To wear a bad toupee is to risk ridicule, a plight that has nothing to do with class, race, fame or fortune.
Men can spend thousands on custom-made hairpieces and end up looking just as unconvincing as the poor schmoes who pay $50 for a hunk of cheap synthetic fur off the shelf.
The roster of impostor-heads is long and impressive.
Former U.S. Representative James Traficant, Democrat, Ohio, and sportscaster Marv Albert will go down in history for their astonishingly lifelike toupees. Lifelike - not as in "natural-looking," but as in "small forest-dwelling rodent." Showing no mercy for her famously toupeed colleague, Sam Donaldson, Barbara Walters blithely remarked at her roast last month, "I can't decide if he reminds me of ABC News or ABC Carpet."
Add to the list Tony, a wholesale jeweler from the Northeast.
Tony asked that his last name not be used. He doesn't want to tell the world that he wears a toupee, even though he knows it's obvious.
He has his pride. As do all those who regularly slip into the discreetly unidentified industrial building to see Max Gayer, a third-generation hairpiece purveyor.
A balding man's self-respect is what keeps Gayer in business.
It had been months since Tony's last visit, and the stringy clump of gray hair pasted to his head did not speak well for a trade that Gayer says has come a long way since the old days.
"I sold him a good unit," Gayer says, shaking his head with frustration. "But he doesn't come in often enough to have it serviced."
That's the expression: Get your "unit serviced." Which sounds pornographic, but as you can guess, is anything but.
Done right, a "unit" is designed to match the color, texture and curl of natural hair. Skilled technicians, mostly based in China, crochet each strand, be it yak, human or synthetic, into a base of nylon or silk. That base, properly cut and attached to a shaved surface with high-tech adhesives, becomes nearly invisible. Washed and styled well, the hair blends and no one notices.
Michael Simeone, who sells hairpieces in Philadelphia, says a hairpiece can "look so real, you could stick it with a pin and you'd expect to see blood."
The American Hair Loss Council has no statistics on the number of toupee wearers. But Simeone and Gayer alone serve about 1,000 clients: doctors, lawyers, sanitation workers, church ushers, 18-year-olds, and one middle-aged man with a fake ponytail.
Without regular upkeep, even the most expertly crafted toupee will go into rigor mortis. Although the toupees can be worn 24/7, the more service they deliver, the more service they require. Hair falls out, color fades, edges curl.
This is why Gayer advises clients to own two, so they can switch off while one is in the shop. But Tony is a one-rug guy, so he waited for Gayer's assistant to retape the worn base; comb, gel and blow-dry the hairs; and reglue it to his head.
"Am I happy with the way I look?" Tony said. "No. ... But at 55, you give up all hopes of looking like a Don Juan or regaining your youth, because it doesn't work. It's kind of, let's make a deal."
He does his best to care for his hairpiece. "But I'm not good with hair," he said. "I'm good with jewelry. ... I still think it looks better than the alternative."
Gayer reports that men with toupees are prisoners of habit. They're used to seeing themselves with thick hair styled a certain way and don't want to change. (That's how he explains Sam Donaldson's `do.)
"You need to put this in the context of all the other things we think of as disfiguring that people do because they think they'll be more attractive," says Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Kimmel, author of numerous books on men and masculinity, says that in some respects, toupees are no different from liposuction, tattoos or fake boobs.
"It's the same, in that body transformation is designed to enhance sexual appeal."
A man's hair is a sign of virility, Kimmel says. So as men lose their hair, they may feel as if they're losing their potency.
With shaved heads in vogue, a receding hairline is less traumatic for some. Nevertheless, going bald can be upsetting, says David Sarwer, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Human Appearance. And when someone desperately wants to make himself feel better, no matter how wigged out he may look, he can truly believe a toupee is an improvement.
"There is very little relationship between the way people see themselves and the way they are seen by others," says Sarwer.
Research shows that more than half of American women and a bit fewer than half of American men are unhappy with the way they look, he says.
This dissatisfaction can lead people to mentally photo-shop their image of themselves, says Sarwer. Some by exaggerating flaws. Others by minimizing them.
While men in toupees may seem like fair game, they're only doing what comes naturally. For whether you dye your roots or pretend to have some, it's basically the same impulse.
Everyone's just trying to look good.