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A tall, striking young black man strides downstage, his broad shoulders wrangled in by designer couture, a red glow cast on his chiseled face from the colorful stage lights. As rapid-fire beats thump, an army of scantily clad seductresses files in behind, their hair sculpted into purple swirls, fuchsia spirals, turquoise tendrils.
Hair artist and wrestler Big Bad D. and his handiwork.
The group strikes a poignant, frozen pose as the beat stops and silence hangs in the air — suddenly, with a blur of movement, they fly into a tightly choreographed dance routine as the music strikes up again in a furious pulse. Onlookers applaud and roar with excitement.
This isn’t a concert, or the filming of a music video.
It’s a hair show. Sorry, the hair show: Hair Wars.
One of the biggest black hair shows in the country, Hair Wars is a Detroit-born, national touring, three-hours-plus extravaganza of blooming, towering, blinking, spinning, smoking, cartoon-like hair creations. The purveyors of these gravity-defying dos achieve rock-star levels of fame in Detroit and beyond. They’re not hair stylists, hairdressers, hair designers or even hair artistes. These are hair entertainers. And they reign supreme in the Motor City, the hair capital of the world.
This Vegas showgirl costume is made entirely of human hair.
The lofty title of “hair capital” is bestowed by David Humphries, aka Hump the Grinder, the mastermind behind Hair Wars and the “Don King of hair,” as he’s been dubbed. Despite this prestigious title, Humphries is not, and has never been, a hairstylist. He’s a promoter, with very normal hair.
In 1985, Humphries was DJing and promoting parties at a club called Elan (now Club Network). To spice up the night, Humphries added a weekly hair show. He created a monster.
“The hair thing got so big, it needed its own venue,” says Humphries. “The hairstyles in Detroit were so aggressive, but they had no outlet to show off their work, especially to the public.”
Hair Wars came into being in 1991, and quickly grew in size and scope. While it’s technically a showcase and not a competition, stylists began a friendly game of one-upsmanship, striving to outdo each other in ingenuity and flamboyance. While Humphries’ fledgling shows focused primarily on, well, hair, the stylists of Hair Wars began emphasizing showmanship, choreography, costuming and music. These days, Hair Wars is part hair show, part step show, part fashion show, part dance recital, part three-ring circus.
Past shows included the “hairycopter,” a hair-draped, remote-controlled toy helicopter that perched on a model’s head, then flew off and zoomed over the audience; a live python extracted from a beehive hairdo; and an enormous bouffant with a zipper that opened to reveal champagne service for two.
Humphries decided to take his show on the road in 1994; the tour now hits 10 cities, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami and New York City. Humphries hopes to double that number, get a standing gig in Vegas, and take the tour to Europe.
“All the new trends start here,” says Humphries. “Everybody across the country copies Detroit hairdos.”
Hair Wars is Humphries’ full-time gig, though not a particularly lucrative one.
“I’m a poor guy,” he confesses, “I’ve just been hanging on.”
Other than a love for what he does, Humphries sticks with it because he believes Hair Wars has tremendous potential “to cash in. … I’ll just keep eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until then.”
Recently, E! Entertainment and Fox scoped out Hair Wars for a potential reality TV series. Humphries has already turned one offer down, for fear the ratings-hungry producers would make a mockery of his baby.
“I don’t want them to try to make fools out of these hair people,” he says. “They wanted backstage to be chaotic and out of order and people fighting, and that’s not what happens.”
“David was really responsible for putting this whole hair entertainment thing on the map,” says filmmaker Regina Kimbell, whose documentary, My Nappy Roots, explores the sociological aspects of black hair. While filming, Kimbell, a native Californian, found Detroit to be a hotbed of hair.
“Just like you think of Paris and Milan as the nucleuses of high fashion, Detroit definitely has become the nucleus of black hair.”
London Calling girls in the Garden of Eden.
Ahead of the game
Participating salons toil for weeks, sometimes months, preparing for Hair Wars — not to mention spending a fair chunk of change. Although salons are not required to pay an entry fee, they must purchase a minimum of 10 tickets (at a wholesale price) to sell at retail price to their customers.
In addition to the dos themselves, many stylists design clothing made of hair for their models. Some stylists spend upward of $2,000 on their presentation, including props, clothing and large quantities of costly human hair.
