There once was a girl with one little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead
And when she was good she was very good
And when she was bad she was horrid.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (as told by my mother)
“What product do you use?” Dickie Ferriuolo asked just moments after I entered his salon last October. He turned away from the woman whose hair he was cutting and pointed his shears and gut in my direction.
What product did I use? I barely remembered. Walgreens had run out of what I usually purchased — Curls Up, a clear, sticky serum that, contrary to its name, kept my hair weighted down — and I bought the first bottle I saw with the word “curl” on its label. It was a slimy cream that made my hair hard and left white flakes in my crunchy ringlets. I knew whatever answer I told Dickie was going to be the wrong one. I was abusing my curls.
“I don’t even know the name,” I fibbed.
Dickie blew off my response and touched my hair. He looked at me over his nose. “Of course, we’re going to cut your hair.”
“You’ve got to find something else to fixate on,” my friend told me as we primped in the mirror of a movie theater bathroom. Like me, she has a head of brown curls, though less defined and frizzier. I had met Dickie a few days earlier and was smoothing my hair before the latest Clint Eastwood movie started. “That’s why I started flossing,” she suggested.
Most of my life has been spent figuring out how to deal with my curls. I barely had hair until the age of three. Then, once it started growing, it became long and stringy, like angel hair pasta that had been overcooked and fried. When I was eight years old I had my hair cropped to match my mother’s thick pixie cut. With each snip, the hairdresser at the chic Beverly Hills salon grew increasingly worried. At the last moment he decided my hair needed extra oomph. When I looked in the mirror there was an undefined pouf, a hair tumor, growing out of the front of my head. That, I thought, was the end of short hair for me.
I let it grow over the next few years. In freshman year of high school it stretched to the middle of my back when wet. Knots gathered just underneath my skull, and each night — in a Louisa May Alcott-esque ritual — my mother brushed my hair and braided it before I went to sleep. The following morning I tied it up in a frizzy bun. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I got the courage to shear it again (not as short as before). Every morning after I showered, I twirled each curl around my index finger with a hefty dose of leave-in conditioner to maintain a Shirley Temple-bounce. By college I thought I had it figured out. I learned that scrunching with at least four handfuls of product after I shampooed and conditioned every morning worked to hold my springy curls in place. It wasn’t perfect, but it sufficed.
I have never straightened my hair, partly out of a fear that I’d end up looking like Roseanne Roseannadanna, and partly because I have always taken — or at least pretended to take — a firm “I love my curls” stance. I dealt with my curls the way after-school specials and episodes of Degrassi told me to deal with defects: love them and embrace them for what they are. Still, I was never entirely happy with my hair. Throughout the course of a day the beast above my eyes became dry and unruly. Friends teased that the more stressed I was, the more fro-like my hair became. Of course, whenever asked about my curls, I would respond gushingly (oh my gosh, I love them, I’m so lucky), but I always felt my tresses were what stopped me from being pretty. What boy would want to run his fingers through my rough mop when there was some chick with silky smooth locks just ready to be petted?
“You got a boyfriend at Yale?” Dickie asked me. I shook my head. “Well, after I cut your hair you’re going to thank me.”
Dickie tells his clients that he’s not a “chi chi hairdresser,” and despite his pricey products and $50 women’s haircuts, no one would mistake him for one. He got into the business by chance. After he was picked up by a New Haven police officer for taking bets on football games, his lawyer advised him to tell the judge he was going to barber college so he wouldn’t have to face charges. He opened his first shop, Gentlemen’s Workshop, in New Haven in 1964. In the Elm City’s radical years, Dickie’s place was the only one in town that would deign to serve men with long hair. Soon the word “Gentlemen’s” became irrelevant, and he began serving women as well. Dickie moved his business to its current location in 1984.
The Workshop is in a tiny converted apartment over one of New Haven’s many Thai restaurants. The shop is filled with tchotckes: an old-fashioned cash register, a Camel cigarettes clock, a harlequin mask from when Dickie was the kind of guy who ran around New York City with the Studio 54 crowd. When you climb into the hydraulic styling chair, all proprietary boundaries disappear. Dickie will put his hand on your back or knock you gently on the chin. If he knows you well, he’s not afraid to give you a peck on the cheek, and he always feels free to touch your hair.
The survivor of three divorces, Dickie is happy to talk about your love life — as long as you’re not married. “You’re never going to get advice about marriage from me,” he told a client with a sparkling stone on her left hand. “I’ll even talk about your vagina. I’ll talk about anything else but.” He breezily drops names from his forays into high fashion. “My favorite is probably Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell,” I heard him once confide. “I don’t know her that well, but she’s gorgeous.” And he expresses his fondness for his clients through cheerful insults. When one of them complained about the sharp pick with which he had lifted her heavy curls off her scalp, he said jokingly, “Will you stop bitching, please?”
