Hair replacement company targets gay market
by Matthew S. Bajko
Working as a sous chef and cook in restaurants Kathryn Bode found it impractical to wear wigs to hide her balding scalp.
"Most are made out of artificial material, so say you open an oven door, they melt," said Bode, a transgender woman who is in her 50s.
But without her wigs, Bode added, "The other employees laugh at my appearance."
Beginning in her 20s, when she still lived her life as a man, Bode's hair began to thin.
While male pattern baldness, "does run in my family," said Bode, "no one is completely bald."
After she transitioned her gender identity at the age of 38, Bode started wearing wigs for the first time. Not only did she find them a hindrance at work, she never quite adjusted to them.
"Having to wear wigs is very self-conscious. God forbid they fell off or something," said Bode, who lives in the East Bay city of Pinole.
Looking for an alternative, she sought out hair treatment. She at first considered getting a hair transplant but instead settled on a technique pioneered by the Hair Club company. Called the Bio-Matrix Strand-by-Strand Process, it involves using real hair that is adhered and removed to clients' scalps.
The hair restoration procedure involves weaving a blend of the client's own hair with real human hair through a microfiber membrane that is applied to the scalp with a medical grade adhesive. The company boasts that if one were to pull at the hair, it would be as hard to pull out as if it were someone's natural hair.
"That has worked very well for me," said Bode, who receives the treatment monthly. "I shower with it. I sleep with it."
Made famous by goofy television commercials in the 1980s that featured company founder Sy Sperling looking into the camera and declaring "I'm not only the Hair Club president, but I'm also a client," Hair Club in recent years has moved to rebrand itself to be taken more seriously.
And part of the strategy has been to target the LGBT market. It launched a gay-specific website at http://www.hairclubpride.com/ with the tagline "Hair Club Always Be Proud."
It features a photo of two men in a pool and testimonials from half a dozen men who, while not identified as such outright, appear to be gay.
In 2010 the company participated in Gays Days at Walt Disney World and has partnered with the national gay men's magazine Instinct to promote itself to gay consumers.
"I think gay men in particular are very image conscious. Unfortunately, when one starts losing their hair it negatively impacts people. When they look in the mirror they think they are not good-looking," said Chris Varona, a doctor of osteopathic medicine and one of the Hair Club's openly gay hair restoration surgeons.
Varona joined the company in late May 2010 around the time it rolled out its marketing to the LGBT community. He splits his time between Chicago and West Palm Beach, Florida.
One of the hair replacement field's biggest issues today is polishing its own image in people's minds, said Varona.
"It still has this negative stereotype of hair plugs they used to do 25 years ago. It prevents people from looking into their options," he said.
In addition to its non-surgical hair replacement procedure, the Hair Club also offers hair transplant surgery. The prices vary depending on the technique used and are priced between $4.50 to $5.50 per graft; less intrusive procedures can cost $1,200 to $1,500.
The surgical route can take up to a year for patients to see the full effects, Varona said.
"That gradualness sounds like a negative, but people don't look at you and think you had a hair transplant. It is so gradual they think you are just looking better," he said. "There is a lot of negative stereotypes when it comes to hair transplants in general. It comes from the older techniques we no longer use."
Both men and women experience hair loss for various reasons, whether due to stress or hereditary traits. Although he has yet to work with a transgender male client, Varona has worked with several transgender women in addition to his gay male clientele.
"Hair loss is not solely a male issue. Females can lose hair for a multitude of reasons as men can. Stress is a big one or hormone changes."
The replacement hair has transformed Bode's life, she said.
"It is a huge deal as a trans woman to have healthy hair. It helped my self confidence a great deal," she said.
The greatest advantage, said Bode, was "I didn't have to wear wigs anymore."