Fifteen Minutes 15 Minutes with Exodus, Wig-Maker to the Drag Queen Stars
“Exodus is a large mass moving of people. My slogan is ‘Hair that moves you!’ which I think is cute.”
Yes, it’s true: Exodus is a wig stacker.
“Sometimes, I use more than one wig,” she says in an Instagram video. She sighs and the dark brunette curls surrounding her pale face bounce and bob beyond the frame of the screen, teased and set at least a foot out in each direction. “I use two wigs…” she continues, “ three wigs… four wigs…”
Then Exodus spins around, exclaiming, “Or even fiiiiive!” She reveals the entire massif of hair on her head, stacked high indeed into one seamless and cartoonishly exaggerated hairdo. It’s a paragon of her signature style, and of the wares at her company Wigs by Exodus.
“How is she though?” Exodus asks, referring to the extra-large half-up and curled wig(s). She admires herself for a moment—feeling her fantasy, as the parlance goes—and squeals, “Ooh!”
Wigs by Exodus—and, of course Exodus herself—is responsible for wigs worn by drag queens across the world. It’s fitting, since the designer’s tools and materials arrive boxed up from a hodgepodge of countries at the front door of her home-office-slash-headquarters in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The custom-ordered creations are shipped from the South to decorate drag communities all over the country, and even RuPaul’s Drag Race stars like Alaska and Dusty Ray Bottoms . But of course, they stay in the family too. Wigs by Exodus has been in business for almost two years and Exodus continues to make wigs for queens in Tuscaloosa, including her drag mother Genesis.
The venture blossomed from Exodus’s favorite part of drag. “When you put the wig on, that’s when you’re a woman, you know?” she says. “You’re in drag.” Exodus is an old, powerful name, suitable for wigs that should be “intentional,” the wigmaker says. She’s also intentional about steering clear of comments that could be deemed sacrilege.
“Exodus is a large mass moving of people. It’s a mass movement,” she explains. “I was interested in using it because I was like, ‘I wanna move people with my hair.’ My slogan is ‘Hair that moves you!’ which I think is cute.”
‘Wigs by Exodus’ also felt more memorable than ‘Wigs by George,’ of course. “I think Exodus is a she, and George is a he, but they’re both part of the same person,” I’m told, when clarifying pronouns again near the end of our interview. As far as the business goes, Exodus creates the synthetic marvels. George follows up by mailing the wigs and managing other logistics.
George Berry, 24, and I both attended the University of Alabama. We met shortly before Exodus began a drag performance career at the local gay bar. When I wrote a profile of Exodus back in college for a class I was taking, Exodus’s and George’s identities had less overlap, and now I noted the change. This takes us back to kindergarten. “Little tiny gender things are what bother our society, because they aren’t necessary,” George says. “Do you really need to put boys and girls in different lines to walk to lunch? No, you don’t.”
“Exodus is a large mass moving of people. My slogan is ‘Hair that moves you!’ which I think is cute.”
“Those little things, that’s what I think Exodus comes from,” George says. Now, Exodus’s personality and purpose are clear to him: “my creative spirit,” “my confidence,” and “my expression” are mini-definitions he supplies, discovered after years of styling the hair on the heads of Barbie dolls and high school friends going to homecoming or prom.
At a small high school, “Of course people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, what are you doing,’ but they thought I was like a—I was famous. I was famous at a tiny school,” George says. After coming out in his senior year of high school, “I started turning into what I would say Exodus became. Which is someone who isn’t everyday,” but a special kind of person, who always carried a purse. “I loved my bags, and that’s kind of where Exodus came from. The handbags. The handbags just made me feel super fabulous,” George says. “And that’s what a wig can do for someone.”
Even now, Exodus has put her drag performance career on hold while she keeps up the business—a for real one, these days—of making people pretty.
I visited the Wigs by Exodus headquarters one afternoon in September and, within the first sixty seconds, both George and Exodus rattled off impressive amounts of technical information about wigs and the art of their engineering.
(Did you know the average head circumference is between twenty-two and twenty-four inches and is calculated for wigs by draping a measuring tape around the diagonally curved path toward the nape of your neck that an Adidas sports band would take? The largest wig Wigs by Exodus has made is twenty-five inches, by the way.)
Of all the places where an up-and-coming wigmaker might set up shop, Alabama would not be your first bet. George agrees it’s unorthodox, but “I enjoy doing wigs in Tuscaloosa.” He has every reason to. Consider, for example, Dolly Parton, who, George notes, has been wearing a wig for decades. (“Her head is so tiny! I bet it’s like a twenty-one,” was the consensus after watching the seventy-two-year-old performer offer a wig to Jimmy Fallon. ) A healthy helping of Southern pageantry means beauty stores are more prolific in Alabama than in suburban and rural areas elsewhere in the country. Southern women love to look good.
George’s father’s mother, Nana, lived in rural Alabama, in a house with a separate room for a collection of three hundred Barbies. As a kid, George was allowed to do the hair of the “throwaway” Barbies. But like everyone else, he could only look at (or dust) the boxed items from the collection he has since inherited. “They had hair that’s bigger than what humans have, and so I loved the proportion of the hair to the Barbie,” he says, remembering the desire then to make hair like Barbie’s. “Barbies aren’t real people-sized, and I liked how fake, I guess, it was. It was just comfortable to me, and excited me.”
