Mendez’s job was as close as it gets to Q or Mission Impossible outside of Hollywood
When it comes to effective espionage weapons, a spy’s face - particularly the ability to become someone else - can mean the difference between life and death.
“It could make you one of them and not one of us,” Jonna Menez, the CIA’s former head of disguise, told SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast. ”We could change your ethnicity. We could change your gender. We could make you whatever you needed to be around the group that you were targeting, and you could still be safe.”
Mendez worked as a CIA undercover officer for 27 years creating prosthetic noses, wigs, and masks that could be peeled off like Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in Mission: Impossible.
Now retired, Mendez offered insight into the art of disguise and her secrets for undercover agents - those able to plan ahead or spies in need of a disguise on the fly (see Mendez’s Top 10 CIA Disguise Tips below.) Mendez kicked off her CIA career in administration and then photography in the CIA’s OTS department - the little-known Office of Technical Service - part of the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology.
She spent years traveling to foreign countries and helping spies disappear while working out of her gadget-filled workshop - an office not unlike Q’s workshop in the James Bond films.
“You would come to see us if you wanted a camera that would fit in a writing pen; if you wanted a disguise; if you needed false documents,” Mendez told True Spies: The Art of Disguise.
Mendez specialized in clandestine photography at the height of the Cold War when cameras were bulky pieces of metal - unless you were a CIA or KGB spy. Then they might be hidden in a ring, a doctor’s bag, or a button.
“Almost everything we were doing was protecting the foreign officers that were working with the American case officers - and, in many cases, keeping them from getting arrested, and in Moscow keeping them from being executed,” Mendez said.
She met her husband, Tony Mendez, while at the CIA. He is best known for extracting six US State Department employees from Tehran during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis while disguised as a Canadian film crew. The undercover operation was the basis of Ben Affleck’s Hollywood blockbuster Argo, and the subject of a separate True Spies podcast, The Argonauts.
The couple co-authored Moscow Rules before Tony Mendez’s death in 2019.
Joanna Mendez recalled one of her most frightening encounters on foreign soil for SPYSCAPE listeners: coming face to face with an international terrorist wanted for bombing a Pan Am flight. The man claimed to have information about a potential hijacking and asked to meet the CIA’s chief of station in a hotel lobby: “There were high stakes. It was life or death sometimes.”
Before she knew it, Mendez was part of the CIA team positioned in the lobby, acting as backup for the station chief. She was disguised as a shopper haggling for a discounted rug while keeping an eye out for the terrorist’s arrival. That’s when she locked eyes with the target. He was waiting in the news stand. Next to him stood two bodyguards armed with long guns.
“He was just staring straight at me,” Mendez said. “You're never supposed to make eye contact… And when I did, it was like this electric current went through me.”
Just as suddenly, the man dropped his gaze, turned, and moved toward the lobby. Jonna’s disguise was so watertight, and her demeanor so convincing, that - at least in his mind - she was not there. Joanna Mendez, a carpet shopper, was just a faceless customer in a hotel lobby instead of a CIA officer and potential threat. Mendez modestly attributes her close call to good fortune.
“This is what luck looks like because if they had decided to shoot me, it would have been absolutely impersonal,” she told True Spies.
Hear the entire True Spies podcast, right now, on SPYSCAPE.
Mendez’s Top 10 CIA Disguise Tips
- Blend in if you don’t want to be noticed. If you have time, buy local clothing.
- Change your hair. If you can’t color it or wear a wig, a change of style may help change your appearance.
- Avoid fake mustaches. If you are going to be uncomfortable or at risk of perspiring, avoid extra facial hair.
- Glasses. Horn-rimmed glasses can change a face.
- Makeup. Makeup can be a game-changer for men or women who want to smooth out a rough complexion.
- Accessorize. A man carrying a leather portfolio and a cigar will likely be remembered for his leather portfolio and cigar.
- Footwear. You can often tell where someone is from based on their shoes.
- Less can be more. You don’t need a full, Mission Impossible-style face mask. Your disguise should allow you to smoke, talk, eat, drink, and use your phone.
- Think of disguise as an onion. Whether you’re building it or peeling it off, you’re dealing with layers. When you have the right amount, you disappear and another person is in the room.
- Own it - Just as important as your disguise is your demeanor. Stride in like you own the room and the character.