By Arielle Dollinger
Her voicemail message begins, “Hi, it’s Wendy, The Pipe Cleaner Lady. I’m a little twisted at the moment!”
A self-described “pipe cleaner purist” living in a “pipe cleaner world,” Huntington resident Wendy Baner works the party circuit, teaching children and adults to twist colorful, fuzzy pipe cleaners into items like rings, tiaras and intricate bracelets.
Currently, she is one of what will be 800 finalists in the 2014 Martha Stewart American Made Awards – a competition that highlights local craft-makers and small-business owners. Each week, more finalists are chosen, until 10 receive awards at the end of the competition.
Her look is intentionally “entertaining,” she said. She wears overalls covered in rhinestones and patches, and pipe cleaner jewelry.
“You’re supposed to look entertaining,” she said, “so that when people look across the room, they can see that I’m there to entertain.”
Typically, she will wear some of her more intricate creations in an effort to display the things she does not have time to show people how to make during a party. She also comes with a few complex pre-made items for visitors to try on and wear in pictures.
The artist began to specialize in pipe cleaners when her then-husband – she now refers to him as her “wusband” – told her that she needed to get a “real job” to help with mortgage payments on the Asharoken beach house into which they were moving at the time.
“To him, that would’ve been a job in Manhattan at an advertising agency doing something like that,” she said.
Instead, she invented a job for herself: pipe cleaner artist.
The twister has garnered an appearance on “Access Hollywood” in May 2013, a mention in a December 2012 Wall Street Journal article and a spot at Ovarian Cancer Research benefit sale Super Saturday each of seven years. After attending Super Saturday, she found herself in Hamptons publication Dan’s Papers.
“It cracks me up. I’m with all other celebrities from Super Saturday and there’s the pipe cleaner lady,” she said. “To them, I’m famous. I find that hard to believe, but yeah.”
She has done events for Martha Stewart, as a demonstrator, and nominated herself for the American Made competition when she found out that the entrants were self-nominated.
Baner is in the process, she said, of getting an agent and pitching a book to a publisher – part of her “vision” of “being famous” and making millions.
The “Access Hollywood” appearance was the result of persistence. A childhood friend is a producer for the show, and Baner spent “years and years” trying to convince him to put her on.
“I’m just a pushy broad that eventually gets my way,” Baner said.
Though Asharoken “really nourished my soul,” Baner and her then-husband divorced and she moved to Huntington.
Prior to starting in the pipe cleaner business, Baner worked as a freelance artist in various mediums and as an artist for a screen printing company and an advertising specialty company; she designed a line of tie-dye clothing that made the front cover of an Avon catalogue.
While her jester hat – made of pipe cleaners, of course – may be laudable, and her business plan may be nonexistent, her business is not. She once made $3,500 in one night for a party far from home. She makes more money when she travels, she said.
And, as far as she can tell, her customers are well-equipped to pay her.
“Most of my customers have more money than you could possibly imagine,” she said of those who ask her to do parties. “I pull up to crazy mansions… To them, I’m just another pair of shoes or something.”
Those parties usually feature more than just The Pipe Cleaner Lady, she said. There is Baner, and then there are the balloon man, the magician, the face painter, the DJ, the hired photographer, the photo booth, and the candy bar, she said.
But she is not like the others, she said.
“I’m not like a balloon man, where I make it and give it,” she said. “I don’t like the pressure of a line, and I think at a party it’s boring to be standing on a line, so I have my cart of fun.”
She shows partygoers how to make their own pipe cleaner items, rarely using tools herself.
“I use my hands for cutting,” she said. “That kind of flips [kids] out, too, that I don’t use a scissor… To them it’s like magic.”
While partygoers wait for Baner to start them on a project, she offers them such distractions as pencil grips – she calls them “pipe cleaner beads” – to decorate pencils.
“I say I’m like the ‘starter outer’ and the ‘tweaker,’” Baner said, noting that she starts children out on projects but teaches them how to continue on their own.
For young girls, Baner starts with a daisy ring; for boys, she starts with an octopus ring. She teaches her visitors “lingo” that includes phrases like “three fluffies and sparkly.”
“They start to get my lingo, and they start to get addicted to pipe cleaners,” Baner said of her audience.
Those who have not seen her at work often do not understand what it is that she does, she said; some have difficulty understanding the “lingo.”
“If you haven’t seen me, I’m a hard sale,” she said, noting that she sometimes gains exposure while doing volunteer work. “I volunteer because it’s good for the charity and it’s good for me, because I’m out there and people get to see me and know what I do… Advertising doesn’t really work for me.”
But once she is seen, she said, she is wanted.
“I have adult women that are like groupies,” she said. “It kind of cracks me up.”
She and her pipe cleaners travel. She did a wedding at the Fontainebleau in Miami; she has done worked events in DC, Boston, Buffalo and Atlanta. She has done bridal showers at Bergdorf, making rings to match women’s outfits.
“They’re not necessarily so interested in twisting along with me; they would rather let me make one,” she said. “They don’t really want to put their drink down too long.”
When she was young, a man who worked for a telephone company would give her wires when he came to do work on her block, so that she could make rings. More recently, when her father was hospitalized following a heart attack, she made rings for her father to give out to the nurses and earned herself a mention in the hospital’s newsletter. She was the reason that the doctors and nurses were in “crazy hats and crowns,” after all.
Her cousin once caught her twisting pipe cleaners while she was sleeping, eyes closed and all, she said. She twists on the treadmill; when she lived in Asharoken, she would twist while walking on the beach.
In her “pipe cleaner world,” Baner said, she has believed for a long time that she would be famous.
“I just happen to just know some things… I see it expanding huge,” she said of her business. “There’s a pipe cleaner revolution in the works here.”