Most human hair found in Detroit beauty stores comes from the heads of women in Asia, who grow their tresses to great lengths, then sell them for a high profit. The hair is bleached and dyed — it can be found in every color of the rainbow — and attached to a “weft” (a thin band) or left loose. A 14-inch human hair weft can cost from $40 to $140; the longer the hair, the higher the price. Synthetic hair is considerably cheaper — sometimes as low as $2 a bundle — but less-favored by stylists because of its texture and feel, and inability to withstand heating implements (it will melt).
For shows, stylists almost always go human, so they can sculpt the hair with curling and flattening irons. Stylists feel the high cost is worth the promotion and publicity — and bragging rights — that come from a showstopping piece at Hair Wars.
“It’s an opportunity to really show off what you can do,” says Kevin Carter of Salon Jacqueline in Southfield, who is known as “the king of fantasy hair.”
The sophisticated and suave Carter is a seasoned favorite at Hair Wars, with his artful, elaborate creations that often mimic nature. The week of the show, he’s practicing assembly of his latest creation — a blooming hair flower — on model Sheila Person of Bloomfield Hills. Carter has shaped and sprayed canary yellow hair wefts into dozens of “petals,” which he pins to the model’s head, one by one.
“The assembly only takes 10 or 15 minutes,” he says, “and it’s very lightweight.”
“Kevin brings the drama,” says Person, as Carter slowly transforms her head into a blossoming flower.
Carter and Person discuss her outfit for the show. She’s brought a flowing fuchsia gown, but Carter thinks the color is too distracting, and encourages Person to wear a simple black ensemble.
“You need to subdue it, to let the hair — to let the art — come out,” he says.
Carter says his primary goal for the show is to push his creative boundaries and have a good time.
“Above all, we’re having fun — if your hairpiece falls off, so what? Relax, baby!” he grins.
Over on East Seven Mile, things are more hectic at Better Fashion Hair Design. Dozens of women fill the cramped salon to bursting. They lounge on comfortably worn leather sofas, chat under dryers, have their nails filed and painted into patterned talons.
This is home to stylists Goldie and Mr. Little (like their rock star counterparts, some stylists are so attached to their “stage” names they refuse to disclose their real ones).
Humphries says Mr. Little is one of the top hair entertainers in the country, and was the first to do the hairycopter (many stylists since have co-opted it as their own).
“I don’t have a problem with people copying or learning from me, as long as they give me the recognition,” says Mr. Little, who’s done hair for more than two decades. “I feel proud that they’re watching me, and that makes me feel like a leader in the hair field.
“Hump really gave me my first big start in mainstream shows, and through that I reached a level of popularity I wouldn’t have otherwise reached. It kind of makes you a celebrity.”
As his hands deftly whip through his client’s hair, he explains that his theme for this year’s Hair Wars will be The Matrix. His assistant fetches one of the costumes he’s designed: a black trench coat with red epaulets of hair, and a black and red bra made of — you guessed it — hair.
Goldie, meanwhile, is going for a combat theme — to the tune of Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter” — and choreographed the routine himself.
“Since it’s the Hair Wars, I’m a fighter, you know?” he says. “You always want to outdo the other stylists, it keeps your name out there. You just got to stay ahead of the game.”
Goldie emphasizes that the competition is friendly — but it’s competition nonetheless.
“I’ve always kind of idolized him in a sense,” Goldie says of Mr. Little, “but if I didn’t work with him, I’d probably have to whup on him.”
Kevin Carter's spiraling web of hair.
Much more than just a flashy, fun event, Hair Wars probes sensitive issues like race, gender and sexual orientation in a nonchalant, almost subliminal manner.
Hair shows and competitions are not exclusive to the black community, says Noliwe Rooks, author of Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women, and associate director of African-American studies at Princeton University. Rooks notes that competitions and showcases from white salons are also known for over-the-top dos, “but there’s an added element of outrageousness in African-American hair shows.”
“It’s also one of the few places that you see a whole lot of interaction between black gay men, black straight men, black women and different segments of the community,” she says.
Hair can even be a medium for cross-cultural exchange.
“In hair, there’s far less ownership over hairstyles, what’s considered a black or white hairstyle,” says Rooks. “In Japan, it’s a huge thing — everyone wants dreadlocks and cornrows.”
London Calling, a white salon that specializes in edgy punk-influenced styles, has been invited to participate in Hair Wars for the first time. The salon is known for its own annual theatrical hair show, The Big Hair Ball.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of a white salon being invited,” says Rooks. “I think it’s very interesting. Usually it’s hard to find a salon able to work with both [black and white hair].”
Rooks paraphrases a passage from another treatise on tresses, Julie Willett’s Permanent Waves: “Other than church on a Sunday morning, hair salons are still some of the most segregated spaces in America.”
