How a Drag Party Inspired a Tony Award-Winning Musical

Noël Duan
·Assistant Editor

The many faces of Hedwig in ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch.’ (Photo: Hedwig and the Angry Inch)

Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch has gone through many incarnations of the genderqueer East German character: from lanky Neil Patrick Harris (the original) to charming Darren Criss (who was a YouTube celebrity before his big break on Glee) to modelesque Taye Diggs (the first black performer in the role). But while the performers have changed, the glamorous glitter makeup and big blond wigs have remained as integral elements of the show. The look was created by makeup artist and wig designer Mike Potter who started his career as an 8-year-old doing makeup and styling wigs for his grandmother. “She’d wear them out to church!” he tells Yahoo Beauty.

Makeup artist Mike Potter. (Photo: Kit Chaney)

Potter arrived in New York City in 1993, working at a video rental store on Bleecker Street called Kim’s Video. There, he met John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig’s co-founder, who recognized him from SqueezeBox, an underground punk drag party at then hotspot Don Hill’s. Potter started doing Mitchell’s drag hair and makeup, using the techniques he once practiced on his grandmother and fashioning cheap makeshift wigs out of glue guns, toilet paper, and staples — a far cry from the elaborate wigs made of human hair he has since designed for Hedwig. It was at this iconic drag party, a safe space in New York unlike any other at the time, that Hedwig, first embodied by Mitchell, was born.

Taye Diggs as Hedwig. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The story of Hedwig is based loosely on Mitchell’s life as the son of a U.S. Army general who once commanded West Berlin. In the show, Hedwig — born as Hansel — is an East German singer who gets a botched sex-change operation in order to marry an American man and flee East Germany. One year after she leaves Germany, though, she is living alone in a motor park after her husband leaves her for a man he met at church — and she hears on the radio that the Berlin Wall has fallen. East Germany no longer existed, and her sacrifice was for nothing. Hedwig deals with her tragedy by amping up her femininity with makeup and wigs. During the musical number “Wig in a Box,” Hedwig tries on many wigs and identities, from “Miss Farrah Fawcett” to “Miss Beehive 1963” to “Lavern Baker.” Throughout the show — which has no intermission and, thus, no time for touch-ups — her heavy blue glitter eye makeup and shimmering pink lips start sweating off until she is barefaced (and almost naked) at the end of the show. “It was a deliberate choice to have the makeup sweat off,” Potter says. “I could have used alcohol based pigment to make it stay on, but in the end, it’s a transformation.” Potter also notes that there’s no way to escape the excessive glitter when you’re playing Hedwig: “Neil [Patrick Harris] was like, ‘I don’t like glitter!’ Too bad! They all have to embrace it. They have to fall apart.” The only Hedwig not to sweat off his makeup was John Cameron Mitchell. “He does not sweat on stage, which is annoying,” Potter says. “He looks the same at the end.”

It’s actually possible to get the Hedwig look at home, if you’re keen for a bold look. (Hedwig has been an iconic choice for Halloween.) The Broadway musical is actually sponsored by MAC Cosmetics, which supplies all the glitter, and Potter himself developed the glitter nail polish seen on the posters. “A little glitter goes a long way,” Potter explains. The nail brand, called Knock Out, includes a matte collection and a Hedwig collection of glitter shades. Ozzy Osbourne and Tommy Lee were the first customers, given their enthusiasm for black nail polish. Yeah Yeah Yeahs lead vocalist Karen O modeled the polishes, and Carter Smith did the photography. The Hedwig collection consists of a shiny navy blue with turquoise glitter called Midnight, a white iridescent called Sugar, a blood red glitter called Hedwig, and a matte pale yellow based on the bleached blond wigs that Hedwig wears. They will be sold online after September 13, when the show ends. “Michael [C. Hall] loved to paint his own nails, and they all wear my nail polish,” Potter says. “That’s the one thing [the Hedwigs] walk away with after the show — they all love nail polish!”

To do the Hedwig makeup, however, you’d need a team. As Diggs demonstrated in videos he posted on Twitter, the Hedwigs recline while they’re getting their makeup done. “We only have 27 minutes to do makeup,” Potter says. “We can’t let anyone be distracted by conversations.” Potter admits that Harris and Hall would oftentimes fall asleep while reclined. The makeup looks are not just inspired by Potter and Mitchell’s days at SqueezeBox — Potter cites Marlene Dietrich’s sharp eyebrows, noir movies, Farrah Fawcett’s ’70s it-girl femininity, David Bowie’s full face of makeup, Marilyn Monroe’s classic glamour, and punk singer of Blondie Debbie Harry as influences. The wild hair looks inspiration, however, is unknown to Potter. “People tell me the wigs look like Farrah Fawcett! But I think they look more like George Washington,” he says.

Taye Diggs as Hedwig in what is dubbed the ‘Tina Turner’ wig. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

“Many of the Hedwigs are super straight dudes, except for John and Andrew and Neil, but they would never wear makeup in everyday life,” Potter admits. “This is the most makeup they’ve ever worn. For me, makeup is a feel-good experience. But no one who becomes Hedwig considers it a feel-good experience.” It’s an emotionally rigorous performance, as demonstrated by Hedwig’s constant sweating. It challenges preconceived notions of race, gender, and identity, and for some of the Hedwigs, like Diggs, it is the first time they’ve been able to play such a genderbending persona. When the show closes on Broadway, it will stall for few months before going on tour overseas and across the United States. “I put on some makeup, turn on the 8-track, and I’m pulling the wig down from the shelf — suddenly I’m Miss Punk Rock Star of Stage and Screen and I ain’t ever turning back!” Hedwig sings. It’s a statement about the transformative and survival-instinct powers of beauty that cross genders and cultures — and leave behind a noticeable trail of glitter.

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