“How the hell can I retire?” says Barron, who at 80 still helps a long list of clients.
Aubrey’s ear was on a table, perfectly proportioned but slightly the wrong color. It was the final step in what had been a painstaking process, and the ten-year-old girl – patiently sitting in an examining chair – waited as Robert Barron dabbed a whisker-thin brush onto a palette, brushed away the tiny hairs on the appendage, and mixed the pigment to the right shade. “I’ve mastered the technique,” he said, “to make the silicone look like skin.”
Barron is a master craftsman of custom-made prostheses, and Aubrey had come to his lab in Ashburn to be fitted with the artificial right ear that would soon be virtually indistinguishable from his left. Satisfied with the shading, Barron pressed the prosthesis against the side of his patient’s head, just above her jawline, and held it there until the adhesive set. He then craned his neck to examine his work.
“Here,” he said.
Aubrey looked up and smiled nervously. She had found her way to Barron via the same journey of grief and hope that most of her clients take. For nearly three decades, Barron has helped a long list of people whose appearance has been affected by injury or illness: cancer patients, burn victims, combat injured veterans and many more. The congenital ear deformity Aubrey was born with, microtia, had been exacerbated by unsuccessful reconstructive surgery in 2018 – an experience so traumatic that she refused to undergo further procedures. Aubrey’s parents then discovered Barron’s business, Custom Prosthetic Designs, and learned that there was a non-surgical solution to Aubrey’s despair. Over the next few months, the family watched as Barron took molds of both Aubrey’s ears to make a silicone prosthesis. Now she was finally receiving the fake cartilage that she hoped would change her life. “Well,” Barron asked his young patient, “do you want to see him?”
Barron’s journey to this highly specialized career began, improbably, in the parking lot of the Pentagon. In the late 1960s he worked as art director for the quarterly Navy magazine, directions, and the ride was driving him crazy. He wasn’t important enough to qualify for a Pentagon parking pass, which meant he had to walk 15 minutes to and from public land. So Barron devised a solution: He “borrowed” a parking pass from an unlocked car in the Pentagon parking lot and made a convincing replica of it. The ruse worked for about a year, until one afternoon Barron went to retrieve his vehicle and found the police waiting for him. It wasn’t his fake pass that had turned him in, but a colleague who envied his access to the parking lot.
This brief foray into counterfeiting earned Barron a $50 fine and a new career at the CIA. Growing up in Du Quoin, Illinois, he always loved art and design, and as a child he dreamed of one day getting a job designing Christmas cards for Hallmark. When he was a senior in high school, he submitted an oil painting of the Grand Canyon to a statewide art competition; the thing was so realistic that it was mistakenly entered in the photography category. Barron went on to earn a commercial art degree from Southern Illinois University and served four years in the Marines before landing his job at Navy magazine. Even the judge who fined him for the fake parking pass was impressed with his skills. “It looks better than the real thing,” Barron recalled saying.
About two weeks after that court appearance, Barron was called to a meeting with his superior officer. Upon arrival, he was greeted by two men in dark suits who introduced themselves as CIA representatives. Although they never said so, Barron assumes they had somehow seen his fake parking pass. They wanted to know if he would be interested in joining the graphic arts department of the Agency.
Barron spent the next 25 years at the CIA. He started out in a unit that forged documents and copied signatures, but eventually started working on disguises for undercover agents. Among his coaches was John Chambers, the legendary Planet of the Apes make-up artist who occasionally worked for the CIA (as seen in the film Argo). During Barron’s tenure, the spy agency was moving away from conventional wigs and fake beards toward more sophisticated silicone-based craftsmanship. So Barron learned how to shape the gelatinous material into face masks realistic enough to fool the world’s best counter-surveillance agents. He took extraordinary care to ensure that every pore of the skin and every hair of the nose was perfect. “Because if I gave someone a silicone mask and their life was in danger and they wouldn’t come home,” Barron says, “I would have to live with that.” Beyond that, you’ll have to use your imagination: for obvious reasons, he can’t discuss many details of his CIA job.
In 1983, Barron attended an Association of Medical Sculptors seminar in New York City as part of his continuing education at the CIA. Once again, the course of his career unexpectedly deviated. He discovered at the rally that some severely disfigured people had had their lives transformed by the same material he used to conceal the identities of American spies. Suddenly, Barron saw an opportunity to put his unusual talents to a different use. “If you can get people into hiding,” he says, “you can get people out of hiding.”
Barron spent the next decade with this revelation in mind, and when he retired from the CIA in 1993, he decided to open his own prosthetics practice. He now uses the skills learned at the Agency to help a steady stream of clients, many of whom arrive in a state of desperation and desperation. Barron tells the story of a man named Tim, whose nose was disfigured in a boating accident. The ordeal pushed Tim into a deep depression; he removed all the mirrors from his house and told his girlfriend that she should leave him. At one point he slipped into his bathroom and held a gun to his head. But after Barron attached a custom-made nose — just a small piece of rubbery material — Tim’s life-threatening depression evaporated and everything changed. Such results give Barron such satisfaction that, even at age 80, he still sees many clients every year. “How the hell can I retire?” he says.
It turned out that Aubrey was another satisfied customer. With her new ear attached, she got up from the chair and walked over to a mirror. There she was, the same ten-year-old as before – only now with a perfectly ordinary pair of ears, complete with the tiny pearl earrings she’d wanted. Now, when she returned to her elementary school in Ohio, she could wear glasses or put her hair in a ponytail. “Oh, my God,” she said, throwing her hands over her mouth. Then she turned and hugged Barron.
This article appears in the July 2022 issue of The Washingtonian.