Visible Hope: A Portrait of Lisa Camilli

Keely Sawyer

Soft classic rock music plays overhead as you walk across the black and white plastic tiled floor. Wide display windows light up the potted plants and wooden chairs nestled together to form the front seating area where a checkerboard waits for players beneath a grayscale painting of a barbershop scene. Along the left wall are two antique barber chairs that face a wooden back-bar base topped by two large mirrors. This comfortable, nostalgic setting is Upper Level Hair Styling, located at 512 State St. And the slender 61-year-old woman with fire-engine-red nails and timeless hair is salon owner and cosmetologist Lisa Camilli. Her bright smile is what greets her many clients, new and old, in need of a trim, as well as the cancer patients who arrive for their free wig fitting and styling.

Camilli has worked in Ithaca for 42 years and has volunteered as an American Cancer Society Look Good…Feel Better associate for the past 20. Three of Camilli’s aunts have died of cancer, and many of her friends and former classmates have fought the disease. But the first time Camilli realized the role she could play in helping people fight with hope, was when one friend and client began preparing to lose her hair from chemotherapy treatments. In order to get properly fitted for a wig, the woman had to drive four hours to New York City. All the resources were available in Ithaca, but nobody provided the same service. “It bothered me,” Camilli said.

Even “back when she was shy” as she says, Camilli stood for her convictions. Fresh out of high school and during her first days at Pauldine’s Beauty School in Elmira, N.Y., classmates and instructors pressured Camilli with suggestions on how to change her appearance – specifically the long, gently waving natural blonde hair she so carefully tended. Indignant, Camilli announced: “I’m not cutting my hair for you…for you…for you…or for you. So do not ask me again.” The only person Camilli wanted to look like was herself.

Years later, Camilli saw this same desire in the woman who drove to New York City for a wig.

When people have cancer and are going through chemotherapy treatments, they often experience drastic physical changes. Skin can turn ashen in color and lose hydration. All hair, eyebrows included, may fall out. Sores might develop. Each patient’s body experiences chemotherapy differently, but the chemicals always take a visible toll. Look Good…Feel Better is a national public service program that helps women going through cancer by providing free makeup, free wigs and free professional instruction on how to use and wear both.

When Camilli heard about Look Good…Feel Better at a hair show, she immediately signed up. By the end of the day, she was a certified volunteer. Twenty years later, she receives at least one call a week concerning a wig fitting, and she travels every couple of months to lead a make-up tutorial. Women use the free kit they are given and the techniques Camilli teaches to locate where to draw their eyebrows and how to cover up sores, taking care to apply makeup with pencils or sponges so that the chemo chemicals in their fingers don’t touch their face.

Linda McBride, 65, a retired Ithaca College psychology professor, is a two-time pupil of Camilli’s (11 years apart) and was just fitted with a new wig this past June. Never one for extensive prepping, and preferring a low-maintenance approach to looking nice, McBride says, “I’m not a big wig enthusiast, but in a pinch…”

In regards to why she chooses to wear a wig, she explains: “I want to look as normal as possible. I don’t want to stand out and be different.”

When McBride arrived for her wig fitting appointment before she began chemotherapy, Camilli looked at her natural hair color, declared she had “just the thing,” and emerged from the back of her shop holding a hairpiece. By the end of the shaping, McBride was sporting a silver-haired, short-style wig that would stay on when she tilted her head back for her tennis serve.

Though the individual hairs of the wig are woven into mesh so the scalp can breathe, McBride laments the discomfort. She finds wigs hot, itchy, and far from ideal. “The color and style is correct, but it’s not me,” McBride says. “But it’s as close to me as it’s gonna get; Lisa is good that way.”

McBride first heard about Camilli’s services in the informational packet provided by the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes. Located one block down the road, at 612 West State St., the organization has been referring individuals to Camilli for years. As executive director Bob Riter says, “Other salons have wigs as a service, but Lisa has special expertise. We hear terrific feedback.”

Every Friday, for the last 40 years, Jackie Brooks has had her hair done by Lisa Camilli. “When you’re with a hair person…you talk,” Brooks says. “Lisa knows my story.” And Brooks knows about the volunteer work Camilli does for cancer patients. So when Brooks’s best friend, Melanie*, was diagnosed with cancer, she knew where to bring her. Together, Brooks and Melanie scheduled an appointment for a wig fitting, and later, Brooks drove them both to one of Camilli’s make-up courses. “Melanie had a lot of questions,” she says. “I’ve seen a side of Lisa you don’t see in the shop. She’s compassionate. She understands. She takes all the time in the world.”

And as an independent business owner, mother and grandmother, Motown Singer and wife, time is not easy to come by. Yet Camilli is committed to her volunteer work. Though she hopes more professionals will become associates, she plans to use her skills “for as long as they are needed.”

A poster supporting a young mother with advanced cancer is displayed in the salon’s front window. The lamp next to Camilli’s barber chair holds a photograph of a good friend Camilli lost to cancer two and a half months ago – this year’s reason for her annual attendance of the Cancer Resource Center’s Walkathon and 5K Run.

With a broad smile and misty eyes Camilli says: “I do it for the women I meet. When they get done…it’s the best. They look so beautiful. So normal. They look like they aren’t sick.”


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