Nicole Paul: Using wigs to help cancer patients (and actors) gain confidence

Nicole Paul

Nicole Paul

By Alyssa Hurst

From the age of two weeks, Nicole Paul spent time with her mother in the wardrobe department of Ford’s Theatre. It didn’t take long for her to make payroll, and she spent most of high school working with wigs behind the scenes of major productions. Today, the creations of her company, High Definition Hair, don’t just grace the screens of televisions and some of the world’s biggest stages; they also help cancer patients regain a sense of normalcy and confidence.

How did you get your start in this industry?

Paul: My mom was brought on to run the wardrobe department at Ford’s Theatre back in 1968, when it opened for the first time after being closed. I came along in 1974. By the time I was six or seven, I was getting in lots of trouble trying to convince ushers to let me help take tickets out front, or bursting into actors’ dressing rooms while they were changing costumes. I was getting dragged back to her and she was being told that she had to do something with me or she couldn’t bring me down to the theater. And so finally she trapped me in a corner and these heads came bouncing around with brushes and combs and rollers, and that’s where it started. By eight, I was helping her prep wigs for shows. By 10, people were taking credit for my designs in programs for productions, and by 12, I finally made payroll.

What was it like taking on that amount of work as a little kid? How did that impact school?

Paul: It was fun because I was the only 12-year-old I knew making $7.50 an hour back in 1989. I mean, $7.50 an hour back in 1989 was a lot of money. It wasn’t hard. You know, I wasn’t nervous about being a kid. All of the adults made me feel comfortable and encouraged me in what I was doing, so there was no real pressure. With school, because everything came so natural, I was able to do my homework in between performances.

Starting so young, it seems like you kind of fell into this career. How did you decide as you moved forward through your career that this was your passion?

Paul: My dad was really upset with my mom when he found out that I actually made payroll, because he wanted me to move on and do worldly things like my older siblings did. I tried to move on and do other things. I was a paramedic in the army — a combat-critical specialist. I tried to be a physical therapist. I had a talent for music. I tried to do everything to move on from doing wigs to try to make my dad proud. I tried to do so many different things and I kept getting brought back to what came naturally to me. So I decided around 1998 that I’m just going to do this and go full blast with it and see where it takes me. So now he’s proud of me. He just couldn’t see it back then, but he sees it now.

You’ve developed a very unique way to approach wigs. I’ve heard they’re undetectable. How did that whole idea come about?

Paul: High-definition TV started coming about in the late ‘90s or early 2000s, and I noticed the producers complaining about seeing the lace on this new medium. The wigs didn’t look as natural. And they were doing all of these things that worked for film and theater but did not work for normal everyday use. No one has the time or the skill to blend lace into the skin with makeup, and paint their hairline underneath to make a unit look natural, so I figured out a way.

You’ve been able to make wigs for a lot of high-profile people and events. Can you pinpoint one experience that stood out or that you had a lot of fun with?

Paul: The most fun thing for me is when I get to do special effects makeup. I did a production of Beauty and the Beast in a theater. When I’m actually doing theatrical stuff or more costume-y stuff, that’s when I’m having the most fun. And then, when I’m helping cancer patients restore their self-dignity because they did not want to be seen or stigmatized with the illness or the symbolic cancer wigs that they all have to wear. So that’s the biggest thing I’ve been focused on lately.

Can you tell me a little bit about your nonprofit, For Healthy Images? What made you decide to start it?

Paul: I noticed in the last several years I’ve been getting more and more cancer patients. And the cancer patients were telling me stories about how they had to really dig and search for me. They refused to wear those wigs that they saw in the catalogues they were given in the resource packets. One client had always been known for her long, thick beautiful hair, and that was her identity. When it significantly alters one’s appearance when they’re ill, it’s very demoralizing. I’ve had clients that have delayed treatment up to three weeks with stage-three cancer because they did not know what they were going to do about their hair. And some people make them feel shallow for that, but for some of them, it’s their identity — especially for black women. I need to let more people know about the existence of this company. Not all people can afford to do this sort of thing. So I wanted to start the nonprofit to collect donations to cover the cost of making these wigs for people. They can focus on fighting the illness.

A lot of women don’t know there is such a thing as custom wigs. The public doesn’t know there are wigs out there that can maintain one’s appearance. You don’t have to be stigmatized.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

Paul: I guess my mom. She broke barriers back in the late ’60s early ’70s. She was the first black woman to be accepted to work for the union as a non-union worker. For a long time, she was the only black woman that headed up a wardrobe department in the DC area. Ford’s Theatre had a lot of prestige because of its history, and I just wanted to do just as well as she did.

About The Human Element:

The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email ahurst@smartceo.com.