After graduating college, George bopped around the country, dancing with a few different ballet companies, selling the Wigs by Exodus creations on the side. This past spring, he made the official move to Tuscaloosa. Living some place like New York City would provide easier access to quality wigs and rhinestones on demand, but the Alabama home gives him more space to create, and that feels more sustainable, he says. Plus, George says he and his boyfriend have found a sense of camaraderie living in Tuscaloosa. They more often meet people who dismantle the conceptions of Southerners as prejudiced and unaccepting, rather than those who fit the stereotype. For all the hairspraying Exodus does outdoors, rubbernecking neighbors have only come close to driving into a mailbox once.
George operates Wigs by Exodus on a part-time scale and fills in the rest of his schedule with more local dance jobs. When he’s not in the dance studio, George works from home in a wig studio, as it were. The home office receives great natural light from a pair of windows along the far wall. But a canvas pouch attached to one of the windows reveals the most important reason for a separate wig-making room: The California Home Goods Air Purifying Bag is there because hairspray is, too.
“On each wig I do, I average half a can,” Exodus says, spritzing a teased portion of the platinum blonde wig she’s been working on. She explains that the alcohol-based sprays she uses on the wigs (Aussie Instant Freeze Hairspray and got2b Glued Blasting Freeze Spray) are not ideal for daily use on human hair, but are perfect for the synthetic hair used in the wigs. Since the majority of Wigs by Exodus creations are shipped across state lines, the style has to be extra secure.
Once Exodus finishes a wig, George is the one who sees a crown through to its new queen. He attaches Styrofoam wig heads in the bottom of the shipping box, then in goes the client’s wig, protected by several hair nets and clips. Like a cherry on top, George adds a card bearing the pink and blue Wigs by Exodus logo. The message inside asks the customers to share photos of them wearing the new wig, which they often do by tagging the Wigs by Exodus account on Instagram. Once though, a client mailed back a T-shirt: a photo printed on the front showcases the drag queen wearing her new hairy confection, pink as cotton candy.
Photograph courtesy of Exodus and George Berry
George grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta—by no means a small town, but he went to a small school. He remembers wanting to be a someone else that was more like everyone else. “I don’t even think the word ‘gay’ came into my vocabulary until seventh grade,” George says. “Like people started calling me ‘gay’ in third grade, but I didn’t really understand what that meant until seventh grade, when obviously you’re explained to, ‘There are gay people in the world.’”
Tuscaloosa, just west of the state’s center, is almost directly north of Mobile, where this summer, a local library held a Drag Queen Story Hour. It was met with opposition, AL.com reported , who said the reading was “part of a ‘national agenda and a national plan to indoctrinate children.’” Some of these opponents—which, throughout the debacle, included representatives from Baptist churches and supporters of the conservative Common Sense Campaign tea party—protested outside the event, where drag queens read books to kids.
But the event’s supporters—mostly representatives of the local LGBTQ+ community—showed up in greater numbers with rainbow flags, signs, and “free hugs” T-shirts. They successfully drowned out the event’s opponents. The event made history fairly smoothly . (In Lafayette, Louisiana, though, two religious organizations filed a federal lawsuit in hopes of halting a similar event, which has since been postponed indefinitely.)
George didn’t know any of the drag queens at the story hour in Mobile, but before I could finish the next question, he replied, “I would have done that for sure, yeah. It would have been super fun.”
Would something like it have made things different for him as a kid?
“Yeah, it definitely would’ve,” George says. “That’s one thing I’ve, like, thought about, like things—if ‘gay’ would’ve just been normal growing up, I would’ve been such a different person.” Then he adds, not missing a beat, “But also exactly the same, you know?”
In kindergarten, George renamed himself to Fred, after a character he portrayed in a play. In second grade, he tried out the name Michael, namesake of the coolest boy in class and, of course, Michael Jackson. “I didn’t really know him, but I liked the idea of Michael Jackson,” George says.
That’s the whole point of the “plus” in the LGBTQ+ acronym, George says. It tries to find a word that fits you. “Call yourself whatever you want. But, at the end of the day, just find yourself a name. Just be George, just be Laura.” He offers the lyrics to “Raise You Up / Just Be” from Broadway musical Kinky Boots . “Just be / Who you wanna be,” he sings. The rest of that verse says: “Never let them tell you who you oughta be / Just be / With dignity / Celebrate your life triumphantly.”
The Michael era came to an end when his teacher stopped grading the tests with his new name, as a punishment, he remembers. Nana also wouldn’t call him Michael.
“Now, I’m George. It took that—Rocky, stop, please.” Rocky, a senior Miniature Pinscher with some eyesight problems, lets out another yap to remind George just how tough it is to be teensy and furry and blind. Rocky and Lucy, his younger, more energetic terrier-mix companion, often sit in the Wigs by Exodus room while the television is on and wigs are constructed.
“It took a little while, but I’m here. And I’m happy,” says George. His own hair as George even resembles the Wigs by Exodus synthetic creations—dark brown with cascading curls. “I like my hair how it is,” he says. “It’s longer, it’s different, it’s fun.”
Photograph by Laura Testino for Catapult