It all started in 1993, when one of Betty Alberty’s friends who had breast cancer asked her to come along while she shopped for a wig.
“We looked all over Charlotte,” Alberty said. No luck.
Then she found Bella-Donna’s, a Cornelius wig boutique. The owner was moving to Wilmington and had planned to close the shop.
Alberty bought the shop, the equipment and the furniture. She then dropped the hyphen from the name.
Now the wig boutique, located at 19900 W. Catawba Ave., caters to women suffering from hair loss, be it from chemotherapy or alopecia.
Mooresville resident Alberty, 71, says she’s more impassioned by the mission than the entrepreneurship aspect of the business, which is why most customers don’t even know she’s the owner. To them, she’s just “Betty.”
The wigs at BellaDonna’s range in cost from $200 to $450. Store manager Krystle Curling, 32, says they serve about 20 chemotherapy patients a week, all of whom get a 20 percent discount on a full-priced wig, or a buy-one-get-one-free deal on two.
A peaceful environment: It’s tough for many cancer patients to find the courage to even go wig shopping, Curling said, which is why at BellaDonna’s they work to create a peaceful, soothing environment.
The walls are light green. The cabinets are white and peach. And the 700-square-foot shop, which also sells headscarves, hats and turbans, even has a private fitting room.
“Certain women … don’t feel comfortable right out there in the open with everybody,” Curling said. “I’ve had some clients I’ve worked with 10 years, and I’ve never seen their (bare) head.”
Curling says she could spend up to two hours with the same customer, trying to make sure she finds a wig (a mix of real hair and fiber-blend options in more than 100 shades) that fits the customer’s scalp and personality.
“I have ones who say, ‘I want to look exactly like I do now,’” Curling says. “And I have other women who say, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to have fun with this. I want a different color, a different style.’”
Getting exposure: To raise awareness, BellaDonna’s runs newspaper ads and maintains a Facebook page. But most of the referrals come from the store’s outreach to doctors, from oncologists and radiologists to plastic surgeons – “anywhere I know these ladies would be at any given time,” Curling says.
Curling says she sends the light pink brochures (a nod to the breast cancer awareness color) en masse, about 50 to each doctor per month. It’s common for them to be snatched up within days, she says. She’s even gotten the pamphlets placed in the chemotherapy packages doctors give to patients.
Curling says she’s accustomed to getting calls from nurses that start with, “You did it again!”
“What do you mean?” Curling asks.
Well, the nurses will say, there was a patient sitting in a room and the doctor walked in, freaking out because the wig looked so natural that it appeared as though the chemo wasn’t working.
“Then,” Curling says, “The doctor will say, ‘Did you get that wig from BellaDonna’s?’”
The heart of the matter: Surprisingly, the handful of BellaDonna’s employees all work on a volunteer basis. It’s the clients and the touching stories that make the job so gratifying, Curling says. She alone has worked with about 6,000 customers since she started a decade ago.
On many an occasion, Curling has been a shoulder to cry on for parents grappling with their cancer, and an encouragement to children doing the same.
She remembers one 5-year-old girl, a leukemia patient, who came to the shop with her father and after finding the perfect wig, started “strutting her stuff” in front of the mirror.
Another time, someone came in to buy a wig for a friend. The cancer patient was a schoolteacher, and her colleagues – knowing that she couldn’t afford a quality wig and that insurance wouldn’t cover it – pooled their money to buy it for her.
And when people just need a pick-me-up or a reason to smile, Curling reminds them of the silver lining in losing your hair:
“I tell them, ‘During this time, you don’t have to shave (your legs). You can just go swimming any time you want,’” Curling says, laughing. “Then they’ll say, ‘Oh yes, I can!’”
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