In January 1989, at the age of 25, Lisa Kaplan-Melnick was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Soon after she started chemotherapy she suffered from nausea, mood changes, and swelling. Within three weeks her hair fell out, and she found herself having to shop for something she never thought she’d need. “When I was buying a wig, I had no idea how to clean it or take care of it,” she says. “I sprayed it with perfume right after I bought it, and it ended up smelling like sweat, hairspray, and perfume the whole time I had it.”

Shopping was an often difficult and demoralizing experience. “When I was sick I had to go to different stores for different things,” she says. “Shopping for wigs, I ended up in the back for privacy, which tended to be dark and ugly. It was also difficult to find things like a hat that comes down low enough to cover the nape of the neck and the sides of the head.”

She decided that if she got well, she would open a store for others facing the same problems. In February, 1995, a week after her oncologist verified that she’d been cancer-free for five years, she started developing her idea. Last July she opened Magic & Vanity–named after the two dogs she rewarded herself with after undergoing 21 chemotherapy treatments. Designed to meet the needs of female cancer patients and survivors, it’s stocked with turbans, hats, scarves, clothes, wigs, makeup, and breast prostheses.

Melnick, now 32, has drawn from her background as a physician’s assistant to create a comfortable environment. To ensure privacy clients can make an appointment to visit the store. And while all fitting rooms are equipped with a large mirror, they also contain a robe hanging from a hook; Melnick says the dressing-room mirror is often the first place a woman sees herself naked after undergoing a mastectomy, and the effect can be traumatic. “But it’s OK to cry if you’re miserable,” she says. “We understand that here.”

The rooms also have pillow-covered benches for resting. “During treatment I had days when I was so weak I would set an alarm and take a shower,” she says. “Then I would crawl back into bed for a while. Then I’d sit on the floor to put on my makeup. I’d go back to bed for 10 or 15 minutes, and then I would go out.”

The back of the store is dominated by a wall of cosmetics and a large makeup mirror; Melnick teaches clients how to camouflage scars and discoloration from radiation treatments. She also explains how to care for the wigs she sells. “The store isn’t just about selling products, it’s about education,” she says.

Melnick recently helped a 60-year-old woman who’d had a double mastectomy. “She put on a breast form and a shirt, and her whole demeanor changed when she came out and saw herself in the mirror. It was like she came alive. Sometimes just putting on a little makeup–drawing on eyebrows–can create a whole attitude change. That’s what makes it worth it.”

Magic & Vanity, 447 N. Wells, will hold an open house 10 to 5 this Saturday and 11 to 5 on Sunday. For regular store hours, call 595-9660.

–Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Lisa Kaplan-Melnick, by Nathan Mandell.