The Hair Wars
A riddle for pop culture vultures: What's part Paris runway, part "Showtime at the Apollo," part World Wrestling Federation and part professional trade show? The answer is, of course, the Hair Wars. Coming at you live and direct on July 13-14 from Detroit, the "Hair Capital of the World," this twice-yearly extravaganza of hirsute creativity and flamboyant showmanship incorporates all of the above and more. With a bill of names that reads like contestants in a pro wrestling Battle Royale -- Hair Fighter, Big Bad D., Little Willie, Mr. Little, Mike Horner & the Horsemen and Willie the Whip -- the event hosts most of the country's top black hairstylists in a quest for fame, glory, "oohs 'n' aahs" and, perhaps most importantly, new customers.More than 50 designers -- most of whom are from Detroit and the suburbs -- will cut, weave, stick, slick and spray their way toward hair supremacy during both the "Detroit versus America" program and the more entertainment-oriented "Battle of the Hair Characters." In pursuit of the ultimate do, they'll use countless cans of hair spray and gallons of styling gel to sculpt the tresses of more than 300 models. Then, to the backbeat of recorded Motown soul, R&B and hip hop, the coif artists will lead their models down the runway. Some stylists keep their programs simple, espousing the sassy elegance of a European fashion show, while others go for the outrageous, show-stopping jugular.Take Ypsilanti's Big Bad D. for example. The 6-foot-6 former bodybuilder-turned-hair celebrity prefers props and sets suited for Tutankhamen. He and his dancers and models sport outfits of alligator hide, some of which he claims to have bagged with his own hands. He's also recently been courted by the World Wrestling Federation.Big D. is just one of a growing number of larger-than-life characters whose mythology starts with the Hair Wars, and he's not the only headliner on board for the party. The Hair Fighter is a Detroit salon stylist who narrates his set with freestyle rhymes about the tall, tight, multicolored rolls sported by his runway supervixens. At past shows, the Fighter has re-created -- complete with life-sized props and sets -- both Rosa Parks' famous bus ride and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.Two of Detroit's most visible hair designers are Little Willie and Mr. Little. Little Willie, the "Zipper King," creates rolling, curling and cascading variations on the classic beehive, but with built-in zippers in back! Inside the 2-foot-tall dos, Willie hides such surprises as 4-foot snakes or a champagne service for two (how very romantic!).Detroit's Mr. Little pioneered a now-signature Hair Wars standard, the "Hairy Copter." For this helicopter made out of human hair, Little became known as the "Hair Motor Man": an efficient tag for a guy who makes motorized ground and air vehicles and 3-foot-high spinning explosions of color out of human hair. Not only does Hair Wars destroy all notions of conventional hairstyles, it busts the stereotype of hairdressers, too."The common stereotype is that male hairdressers are gay," says Hair Wars pioneer and organizer, DJ David Humphries. "People assume that the stylists from Detroit are, too. But then they meet Big D. and the other guys and they think again." Unlike many other cultural phenomena, the outrageous Hair Wars styles started right here in flyover country. The shows grew from a club gimmick; to keep his weekly party hopping, Humphries (aka Hump the Grinder) mediated the first wild hair contest at a downtown Detroit hot spot, Club Elan (now Club Network), back in 1986. For the next three years, Humphries hosted the club's Wednesday Night Hair Connection, little realizing that this sideline attraction would turn into a full-time gig for him and put Detroit on the salon map as the "Black Hair Capital of the World.""These stylists sign autographs wherever they go," notes Humphries. "Detroit dominates the Hair Wars in the same way that Motown dominated the music scene in the '60s."But it took a while for the rest of the country to catch on. "When the Hair Wars first went out to Los Angeles three years ago, a lot of the audience looked at the styles and said ÔHow Detroit!' with the hard spritz and everything," says longtime Hair Wars stylist Phyllis Patillo, who keeps a chair at Detroit's La Parisian Salon. "But when we went back two years later, there were so many people copying the Detroit style it was amazing. Hair Wars really shook up the styles out there."Hair Wars has earned such a large following that it's moved out of the clubs and into hotel ballrooms, spreading its message of love, peace and hair grease to cities as far away as Los Angeles, San Diego and Chicago -- a sort of black hair avant-garde. Organizers plan, in the near future, to travel as well to Japan, France and Canada.But remember, it all got rolling here in Detroit. "I think you have a lot of people in Detroit that are daring," says Patillo.Humphries agrees. "Since Detroit is primarily a black city, more people can get away with wilder hairdos in the office setting," he explains. "In some cities only high school kids can get away with these styles. In Detroit, big dos are a comment."And while all the styles may not be as outrageous as a zippered beehive, they show a level of imagination that makes for wild form without sacrificing function (whether that means going to work or shaking it with style in a club)."People may not be able to get away with something as outrageous as a 'Hairy Copter' but it takes a hell of a hairstylist with a hell of an imagination to do that," says Patillo. "And that's what brings the clients in and keeps it all rolling."