Preening stars a full-time job

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 March, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 March, 1994, 12:00am

A RIDDLE: What's more valuable per ounce than gold, is baked in an old pie oven every few days and you wear it on your head? Answer: The yak hair wigs worn by the cast of Cats .

And tending this almost HK$1 million worth of vibrantly-coloured booty is Lisa Nichols who, with two assistants, each work four hour shifts washing the wigs, spraying on ''tons'' of lacquer, drying them in the pie oven and then begins the task of reshaping them into cat's whiskers and ears.

With 35 wigs for the main cast and the same number for the understudys, it is a 12-hour work day, assuming it takes only 20 minutes each wig.

The previous day it had taken 11/2 hours to get the ears right on one wig alone.

They kept coming up like rabbit's ears.

The wigs are handmade in Australia, custom-fit for each head and take 90 hours to ''knot'' with a fine hook.

The vibrantly dyed yak hair, imported from London, is more durable than any synthetic, which could not cope with the amount of sweat and the beating the wigs take each performance.

As it is, some wigs need to be replaced or refronted after just four months while others worn by the less sweaty, less active members of the cast, last for a couple of years.

Climate can make the hair - which Ms Nichols said is similar to human hair but easier to curl - too dry and difficult to control. The hard water in Seoul leached a lot of the colour from some of the wigs.

At A$2,500 (about HK$12,500) for each wig, they are a major investment.

To ensure perfect fit for each performer, a mould is made beginning with cling wrap and then formed with sellotape.

The hairline is drawn in and the mould is sent to the wig maker in Australia who makes the foundation and lining of net and knots the hair in the colours specified by the copyright blueprint.

It is then sent back for cutting and shaping for the character.

Every four days, working in rotation, the wigs are shampooed and conditioned and dried in an old pie oven which travels with the company.

They are then pinned and glued on by the cast members prior to applying the makeup.

The cats wear three layers of makeup and Ms Nichols ensures that the makeup guidelines are followed precisely.

''Every face is copyrighted and I have to make sure the performers don't sneak in any of their own touches,'' she said.

It is a daunting task for a new cast member.

''Their first reaction is that they will never be able to perfect their makeup,'' said Ms Nichols.

''With only me to do it, the cast have to learn themselves and I assure them that after about four weeks, they will be completing their faces in 20 minutes.'' Each member has a big plastic box with about $2,500 worth of high quality theatrical makeup, brushes, cotton balls and so on, which lasts about three months.

''With a show like Cats , perfecting wigs and make-up is a great challenge,'' said Ms Nichols.

''The hardest thing is ensuring they look exactly the same for every performance.

''The cats would be quick to spot if something was not right with their wig.

''It's part of their character.''