Paul Little gets to the root of the problem of being follicly challenged.

Artist Peter Roche had a full head of hair and a hipster beard that was ahead of its time into his 30s. But then, "One day my barber mentioned that I had a small, round bald patch on the back of my head. I didn't give it a second thought until I looked in the bathroom mirror one morning to discover that I was missing the better part of one of my eyebrows. I panicked. Every day I discovered more hair loss, more bald patches on the back of my head and then my arms, and eventually I was down to just one eyebrow."

Roche attempted to disguise his alopecia with headwear and sunglasses before bowing to the inevitable.

"I shaved all my visible hair off with a razor.This included my arms, head and remaining eyebrow. It was such a great feeling. I now do this every day. Now I don't know what all the fuss was about. These days I have absolutely no desire to carry around a lot of 'dead matter' on the top of my head, I'm actually glad it's gone and I plan to keep it that way."

Everyone should be so sanguine. Nick is a TV producer in his mid-30s who resisted the march of his receding hairline as long as he could.

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"I was in my late 20s when I realised," says Nick. "But it probably wasn't until I was in my early 30s that I started having a prominent bald patch - you don't see that side of your head.

Then hairdressers started saying things like, 'What kind of shampoo are you using?' and asking more questions than I was comfortable with. I admire those people who shave it all off as soon as it starts, but I hung on as long as I could."

His partner had always encouraged him to shave his head when he felt ready. That turned out to be when they were on holiday in Cuba. "It was hot and sweaty and my hair was just a gross mess. So I shaved the rest off. It was a comfortable place to do it, with no one around who'd recognise me."

He wears a baseball cap almost permanently and many people still don't know he's bald.

"I never spent much time in the mirror or cared what I looked like before, but once I lost my hair I noticed that. Now, if I have to go to a formal meeting where it's not appropriate to wear a cap, I have to shave my hair and present myself well to make up for it."

He's still not completely comfortable with his smooth scalp, saying he won't feel he's properly a member of "the bald club" until he's old. And don't try to talk him into feeling better about his situation. "People say, 'It doesn't matter if you go bald; you'll still look good - like Jason Statham or Vin Diesel.' The examples are always super-muscly guys or African-American guys - where's the little white role model?"

Nick has moved through the denial, anger, bargaining and depression stages of bald grief and is edging towards acceptance. For others though, Something Must Be Done. And many people are on hand to Do that Something.

One of the longest established and best-known hair-loss helpers, with more than 60 outlets around the globe, is Advanced Hair Studios, founded in the United States nearly 50 years ago by globe-trotting Melburnian Carl Howell, who still runs the company.

AHS provides a range of treatments and products, notably those trialled by Shane Warne. Howell himself has a full head of hair that he credits to "using our products since we created them".

The company's first giant leap was "hair fusion [where hair is attached to the scalp]. That later morphed into strand by strand. It's a non-surgical process, but it is permanent - the hair can't be removed by the wearer." Then there's a hair transplant "which is the best, of course", laser therapy and a promising new home-use stem cell treatment. Warney's giving that a go, too.

Howell thinks hair loss matters to everyone who experiences it, although "the level varies drastically. I've seen extreme cases where people have nearly been driven to suicide. For some, just the thought of being ridiculed by their mates makes them desire to do something about it."

As does the desire to appeal to potential partners. Howell thinks hair definitely matters to women - up to a point.

"Once they get to know an individual, the other attributes women appreciate are not necessarily a guy's hair. But if you ask women, they'll say at the first impression they prefer a guy with hair. It doesn't mean they'll love them less later."

That's if they know about it. "Men really don't want anyone to know that they've done something," says Howell.

In fact, some keep a lid on their baldness up to and even after their wedding day, according to Reagan Muru of Kiwi Hair Studio.

"We have guys who won't even tell their wives," says Muru. When these men go to get their hair pieces serviced, "they tell us their wives ask them where they're going and they say 'I'm going to get more hair treatment.'" He confesses he's mystified as to how they maintain the pretence when things get up close and personal.

Muru specialises in "non-surgical hair replacement. We manufacture or import custom hair-pieces made of real human hair, cut it down and blend it with existing hair: colour, type, any grey percentage."

Ideally a customer gets their first hairpiece when they have just a small bald patch to disguise.

"We glue that with a medical adhesive. Once it's on, we trim it down to your existing hair and can do all the modern hairstyles," up to and including - once - a Mohawk.

Once a month clients come in to have their hairpiece serviced and their surviving hair trimmed.

"Up to week two or three you can go swimming in the surf. You'd have to tear it off the person's head. You can go to the gym, you can play soccer - though not rugby where it might get pulled. By week four or five the hair growing underneath starts to push it out a bit."

Many men find they can do anything with their hairpiece except tell people about it.

"They hide it because their mates will ridicule them. We are discreet about our services. We don't do huge advertising and have big shopfronts."

Part of the reason for the stigma is the comedy cliche of the badly fitting toupee of days gone by. "They didn't look real and they were a joke," says Muru. "People don't realise how much the products have developed, because they don't know when they're looking at one."

A good hairpiece should be like the perfect crime - no one even knows it has occurred.

For those who leave it late to act, there's the delicate question of how they explain their sudden apparent regrowth.