Rooks says, “Black people go to black salons, white people go to white salons, and generally you don’t find a lot of crossover.”
Alonzo Palmer of the Alta Moda salon in Detroit — a self- described multicultural stylist and Hair Wars participant — has also participated in The Big Hair Ball.
“When we do The Hair Ball, a lot of times we’re the only black salon, so I see it from both sides.” he says.
“Hair is one common thing to all people,” Palmer says. “There has to be a way for stylists of all cultures to come together … to really network on better and different styling techniques and products that would break down the stereotype that stylists can only work on their own race.”
Traditionally, in white salons, any male hairdresser is stereotyped as being gay. Not so in Detroit, where there’s a proliferation of straight black male hairdressers who work mostly on women’s hair.
Mr. Little says he’s always had an interest in hair, and went to beauty school immediately after high school.
“When I first started, they used to tease me, with the gay thing. But I was very popular with the ladies, who would stick up for me,” says Mr. Little, who is straight. “It’s like I’ve opened doors, doing women’s hair as a job.”
Humphries says this unique phenomenon in Detroit is due in part to auto industry layoffs.
“That lifestyle was really good,” says Humphries of Big Three employment, “and the only thing that could replace that was the hair business, because it was so lucrative. So guys started going to beauty school.”
Big Bad D. is one of them, having first ventured into hair after he was laid off from the assembly line. To say Big Bad D. exudes masculinity is a comical understatement. A former professional bodybuilder, he’s currently being courted by the WWE, the nation’s premier group of pro wrestlers. This is no surprise, given his hulking 6-foot-4, rock solid, 300-pound frame. He hasn’t cut his hair in more than a decade: his snakelike dreadlocks and braids are wrapped in bits of leather and twine, and graze his kneecaps. His daily wear includes a shirt torn at the chest, revealing rippling pectorals, and a pair of alligator claws hanging at his waist. His voice is a guttural rumble, and his gravelly laugh jarring enough to shake the floorboards.
Not exactly your average hair stylist, that’s for damn skippy.
Big Bad D. (his legal name) works out of a dusky warehouse in Ypsi; tucked away in one corner, a giant stuffed water buffalo resides. In past hair shows, D. has “ridden” the taxidermied beast onstage.
D.’s creation for Hair Wars is propped in the opposite corner. It’s a towering 4-foot-tall, 3-foot-wide headpiece that looks like a one-woman Mardi Gras float. The piece is constructed of lampshades and draped in rows of red and black human hair, offset by a smattering of roses, feathers, and sparkles. It’s almost done, but right now D. is more concerned with finishing his costume — which he designs and sews himself — for Smackdown. It’s made of alligator skin.
His industrial Singer chugs away at the leathery, scaly material, and a sinister alligator claw creeps out of the base, looking something like a scene from a horror flick.
So, does D. crawl around swamps and kill the huge reptiles himself?
“Yes,” he deadpans.
The day of the show, Sunday, March 21, things are off to a slow start at Little Willie’s Salon on Grand River. Sleepy-eyed models trickle in; a toddler named Future zips about the salon, her head full of clattering beads and braids. Little Willie is the master of the zipper, and famous for unzipping big dos and extracting all manner of things (the aforementioned python and champagne). Featured throughout the salon are photos of Little Willie in his trademark suave garb; sleek zoot-suit era ensembles in all-white and leopard print.
A Little Willie employee known as Wishbone chats amicably as his fingers nimbly whip through a model’s hair. His own head is encased in a neon blue cap. Displayed at his station is Wishbone’s own line of instructional videos that sell for about $50 apiece. Wishbone refers to himself as “the pit bull of hair.”
“Pit bulls tends to put a lock on you with their jaws, and that’s how I am with hair,” he says as he works quickly with his hands and brush. “Once I put a hairstyle on you, that’s it, you’re mine.”
Little Willie makes an emergency run to the beauty store for last-minute supplies. Another stylist meticulously wraps a model’s head in rows and rows of hair wefts, creating the illusion of cascading locks.
“That’s her real hair,” the stylist says, pointing to a ponytail the size of her thumb.
Over at London Calling, it looks as though a party is in full swing. The colorful salon is filled with chatter from lithe models with shocks of synthetic hair shooting from their heads. Vintage punk plays in the background; the collective height of the stylists’ monstrous platform shoes could dwarf Big Bad D.
One model is dismayed to discover that her costume includes a thong. Fretting over the shape of her derriere, she frantically calls out, “Norm, can you airbrush my ass so it looks round?”
