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Madame pompadour

A new exhibition traces the work of Antoñita, the legendary hairdresser and wigmaker for Spanish theater and cinema

For more than 60 years she has bewigged many of Hollywood's biggest bigwigs, from Ava Gardner to Charlton Heston, not to mention combed and teased the bouffants of some of Spain's best-known stage and screen stars; and at 85, Antoñita, as she's universally known, is showing no signs of receding.

A timely exhibition at Madrid's Teatro Español traces the life and times of Antoñita, who began her career at the age of 14. With her husband, Julipi, she soon established a reputation for creating lifelike wigs and teasing the best performances out of her clients' hair, making her a legend at home and abroad.

The bright lights of an international career beckoned on more than one occasion. After filming Doctor Zhivago in Spain in the mid-1960s, British actor Sir Alec Guinness begged her to move to Hollywood. "He made a very generous offer, pretty much allowing us to lay down our terms and conditions, but we didn't want to go to Hollywood," she says. That plural is not so much majestic, as a reference to her now-deceased husband.

"I owe everything to Julipi. I am a simple woman who likes to work and to keep active," she said in an interview earlier this year. "I love to work; it's what keeps me alive."

Once word got out about the talents of Antoñita and her husband, just about every major international production filmed in Spain in the 1950s and 1960s hired their services. As a result, she's worked with Ava Gardner, Omar Sharif, Melina Mercouri, Sophia Loren, Peter Ustinov, Rita Hayworth, Charlton Heston, and David Niven - the latter was so impressed by her ability to work wonders with his thinning thatch that he would travel to Madrid several times a year to have her cut and style his hair.

"We worked on all the films that Samuel Bronston made in Spain: El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire, 55 Days at Peking," she remembers. "And Melina Mercouri, although she looked like she was all alone in the world, was an enchanting woman, while Ava Gardner was not a very nice person. Sophia Loren was marvelous, Rita Hayworth a proper lady, and I really liked Peter Ustinov."

Closer to home, singer and actor Manolo Escobar, justly famed for his gravity-defying pompadours back in the 1960s and 1970s, has continued to hire her services many years after making his last movie. His long-standing co-star in so many of those musicals, Concha Velasco, says she owes Antoñita her career. "She was always very attentive, and she helped me so much in my early days," said the actress earlier this year.

The exhibition at the Teatro Español, where Antoñita has been head of makeup for the last 31 years, closes a year in which Spain's theater and cinema industry has paid homage to her: a few months ago she was awarded a lifetime achievement prize by the Spanish Academy of the Cinematic Arts and Sciences.

As well as featuring videos and photographs of the artist at work, along with wigs and other ephemera from the countless films she has worked on over the years - such as 55 Days at Peking, Tristana, El Cid, King of Kings, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Topkapi, and Doctor Zhivago - the exhibition also includes a mock-up of a 1940s makeup and hairdressing room of the kind Antoñita would have worked in when she began her career, complete with period paraphernalia (notably a pair of curling tongs) that wouldn't look out of place in a Spanish Inquisition torture chamber.

A detailed catalogue has been specially produced for the exhibition that includes a glossary of hairdressing and makeup terms and words, all accompanied by photographs and diagrams that will in all likelihood be strange to many native Spanish speakers. A pouf, it turns out, is a type of hairdo popularized by Marie Antoinette, while a gabelo is the term used in the biz for false eyebrows.

After taking in the exhibition, perhaps the best way to really appreciate Antoñita's talents is to savor the fruit of her labors in Beaumarchais, the Teatro Español's current production of Sacha Guitry's play about the life and times of the 18th century bon vivant, adapted and directed by Josep Maria Flotats. The cast of more than 30 actors play some 50 different characters, the majority of them decked out in period wigs.

Finally, between January 25 and 28, Antoñita and her team will be giving a workshop at the Teatro Español for students of theatrical and cinematic hairdressing.

Al teatro por los pelos. Until February 20 at Teatro Español, C/ Príncipe 25, Madrid. Tues-Sat 11am-7pm; Sun 11am-5pm.

See www.teatroespanol.es for more information.

* Este artículo apareció en la edición impresa del Lunes, 3 de enero de 2011