When you think about theatre, it’s likely you think about the story of a show, the cast that brings it to life, or the music – whether the music is for background during a play or integral to the story in a musical. But there are also a group of behind-the-scenes people who help make theatre worth experiencing, and Nerds and Beyond had the opportunity to talk with wig/hair designer Kelley Jordan to learn more about the backstage processes of a theatrical production.
Jordan has worked as a wig/hair and make-up designer for over 30 years in St. Louis, MO at the Fabulous Fox Theatre and The Muny, where she was the first Black wig/hair designer. She has worked on productions such as the national tour of The Lion King, The Phantom of the Opera, Motown: The Musical, Aida, and many more. She’s also a licensed cosmetologist, businesswoman, and mentor.
Read on to learn more about Ms. Jordan’s work. (Note: This interview was edited for length.)
Nerds and Beyond: When did you first become interested in wig/hair and make-up design?
Kelley Jordan: It’s been probably over 30 years ago, and my mom, she was a self-taught wigmaker and that’s how I got started. She did wigs for a lot of the blues singers and I would have to help her, so that’s how it got started. Then I started working on them and working on them and fell in love.
Nerds and Beyond: Do you find that wig/hair design is a good way to help you with creative expression?
Kelley Jordan: Yes. At first I didn’t realize, I just was working, and then when I realized I liked to create, it was like…I like to create. It calms me down. It’s something that I love to do. And you know sometimes people try to find out what’s in them to do or [say], “I know I’m made for this.”
Nerds and Beyond: Along that same line, saying you’re made for wigs, you also started your own wig company, so is that sort of what pushed you to go in that direction as well, to keep working in wigs and hair?
Kelley Jordan: Well what started that was so many people didn’t know how to work on wigs. And I was like, “wait a minute. I need to show people how to do this.” You get some that may like theatre and “oh I’ll do wigs,” and then some who are like, “oh I WANT to do wigs.” Then you have the ones that just want to be seen. So, I’m serious about wigs and I want people to know, so I’ll just go the extra mile and show people. And then I said, “you know, I need to make me some money, too!” [laughs] Because all this knowledge is not free. But I don’t mind showing people things like that. That’s my goal going into retirement, I want to teach.
Nerds and Beyond: As far as teaching goes, then, what is something you think is the most valuable for people to know, whether it’s with wig/hair design or theatre in general?
Kelley Jordan: I would say that your own creativity is your own creativity. Sometimes people say, “Oh, you’re supposed to do it this way.” That’s not right. It’s whatever you do. And you have some things where you try to stay strict to the book of this and that, but the way you hold your comb may not be the way somebody else holds their comb. In theatre, we’re all creative, you know. Just do you. That’s how I feel. When they say, “I can’t get it like you,” well you’re not me. Do it the way you know how to do it. But I’ve had people who worked on wigs [on] Broadway say, “oh no, you do it this way.” Well I can’t do it this way, I can do it this way…I’m so glad that my mom taught me because with her being self-taught and how she taught me, it’s almost like what some were learning in school, her knowledge exceeded theirs. I’m not knocking school…but there are some things that I learned from her that I know some people may not even know.
Nerds and Beyond: So getting a little more into your theatre work, do you find that your process varies from show to show or does it typically stay the same?
Kelley Jordan: Oh, believe me, it varies. [laughs] It depends on your director, the crew that you’re working with, the costume designer – that’s who you really work closely [with] is the costume designer. And it’s best if you have a great relationship with them. It makes it easier. But if you know what you’re doing, you should be able to work with anybody. And I always tell people, when you know there’s something coming in, especially when I’m at The Muny, when you know all the shows coming in, you research before it hits the season time. Our season is closed, but next summer, you should know everything about those shows. That’s pretty much just it. When you know what you can do, you know what you can do. And sometimes, MANY times, some people will look and say, “what do you know? What do you think?” and I can say I got it…Now if there’s an issue, well let me figure this out. I research it, I go and I work it, you know. I do it. I got it.
Nerds and Beyond: Are there any productions you’ve worked on that stand out the most to you as far as being able to have a little more creative leeway?
Kelley Jordan: I probably would just say the shows that I design. My first show was All Shook Up, that was at The Muny. I’ve worked on many shows, and I’ve been like a ghost designer for many people…When I did All Shook Up and a couple other shows – All Shook Up, Annie, and I worked on The Wiz as an assistant designer. Just before Corona hit I was in the process of doing The Bodyguard in Florida. I did Elf in Houston, just different things. So mostly the shows that I design are a little closer to my heart.
Nerds and Beyond: You’re also the first Black wig and hair designer at The Muny, and I think now with everything happening that’s very important to note. Do you find that there are specific challenges that come with knowing that or any sort of pressure in holding that sort of title in your line of work?
