Some students come to Vancouver Film School knowing exactly what they want and where they want to go. Others have a general idea, finding the specificity they crave in their year of study with the guidance of instructors. The latter is true for Merria Dearman, a hairdresser who discovered wig making in the Makeup Design for Film + Television program. It wasn’t a long course, spanning just a week, but the effects were long lasting. Currently, Merria owns and runs her own studio in New York City, specializing in custom pieces for clients suffering from medically related hair loss, such as cancer and alopecia. She also works in theatre and film, creating wigs for an array of characters.
It's clear that Merria lives her passion, and it's a beautiful thing. We feel lucky to have had the opportunity to ask Merria about her time at VFS, what her current job entails, and what’s next. Read on and be inspired by her incredible journey!
Where are you from originally? What made you decide to come to VFS?
Merria: I grew up in a small town in Northern California called Santa Rosa, about an hour north of San Francisco. It's beautiful, beautiful wine country. My boyfriend at the time was strongly encouraging me to continue my education in makeup and prosthetics. On my birthday, he gave me a video and booklet about your program. He had a friend working at the school. I was so blown away by the amount of things we could learn. I put together a portfolio and applied, almost immediately.
What was your time like in the Makeup for Film + Television program?
Merria: It was pretty much like my first year of business: exciting, challenging, demanding, and fulfilling. It was such a huge amount of information about our profession, and practical work. The best part about that school was that we were working together with other departments to create films. The on-set experience really prepared me for being on set. I really can't say enough about how much it prepared me for a real career. I also felt the instructors strongly encouraged our strengths, pointed those out, and then pointed us in the right direction.
What was your biggest challenge? What was the best thing about it?
Merria: My biggest challenge was acclimating to the pace that they set, finishing large projects in a timely manner, six-hour makeup sessions, etc. As an artist, you want to do things based on inspiration; this really taught me to design, construct, and deliver under pressure.
The best thing about it is that it pushed me to do new things I never thought I could do. I learned I could draw, and I learned wig making. I didn't even know about that before I went to school.
Were you always interested in wig making? Or was this something you discovered while studying at VFS?
Merria: I didn't even know about it until that part of the course arrived.
Since graduating, you now own a studio in New York City – congratulations! Can you tell us about what you do and how this all came to be?
Merria: I make custom wigs and/or make wigs by hand. It came about from school actually. At the end of the school year, we had a course in wig making, which I loved, and was taught by Donna Biss (I think). Being a hairdresser, I was baffled that I had never seen handmade wigs, or knew about wig making. We had a short break to go home and I went back to California. My aunt was suffering from terminal cancer. She was wearing a horrible wig, which I ended up ripping apart. The moment I realized that these wigs should be available to the public, my business was born. I continue to do theatre and film, but the meat of my work is in the joy I get from helping every day, regular people. I get to do both. It’s really an incredible marriage. New York became my destination when the demand grew larger and I knew I needed to somehow start manufacturing these higher quality wigs.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Merria: When I wake up, there are 15 emails in my inbox; I look at them, and I think about how my assistant will answer them. And then it’s filled with meeting people in crisis, giving them a sense of comfort, and making them feel good about themselves again with this craft. I work on my current production schedule, work on new pieces in-house, make time to focus on the growth of my business and brand, all while seeing regularly scheduled clients in my salon. And then, incorporated into that is the fun and drama of theatre every once in a while, or an editorial shoot. It really is an evolution every day. New York really demands a 12-14 hour workday, with a 6 to 7 day week. Even though I’m doing what I love, it’s still work.
When did you discover that your talents had the ability to impact people’s lives in a positive way?
Merria: I guess the story would go back to my aunt. She went to my mother’s 60th birthday party after I fixed her wig. The next day she came up to me and said, “I was able to dance with my husband, able to have a glass of wine, able to forget that I had cancer for just a few hours and not worry about my wig flying off my head.” Basically, she said that I had to do this with my life, and that people like me could really change a person's experience. She said that all the way until she died. I’d call that an “aha” moment.
What is the process of making a custom wig like? What is the most rewarding part?
Merria: Usually, I do the exact same thing for character design in film and theatre as I do for a private client. The client comes in, I determine whether or not they’re going to be wearing the wig for the long term, meaning: do they have cancer or alopecia, or is it just for a show or for an editorial? We use reference photos of how they want their hair to look, how their hair looked before they began losing it, or how they want the character to look. We then build a mold of their head and use color samples and hair swatches to determine hair and texture. We define the amount of density we’d like to have. Then we start the process of building. The process can take 6-8 weeks. We build the foundation out of different lace materials, depending upon, again, if it’s for film, theatre, or a private client. Each hair is tied by hand. If any coloring needs to happen (rooting, tweaking) this usually happens after the wig is built. The client comes in for a fitting, we go over use, wear, and maintenance, we cut the piece, and/or style it, and they’re on their way. The most rewarding part is giving people their self-confidence back, and even tricking myself. The best part is giving them back their anonymity. They walk home or walk into their office, and no one has any idea they’re wearing a wig. It's extrememly rewarding when their loved ones and friends don’t even know they are wearing a piece.
Merria: Next is a custom line of wigs available to the public, and to the theater and film community. This will launch, hopefully, by next year.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Merria: Had I not gone to the Vancouver Film School, I never would have found this passion. And had instructors like Charles Polier, Stan Edmunds, and Elissa Frittaion not recognized my talent and encouraged me, I don’t know that my life would be as wonderful as it is. Also, I learned things at VFS that some of my colleagues out in the world don’t know, and I’ve been thankful at how well prepared I was to enter this industry.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Merria! For an intimate look into her beautiful wigs, and how they impact the lives of others, watch the video below by Martin Crook (who also took the photos used in this blog):