Noel Thomas is happy with his hairpiece and how natural it looks.
Noel Thomas is happy with his hairpiece and how natural it looks.

"We give them explanations," says Muru, who's had his own hairpiece for seven years. "For instance, they can tell their friends they've been having hair treatment and it grew back over the weekend. And people only focus on it for a few days."

As for the alternatives, Muru knows transplants work and some hair products may be effective. Then there's Toppik. "It's a powder that comes in a little pot and sticks to your existing hair. It grabs on to a strand and thickens it up. When you get heaps of this hair thickened with this powder, then the whole area you're covering looks like you've got your hair back. You comb through to give it a bit of texture and fix it with hair spray."

Wilma Hutchinson also supplies hair pieces through Hair Creations, with prices starting from around $1500. She thinks men's attitude to baldness has changed over the years.

"Some of the guys become quite neurotic about it." says Hutchinson. "I was surprised how much more insecure they were than women. Men are more aware of their appearance today than women are. It's like their number one priority."

Her service also prides itself on discretion but one of her clients, Noel Thomas, is only too happy to talk about his experiences.

"I went grey at 18 and was totally bald by 27," says Thomas. "I got teased a lot and it wasn't nice. I did what Donald Trump does - combed it all one way and made sure the wind was blowing the right way. It didn't really work. I was conscious of it the whole time. If I was in a restaurant I would be worried about light shining on top of my head."

He briefly considered a transplant but was deterred by the experience of an acquaintance: "It was the worst example you can ever imagine. His head was like a crater. You could see the holes."

And so he came to the hairpiece solution. His first hairpiece was synthetic but now it's real human hair, made in China.

"The system I have is freestyle - the way they put the hair in, you can flick it around. Let the wind blow. It won't come off."

It took some getting used to. "I was in two minds at first. I got in the car with it and my head was touching the roof and I wanted to take it off."

But he loves the impression his hairpiece has on other people. "They think you're younger than you are. I've spent a lot over the years, but that is not an issue. I'm happy in myself."

Single, Thomas has been involved with several women "but none were aware unless I told them and that, for me, showed just how natural they look".

And he knows there are still plenty of unnatural hairpieces out there. "I can pick a real bad job. There's a guy who works near me, and he looks like he's got a mop on his head. It's jet black and there's never a hair out of place."

Equally happy with his hairpiece, although not as happy to have its existence known, is John*, who went through several kinds of hell and as many alternatives before going to Hair Creations.

For some time, he got good results from pills, but then he began to suffer side-effects including loss of libido and erectile dysfunction, which rather defeated the purpose of making yourself look as attractive as possible. Marijuana helped reverse the side-effects but didn't do anything for his hair loss. He found Hair Creations online. He admits he was nervous at first but knew something had to be done.

"I was depressed," says John. "I was so upset about my hair loss I wouldn't leave the house. When I got my first hairpiece and put it on, it was like winning Lotto. My confidence went through the roof. It was absolutely amazing. I still look in the mirror now and just about tear-up knowing I'll never have to be bald again."

*Not his real name.

IT'S IN THE GENES

Many men claim not to care whether or not they go bald. They're the ones who make the jokes about their smooth skulls being the "solar panel for the sex machine". One member of the alt.hair movement consulted for this story said he "Never gave it a minute's thought" when he started to lose his hair. His equally hairless brother described himself as "a militant alopecist. On the spectrum, I am on the far-gone wing. I brush off derision and scoff at nit-pickers. As for dealing with it ... well the point is you don't need to. No shampoo, conditioner ... products of any kind. No forking out for styley dos or choosing styles. A literally smooth life."

They can be grouped with the fortunate ones who, at the first signs of hair loss, before anyone notices they are going bald, pre-emptively shave their heads.

Research suggests they might be well advised. According to experiments conducted by formerly balding, now clean-shaven Albert Mannes, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, a man with a shaved head is seen as 13 per cent stronger, taller and having greater leadership potential than men with a full head of hair. Expect to see an increase in the number of suddenly shiny pates in the lead-up to November's election.

ROOTS OF THE PROBLEM

If the men on your mother's side of the family went bald, you will too. Baldness skips a generation, so it doesn't matter whether or not your father kept his hair, it's your grandfathers who make the difference. Excessive testosterone is the determining factor, so men with copious body hair are likely to lose it up top.

Despite decades of research and any number of superstitions, opinion is still divided over the causes of baldness, although genetics almost certainly plays a part.

And we do know that male pattern baldness - androgenic alopecia - affects an estimated quarter of men by the age of 30 and two-thirds by the age of 60.

Latest research, released somewhat insensitively on Valentine's Day via the Public Library of Science has found "more than 200 genetic regions involved in this common but potentially embarrassing condition. These genetic variants could be used to predict a man's chance of severe hair loss."

Exactly where knowing that you will go bald gets you - apart from ruining your day - is not entirely clear. But with 52,000 men surveyed, this was the largest baldness study ever conducted and provided evidence to support the theory that baldness comes from the female line.

"We identified hundreds of new genetic signals," said researcher Saskia Hagenaars.

"It was interesting to find that many of the genetics signals for male pattern baldness came from the X chromosome, which men inherit from their mothers." So, yet another excuse for men to blame their mothers for ruining their lives.