Naomi Surtees has a long, blond wig that looks almost exactly like her own hair, but she seldom wears it in public. She prefers to use an elegantly stylish light brown wig that those with a practiced eye can spot as fake.
“If I wear a wig that is good but still ‘wiggy,’ women are more likely to notice and ask me about it,” explained the Orthodox mother of two, who happens to be a wig maker and cosmetician with a loyal following in the Orthodox community.
Not that she is all that eager to attract new customers. Since coming to live in Hillside two years ago, the British-born Surtees has found her services so much in demand, she needs to find a larger work space and would like to take on an assistant.
It was the same when she came from England in 2006 and settled on Long Island, NY. She still goes there once a week to care for clients, and a few come from Brooklyn to see her in Hillside.
“She is one of the very few qualified wig makers in this country,” her husband Mike Strassberg said. Surtees met and married him soon after settling in the area, and his former wife has become one of her regular clients.
In the United States there is no formal certification for wig makers, as there is in England. Surtees, who has a bachelor’s degree in dance and drama, trained at a college in London, initially just intending to care for the wig she had donned after getting married.
“I’d always had great hair, and I wanted that look back,” she said.
Her skill, however, brought word-of-mouth clients.
In the United States most people learn to style and care for wigs by experience, or attending seminars. They generally specialize in fashion wigs; those for theater, movies, and television; for people who lose their hair due to illness; or for those who wear them for religious reasons. Surtees has dealt with all four categories.
Her father died when she was a small child. She grew up in Sunderland in the north of England, brought up by a mother — a former hairdresser — who wasn’t observant. Surtees became Orthodox herself after illness forced her to give up the career she had intended in theater. She said observant friends in the Jewish community of nearby Gateshead helped her find a new meaning and direction.
“The illness turned out to be a blessing,” said Surtees, who still works as a dance and aerobics instructor.
She charges about $200 for a cut and style, and the same again for highlights, and she works with painstaking care. “My clients really know what they want and they want their money’s worth,” she said. “If you make a mistake with a wig, it doesn’t grow out. But the cut and the color also don’t grow out, so — if you care for it properly — you have a great look that’s lasts.”
Surtees is especially sensitive to young Orthodox women who, heeding the injunction that married women cover their hair, are donning a wig for the first time. Surtees said many of them are in tears as she works with them on their new wigs. “Almost all — 99 percent — want it to look just like their own hair,” she said.
Not so for her older clients. Among the rows and rows of wigs on display there wasn’t one gray one. “I try to persuade some of my clients to let me put in just a few strands of gray,” Surtees said, “but they won’t have it.”
Her challenge is threefold: coming up with a style that looks natural and appropriate, obeying rabbinic strictures that the wigs not look too provocative, and satisfying customers who want to look “fabulous.”
“I tell them I can’t work miracles,” she says. “This is just hair!”
“Everything she touches is golden,” insisted a woman who came in for a styling. It was her first wig. “I’ve always just worn a scarf,” she said. But the family was about to move to Israel, and she wanted to have something to wear for special occasions — something very close to her own fine, brown hair.
Another woman, who — until Surtees came to town — was going to Brooklyn for her wig care, said, “I can’t tell you what a difference it’s made in my life, having her here. She’s the best I’ve ever come across and her prices are really reasonable. I just hope she doesn’t get too busy.”