Jean Baptiste Santens’s Gravity-Defying Wigs Are Suddenly Everywhere

Images courtesy of Jean Baptiste Santen. GIF by Ashley Peña

Maybe you’ve seen Paris-based Jean Baptiste Santens’s wigs without realizing it. A Damier check hair illusion worn by Gottmik during her entrance on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 9 has already gone viral before the season even aired. Or maybe it was the cover of Nicki Minaj’s latest album Pink Friday 2 or even works he’s done for Beyoncé and several others. The looks are often gravity-defying, awe-inspiring, architectural wonders created from his mind on a mannequin and then shipped off to on someone’s head. But if you ask him, wigs, which have been his focus of sorts for the last eight years, were never really the point.

“I don’t like to do the wigs,” Santens tells W over Zoom, laughing. It’s almost a whisper when he says it. This is the day after one of his latest creations, a full Cinderella princess fantasy worn by Katy Perry, was beamed into millions of homes on American Idol. “I like to use the wigs because I can express my art and I can perfect my craft. But I’m an artist. I love to create shapes and color and emotion. The wig — I don’t care.”

With a lifelong infatuation with hair, the occasional drag queen originally started in the world of high fashion: he’s worked with some of the greats like Guido Palau, assisting on everything from runway shows for Prada to campaigns like the 2017 images that were Bella Hadid’s debut for Dior Beauty. And then, with an unlikely boost from COVID he was afforded the blank slate that got him out of the fashion industry proper and provided time to focus on his own creative process. Starting anew, he first found clients in drag superstars like Naomi Smalls, and you’ll likely see more of his work on Gottmik and Plastique Tiara this season. Drag Race France fans have also seen his work on Cookie Cunty and host Nicky Doll. He’s quickly catching the attention of other celebrities as well.

“When you do fashion at this very high level, doing all the shows and everything it’s very tough,” he says of what amounted to about a decade of his life. “It’s very tough because you’re not the main character so people treat you like shit. Not my boss but everyone around like the producers. You’re just helping so people treat you like you’re nothing. It’s a very tough world. Even though fashion was my dream since I was about 12 years old, I realized it never was for me because I’m not built to endure all of these scenarios. I’m a strong bitch but there’s some things I just can’t do.”

Here, we talk to Santens about that trajectory from the fashion industry, through drag and into mainstream celebrities. And, he opens up about why with the season of All Stars rolling out, you’re about to see a lot more of his work.

Courtesy of Jean Baptiste Santens

How did you get into wigs? Did you start with hair more generally?

I started in hair about 20 years ago. I was very young; it’s like I never started, it’s been all my life. I would do the hair of my dolls. I did an apprenticeship in the countryside of France and then moved to Paris and started to work in the fashion industry. I was doing hair competitions, which is a big thing here. In 2008, I was on the French team at the OMC Hairworld World Championship and we won. We won again in 2010 when they had it in Paris.

That led me to working more in fashion and I realized on editorials and in other shoots you really don’t have time to do the hair. You have to use a wig because I felt like I was losing my creativity because I didn’t have time to do any prep. So I started to do wigs so I could have more options. Around that time I also started working on fashion shows assisting all the big names like Luigi Mureneu and Eugene Souleiman. I ended up on Guido’s team for eight or nine years.

Courtesy of Jean Baptiste Santens
Courtesy of Paramount Plus

That’s a long time.

I was one of his main assistants doing all of the fashion shows and some of the campaigns. I was also doing my own jobs in Paris fashion — they weren’t big but I was doing them in between. Then I started expressing myself with the wigs, really using Instagram as a tool just to showcase my creativity. At one point I felt quite stuck in the fashion world because as a hairstylist, hair is really an art form. Fashion is not really made for that because it’s about the clothes. So you have all of these ideas and creativity but in fashion everyone decides for you: the stylist, the photographer, everybody. So I was getting very frustrated and started expressing myself on the wig on mannequin heads and put them on my Instagram.

Courtesy of Jean Baptiste Santens
Eric McCandless/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty Images

Do you remember the first drag queen who got a wig from you?

