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The Importance of Wig Styling In Mainstream Drag Culture

Drag Queens Chelsea Piers and Selma Nilla Talk About Styling Wigs For The Queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 13

The Season 13 premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which aired on Jan. 1, 2021, was recognized as the most viewed episode in the franchise’s history. Nearly 1.3 million viewers tuned in to watch queens from across the country walk into the show’s signature workroom to start the competition to become America’s Next Drag Superstar. 

In order to meet the show’s growing expectations for drag excellence, the queens have more pressure than ever to turn out extraordinary looks and performances that will leave viewers jaw-dropped and wanting more.

While that might sound like the sole responsibility of drag performers, there are tons of people behind-the-scenes that bring the vision to life. 

Many drag queens can be spotted from miles away with their signature hairstyles that range from a wavy vintage look to a tall-teased moment, and that doesn’t happen overnight. 

Many of the signature hairstyles worn by Rosé, RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 13 contestant and member of Stephanie’s Child, were created by two of New York City’s most beloved drag queens Chelsea Piers and Selma Nilla

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Rosé’s wig from the performance of “Phenomenon” on episode 3 styled by Chelsea Piers. Photo Credits: Chelsea Piers

Piers, a musical theater queen known for her pop-punk style, started styling hair as a way to supplement her income. She currently styles hair out of her Hell’s Kitchen apartment, but prior to COVID-19, Piers spent a lot of time at Bobby Pinz studio where she learned a lot about hair for theater and television. 

Nilla, NYC’s “Undercooked and Over Consumed queen”, started her career in the costuming department at the Asolo Repertory Theater in Sarasota, Florida. While she was there, she learned about wigs and her interest in hair took off. Upon moving to NYC, Nilla landed a gig at Anastasia on Broadway as a wig stylist, and gained a reputation within the theater and drag communities as she built her persona. 

To get the latest scoop on how some of the best wigs of this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race were created, Nilla and Piers popped in to share with WERRRK.com the process behind wig styling from beginning to end. And yes, it’s more than just placing a few bobby pins. 

Due to drag becoming more mainstream over the last 10 years, styled and elevated wigs have become more essential. 

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“Frankly, the industry demands it now. It wasn’t like this when I started, I mean not everyone was wearing custom styled wigs,” Piers said. “But now that Drag Race has evolved, to the point that it’s like if you are at a certain level, then you can’t show up in a “shake-and-go” with no style in it because it indicates that you didn’t put the effort in.”

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As with any art form, establishing an idea comes first. Many drag queens draw inspiration from specific time periods, celebrities or silhouettes. Some queens want big hair to make themselves look smaller – an idea Eureka O’Hara coined as “proportionizing.” 

While “shake-and-go” wigs are relatively popular, the lack of volume can create a semi-unrealistic look. A slight tease at the root as a result of having a wig styled creates a more natural finish, adds an element of polish and helps to tell the overall story of one’s drag persona. 

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Rosé’s wig from the Lady & The Vamp  mini challenge.  Photo Credit: Chelsea Piers

“Wigs are an opportunity for you to tell a complete story with your image,” Piers said. “I think that having a styled wig is a great opportunity to say something about your drag and the way you want to look.”

Prior to this season, Piers styled many wigs for her drag mother Jackie Cox, contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 12. “Honestly would have never been able to do Drag Race without Chelsea!” Cox said. “She styled about half of my wigs. She has such a great eye for knowing what works with my face shape and style!”

Wig stylists such as Piers and Nilla are usually sent a few images for reference to get a better idea of what the client is looking for, and then after is where the magic happens. 

“Selma’s wigs LAST. Those hats stand the test of time,” Rosé said.

Many drag queens use synthetic wigs which typically involve a heavy amount of preparation prior to styling. While sometimes the wigs provided have usable curls, oftentimes placing rollers, steaming and putting the hair in a wig oven is necessary to create the desired effect. 

“Once you get the curl you want in the wig, you go through section by section and tease out the different sections and then tease them together to make a stable base,” Nilla said. “Once it’s teased out, you spray the insides and start to style.”

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Nilla and Piers both have similar processes when it comes to styling by letting the hair “speak to them.”

“I prefer to work by following what the hair is telling me to do,” Nilla said. “I’ll go in a general direction, but if a curl starts to form in one area, I’ll let it do that. It makes it easier on me than trying to force something that’s not going to happen.”

When styling human hair, the same heating tools such as curling irons, Marcel Wands, and crimpers can be used. However, even though it’s a wig, the hair still needs to be treated as if it was growing out of a scalp because if left unconditioned, it can get damaged and fall out. 

While many queens tend to go with the more basic half-pony, Piers and Chelsea aren’t afraid to explore with different styles and textures to create the desired looks for their clients. 

“My favorite wigs are giant, teased 80s styles and crispy avant garde updos!” Rosé said. “I’m a sucker for a mohawk, and I absolutely love the curly macaron one I wore in the Phenomenon musical number.”

In this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Nilla styled wigs for many of Rosé’s looks including the Bette Middler inspired look and beaded runway look. Piers also revived some of Rosé’s wigs for both the disco and the Lady and the Vamp challenges.

Whether queens want to add more dimension to a look or create a specific silhouette, wig stylists like Nilla and Piers can bring those drag fantasies to life for NYC queens and performers with a few bottles of hairspray, heating tools and some hair magic.


Casey Clark is a freelance writer from New York City who specializes in beauty, food, and lifestyle content. Casey’s work has been featured in Women’s Health, Allure, SELF, StyleCaster and Rachael Ray In Season. When she’s not writing, you can find her swatching the latest lipsticks or out to brunch with her girlfriends. 

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Sources:

Chelsea Piers – @TheChelseaPiers

Selma Nilla – @SelmanillaNYC

Rosé – Interview

Jackie Cox – Interview

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