Stylist remembers hairy situations on 'The Wire'

The Baltimore Sun

In 1980, when a tube of Lancome lipstick sold for $8 instead of the current $25, I was selling cosmetics from behind the counter at Bloomingdale's in White Flint. I never thought years later my job would take me to a filthy alley in Baltimore where I would switch up lipstick for a comb and fake blood to embellish a fake bullet hole I had created earlier that morning on an actor's head.

But 20 years later, that is exactly where my makeup career took me -- to decaying alleys, boarded-up houses and other precarious places in Baltimore for HBO's The Wire.

In 1984, I moved to Baltimore and before I could say "Charm City," I was doing 1776 peasant hair on a made-for-TV movie shot in Fells Point called Liberty. Funny thing was, I replaced a hairdresser, not a makeup artist, but it didn't matter. Even though I had never gone to hair school -- that happened years later -- I loved the challenge. From that moment on, I was determined to be a hairdresser for movies.

As time passed, I worked on demented things (Blair Witch 2), fluffy things (Disney's Tuck Everlasting), romantic things (Runaway Bride). By default for that picture, I became Richard Gere's personal hairdresser. My biggest challenge was running my hands through his hair without smiling. I also worked on period things (Washington Square), a black superhero thing (Meteor Man) and David Simon's TV project before The Wire called Homicide: Life on the Street. (My first official tear sheet of a fashion shoot I did was for The Sun in 1985. I rushed to the 7-Eleven at midnight to buy the paper so I could see it.)

Believe me when I say I learned on the job. Once, on a film called Wide Awake, M. Night Shyamalan's second movie, I was coloring the hair of actor Robert Loggia to make him look older. I literally applied the mixture, left the trailer, called 1-800-CLAIROL and asked what to do next.

By the time I got the call in 2001 to be the key hair designer on The Wire, I was ready. I knew taking this job would be life-changing. Even though, by then, I'd been in the film business for two decades and had worked on several projects with African-American actors, this show would be different. It was unlike anything I'd done -- a predominantly black show to be shot in struggling neighborhoods in Baltimore. I knew I needed to tap my "I can do this" vibe and rise to the occasion.

Yet, it was more than just black and white. The Wire dealt with pretty much anything in the inner city that no one likes to talk about, let alone is able to find many fixes for. The issues were so very real and so were the places and people in the show. Someone who had spent 20 years in prison for being a drug kingpin in the real world might wind up in my hair chair about to play a minister in The Wire. It was a far cry from Richard Gere.

Take the first day of prep for Season 1. Idris Elba, a gorgeous black actor from London who played Stringer Bell, a drug lieutenant on the series, asked for a "fade" haircut and a thought bubble appeared over my head: "Do I do this, or do I wait and let Belton (my hair partner and hairdresser extraordinaire who had yet to arrive from Richmond) do it?" The fact is, Belton is black and a son of a barber. He does black hair better than me, but I couldn't resist. I took the clippers in my hand, Idris smiled, and the thought bubble over my head popped: I'm white and I'm on my own.

The places we shot were unlike anything I'd seen -- maybe through my car window, but not stood in, looked around and hung out in for 12 hours. There was McCulloh Homes, a public housing community off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard that seemed like a flat ghost town to me, with milk crates hanging from cinderblock walls standing in for basketball hoops.

I'll never forget standing in that courtyard at 3 in the morning when a little girl came out of her house to ask for food because her mother wasn't home and she needed to feed her baby brother, who wouldn't stop crying. The girl was no older than 6 or 7.

One summer night while we were shooting, the sky was perfect, the sun was going down and there were children all around the monitor watching. Feeling comfortable, one boy decided to sit in the director's chair. When asked to get up by an assistant director, the boy replied, "Hold up, man! Hold up!" He was only 6 years old and had two front baby teeth missing to prove it, but to hear the anger in his voice, you'd swear he had lived a long, bitter life. Being around so many kids who grew up before their time made me appreciate that mine were living in a safer place.

There were times I'd be sitting in an alley at 4 a.m., a rat would scurry by, and I'd think, "What am I doing here? Am I crazy? I could be at home, warm in bed." To be honest, that was the reason I kept coming back, because this show was not pretty. It was not comfortable. But it was honest. It woke me up. It made my world larger.

I remember walking on Dolphin Street during the first season and stopping dead in my tracks. In front of me was a man whose feet were planted firmly on the ground but who was leaning at what must have been a 45-degree angle. I thought for sure he was going to fall over. His eyes were closed, and he was so deep in it that I didn't know what to do. I could see from where I was standing that Andre Royo, the actor who plays the strung-out character Bubbles, was watching, too. He didn't move either. There we were, a quiet triangle -- the addict, the actor and me. I had never seen anyone high on heroin in my life.

In five seasons, 1,500 people "went through the works," getting seen by both hair and makeup. There were politicians and prostitutes, union guys and cops, hoppers and fiends. There were braids, fades, bruises and bullet holes. We worked as a team under crazy conditions with crazy people in crazy weather and crazy hours. Our record was 22 hours straight. I wouldn't have traded it for anything.

As for that first day, Idris' hair turned out all right. I sent him to the Afro Hut on York Road to polish what I'd done. They sent him back with a message for me: "Not bad for a white girl."

On one of my last days on the show, in an alley behind a clump of overgrown weeds, something familiar caught my eye. Atop a pummeled stuffed animal shoved into the bottom of a wire fence was a crushed tube of lipstick, old and run over. It took me back to that cosmetics counter at Bloomingdale's when I was 18, wishing for something more.

In my wildest dreams, I never imagined I would end up in a filthy alley in Baltimore. But I couldn't have been happier. I was right: There was more to this than just lipstick. It made me smile.

Janice Kinigopoulos is busy catching up with her husband, George, and children Stephen, 19, and Alexa, 16, and on all the sleep she lost over the six years of shooting "The Wire." She's working on a Dreamworks movie being filmed in Washington called "Eagle Eye." Dubbed the "bridal guru" by Vogue and one of the "top 25 trendsetters in the country" by Modern Bride, she also does makeup and hair for the ultimate star-brides, where she enjoys a different type of drama, she says.

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