What It’s Like To Make Pubic Hair Wigs For Famous Nude Scenes

In the late aughts, Brazilian waxes took the pubic hair world by storm. That’s a weird statement to make, but it’s the truth. It became trendy to pay someone to wax off most or all of one’s pubic hair, and there’s really no other way to say it. The bare-down-there pudenda trend has persisted into the 2010s, although really, fluctuations in pubic hair styles are not a new thing. They’ve existed throughout history, but not for the same aesthetic reasons as they do today. This is something I learned when I spoke to Amanda Miller, a professional wigmaker who fashioned the now-infamous merkin that adorned a female cadaver in the Boardwalk Empire pilot. The trends in pubic hair fullness, shape, and size during different historical eras are just one reason wigmakers like Miller have been asked to make merkins — or pubic hair wigs — for various projects. You may not be fully cognizant of having witnessed a merkin on the big or small screen, but you most certainly have. Just a few merkins of note include Kate Winslet’s in The Reader, Evan Rachel Wood’s in Mildred Pierce, Dakota Johnson’s in Fifty Shades of Grey, Heidi Klum’s in Blow Dry, and both Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal’s in Love & Other Drugs. Miller’s career crafting wigs for a given project’s particular follicular needs has taken her everywhere from the Metropolitan Opera to SNL. And at one point, it meant that Martin Scorsese told her to trim back the bush on a cadaver’s merkin. All in a day's work.
How did you get into wig-making?
“I was studying at the School of Music at the University of Michigan in the theater department, and they brought in a wigmaker. She was a woman who was doing hair and makeup, and she had these beautifully handcrafted wigs. I got to wear one, and I kind of just fell in love with the craft and the process of it... She turned me onto an apprenticeship program at the Santa Fe Opera, which I did, and I learned wig-making there. I met my future boss and mentor, who I then apprenticed with for 10 years.” And from there you transitioned into TV and movies?
“I was working at the Metropolitan Opera, and I decided to leave when I got a job at Saturday Night Live. [The wigs there] are not far from theatrical wigs, really, because it’s so much comedy. It’s also big, broad strokes, and everything is done very quickly at a super-fast pace. Then, once I adjusted to what was needed when HD came along, moving from there to film even made more sense. I still work in all mediums.” Which productions that you’ve worked on have required merkins?
“I’ve only ever made one merkin. It was always a big joke...all racy...people like to laugh at it. It was for the pilot of Boardwalk Empire, directed by Martin Scorsese.” Now, before we get to the specifics of that merkin, let’s backtrack a little. What exactly is a merkin, and how did they come to exist?
“[A merkin] is a toupee for the pubic region. It’s all tied into syphilis and prostitutes. They used them to hide the fact that they had the disease, [which] made their [pubic] hair fall out, or the treatment for the disease that did. It might have been mercury-based treatment or something that made them lose their pubic hair. So in order to seem healthy, I suppose, they would wear a merkin to conceal the fact that they had lost their hair, which is really interesting when you think about it, because now the trend is to strip it all off.” Why did the actor on Boardwalk Empire need a merkin?
Nicki Ledermann, who was head of the makeup department, brought me in with a team of SFX men who were recreating a woman’s entire torso to represent a cadaver of the era. The type of autopsy that was done then was much different than how they cut into a body now, so they did a whole mold of her torso, which was then going to have the appropriate autopsy markings. When viewers would see her naked body, she needed to have an appropriate era bush, and they simply couldn’t find an actress with a full bush. It’s just gone out of fashion. They didn’t use a dummy. They used an actual actress, and they re-created the torso. They just put the special effects piece [for the autopsy] over her own torso, and then the merkin over that area.”
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Aside from this case of dressing a cadaver for historical accuracy, are there reasons why an actor would choose to wear a merkin?
“Definitely. Just for discretion, not wanting to actually put themselves out there or have their own body seen. So whether it’s like wearing a body stocking or a dance belt, and then the hair [gets] put over it — you know, just layers in between the flesh, I suppose, for love scenes.” Who's involved in discussing the specifics of the merkin or hairpiece that’s needed?
“For television, it’s all the script and what the director sees — their vision — and then working with the hair and makeup team to decide. Any kind of body hair is all in the makeup world, not the hair world, so then they reach out to me. You can also lay hair individually and glue that to the face or the body, but it takes so much time. Just like with wigs, when I’m brought in, it’s usually to save time — for the actor in a chair, rather than a three-hour makeup call to get the job done, if I make a piece, it gets put on in 15 minutes.” Was making the merkin any different than making a wig for a person’s head?
“I suppose it would be more similar to making a beard. The shape of the head is completely different. This is more like making any kind of chest hair, armpit hair, beard, or facial hair — very fine lace and lots of knots.” What’s the process for applying a merkin?
“It’s just glued to the skin if the person’s own body hair is shaved back, [but] the one I made was glued over the edge of a prosthetic torso. I put it on her for the fitting, but not the shoot. The actress was pretty great. It was definitely treated like a professional fitting. The special effects team was with me, and they were all male, and I think the actress was really relieved to have a female in the room. We cleared it out for my fitting with her and just got down to business. We had great humor about it, and I don’t think it was as awkward as it sounds.” Is it painful to apply that type of wig?
“Well, they have to shave their own hair — whatever body hair they have. Usually, they’re probably not very hirsute, or we wouldn’t be making a piece. The adhesives are always a little bit inconvenient, I suppose. It’s different types of glue, but they have removers and some very calming balms for the skin, and even some pretreatments if you have very sensitive skin before you put the adhesive on. I don’t think it’s too painful.” Did the actress on Boardwalk Empire keep her merkin?
“I don’t think so, no. Usually the wigs and hairpieces are considered assets by the production company.” Did Scorsese say anything about it?
“It was too full, and we had to cut it down a bit... It was just too much hair.” Have you gotten any requests to make any more merkins?
“I get a lot of press calls like this one to talk about it. I’ve gotten a few just people wanting them made, or wanting them in colors, I suppose, for a while, but I don’t do that.” Do you think they would have to make a merkin differently if it were being worn for a sex scene versus by a cadaver on a table?
“Yeah, definitely, and sometimes in sex scenes, they’re sewn onto a dance belt or to a piece of clothing. It’s all for discretion and comfort.” Are there wig-makers out there who are really known for making merkins?
“I don’t think so. If there are, I don’t know them.” Do you find yourself assessing other merkins when you see them on screen?
“No I don’t, ever. I’ve never actually looked to see if there’s a merkin or not. I do look at wigs that way.”

This month, we're sharing steamy personal stories, exploring ways to have even better sex, and wading through the complicated dynamics that follow us into the bedroom. Here's to a very happy February. Check out more right here.

More from Movies

R29 Original Series