Wigs, Wishes & Wonderment
……….With barely more than a day remaining before his non-profit organization’s highly anticipated gala last month, I contacted Wigs & Wishes founder and CEO Martino Cartier, making what I would later learn was probably a steep request – asking him to stop what he was doing for a moment.
……….Cartier doesn’t appear to pause often, or for very long. He is a dynamic presence whose righteous restlessness has rapidly grown Wigs & Wishes into one of the most respected and innovative charitable organizations of the past decade. Assisting women and children who are burdened with cancer, along with their families, is clearly the primary concern of Cartier’s life.
……….He does this by providing wigs, necessities, experiences and possessions to those affected by the disease, and the bold and creative compassion that Cartier employs while doing so has become his organization’s trademark.
When Wigs & Wishes – a non-profit that primarily, but certainly not entirely, provides high end wigs to women and children who lose their hair while battling cancer – convened for its 7th anniversary celebration, it enlisted it’s fair share of star power. This included co-host Paula Abdul, musical guests Taylor Dayne and JJ Weeks, and surprise appearances by actors Gaten Matarazzo of Stranger Things (who plays Dustin) and Emily Bergl of Showtime’s Shameless.
However, the focus of this evening proved to be the beneficiaries of the charity and their families, courtesy of the charitable whirlwind who ensured that it would be that way, Wigs & Wishes founder and CEO, Martino Cartier.
Lucien’s Manor, set 20 miles outside of Philadelphia in Berlin, NJ, proved to be a venue large and elegant enough for Cartier’s ambitions, an appropriate backdrop for this high energy gathering of nearly 1,000 people. Everything about the night was big, from the value of the jewelry for auction, to the swag bags assembled and personally signed by women who were rescued from a sex slave ring, to the length of the cocktail “hour” that clocked in at nearly three. Even the volunteer workforce for the event was large, numbering more than 120 strong.
From the start, activity was inescapable. During the cocktail reception there were not one but two rooms full of countless valuables set for raffle or silent auction, including the aforementioned jewelry, vacation packages, framed memorabilia, deluxe household items, and original artwork, some of which was created by Cartier himself.
Across the hall, in a space large enough to host a more modest event all on it’s own, live bands played on an elevated stage while guests took turns slipping behind a velvet rope and having their picture taken against a media wall, red carpet style. A few feet away, renowned Marvel comics illustrator John Stanisci displayed several of his original work and prints for sale, while the former Miss America and Miss New Jersey respectively, the statuesque Ericka Dunlap and Chenoa Greene, happily chatted with guests and posed for pictures.
All the while, Cartier moved briskly from room to room, greeting dozens if not hundreds of guests with hugs and kisses and a shared familiarity that could inform one of the reasons why his organization has come so far, so quick. Despite the impressive size and sizzle of his party, it was it’s intimacy that was most noticeable.
Guests would eventually settle into their seats around elegantly arranged tables in a stunningly decorated main room, complete with a full scale performance stage and video screen. This was no banquet, this was a show, and that was made clear when it kicked off with singer Taylor Dayne – she of the ten career Top 40 hits – appearing in a spotlight at the top of the ballroom’s staircase. Belting out the opening lines of her smash version of Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love”, she descended the stairs and moved briskly about the floor, weaving in and out of the seated guests. Dayne was in great voice and brought instant energy to the proceedings, receiving a strong reception.
In short order however, she proved not to be the biggest star to make their way down those stairs. That honor would belong to Michelle, a 33 year old mother of two who had discovered she had cancer in June, and has lost her hair since. Cartier designated her the ‘Queen of the Night’, and gently escorted her down to the stage, arm in arm. He introduced Lee and her story to the audience, produced a gorgeous handmade wig, and began to apply it with great fanfare, accompanied by dramatic music and stage smoke.
Watching Cartier install and style the wig with such command was a sharp reminder of his other existence – that of a prominent stylist and salon owner with a popular hair care product line bearing his name. He is also a favored guest on the home shopping television circuit, and both of his occupational skills – the craft and communication – serve Wigs & Wishes greatly. As he applied the wig to Lee, the audience was captivated. She looked radiant in it, and would prove to be a highly sought out and photographed Queen throughout the night.
Anthony Cole, a top stylist for Sebastian, then made his way to the stage. Cole’s salon has joined in Cartier’s campaign to provide free wigs to women undergoing chemotherapy, and to date, Wigs & Wishes have provided more than 170,000 of them. Cole’s best friend Diana was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic, liver and lung cancer, and was his guest this evening. Her wig was expertly applied by her friend onstage, through appreciative tears.
