Jill Kelley’s face lights up when she tells me about the night she and her friend Melanie Cargill-Barbour went out dancing in Florida. Melanie wore a red cowboy hat on top of long, dark, lustrous hair.
“Everywhere we went, everybody said, ‘I love your hair, your hair is beautiful,’” reminisces Jill. “It was great. By the end of the night she had pulled off the hat and I think half the club almost dropped, because she was as bald as a baby’s bottom.”
Melanie had lost her hair because she was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for metastatic breast cancer. When Jill got a look at the wig her friend intended to wear until her own hair grew back, she was appalled.
“It had rubber on the inside,” she says, “and was heavy and sweaty, so that when you put it on your bald head it was like putting on a rubber cap. I told Melanie, ‘I can’t imagine you having to wear this all the time. Throw it out. It’s horrible!’”
Jill happens to be a hairdresser -– she owns J. Kelley Salon at the foot of Munjoy Hill in Portland. She also happens to give a lot to people with cancer, donating regularly to auctions and other fundraisers. Her mother and sister had breast cancer and many of her friends and clients have also had cancer, so it’s an issue that is close to her heart.
As she scrutinized Melanie’s wig, Jill knew she could come up with a better solution – and she did. Using Velcro strips, she attached hair extensions to the underside of the cowboy hat. She used the same hair with different hats for different looks. The two of them would sometimes go out with Jill’s nieces, who have beautiful hair. “Melanie looked no different than any one of us,” Jill says, “and she felt just as sexy as anything. It was awesome to see that.”
Jill made the “wig hats” for Melanie about five years ago. Her friend passed away on Nov. 24, 2012, and Jill did her hair for the last time – for her funeral.
A year later, on a sunny November day, Amy Anderson, from the Cancer Community Center in South Portland, brought a huge box full of donated wigs into Jill’s salon, hoping she could make some wig hats out of them.
“We get a ton of donated wigs,” Amy says. “We bring some to Tess, who has a salon on Forest Avenue and does free wig fittings, and give others to the Look Good, Feel Better program.”
When Amy first approached Jill about using the donated wigs, Jill’s head began to dance with ideas. She made Melanie’s wig hats with hair extensions, but says she could simply cut out the top of an appropriate wig and attach the remaining hair with Velcro to a hat.
“My plan is to make a packet with three or four hats,” she says. “You pick out your style hair – for instance, brunette medium-length curly hair. You would be able to attach it to each hat you have. It would be interchangeable. Feeling conservative? Feeling funky? Anything is possible. All the same hair, just a different hat.”
Jill and Amy reach into the box and pull out one wig after another, many never even worn, with sales tags still attached.
“This would be great with a hat,” says Jill. “This one is too short. This one, honestly, would be a pretty nice brand new wig.”
She looks up, excited, and says for this idea to really work and be affordable and accessible to lots of women, she would need help.
“What I want to be able to do is way beyond me being able to make these at home. I need manufacturers and a space where I could maybe have five sewers.”
Jill was inspired to help her dear friend Melanie and now, thanks to Amy and all of the families who donated the wigs, she is inspired to take her creation to a whole new level.
She finds a hat tucked in between several wigs and her face beams as she says to Amy, “I can totally see a cute little 70-something woman in a hat like this.”
Amy Anderson of the Cancer Community Center in South Portland goes through some donated wigs that could become part of a stylish hat made by Jill Kelley. Melanie Cargill-Barbour sports the red cowboy hat with long, dark hair made for her by her friend Jill Kelley. Friends Melanie Cargill-Barbour, left, and Jill Kelley enjoy time together.