09.20.10

Hollywood's Most Private Accessory

Jake Gyllenhaal, Kate Winslet, and a couple of Boardwalk Empire characters unveil more than just skin in recent nude scenes. Claire Howorth on the NSFW history of the merkin—also known as the wig for down there.

Sunday night’s premiere episode of Boardwalk Empire, Martin Scorsese’s new HBO series, featured two scenes that included female frontal nudity, in which the women—one a cadaver, the other Steve Buscemi’s lover—displayed fully forested pudenda. The look was in keeping with the show’s Prohibition-era aesthetics; the ladies of 1920s Atlantic City would not have been bare courtesy of a Brazilian. But actresses living in today’s world of landing strips and the J-Sisters (the infamous aestheticians who render total baldness) can’t be expected to get all that hair down there naturally. Instead, they can use one of Hollywood’s oft-employed but little-celebrated wardrobe items: the merkin, or pubic wig.

Nicki Ledermann, Boardwalk Empire’s makeup director, confirms that a merkin was used on the dead body in the mortuary, though the living lover’s hair was apparently real. “The first thing I thought when I read the script and saw ‘naked cadaver’ was, merkin! Merkin!” said Ledermann, who has worked on other inguina, including Gretchen Mol’s in The Notorious Bettie Page (in which no merkin was used).

After discussions with Scorsese, Ledermann decided that most of Boardwalk Empire’s frontal-nudity scenes would need to involve merkins “to keep it real,” since “nobody really has hair anymore.” Actresses frequently have contracts that stipulate raises if they must wear prosthetic vulva fur, but “they’re usually amused by it,” said Ledermann.

Boardwalk Empire’s cast members are hardly the pioneers of nether-wigs. Jake Gyllenhaal recently told Jimmy Kimmel that his sex scenes with Anne Hathaway in Love and Other Drugs were bare-bodied, save a couple of merkins; Kate Winslet told Allure she wore one for her Oscar-winning role in The Reader, unable to fully grow out her own hair; and Gawker had a field day with Sienna Miller’s au naturel appearance in the yet-to-be-released Hippie Hippie Shake.

Most of Boardwalk Empire’s frontal-nudity scenes need to involve merkins “to keep it real,” since “nobody really has hair anymore,” said the show’s makeup director.

“There are different qualities of merkins,” said Rhonda Thaut, vice president of sales and marketing for World of Wigs, a Los Angeles-based wig supplier whose vast inventory of hair products includes ready-to-wear and custom merkins. “However, most merkins are made from various forms of lace, ranging from low-end mesh to high-end French silk lace. Most clients prefer it to be made with human hair [from the head]. The hair is treated to give it a kinky (no pun intended) texture, so it resembles pubic hair. Each hair is hand-tied to the lace.”

To fit and attach a “postiche”—as merkins are sometimes called, though the word is a catch-all term for any hairpiece—the area must be completely shaved. Then, the merkin is applied with an adhesive; Ledermann uses a matte substance by Telesis. Other people use spirit gum, an old-fashioned concoction of alcohol (the spirit) and resin (the gum), but Thaut stressed caution: “Do not cheap out on the specially designed adhesive for merkins!” She then related an anecdote involving industrial glue and pelvic burns.

Thaut, whose company is under contract not to name the films or costume designers it supplies, explained that there are even reverse-merkins: polyurethane made to look like skin and cover up existing pubic hair. World of Wigs sells ready-made merkins for $36 but can custom-create pieces that cost hundreds of dollars, depending on the materials. Ledermann has merkins for her projects custom-made; her good friend Amanda Miller, a New York City-based wig-maker, designed the Boardwalk Empire merkin, which actually had to be trimmed prior to filming.

Those readers who already knew what a merkin is probably find it hard to imagine that anyone can not know about it; the truth, according to an admittedly unscientific poll, is that most people do not know what a merkin is, despite its 400-plus-year existence. The intimate toupée’s original purpose was to disguise the symptoms of genital-disfiguring diseases of the Middle Ages, like syphilis.

Perhaps merkin awareness is growing as more actors are mentioning their unmentionables. Heidi Klum has gone on the record about her merkin in the 2001 film Blow Dry; Jane Krakowski claims she will donate her hair to “Merkins for Hope” on an episode of 30 Rock. The writer Daphne Merkin, who has covered ribald territory herself, proved just how game she is when contacted for this article. “One thing I’ve noticed is the widening scope of those who know what the word means,” said Merkin. “When I was in my twenties, the only people who understood the word’s sexual/erotic implications were a boy from my high-school class and my Shakespeare teacher at Columbia.”

It would make sense that Merkin’s Shakespeare professor knew the word, given that it has been in use since that era. Wikipedia’s completely unsourced and error-riddled entry says, incorrectly, that William Shakespeare used the word in The Winter’s Tale. Georgianna Ziegler, head of reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, located only the root word, “malkin,” and not in The Winter’s Tale, but in Coriolanus (circa 1605-1608) and Pericles, Prince of Tyre (circa 1607). “Malkin,” Ziegler clarified, “was a low Scots reference to the female pudend from about 1540. This is from Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang. ‘Malkin trash’ was ‘a person dismally dressed,’ from about the late 1600s to the early 1800s.” Commentator Michelle Malkin did not respond to request for comment.

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Claire Howorth is the Arts editor at the Daily Beast.