Randy Sayer shares a perspective that he gleaned while coiffing theater legend Zoe Caldwell, who played Cleopatra in the 1967 stage version of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

“Cleopatra was known for her beautiful, long, luxurious pubic hair, which she proudly wore brushed and oiled, and she was known to admire — and display — her pubic hair in the shiny marble floors and the light, diaphanous gowns of the time,” relates Sayer, who works in Burbank at the Make-up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild. “Otherwise, in ancient Egypt, most citizens — noble or otherwise — were required to shave their pubic and body hair to rid themselves of lice. Noble and wealthy people were known to wear wigs … and it is thought that a type of merkin was fashionable; it could be worn to show that they were rich enough to maintain their pubic hair.”

Mosey across centuries and continents and you will find that attitudes toward pubic hair and merkin deployment have changed quite a bit. Our present era of light triangles, translucent landing strips, and full montys shouts that the species doesn’t hold its pubes in nearly as dear regard as when the queen of Egypt was believed to have lorded her hirsute bounty over the masses — or even, for that matter, as it did through the ’70s. In 21st century cinema, aesthetic trends and Motion Picture Association of America standards have made the merkin a staple in the R-rated realm.

Attempting to confirm a cinematic merkin has to rank among the most delicate tasks of reportage: One thinks they know fakery upon seeing one, when perhaps they’ve merely glimpsed a hippie. Cineasts think they glimpsed phony curlies when Mary-Louise Parker disrobed in Angels in America or when Suzanna Hamilton did the same in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but only their hairdressers know. Perhaps the most undeniable instance of merkin-clad performing is Sasha Grey in Entourage. (We know, because the Internet.) We’re hip to the Elton John–esque realness of Kate Winslet in The Reader, Heidi Klum in Blow Dry, and Evan Rachel Wood in Mildred Pierce, as they have been candid in discussing cooch toupees. And pubic wigs aren’t just for the ladies, as Jake Gyllenhaal proved in his up-close-and-personal Love & Other Drugs sex scenes.

Merkins are often worn for comic effect, as in Scary Movie, Sex and the City, and Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. But as Rooney Mara pointed out when discussing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it can also preserve a veneer of privacy. As Emmy-winning makeup artist Nicki Ledermann said, “For some actors, a merkin is a safety blanket.”

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These tiny faux-fros had already begun their odyssey of cultural utility when Antony and Cleopatra was staged at the Old Vic. Back then, merkins were the province of certain versatile male performers, who wore them during nude scenes to hide their manhood; women were not allowed onstage. In centuries after, while lice was still a thing — and penicillin was not  prostitutes obscured the scars associated with syphilis and other STDs by gluing hair down there.

Progress in the form of women in theater and penicillin in petri dishes drove the pubic hair wig deep underground though the years leading up to World War II. One might have laid eyes on a merkin at a drag performance or, eventually, at Burning Man. However, full-frontal nudity in commercial movies and plays didn’t hit its stride until the late 1960s. Even then, the notion that an actress in a nude scene would violate MPAA standards by displaying actual genitalia put one in mind of kiddie porn; downstairs grooming — very different from what’s become popular today —left the graphic stuff to viewers’ imaginations.

“It used to be that if you got a Brazilian you were in the porn industry,” says Alita Terry, an esthetician and CEO of Manhattan’s Ethereal Aromatherapy and Skin Care. Terry, 35, says that her industry of zapping or waxing hair below the waistline was pushed along by fashion’s creep from string bikini to thong, and it continues through today’s flirtation with mesh swimsuits. “The ’90s is when it happened. The smaller the bikini got, the less hair you could have.”

Enter the merkin, stage south. For the purposes of grownup, but not adult, films, actors are sometimes asked to regrow hair for parts that demand they be nude yet not reveal everything. But years of waxing and electrolysis can make it difficult to impossible to grow it all back, and that’s where the merkin comes in.

Even so, there can be more to merkin necessity than I-have-my-own-terms shyness or dead follicles. Famed burlesque dancer Kitten de Ville said going au naturel for her 2002 feature film debut was incompatible with her onstage gig.

“I first heard about a merkin when I was hired for the movie Auto Focus,” de Ville said. “I was told by director Paul Schrader that I should try to grow my hair or I would have to wear a merkin, and being a burlesque dancer, I could not achieve a 1970 thigh-to-thigh bush that the movie called for.

“But for some reason I did try to grow out my hair. This was the worst idea ever!”

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“There was a makeup artist who needed to put a beard on a man and she didn’t have the hair,” recalls Natascha Hahn Ladek, an Austrian wig designer whose 24 years in Hollywood includes work on Thor and The Dark Knight Rises. “So she went to the bathroom, shaved his pubic hair, and put it on the man’s face. He said it was the best beard he’s ever, ever had. That’s the reverse merkin.”

