ROSWELL, Ga. — Each winter, potbellied men with straggly beards and frazzled hair come by the hundreds to Joyce Beisel's suburban salon to surrender themselves to Santa's Stylist.
They brave painful dye jobs and daylong appointments, volunteering to give up middle-aged looks in favor of an octogenarian 'do. Beards and eyebrows are bleached. Toners are combed through. Hair is trimmed, fluffed and curled. And within hours, the wannabe St. Nicks leave Beisel's Hair Appeal as full-blown Santas.
Beisel got her start in the business 30 years ago when she volunteered to pamper a mall Santa in exchange for some free advertising. By Christmas, the lines stretched through the mall, and word of her secret concoction that turns the darkest of beards a snowy white spread through Santa circles.
Now she expects as many as 300 Santas to visit her Hair Appeal salon this winter - about 90 percent of her seasonal business - from as far afield as Canada, New Mexico and New England.
They transform her salon into a veritable North Pole, swapping stories about stubborn kids and their own disastrous hair experiments.
Bill Fowler, a 57-year-old who volunteers at churches across northeast Georgia, was horrified when his hair turned yellow with red streaks.
"The young kids thought it was a really cool," he deadpans. "I thought that wasn't a good sign."
Same thing happened to Dana Craven, a 57-year-old maintenance worker who plays Santa at an Alabama mall. Even trained stylists weren't able to help him, leaving his beard brittle and thin by Christmas.
"It's serious stuff," says Craven, who turned to Beisel three years ago and hasn't looked back. "And if you're going to play the part, you've got to look the part."
The process is serious, too. It involves bleaching, toning, cutting and a lot of sitting. It takes an average of four hours - but the ordeal can last as long as two days.
It's not cheap - the first treatment costs $225 and touchups cost $165 - and it's not for the faint of heart.
Bill Fowler's a gritty trucker who says he was once an outlaw biker before dedicating his life to Christ in 1983. But for all his motorcycle machismo, he dreads his trips to the salon.
"You can actually feel the blisters," Fowler sighs.
"Yeah," Craven adds. "It's like getting burned and then getting burned again."
Beisel hushes the two. "It's like childbirth," she says. "You'll forget when you see how pretty the result is."
After Beisel's through with them, the transformed men head out to the malls, country clubs, hospitals, churches and everywhere else where children line up to ask Santa to grant their holiday wishes.
But before they go, they get their own parting gift: A regimen of vitamins, shampoos, conditioners and hair care advice to keep their locks bushy.
"When you've got more hair products than your wife," Beisel quips, "you know you're a true Santa."