Kelley Jordan: Well, let’s see. That’s a good question. At times I think it sucks. But I’m not the kind of person to hold racism to heart, because of my heart, and that’s because of God. I treat people the way I want to be treated. Of course, I’ve had hits, many hits. But I want to stand for my people, Black people, also, and I want to see them. Like now we have a few more Blacks that’s working that I’ve met or [from] bringing in. Years ago it was hard, but I just kept going, because I knew the outcome. I was told that I would never be in the union. Let me tell you this: I was the elevator operator in the Fox Theatre, and I wanted to get in the union. And the lady I asked “how do I get in the union to do hair?” And she told me, to my face, “you’ll never be able to get in the union.” And it was like WHOA, you know? But my mom [said] “keep going, keep moving.” And I knew it. I was gonna fight. At the Fox, they needed someone to do Anita Baker’s hair, and they were like, “that elevator girl, she can do hair, she has her license.” And that’s how it started. So I started going in, but I knew wigs, and then I just started working at the Fox, show after show. But I never took it to heart, because I knew it was out there…so I try to keep it right toward people and keep it moving. You say what you wanna say, and I’ll keep moving. I’m in a union. I’m on the executive board of the union. I’m a person that pretty much spearheaded a lot of things for our union for hair and make-up, and it is what it is. And I tell everybody, keep going.
Nerds and Beyond: Kind of going off of that, you mentioned your mother, and were there any other people in your life that you looked up to that helped you push through that?
Kelley Jordan: My mom was really my strongest cheerleader, and I had a mother that was like Madea from Tyler Perry. [laughs] So she just [said], “Don’t take this mess and do what you gotta do.” But you don’t let anybody make a fool out of you. Keep it right, do right, and everything else, you know. But when I started at The Muny, it was a lady named Madeline Valency. When I came into work, she took me under her wing. She liked that I could roll wigs, and I was fast. And she taught me everything. She taught me the theatre game, and that’s how I know what I know now in the theatre world.
Nerds and Beyond: Changing gears a little bit, you also have been a make-up supervisor for some shows as well and you are a licensed cosmetologist. What made you venture into make-up as well?
Kelley Jordan: Well make-up comes with the theatre industry, and I didn’t have a love for make-up, I just did make-up. But lately, these last probably three years, I’ve been going to Atlanta on a network with a lot of make-up people from Tyler Perry [movies], The Walking Dead, all these different make-up artists, taking classes and learning make-up. I’m kind of like, oh I wanna see, what’s the history of make-up, how to get these colors. So that’s coming to be like, oh, I’m really liking it. I’m learning to create with make-up now, just like I was with hair — there’s different colors or different textures. Now it’s like [that] with make-up…I’m getting now to design with make-up.
Nerds and Beyond: Are there any dream productions you’d like to work on one day?
Kelley Jordan: So many! I would love to get, what is it, a [Tony] Award? I’d love to work on something that’s just awesome. You know like when Black Panther came out. That was just like, “Oh my, God!” So something that’s just like, not one-hit, but “oh, you worked on THAT?” I want to work on something with creating, designing, things like that. I don’t know much yet about designing for movies, but I wouldn’t mind doing that…And then another thing I’ve been thinking about is being a designer with hair and make-up for different animations.
Nerds and Beyond: What’s been the most fulfilling part of your career thus far?
Kelley Jordan: I would say the designing. I’ve worked so hard and so long, and I’m not saying I couldn’t think I could do it; I know I could do it. But [it’s] getting to this point where I don’t have to work almost 24 hours. I can design, set the show up, and go home, instead of working 12 hours on this show and that show and that show. It’s almost a peace now, like I paid my dues. So that’s really like, “hmm.” Sometimes when I’ll be in certain meetings, I’ll be like, “I’m in THAT meeting” where years ago, I’d be like, “they’re having that meeting.” Or to know when things are being said and [it’s] “you need ME? Why?” And now it’s like, “Okay.”
Nerds and Beyond: Knowing what you know now about how the theatre industry works and life lessons you’ve gathered along the way, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Kelley Jordan: Hmm. Just work more. Treat people right and work more. Don’t take anything to heart, because the theatre industry, it can break you if you’re not strong. Don’t take it to heart, do your job, that’s it. If I could’ve done anything different, I probably would’ve traveled more. I took shows in other states or was on the road. A lot of the jobs that were offered to me on the road I turned them down because of being married and children and this and that.
Nerds and Beyond: It was very obvious that you are somebody [your employee] admires and looks up to, and I’m sure that’s true across anybody who knows you or knows your work. How do you hope to continue being a role model and an inspiration for the generations coming up?
Kelley Jordan: I just want to just keep doing what I do, loving them and showing them, you know, teaching them. That’s it. You know one thing I think that really helps is, and it got me some years ago, a lady — I did a couple of videos, and I’m kind of shy but I’m not shy, you know. When I did a video she said, “That’s not you. People love you for who you are.” And that’s what I take now, just to be me. Just be myself, and that’s how it is. I have people that may not like me or they may think I’m too hard. And there’s some that may think, “she’s sweet” but then, “Oh, no. She don’t play.” I don’t play about wigs. Get in here and get it done. And that’s just it. Let’s get the job done. Let’s do it, I’ll show you, but I think just being myself. And when people see the trueness in you, that’s what they love.