Industry folks who’ve worked with merkins unfurl their anecdotes with relish, in part because behind-the-scenes gigs on film sets can be thankless. You spend 12 hours on a pubic piece  perming the thatch, threading the short hairs to a lace front, and finally trimming the thing  before some striving youngster places your creation in its ultimate destination.1 (“I have not had the pleasure — or misfortune — of putting one on,” Ladek says.) And after the shoot, the hairpiece is studio property, only going home with the memento-seeking actor if he or she is a principal performer.


1.

It’s lucky for the stylists that the studios underemploy black actors. Then they’d have a real assignment on their hands.

“I can whip one up quickly,” Ladek says. She put one together for Papa, a forthcoming film about Ernest Hemingway that was shot last year. “You build a merkin; it’s a texture thing. It doesn’t happen very often. Nowadays I’m asked to build them when actresses play a role of a period that requires a more organic look and not the complete shave all have now.”

Perhaps because of the giggle factor bound to accompany labor in this region, it’s possible to underestimate the craft involved in the enterprise. For the Charlie Kaufman–scripted Human Nature, Patricia Arquette made her own merkin — and from another character’s spare beard, at that. (An act of meta-Hollywood absurdity that may strike some as Kaufman-esque.) But the end result was less than stellar. The actress told Paper: “Everybody was like, ‘What is up with your pubes? You’ve got a lot of pubes!’”

Even among the craftspeople themselves, there’s some debate over what a good merkin should look like.

“If it’s unrealistically bushy, you say, ‘Oh, that’s not the real thing,’” Ladek said.

Ledermann, who has overseen more than one merkin for HBO, sees it differently: “There’s so much variety on pubes, and who’s to judge what looks fake or not, unless you’ve seen a lot.”

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For some films, building a merkin can be a grisly enterprise.

Until recently, wig designer Carol Doran said the strangest hair work she had done was a couple of chest hair jobs.

Then she signed onto a project that contains a scene in which the main character’s penis is cut off. To make the castration sequence play, the special effects crew had to build a model of the character’s penis and scrotum for a close-up of the action. The team built several models, according to Doran, so that backups would be available.

Doran’s work, while not central to making the magic happen, would at minimum function as icing on the cake. She had been hired to create the pubic hair that would surround the ill-fated penis and lay atop the scrotum areas. In order to construct the merkin, she needed access to the model. So, a member of the special effects team came to her San Fernando Valley workspace with a plaster cast of the penis and scrotum. For verisimilitude, he brought close-up photos of the actor’s actual junk.

“For about a week,” Doran said, “I had this model sitting on my work table while I made the various pieces that would fit together for the merkin. I made several, so if there were retakes using additional models, they would have access to the necessary pieces. There were hand-tied, using pre-curled human hair, tied one hair at a time to very fine film ‘lace,’ which is a fine netting material. I then had to cut and shape the hair to look as natural as possible and make sure they fit the various surfaces of the model.”

An assignment of this sort hews mightily toward the difficult end of merkin creation. In fact, as period work becomes less commercially exploitable and studios veer away from R-rated sex romps and toward PG-13 films capable of drawing dependably wide audiences, it’s reasonable to wonder whether the merkin might disappear from the screen in the near future.

“I think the question goes into a totally different echelon of filmmaking and what’s important,” Ladek said. “All of those movies that come out and are so plastic and borderline pornographic? I don’t think anyone is so interested in realistic body hair. It’s just about showing the act these days. I don’t really think that the detail is required. Europe might be a different story. Filmmaking in Europe is still a little bit more organic. The nude body is still shown as a nude body rather than a sexual object as it is here.”

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“Vajazzling was a trend,” points out Terry, referencing the glitter-powered blip that had 15 minutes of popularity in 2010. “Then piercing — that was a ’90s thing. Today it’s awesome to have no hair down there. But tomorrow, George Clooney can say, ‘I like a woman with something down there.’ I can’t say that 10 years from now that people won’t have hair.”

Point taken. However: There’s a reason you have read this far, and it reaches beyond studio interest in period work and the antiquated standards of the MPAA. Viewing genitalia, while endlessly interesting in intimacy, is generally a less-is-more thrill in the performing arts. Take burlesque, a setting in which a variety of decorative merkins still finds a home. Sayer points out that in the days of Blaze Starr, performers would tease and cajole members of the audience into a frenzy. The merkin was a major part of the appeal.

“Men thought they were getting a good look at something — they were not,” Sayer said. “It just looked to the men like the [dancers] were fully naked.”

“For me, it’s the next layer of surprise,” explains de Ville. “Once in a G-string and pasties, the audience does not expect anything more to come off. So, when it does, it is exciting. I am always looking for more ways to tease. I have an Eve number where it is just me and a costume snake that wraps around my body. My merkin looks like flesh and there are magnets inside that help hold the snake to my body. For [Auto Focus], I loved that the merkin helped me achieve the look the movie was going for without me having to grow hair. I had so much fake hair between my legs — and the long, blonde, waist-length wig — that I felt I was fully clothed.

“My only advice for easy removal to anyone who is to wear a merkin is to shave everything. Do not glue over hair! Ouch!”

The Egyptians truly did invent Western civilization.

Donnell Alexander (@donnyshell) is a Portland-based creator of cultural content.