Wigmaker and health advocate touches lives through hair

Community activist Laura-Aurora Stopa is passionate about people and hair, but not in the way you might expect.

The Northern Kentucky resident has spent the duration of her career as a fierce catalyst for a stronger regional community while, on the side, advocating for women who struggle with medical hair loss through her mobile wig shop, L-A’s Wig Out.

Living with alopecia

Laura-Aurora Stopa — who prefers the nickname L-A — suffers from the condition alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks hair proteins and, although not a deadly condition, leads to baldness.

Born with a bald spot, Stopa eventually grew a full head of hair. So she wasn’t sure there was a problem until she started losing patches of hair in her twenties. Stopa’s early years with alopecia were hard, as they would be for any young woman. But the diagnosis didn’t crush her, and she grew into a confident woman, hair or no hair.

Stopa only recently entered the wig business, but she’s loved wigs since the beginning. Like a pair of eyeglasses or shoes, she enjoyed matching her wig to her outfit.

“I actually kind of turned wigs into a fashion statement. My signature thing was that I’d always wear a different wig and sometimes they were really crazy,” she says.

Stopa’s alopecia and the resulting hair-loss, matched with her loves of wigs, have impacted her career in unexpected ways.

After college, in the ’90s, Stopa and her husband lived in Ann Arbor, Mich., and then Kansas City. During that time, she worked as a sports massage therapist and grew more confident and comfortable in an environment where she was accepted with or without her wigs. But when she moved to Northern Kentucky in 2006, the climate was different. She entered a culture and work environment that demanded a more consistent, professional appearance.

“All of the sudden I felt a little insecure,” she remembers, “because it wasn’t OK for me to go without my wig and I didn’t feel comfortable being who I was – the alopecian who switches her wigs every day.”

Stopa signed on to become a local support rep with National Alopecia Areata Foundation (NAAF), leading support groups and becoming a telephone contact for people looking for support. She participated in training and even attended a national conference, where she sat in on focus groups about alopecia in the workplace and how it affects professional women.

“There’s never a specific policy about wigs, about whether you can wear hair at work, but there is a stigma if a woman is bald by choice, especially in a position where she is public facing,” Stopa says. “It is estimated that 2 to 5 percent of the population has alopecia, so that’s a lot of people. What do all these women do as they’re getting comfortable with the idea that they are no longer the woman that they remember and they don’t have hair? It’s very hard. That’s why I think it’s important to have support.”

Finding support in an unlikely place

Being a bald woman in the workplace was sometimes difficult, but it didn’t stop Stopa from building a fulfilling professional career. She spent her first few years in Northern Kentucky working in publishing.

In 2013, she took a position as the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce's Director of Membership, which was a perfect fit for someone with such a dynamic, outgoing personality. She was responsible for managing relationships with and connecting services to Northern Kentucky business owners, and for much of her tenure there many of the members and some coworkers never even knew she was wearing a wig.

She remembers a time, early on at the Chamber of Commerce, when she had a little bit of hair that she wore in a short, bleached fauxhawk. That alone was a stretch in a work environment that values a professional appearance.

But her alopecia flared up and, with so little hair to spare, she was preparing to shave her head over the weekend. It was going to be obvious, she warned her boss, when she showed up wearing a wig the next Monday morning. She didn’t want it to cause any problems.

In the end, the support she found from her coworkers was a pleasant surprise. When she left her position to launch L-A’s Wig-Out, they threw her a surprise party where guests all dressed in flamboyant wigs.

“It was really nice because the business community and my coworkers in this really conservative environment were working with me and were willing to laugh with me and acknowledge what I was doing and why it was important,” she remembers. “For someone who’s starting a wig business, that was a great send off.”

Wig out with L-A

Stopa started her business in March 2015, but it’s not your average wig shop. Wig-Out is a mobile hair loss support and wig service, which means that, for a nominal consultation fee, Stopa pays a personal visit to her customers.

She educates them about wigs, about how they’re made and how to navigate the available options. She sells wigs to those interested. And she gives pro tips about how to care for and wear them. The goal is for the women to feel “fabulous” with or without hair.

Stopa’s Wig-Out customers are all different. Some are comfortable with their hair loss, but many are self-conscious. Some want their consultation done in private; some invite friends and family to join the fun.

Regardless, she caters her treatment to their needs and their desires. And she always shows up to their house without her wig. During the consultation, she is always the first to show her bald head and the first to try on a wig.

She wants these women to know that they aren’t alone.

“I want it to be completely equal ground,” she says.

In the year since Wig-Out was officially incorporated, Stopa has provided her consultation and wig services to about 75 women in the area. She continues to serve as a NAAF Regional Support Group Leader, as well, volunteering to provide support in other ways.

The most fulfilling part of her NAAF role, she says, is the help she provides for girls and young women facing hair loss.

It doesn’t take more than a quick meeting to know that Stopa is confident with her identity and with her Alopecia. When she meets a young girl struggling to find that same confidence, the attitude is infectious. She is the kind of woman any girl would want on her side, and she’s happy to serve in that role.

Stopa is cultivating a life of service other other ways, too. She sits on the Board for the DCCH Center for Children and Families, while she and her husband are faithful supporters of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. And a few years back she began donating gently used wigs and providing consultation services to the NKY nonprofit Be Concerned, which serves women in need.

Stopa’s future is focused on investing in others and in her business. To supplement the income from Wig-Out and to continue to serve the community, she recently took a position working with Brighton Center’s Center for Employment Training, where she had previously volunteered.

She’s focusing the next season of her life on finding balance between her commitment to service and her business savvy so that her community is stronger, her customers walk away happy, and her business succeeds.
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