During the filming of the 2010 CBC miniseries Death Comes to Town, Scott Thompson was worried about one of his characters. “I had no idea how to play her,” the Kids in the Hall comedian told The Globe and Mail recently, referring to the fictional television reporter Heather Weather. “Right up until the day we shot, I didn’t know what she sounded like or how she walked or anything.”
Frazzled, Mr. Thompson confided in Dave Foley, who calmed down his fellow troupe member. “Dave told me to just wait until I got in the dressing-room chair, and that he never knew who his characters were until our hairstylist, Judi, put a wig on him.”
The advice was sound. "When the hair came on, I grasped exactly who this woman Heather Weather was,” the comedic actor said. “Judi just knew – she was that good.”
Judi Cooper-Sealy, the hair-design virtuoso who won two Emmys, one Gemini and undying loyalty and appreciation from her famous friends and clients, died Dec. 15. Diagnosed with Lewy body dementia in 2014, the native Nova Scotian and wife of Juno-winning jazz pianist Joe Sealy was 77.
In addition to Ms. Cooper-Sealy’s work on the CBC’s The Kids in the Hall and CODCO (where she won her Gemini), her hair designs and artistic instincts were elemental to the characters of a third landmark Canadian sketch-comedy show, SCTV. She also put the hairspray to the 2007 film Hairspray, won a BAFTA for the Oscar-winning musical-comedy Chicago and bewigged such comedic-acting icons as Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara and Andrea Martin, who all counted on her creative input.
“I’m in rehearsals for a new Broadway play, and this will be the first time since meeting Judi that I have not consulted with her on the look of a character that I was about to create,” said Ms. Martin, who described Ms. Cooper-Sealy as a selfless perfectionist. ”She was glamorous outside the studio and a workhorse inside, and she was an old-school beauty who looked great in a beret.”
Graceful under pressure in an industry in which tensions and egos run bouffant-high, Ms. Cooper-Sealy kept her own head while dealing with everybody else’s.
“She never lost her cool,” SCTV’s Dave Thomas said.
“We were all learning on the job,” added producer Andrew Alexander, a driving force behind The Second City live comedy enterprise and the TV series it spawned. “The dressing room is a hub of activity, but she brought to it a level of calm."
Citing their collaborative role, Mr. Alexander described Ms. Cooper-Sealy and make-up artist Beverly Schechtman as the “seventh and eighth members of the SCTV cast.”
Although she was long-based in Toronto, it was in Halifax where Ms. Cooper-Sealy first made a name for herself – even if her name was spelled incorrectly. In a feature article on happening Haligonians in 1970, Macleans wrongly identified her as “Judy” instead of “Judi.”
At the time, she was running a wig boutique while her then-boyfriend Mr. Sealy (also featured in the article) was in a band, the Unusuals, which ran an after-hours music club in Gerrish Street Hall. The couple married in 1972 and stayed in Halifax until 1976. “We were doing well, but I was working in television and there wasn’t a lot of work there at the time,” said Mr. Sealy, an arranger and music consultant in addition to being a performer and composer.
“Judi told me that if we didn’t leave, I’d be selling shoes within a year.”
The couple, with a son from Ms. Cooper-Sealy’s previous marriage, moved to Toronto. Within a year, they had purchased a house in the city’s leafy Cabbagetown enclave. Mr. Sealy’s music career flourished, as did the hair-designing fortunes of his future wife.
“The rest,” Mr. Sealy said, “is history.”
The product of a broken home, Judi Campbell was born on July 12, 1941, in Windsor, N.S. She was the first of the three children of Burton Campbell (who served in the Canadian Air Force) and hospital lab technician Ethel Campbell (née Ettinger). Their divorce resulted in an unhappy early childhood for their first-born.
“Her memories of that time were sad,” her husband said. “She was often left alone to look after her sister and brother, even though she wasn’t that much older than them.”