Owner Norman Wagner says he’s deeply honored that his salon is the first white establishment to be invited to Hair Wars.
“The line between the two [races] is beginning to be fogged up into a gray area,” says Wagner. “You find white kids wanting more black hairstyles, and then you see a lot of black women with blond bobs.”
London Calling’s theme for the show is the Garden of Eden. Models portray Adam and Eve and the tree, a Mohawked zebra, a tousled lion, a peacock with real feathers, and a spiky porcupine. They are dressed in skimpy clothing, their skin airbrushed into stripes, feathers and tree bark.
Stylist Shari Davignon explains that Adam and Eve will enter the stage to elegant classical music, but once Eve plucks the apple and sinks into it, the music will segue into “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses.
“We had to throw some rock ’n’ roll in there,” she shrugs. “We’re white, ya know?”
The mane event
Hair Wars 2004 takes place at the International Market Place, a banquet/convention area located on the eighth floor of the Atheneum Hotel in Greektown. Diners at Fishbones are treated to a spectacle as models topped by lavish dos weave through tables en route to the venue.
Backstage is bustling and electric. The pungent smell of hairspray floats in the air as designers press, heat, curl, crimp, glue and tease their creations into perfection. The show itself is about a 50/50 mix of stylish yet suitable-enough-for-streetwear hair, and the truly jaw-dropping creations of fantasy styles, the haute couture of hair.
The audience, almost exclusively black, has shelled out $20 a pop to get in. Folks mingle around the bar and gradually fill the 800-plus seats as curtain time draws near.
The show opens with dancers from Cooley High in Detroit, and the verbal stylings of Doug, the Hair Wars poet.
From there, it’s off to the races.
One by one, stylists march their models down the runway, striking poses with style and aplomb. They are displayed on a big screen suspended over the stage that allows for close-ups of the elaborate dos. Music booms and crackles over a mediocre sound system. Retired stylist LaToya Pearson provides commentary: “This ’30s-style twist is all the rage. … Barb the Star Braider, the faster braider I’ve even seen. … Hair business is nothin’ but show business!” and “You go, girl!”
One stylist incorporates a bunch of dancing kids. One stands on his head, back to the audience, and wiggles his butt. When a 10-year-old ventures to the end of the stage and busts into the worm, the audience roars with delight.
Mz. Jade of Shay’s Salon in Detroit goes for an Oriental theme, her models gliding onstage to a song by the band Evanescence. Two men dressed in black twirl large batons as a model emerges with a fanciful latticework of hair, accented by tiny Chinese baubles. One guy accidentally bonks her with his baton and crumples part of the intricate creation. A model in a kimono has two dragons, sculpted out of braids, perched atop her head. When she reaches the end of the stage, billows of smoke emit from the dragons’ mouths, and the audience oohs and aahs. Backstage, Mz. Jade reveals the secret: inside each dragon is a bottle of aerosol sheen spray, rigged by remote so a press of a button triggers the spray. Under the bright lights the mist looks like smoke.
Part of the audience is rapt, part continues to mingle around the bar. Every one of the London Calling girls has a drink in hand and is whooping it up. The truckload of half-naked white people proves to be quite a curiosity; some stare, some sneer. One guy lasciviously asks to pose for a picture with them; the models gleefully oblige.
Onstage, stylist DeKoven, looking the spitting image of P. Diddy, lines his models in chairs and works his way down the row, his hands a blur of comb and spray, styling each one’s hair with a dramatic flourish. Patrons holler like they’re at a concert.
Janet Collection — the primary sponsor of Hair Wars — is next, featuring the company’s trademark reversible wigs. A model struts down to the runway, flipping her hair; a stylist then whips off the wig, turns it inside out, puts it back on the model’s head, teases it into shape, and voila! A completely different hairstyle, in less than 30 seconds. “Everybody say abracadabra,” purrs Pearson. The audience eats it up.
It’s finally London Calling’s turn, and the exhibition seems to go over well. When Pearson prods the audience to “give them the applause they deserve” the room cheers heartily. One man yells something inaudible, but based on his gestures and facial expressions, it’s not complimentary. The girl next to him looks wholly embarrassed.
The final stylist in the first segment is Big Bad D., who lumbers onstage in a head-to-toe crimson spangled costume and hat. His petite model, also dressed in red, clutches his hand as she delicately totters to the end of the stage, the monstrous headpiece balanced precariously on her tiny head. It’s an enormous hit.
