Ben Moir shot by John McRae
I love Vanity. Not the deadly sin, but the actual person, Vanity Faire, a drag queen in Sydney, Australia. Vanity embodies a crucial idea in the Passion Economy: By their nature, mass-produced products generally suck for at least some of the people who buy them.
This may seem like an obvious and trivial point. But it’s more than that; it is the secret to success for countless Passion businesses, like Vanity’s.
Vanity — aka Benjamin Moir — is one of the most celebrated drag queens in Sydney. He (in our interview, he went by “he”) explained to me that there is a problem that nearly all drag queens know intimately and that almost no non-drag queens have ever heard of: overly-tight, lace-front wigs. This obscure problem has turned into a life-changing business for Moir and a boon to drag queens all over the world. And the lesson here is one that all of us can apply.
The wig industry used to be roughly divided in two. There were high-end, custom-made wigs that perfectly fit a person’s head and were often indetectable by even a careful observer. These were wildly expensive, costing thousands of dollars and requiring an often fully-booked professional. For those who couldn’t afford the luxury stuff, there were mass-produced wigs that were made, quickly and cheaply, by machines, and were obviously fake from across a room.
Then came the two transformations that have changed nearly all industries: outsourcing and automation. Wig production moved to China and other low-wage countries, while computer automation allowed manufacturers to more precisely create synthetic hair and wig-liners. This meant that much more inexpensive wigs — costing $100 or so — could do a decent, although imperfect, job of looking like real hair.
To make money with these cheap wigs, manufacturers had to sell a lot of them, so they tailored them to fit typical women’s head sizes.
Moir, when performing as Vanity, realized that the drag community was left out of these major advances in wig technology. The mass-produced wigs were too small; they didn’t fit his head or the heads of most of the drag performers he knew.
Drag queens have a set of remarkably specific wig needs. They want wigs that look as much like a real head of hair as possible. (Not being “clocked” is a cardinal rule of professional drag performers.) They also want wigs that are stunning — gorgeous color and style — and that can withstand night after night of singing and dancing and sweating under hot lights in a crowded club. Drag queens want to own a lot of these wigs. And they need them to be cheap, because most drag queens don’t make a lot of money and can rarely afford even one custom-made wig, let alone a dozen.
Moir and his close friend, Shane Janek (who performs as Courtney Act and came in third on RuPaul’s Drag Race!), traveled to China and met with manufacturers there. At times, it seemed impossible. There just aren’t enough drag queens in the world to justify mass-produced wigs that fit their heads and their unique needs. But, because this was a Passion business, Moir and Janek didn’t give up. Eventually, they came to a solution: They could have the best of both worlds. They would make part of the wig by hand, and the rest would be mass-produced.
The base of most wigs — the part that is glued to the head and holds the hair in place — is made of lace. Machine-made lace was too tight and too stiff. Moir found a company that could hire seamstresses to sew specialty lace by hand. (He makes sure these seamstresses are well-paid and well-treated.) Then the machine can put the hair in and shape the style.
The result: Wigs by Vanity, a line of affordable wigs that perfectly meet the exacting demands of drag queens. RuPaul loves them and wears them. So does Conchita Wurst, winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, and so many others. They cost as little as $60 USD or as much as $500, for the ones with human hair.
I love that the Passion Economy allows us to find solutions from people and businesses who are so unlike each other and unlike ourselves. On last week’s podcast, we learned about Jared Reynolds, someone from, roughly, the precise opposite cultural background as Vanity Faire. Reynolds, has devoted his life to fishing and hunting and other Red State activities. Yet, Reynolds and Moir — who probably would never meet in regular life — are both great models of how to thrive in the Passion Economy. This is not by accident. The Passion Economy is rooted in the idea that there are a handful of reproducible ways to make a living by doing what you love.
Here are the lessons I take from Moir and Wigs by Vanity:
You Already Know A Bunch of Problems That Nobody Else is Going to Solve.
Moir was able to see and physically feel a problem that only a few thousand people in the world knew about. Wigs were too tight or too expensive for drag queens. While many other drag queens knew this, none tried to solve the problem.
Combining Unlikely Things Produces Amazing Opportunity.
Moir is a great drag queen and a great hair stylist. But there are lots of great drag queens and lots of great hair stylists. Moir had a specific background, including a stint working with a custom wig designer. He combined a set of skills and observations that nobody else could match. He could see a problem and also solve that problem.
You Make Your Opportunity.
Moir flew to China to solve the wig problem at a key time in his life. He was exhausted with the drag queen lifestyle. He didn’t want to be out every night; he stopped doing drugs. He wanted something new.
Passion Gets You Through the Setbacks.
As with every business, the beginnings of Wigs by Vanity were difficult. Moir heard, again and again, that his vision of an affordable wig that met high standards was absurd. It couldn’t happen. But he needed to make it happen and, so, he did.
A Tiny, Passionate Audience Is All You Need.
I was stunned to learn that the global wig and hair extension market is nearly $10 billion. There are some major players, producing and selling tens of millions of wigs each year. Wigs by Vanity is in the Passion Economy sweet spot. It has a large enough global audience that Moir can have a thriving, growing business; but its customer base — drag queens — is too small to attract the attention of the big wig makers.
You Can Do This Too.
You, right now, are aware of specific problems that you — and a lot of people like you — are frustrated with. You might not even realize this is something you know, since it’s just an irritation and quickly passes. I like the idea of “painstorming”: spending time, perhaps with some friends who share your awareness, thinking through maddening problems in your life or business. What would solutions look like? Are those solutions producible? Are there enough people who might want to pay for those solutions?
I have had one big insight in my life. In 2005, I was working at NPR. I had spent my career in public radio and had long been frustrated with the way that new radio shows were developed. Typically, a station or the network would spend a lot of money and time developing a new show. Only when that show was launched would the public get to hear it. It was both a risky and risk-averse approach. It was risky, because so much time and money was spent before there was any information about what the public might think. It was risk-averse, because the fear of that investment failing led to copycat shows and a dull sameness.
My insight was that podcasting would allow for a whole new range of show development. Shows could be developed in public, with an audience, for far less money. Then, the ones that found an audience could receive more investment and grow. The ones that failed to find an audience could be shut down without a ton of lost expense.
That is how we developed Planet Money. It started off with just me. Then Alex Blumberg joined for one afternoon a week. Eventually, we added a couple other people. But only after we had a large and growing audience, did it become a fully-operational effort.
That insight came because of who I was — not a genius, but an experienced radio guy who had this one real frustration and saw a new way to do things.
I’d love to hear about your painstorming. What drives you nuts? What do you think is a problem that could be solved?