Circumstances improved markedly when she moved in with her paternal grandmother, who helped her overcome dyslexia, which was previously undiagnosed. After high school, she attended Halifax Ladies’ College and, in 1961, Mario’s Method of Beauty Culture. “Mario was a fiery Puerto Rican hairdresser,” Mr. Sealy recalled.
The future hairdresser to the stars fell in with the Dalhousie University crowd in Halifax. A sense of adventure (coupled with connections made through the students she befriended) resulted in her taking off for Ghana, where she worked as as biochemistry technician and, later, a beautician.
“She enjoyed it there,” Mr. Sealy said. “She told me about riding horses on the beach.”
After two years in Accra, she returned to Halifax – not a swinging place in the early sixties. Deciding it was “nowhere,” she relocated to the Bahamas, where a marriage to Nassau journalist Basil Cooper did not take.
“Her life there was hell,” Mr. Sealy said. “When her mother and grandmother went down there to get her out of the country, her husband had the local police tried to stop the plane they were all on as they were leaving.”
She eventually settled in Washington, where in the mid-sixties she modelled and worked in a wig outlet, but the belligerent owner would rage at his employees. Finding the workplace atmosphere intolerable, the 26-year-old Canadian, by then a single mother, returned to Halifax with her son.
There, in 1967, during the Summer of Love, she began dating her future second husband. They married in 1972, Mr. Sealy adopted his wife’s son, Stephen, and they all lived in a house on Walnut Street.
The home was “party central,” her husband said. “We had Scandinavian furniture, a porthole window and a white shag rug,” said Mr. Sealy, fondly recalling a complicated era for interior-design choices.
The family moved to Toronto, where Ms. Cooper-Sealy developed her skill as a hair designer while her husband gigged with the great British–Canadian jazz vibraphonist Peter Appleyard.
Working on Peter Gzowski’s late-night talk show 90 Minutes Live on CBC Television in 1976, Ms. Cooper-Sealy handled the blonde hair of John Candy. The young comedic actor took such a shine to her that he brought her with him to SCTV.
“I remember the way she’d try to fix the hair on characters where we wanted it to look as bad as it could,” recalled SCTV’s Rick Moranis, who portrayed the Bob half of beer-swilling hoser characters Bob and Doug McKenzie. “Whatever hair was left hanging from under the McKenzie tuque had to look as unwashed as the rest of us. Judi could only attempt to get a comb close, and then recant in the most demure and sweet way.”
The working relationships and friendships fostered on the set of SCTV stuck with Ms. Cooper-Sealy the rest of her life. On the 2003 Christopher Guest mockumentary A Mighty Wind, she helped Ms. O’Hara develop a folk singer based on Sylvia Tyson. “You could discuss a scene and a vague idea for a character with Judi, then sit in her chair and become someone way more interesting and funny than what you thought you had in mind,” Ms. O’Hara said. “Like many of us at SCTV, I was spoiled being in her chair and found it hard to trust anyone [else] with my head.”
In 2011, Ms. Cooper-Sealy’s Emmy for the miniseries The Kennedys was added to a mantelpiece already decorated with the same award she had earned nearly 30 years earlier (for the ABC Afterschool Special episode My Mother was Never a Kid).
There was more to Ms. Cooper-Sealy than show-business accolades. The star comedic performer Mr. Short recalled Ms. Cooper-Sealy as an always-on artist who, for example, would see someone with an odd hairstyle on the subway, quickly sketch that look on a pad and then bring it into the studio to help develop a character.
On a personal level, he would often bring a bottle of wine to her house and get his haircut in her basement studio. “She was so great at what she did, and was so zen it gave you such happiness to be in her company,” said Mr. Short, who insisted that Ms. Cooper-Sealy look after his hair on his countless television specials and feature-film roles. “It wasn’t only that her genius gave a character its look. It gave you the confidence that the look was right.”
Ms. Cooper-Sealy leaves her husband, Joe Sealy; her son, Stephen Sealy; her sister, Brenda Robinson; her brother, Burton Campbell; and two grandchildren.