It was shortly thereafter that the evening’s co-host was introduced. Paula Abdul was running a bit late, having just arrived on a flight from Las Vegas where she had performed a concert and hosted a meet and greet the evening before. The famed pop star / choreographer / television personality settled in and joined Cartier on stage where they enjoyed great chemistry with each other and with the honorees they were recognizing on stage, especially the children.
Abdul should be commended for several things, outside of simply the sleep deprived trip she made in order to attend. She was extremely generous with her time for all attendees who wanted to share a word or two (or three) with her at the conclusion of the night, and she did so with an uncommon intimacy – giving hugs, reaching out for people’s hands and offering other expressions of genuine warmth to a room full of mostly strangers. Towards the end of the night, she spontaneously offered a generous package for four people to see a show during her much celebrated Las Vegas residency, along with being able to meet her and dance with her onstage. It garnered $5,000 in an impromptu auction. On the subject of money, Abdul has never accepted a penny from Wigs & Wishes in her multi year involvement with them.
Having an immensely likable star onstage alongside a charismatic host gave the proceedings a televised awards show feel, and indeed it was. The show was live streamed via a multi-camera broadcast, and several exceptionally produced videos about Wigs & Wishes and it’s beneficiaries played on the big screen between on-stage appearances.
One of those beneficiaries was Stefanie, a young girl diagnosed with a rare form of childhood kidney cancer. She had previously come to Cartier for a wig because she was embarrassed and afraid to attend school without any hair, and Wigs & Wishes provided her with one that she, her family and everyone on hand seems to love.
On this night, she was instructed to look at the large video board behind her, where her favorite YouTube star, Darius Dobre, provided her with a message of encouragement. Stefanie seemed delighted, but that was merely a warm-up. She was asked to select any balloon out of an inflated bunch, and pop it, to reveal a prize. Her prize? A trip to Disneyland, albeit with one major string attached – Abdul and Cartier would be going with her!
We also met Lily, a 16 year old girl diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Having already lost a leg to the disease, she recently elected to stop further treatment because the side effects were too difficult for her to bear. A big fan of the Jonas Brothers, Lily found herself on the receiving end of an unfathomable surprise earlier this year, when the brothers visited her in her room at a Hershey, Pennsylvania hospital after her illness prevented her from attending their show in person.
On this evening, Wigs & Wishes also had some unexpected gifts for her. The teen loves the television show ‘Shameless’ and when Cartier asked her to look at the video screen, she saw the the stars of the Showtime hit wish her well, one by one. Emily Bergl, who played Sammi Slott on the show, was missing from the video however. Why? Because Bergl was there in person, waiting in the wings. To Lily’s surprise, the highly personable actress took the stage and greeted the teen with a long hug and some emotional words . She also presented Lily with a gift – a very limited edition bicycle with ‘Shameless’ written across the frame. The bikes were presented to castmates only, by the producers of the show.
Lily also loves the show Stranger Things, but there would be no video of personalized greetings from the cast in this case. Instead, Cartier suddenly produced one of it’s most popular actors from side-stage, Gaten Matarazzo, aka “Dustin”. His appearance was a jolt for Lily and the majority in attendance. After offering a long embrace, Matarazzo took the microphone and was a bit halting and shy, not unlike any 17 year old might be in front of a large crowd. He was also sweet and sincere, and it was easy to tell how thrilled Lily was by the encounter. Matarrazo remained her date for the rest of the evening, sitting beside her at her family’s table.
Furthermore, Lily’s brother R.J. was gifted VIP passes for an Eagles vs Cowboys game, and an all inclusive luxury box for an upcoming Philadelphia Flyers game. By the time he was done, Cartier even arranged for him to receive a hug from Abdul. This moment was a clear reveal of the organization’s thoughtful approach to seemingly everything they do – they place considerable resources into providing personalized comfort, and hopefully even joy, to the families of the stricken as well.
At no time was this approach on more dramatic display than with the case of a 15 yr old girl named Schyler who lost her battle with leukemia just a few days before the Wigs & Wishes event in 2018. She had left a note for her parents, instructing them to cremate her body and place her remains in a soccer ball “case”. When made aware of this, Cartier sought out renowned sculptor Mark Aeiling from MGA Sculpture Studio in Fort Lauderdale to solicit ideas regarding what it would take to create a soccer ball urn. Instead of lending advice, Aeiling took on the task of creating the stunning ceramic urn himself, and on this night, personally presented it to her parents, Mike and Sherrie. Through heavy tears, Sherrie held the urn, a soccer ball complete with wings, aloft for everyone to see. A heart wrenching moment.