Yes, the first one that actually bought was Naomi Smalls. She wore it on a Christmas tour. I was very green at the time. It was way before the pandemic, in 2016. And then Pearl was another. But my main goal was to work with Violet Chachki. I was obsessed with her. The first time I did a wig for her was when she did Werq the World in Paris, maybe the second time she came. It’s been almost ten years now.

But the main moment that felt like I gave her the right hair at the right moment was when I did the pretzel with the loops. It was sort of like a crown of black hair. She wore it the first time for the Werq the World North American tour in New York City and I was there for fashion week. I got to see the show with the new hair, never seen before and she was doing her martini glass number like Dita Von Teese. I will always remember that.

How did you transition out of fashion?

COVID hit. I have huge respect for Guido and what he did for me but the way the system of fashion works, it’s hard to start your own thing when you’re an assistant because you’re giving all your time to someone else. When COVID hit everything shut down. I had been booked for the whole year and everything was canceled so I was really on my own. I was stuck in my house and the only thing I had was to express myself on Instagram. The wigs took off from there. Since then, it’s been my main thing but I’m slowly getting back into hair shows, here in France.

Courtesy of Jean Baptiste Santens
Courtesy of Paramount Plus

Meanwhile you’re doing stuff like a wig for Beyonce. Seems like a nice trade.

That was really like the beauty of social media. One of her friends contacted me because they wanted to give her one of my wigs for Christmas. That piece took me 10 days. It was custom. She loved it so much that she used it in the Ivy Park campaign. It happened very quickly because I feel like the campaign came out in January. What was amazing is that even though it was in an Ivy Park campaign, they used the wig in a beauty shot with no clothes. It was just the hair. Really an amazing scenario.

I’ll always be a French designer who did a wig for Beyonce — that will always be a part of my legacy.

Courtesy of Ivy Park

Do you have a preference when it comes to style? You just did the Katy Perry “Cinderella” wig for American Idol but a lot of your other wigs are sort of sculptural and gravity-defying.

I will quote Karl Lagerfeld: he said if you start to not like something you are out of it. You always have to be open minded to anything or you become a has-been. I always keep that in mind. I can always find something interesting in everything. Obviously, you like the pieces that are going to maybe be more of a statement piece but it’s not always what you think. The piece I did for Plastique Tiara for the Drag Race All Stars season 7 promotion was a bigger wig and it took me 12 days. That was way longer than Gottmik with the checkerboard but people are obsessed with Gottmik’s.

It’s the hairline!

I know … I know, it’s the hairline. And I have to thank my clients because they push me to be better. They will tell me “No, we want the HD lace.” So then I have to get those skills and it turns out like that. That’s the joy of that. Gottmik is like my muse, she loves everything I do — at least that’s what she says and she does always end up wearing my hair. I’ve done so much stuff for her that people haven’t seen yet or I can’t talk about. She’s almost not going out without my hair.

Courtesy of Jean Baptiste Santens
Courtesy of Paramount Plus

Do people come to you for specific styles generally? The ones you did for Beyonce and Nicki Minaj and even the one you did for Shea Coulee and Violet all have that sort of circle or pretzel effect.

I would say it depends. With Gottmik, since I’m working with her full time it really depends on what she has to do. But for people who aren’t my clients, they kind of come to me for big occasions.

That’s interesting because in the fashion aspect of drag, for a long time people would do that with Diego Montoya. Like Shangela wore him to the Oscars. But people would really go to him for the big, impactful pieces partially because of his aesthetic but also partially because of the price.

That’s also kind of the thing with me. I’m a certain price as well and if you just want an easy-glam, Pamela Anderson 90s wig, then you probably want to get that somewhere else. I like to have the budget and just go crazy. That’s what I really want. Even money doesn’t really buy my time anymore. If you want a Pamela Anderson wig and I’m not really feeling that at the moment, and you’re not one of my clients and it’s not a big occasion I’m kind of like …

Life is short and I want to use every occasion to do hair to actually do something. I’ve been doing this for 20 years so I’m a bit tired of it. So I like to do hair for a reason or for someone I really love. And it’s a bit sad because people take it personal but it’s not personal — it’s really about me and my passions.