Act I is done.
Wagner is pleased. “Isn’t this just too much fun?” he asks with a grin.
Humphries, who has changed into a stylish leather ensemble, is darting about, corralling models and designers. Backstage is even more packed, as models from the first act load out, and those for the second load in.
D. is walking his model backstage, who must crouch because of the low ceiling. “Oh, my God!” gasps a spectator as she crabwalks past. “That’s amazing!”
By the time the second segment commences, every seat is occupied. Two female rappers from Columbus, Ohio, kick things off. One sports a giant rainbow-colored clown wig, the other has false eyelashes the size of tarantulas.
“Everybody say Hair Wars! Hair Wars!” They incite the crowd.
Goldie is next, his hair flowing loose, sashaying down the runway in high-heeled boots. As he and his crew of dancers fly through his complex choreography, Goldie simply drips sass and attitude. The whole thing looks like it took months of rehearsal.
By the time Mr. Little hits with his Matrix routine, the audience is riled up to riotous proportions.
Mr. Little swaggers onstage, dressed in black trench coat, leather pants, motorcycle boots and sunglasses, and engages in an elaborate Kung Fu fight with another man. A train of slinky models, decked in skimpy black PVC outfits, trickles onstage. The clothing is reminiscent of fashions one might find in a goth or fetish nightclub.
Mr. Little tears open his trenchcoat, revealing a set of chiseled abs. One woman fans herself with her program, murmuring, “Oh, Lord, have mercy!”
He whips off a model’s weave in a flourish and throws it aside while Goldie tosses him a new one, which he fastens and styles in a flash. His entourage rips into an aggressive dance routine. The audience shouts and stomps their feet with delight.
The music segues into a techno remix of the Star Wars theme and a model leaps on Mr. Little, wraps her spindly legs around his waist and straddles him. He swiftly styles her hair, faster than the eye can follow. The audience screams. He performs a flip, and in doing so rips the sleeve of his trench coat. His response is to simply tear the whole sleeve off, revealing bulging biceps. Female audience members shriek their approval.
He lies on a platform on wheels, and two muscled guys flip a PVC-clad model in the air and suspend her upside down, her head hanging over Mr. Little’s frenzied fingers as he works her hair. He pushes the platform with his feet and the entire outfit rolls backwards, Mr. Little styling, the model’s body swaying as she dangles.
Later, Mr. Little reveals he intended to cut the model’s hair while she was suspended, but the scissors fell from his pocket during his flip.
As Mr. Little and his models finish their routine and strike a triumphant pose to the Shaft theme, the audience responds with a deafening standing ovation.
Kevin Carter is next. Though Mr. Little is a tough act to follow, Carter dazzles the crowd with his array of gravity-defying creations. In addition to the blossoming flower, he’s crafted an expansive spider web of hair, modeled by a femme fatale in a spider web collar and bracelet. For added panache, Carter comes onstage and adds an additional tier of webbing; it looks as though it must span five feet.
But after Mr. Little’s fiery showing, everything starts to feel anti-climactic. Around the three-hour mark the audience begins to fidget. Gradually, they slip from their seats and congregate around the bar, clapping stylists on the back, fawning over models, chatting with friends.
As the show ends, stylists begin disassembling their creations. Fake eyelashes are ripped off, makeup is scrubbed away, painful heels are cast aside, and the models slip into comfy clothes. It’s all over — but stylists who are participating in the tour must get ready to repeat the spectacle in San Diego in May.
Humphries is pleased with this year’s turnout of nearly 1,000. He says the show will be the talk of the hair circuit for weeks to come.
“Everybody talks about who turned out who, like, ‘You were kind of weak, I’m gonna kick your ass next time.’”
He thinks the most outrageous moment of the show was Mr. Little’s Matrix routine.
Noticeably absent, however, were perennial favorites like Little Willie’s zipper-hiding-the-python (or doves, or champagne), and Mr. Little’s oft-copied hairycopter.
Some stylists have strayed from trademark creations, opting instead to expand their artistic repertoire with new, shocking dos, lest they be stereotyped as “the zipper guy” or the “hairycopter guy.”
“I’ll do the hairycopter if they request it,” says Mr. Little, “but I like to bring in new and different fantasy styles.”
Humphries encourages his stylists to keep doing the tried-and-true showstoppers, especially while on tour, even if they seem “done.”
“It’s like I tell them,” says Humphries, “When the Temptations play a concert, they have to sing ‘My Girl.’ That’s what the audience wants, you know?”
Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.