`Fantasy' Stylists Go Toe to Toe, and It's Really Hair-Raising

Contests Can Be Quite Moving, Thanks to Mr. Motor Hair; That Certain Python Look

By Angelo B. Henderson
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

1,359 words, 18 April 1996, The Wall Street Journal, English
(Copyright (c) 1996, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

DETROIT—The city that gave the world tail fins and the Supremes is suddenly giving it something else

A new definition of Big Hair.

Consider the contribution of Willie Robinson. Competing in one of a recent spate of hair-styling competitions, Mr. Robinson, a local stylist, paraded on stage with his model. She was perhaps 5-foot-2. Her hair was perhaps 2-foot-5, and bound together by a zipper. It swooped upward in a towering wave known as a French roll.

Then Mr. Robinson unzipped the `do. He retrieved, from within, a live, four-foot python; last time it was two white doves, and a bottle of champagne with two glasses.

Explains the 39-year-old Mr. Robinson in classic understatement: "You have to do different things to entertain the crowd."

Michael Turner, another Detroiter, was unfazed. At the same event, he introduced the world to the "Hairy Copter." His model sported a style that, with the aid of tiny battery-powered motors, included flashing lights and miniature rotating helicopter blades. Mr. Turner's creations have earned him the nickname: "Mr. Motor Hair."

The catalyst for this burst of hirsute ingenuity is "hair wars," a series of hair-fashion shows set to music and aimed squarely at the nation's 31 million African-Americans. "There are two powerful circuits in the African-American community -- the church and the hair salon," says David Humphries, 39, a local disk jockey who cooked up the idea as a nightclub gimmick 10 years ago.

From a local lark, the genre, also known as fantasy hair, has tumbled across the urban landscape like Rapunzel's locks, making Mr. Humphries a kind of Henry Ford of the hair set. Competitions have sprouted in Los Angeles; Columbus, Ohio, and Flint, Mich. Next year, Miami, Dallas, New York, Atlanta, Washington, Chicago—and Tokyo—are all expected to join the hair-wars fray.

These are contests with no formal winners or prizes beyond the oohs and ahs of audiences, which sometimes number in the thousands. The shows are meant to be fun and campy, though they have a commercial side as well. Salons and hair-product concerns often underwrite them, and use the events to promote new products and their hair artistry. The bottom line, however, is pushing hair design to the outer limits. "In hair wars, anything goes," says Karl Reed, 35 and owner of the Utopia Salon in Southfield, Mich., who has participated in a number of the contests.

To see what Mr. Reed means, consider the recent scene at the Plaza Hotel in suburban Detroit, where Motown's fantasy-hair stars are matching wits and `dos with fledgling fantasy-stylists from Chicago. About 300 models, representing some 100 salons or independent designers, are competing. There is definitely a home-court advantage.

African-Americans spend an estimated $2 billion a year on hair-care products and services, and Detroit has long been recognized as the nation's black hair capital. The city's 14,400 licensed cosmetologists and 1,742 barbers outnumber the city's social workers, real-estate brokers, builders, dentists or doctors. And that doesn't count the thousands of unlicensed hairdressers working in kitchens and basements around town.

Out of this critical mass comes the fantasy-hair movement, which is making hair the new idiom for hip. Contests aside, the genre is showing up at Detroit clubs, as well as its street corners and even its shopping malls. "This is the new Motown," declares Mr. Humphries, now a full-time hair impresario who travels around promoting the shows. "And you are only as hot as your latest hit hairdo."

In a sprawling room off the Plaza Hotel's lobby, hot is among the operative words. Lights glare. Models primp. Stylists frantically comb, tease, lacquer, dye, press, curl and glue hair into unimaginable shapes and positions. Hairspray wafts through the room like a fog. Given the reach of some hairdos, which climb as much as three feet above the scalp, designers often have to supplement the model's hair with hairpieces, some of them real hair, some synthetic.

One woman's burgundy hair peeks out from under a fluorescent purple head wrap that matches her tennis shoes. A dozen women in red, skin-tight, patent-leather halter tops, boots and minishorts stroll through the crowded room. One sports gigantic, swerving spiral curls; others have perpendicular, multicolored, two-foot ponytails.

Some of these styles take two days to create. Yet many will be washed out later that night. They are impossible to sleep on and, in the case of Wanda Saxton, "a little too flamboyant for my job." By day, Ms. Saxton, 25, punches data into a computer for a Detroit burglar-alarm concern. Tonight, she is modeling for La Parisian hair salon, wearing a leopard-spot miniskirt and a hairstyle that features a dizzying number of huge barrel curls tumbling off her head in all directions.

By show time, more than 2,000 people are jammed into the ballroom and surrounding halls, fans having paid as much as $20 a person to get in. The audience is very much a part of the scene. Mildred Roper, for example, came all the way from Minneapolis to watch. But the 29-year-old could be a participant, considering the three large horns of hair, bathed in gold sequins, that adorn her coif. Another woman in a lime-green sweater has woven intricate lime-green braids into her hair.

As the models parade down the runway, LaToya Pearson, a hair stylist for 30 years, provides a running commentary laced with rap and rhymes.

"Girl, I didn't come to play—work that runway," exhorts Ms. Pearson, urging a model to keep up her strut. Ms. Pearson describes the `do as "a ponytail swinging in the air, accented with artistic octopus pin curls."

Next comes the "Flamingo Feather," a style that starts with a bald look in the back. About midway up the head, tiny curls appear. The curls gradually get larger until they flow forward into a feathered, bronze-colored frenzy. "Curl it, twirl it, bake it, shake it," Ms. Pearson chants.

The crowd roars at Ms. Pearson's quips. "That hairstyle is so hot that man over there is just fanning," she gibes. Later, she observes: "Girl, I'm so tired. Last night this man beat on my door all night long. Then, at 7:30 in the morning, I got up—and let him out."

The evening's show stopper turns out to be Raphael Isho, 45, a local stylist, who brings the crowd to its feet with his exotic basket-weave look, featuring not only woven hairdos but also matching woven clothing made of hair.

One headpiece frames a model's face, making her resemble a cobra. On another model, black and yellow hair braids match braids used for a fringe on her sleeves and skirt. Her bikini top and belt are made of hair—pressed to look like leather.

For Ms. Saxton, who is taking all this in, part of the appeal of being in hair shows is seeing the competition. But she is pleased that her profusion of barrel curls also gets lots of applause. "It's one big party and I like all the attention," she says. "I even get recognized on the street."

Among stylists who get lots of attention, Mr. Turner, 31, certainly qualifies. Some thought it would be impossible for him to outdo his "Hairy Copter." But at another show in Los Angeles where the copter got high-fives, he unveiled a style that some think did.

His model walked on stage with a ponytail pulled forward on her head. Mr. Turner grabbed her hair—and spun it around to reveal a whole new `do.

The trick? Her coif was an ornate wig, styled differently back and front, that rotated along a miniature circular track mounted on her head.