There would be more. Josef Roth, a celebrity jeweler from Shyne Jewelers in Philadelphia, surprised Mike and Sherrie with a heart shaped diamond pendant, complete with an engraved depiction of Schyler in stunning clarity. Roth gently placed it around Schyler’s mother’s neck, as she sobbed deeply. Mike and Sherrie’s reactions to these celebrations of their daughter’s life were heartbreaking, but also life affirming – all at once. It would be a feeling attendees would experience several times throughout the night.
Singer / songwriter JJ Weeks performed an intimate piano and vocal rendition of “Let Them See You”, a Cartier favorite. Like all well written songs, it’s lyrics can be interpreted a number of ways. They are clearly intended to be spiritual and the song was a christian radio hit, but when played at this particular event, the song’s message – while still an expression of faith – also sounded like encouragement for the night’s honorees.
Cartier would present the Heart of Gold award to Suzie Rizzuto, daughter of the late Conair Corporation chairman and co-founder Leandro Rizzuto, for her considerable generosity towards Wigs & Wishes. Cartier said that her level of dedication has left him “speechless” on several occasions, and on this night specifically, she purchased all of the nearly 1,000 swag bags required for the guests. Historically, the award is not handed out haphazardly. One previous recipient? Adam Sandler.
Rizzuto has a lifelong love of horses, so naturally, Cartier gifted her one – of sorts. It was a unicorn. Not a living, breathing one of course, but a large and ornate sculpted version that her painted for her himself. Rizzuto loved it, as did the audience.
It would be as difficult as it would be unnecessary to pick one highlight to summarize the evening in full.
But it was hard not to think of Nyzaiah, a 3 yr old boy diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer, who made an appearance earlier in the show. Dressed resplendently in a smart suit, the little boy took small steps onto the stage, hand in hand with his parents. Upon arrival, he was offered an exciting choice. He could select any of the 3 large boxes laid in front of him and the prize inside of it would be his.
He chose, and the box bore a personalized gift – a striking illustration by John Stanisci of Nyzaiah depicted as a cartoon superhero alongside one of his favorite superheroes, The Incredible Hulk.
Next, a new surprise. He would be able to choose another box! And then another! All 3 prizes would be his.
One of those boxes would send he and his parents to Legoland in Orlando, all expenses paid, and as the crowd whooped and cheered, Nyzaiah reacted as most toddlers might – a little bit curious, a little bit endearingly befuddled.
A few moments earlier however, the boy received a surprise that unlike Stanisci ‘s beautiful illustration, and Legoland’s promise for another day, was thrilling to him right now. A live action Hulk and Spider-Man, his other favorite superhero, suddenly showed up on stage! And at that moment, when Nyzaiah saw Spider-Man approaching, he did what came instinctively natural to him. He squared up to his costumed hero, and hugged him closely around the neck.
The Spider-Man theme blasted over the PA system, theater lights waved and crossed, and confetti cannons rained paper across the crowded stage. It was quite a scene. Meanwhile Cartier beamed, presumably with deserved pride. A precious 3 yr old boy with a harrowing diagnosis experienced happiness – true, unburdened happiness – and everyone saw it.
Nearing the end of the show, Pamela Peckerman, lifestyle expert and tv host, continued in the MC / fundraiser role where she performed exceptionally all night, running auctions from the main stage for diamonds, earrings that were worn by the night’s celebrities, a VIP experience for an L.A. Dodgers game next season, and Paula’s spontaneously gifted Vegas trip, among other valuables.
Taylor Dayne re-appeared to close the show, performing Love Will Lead You Back, Don’t Rush Me and as a grand finale, her most popular hit, Tell It To My Heart. As Dayne exited the stage, Abdul promptly met her with a hug.
At the end of an evening that required such emotional investment, Dayne’s closing set felt like a release. A celebration of something shared. Not surprisingly, the host had planned for this as well.
Guests were encouraged to make their way into yet another large room complete with yet another live band where they could wind down with a nightcap and greet a gracious Cartier and Abdul. But there couldn’t have been enough pop stars or beauty queens or bands on this night to let the entertainment define it. The evening belonged to the women, children and families who were honored, and those that are poised to benefit from the considerable money raised. Everyone else in attendance was, in the truest sense of the word, a guest – albeit a very welcomed one.
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