Hair today gone tomorrow
Hair extensions is a growing industry. We report on a lucrative trade, from the people selling their locks to the women who wear them
Katie Glass, before, during and after receiving extensions (Muir Vidler)
Nobody ever mentions the pain. Oh sure, you think, I’ll get hair extensions. I’ll look like Cheryl Cole; men will want to sleep with me, women will hate me, my life will be better. It’ll only cost £2,000, why not? So I did. And they work. Men love them; women coo over them. I am instantly transformed from shambly hack to Russian hooker. But the pain. Oh, the pain. The gentle nagging agony of having 200 itchy weights constantly= pinching my scalp dragging me down by my ponytail into my own neck. I fantasise about shaving it off. And when I’m not doing that, another thought is haunting me: somewhere, someone is bald so I can look this good.
After China and America, Britain is the world’s third-largest importer of human hair. Growing demand means having imported £19m-worth in 2000, we were shipping in £42m by 2010 (and an estimated £45.6m in 2011). Brits googling “human hair” increased 49% in the last year. And one of the main reasons? A booming market in hair extensions, an industry estimated to be worth £65m in Britain alone. Once the preserve of Wags, porn stars and Jordan, extensions have upgraded from chavvy to chic. Everyone from Cheryl Cole to (allegedly) Kate Middleton has been seduced. Natural-looking and reassuringly expensive, they make you appear younger (by baby-fying your face) and thinner (by out-sizing your body). Besides, they come with attitude: summed up by Amy Winehouse when asked if her beehive was hers. She shot back: “Yeah, it’s all mine ’cos I bought it.” Hair extensions are the 21st-century version of an 18th-century powdered headpiece. They say “I am sexy” and “I am rich”. So I wanted some, obviously.
In a swivel chair at the ColorNation salon off Oxford Street, Brad takes my hair in his hands. “Mmm it’s very… natural,” he says, like that’s not a good thing. With 15 years in the industry, Brad does all the big names. “You know Lucy from Towie? That’s my hair.” The extension company he uses, Great Lengths, has seen demand leap — more than 70% in the past five years. Brad’s clients range from 16 to their sixties, from trendy teens to wealthy older women. His clients spend up to £2,000 for four-hour appointments every six months — “Normal women,” says Brad, “from women maxing out their credit card to treat themselves, to someone who won’t bat an eyelid.”
“Men love long hair,” trills Evgenia Nokhrina, 29, her golden extensions sweeping her waist. “My boyfriend loves it. I have a male friend who was mesmerised by it. Girls are very jealous.” Her colleagues don’t know it’s fake. An interior designer, she spends £1,200 on them every four months. “It’s addictive. I’m not very curvaceous, but as soon as I had my hair long, I felt more feminine, more beautiful. This is my trademark now.”
It’s addictive. I’m not very curvaceous, but as soon as I had my hair long, I felt more feminine, more beautiful. This is my trademark now
Businesswoman Pam Hague-Wilton, 44, spent £1,600 on her first set two months ago. “It was a tenfold return on my investment. It makes me feel more confident, more feminine, more relaxed. I see myself differently. My husband loves it — he was thrilled. I’m a bit of an instant-gratification person — I want long hair so I go and get long hair!”
“I want really, really long hair,” I tell Brad. But he says hair-extension virgins shouldn’t attempt more than 18in (because of the work of looking after them, and the weight). He tries some hair out against my head and I picture my new life. What will happen when a man runs his fingers though my hair? “Well,” drawls Brad, “his fingers will get stuck.” (Interview with a boy whose ex-girlfriend wore hair extensions: “I was going out with a really hot chick, then it turned out her hair wasn’t her own. If I was in bed and I tried to touch it she’d say ‘Uh, uh — that’s £200.’ ”)
In the salon, I ask Pam and Eve if they worry where their hair is coming from? “No,” says Pam. Evie shrugs: “Not so much.” In fact, the extensions ColourNation uses come from Great Lengths, which harvests hair shaved from the heads of tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims every day. They travel to the Venkateswara temple, in Tirumala, India, to have their hair removed in a practice called “tonsuring”, done to prove their ego-less religious devotion (an irony apparently lost on the Western women buying it). It’s a multimillion-pound industry. The high priest says that money from hair sales is ploughed back into the community. But the vast majority of hair in the extension industry isn’t so sacred.
Most hair imported to Britain comes from China. Stroud Green Road in Finsbury Park, London, is a hair-junkie’s Mecca, filled with hair shops where every wall, surface and shelf is flowing with a rainbow of scalps. Wavy, curled or poker-straight, ranging from £9.99 to £98.99. “100% human hair”, the packets say.
Increasingly, cheap hair like this has come under scrutiny. Since 2005 reports have emerged suggesting forced prison-camp labour has been used by Chinese wig-making companies (sourcing human hair from both China and India). Eight years ago, the deputy director of Moscow’s Centre for Prison Reform confirmed that some prison wardens were shaving inmates’ heads to earn extra cash. With concern mounting, yet demand for human hair growing, the hair industry has been in search of solutions. And, thanks to the recession, it may have found it: in Britain, people have begun selling their hair.
“Hair is a commodity, people don’t realise,” says Graham Wake, owner of Bloomsbury Wigs in central London. They have been harvesting hair from the British public for the past 18 months. People cram yards of hair into envelopes or come into Graham’s salon to have it cut off. Bloomsbury’s hair-harvest project in London schools has proved so successful it’s gone national. “Some of the children do it for charity,” says Graham. “A lot just do it for the hard cash.” In the past year, his company has spent around £21,000 on human hair. Upstairs in his office he grabs a ponytail and lays it out on the digital scales. Beside him, a wall is stacked with Perspex boxes labelled “Ponytails in waiting”, “light brown and short”, “long black best”; hair that’s been sorted by colour, length and quality. He opens up a box marked “grey” to reveal a collage of charcoals — light-white waves, coarse greys. It feels like a pile of soft dead rats.
Graham feels that buying hair in Britain is more ethical. “People are getting more aware of the hair and how ethically sourced it is. It’s nice to be able to say, ‘That’s from a lady called Marta,’ rather than, ‘I bought it for £150 and the lady in the Ukraine got £30 for it.’ He opens the “orange” box and pulls out a ginger pigtail. “Until you’ve got the hair in your hands you can’t tell the quality.”
They get a dozen parcels of hair in the post every week, many with letters. “This is my 2½-year-old son’s hair. He was hoping for some money for his quad-bike fund,” reads one. “I don’t smoke or drink, I drink protein shakes. At night I slept with my hair tied back in a braid and on a silk pillowcase,” promises another.