Little curly hair in a high chair
What’s your order for today?
Little curly hair in a high chair
I’ll do anything you say.
— Fats Waller
On my third visit to Dickie’s salon he cut my hair.
Before we began, I asked Dickie to keep my bangs and the length of my hair intact. After he fastened a smock around my neck, he pinned the front section of my hair on top of my head. He then began his massacre.
Dickie’s body plodded around me. His fingers moved seemingly without purpose, snipping hair, which fell like rain onto my lap. He likened his cutting style to “Eddie Scissorhands.”
I looked at Dickie’s own hair next to mine in the mirror. Coarse gray filaments poured out of the sides of his head. Despite the straightness of his hair, there was something curly about Dickie, and it wasn’t his rotund stomach or the looping letters of his faded tattoo. He was unruly, unconventional. He was too touchy-feely, too erratic, too much of a free spirit, too prone to do whatever he liked and be damned with it. Like my hair, which he clipped with abandon, Dickie was a bit frightening.
As he cut, Dickie told me about Tony Curtis and Eli Wallach and the time he worked for Mike Nichols and Joseph Papp. My stomach clenched as I watched the red and blonde highlights from a summer trip to a salon in Los Angeles fall to the floor and the curls close in around my neck. Dickie shuffled from side to side and unpinned sections of my hair, continuing to cut. I politely answered his questions about my family and my studies even though I really wanted to grab the shears out of his hands and scream, “No! Stop it!” When nearly all my hair lay about me on the floor, he asked me to reach up and style it the way I wanted. It was too puffy on the top, so I patted it down and he cut some more, switching shears as he went.
As he washed my hair, his face — gnarled like one of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things — hung over me, and he punched his stubby fingers into my scalp. He sat me, dripping, under a dryer and handed me a stack of his salon’s user reviews. The first one I read was from “kellycal02,” who was disappointed that Dickie didn’t listen to her and had “chopped” her hair. I empathized.
Once dry, I obediently bought the products that Dickie told me would be best for my new cut and hurried down the Workshop’s short, carpeted staircase. I was on the verge of tears. My hair was gone. The curls were tight and bouncy, but I had visions of my eight-year-old self leaving the salon in Beverly Hills: hair short, pouf protruding, looking like a cross between a French poodle and Prince.
Her unadorned golden tresses wore Disheveld, but in wanton ringlets
wav’d As the Vine curles her tendrils, which
impli’d Subjection, but requir’d with gentle
sway, And by her yielded, by him best
receivd, Yielded with coy submission, modest
pride, And sweet reluctant amorous delay.
—Paradise Lost, Book IV, Lines 305-311
Milton’s Eve had curly hair. And she was responsible for the fall of mankind.
In other words, we don’t have a good precedent. But I’m not being totally fair. Curly hair has gone in and out of style since Eve bit that apple. Don’t you recall the Roman busts with their masses of marble corkscrews or Marie Antoinette’s silver wigs? In the movie “Clueless,” the Austen-inspired heroine Cher gives her less fashionably inclined friend Tai a makeover, transforming Tai’s frizz to ringlets. “She looks like one of those Botticelli chicks,” Cher says. Yes, Botticelli’s women, including his Venus emerging from a clamshell, had long red waves. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, most girls with curls are the best friends, the comedians, or the children. Curls come with oversized noses (take certain Streisand performances or Jennifer Grey in “Dirty Dancing”) and high voices (Shirley Temple and Little Orphan Annie). Sure, there are the occasional glamorous exceptions, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s: Cher in “Moonstruck,” Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally…”, Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”, Sarah Jessica Parker in “Sex and the City” (but in order to remember Carrie Bradshaw we must also remember Patty Greene). No one ever considered Lucille Ball a sex symbol, though.
On my first visit to Dickie’s salon, he handed me the first edition of a book called “Curly Girl,” which outlines some of this curly- haired history. The book features testimonials about curly hair and “potions,” a.k.a. home remedies, for those who feel comfortable putting fruit and potatoes on their scalps. A corporate human resources administrator writes: “I hope that I can find another man who understands that dealing with my curls is a major part of my existence.” Joy Behar, the talk show host and comedian, discusses the process of straightening her hair in high school. Like an article in Seventeen, the book asks: “Which curl are you?” I’m corkscrew.
Lorraine Massey, the woman behind DevaCurl, a curly hair product line, method, and lifestyle, co-wrote Curly Girl. When I talked to her on the phone not too long after I had my hair cut by Dickie, she spoke about curly hair as if it were an endangered species or a repressed population. Massey, who has a British accent I can’t quite place, called herself an “evangelicurl.” She said it would be “politically incorrect” for her to straighten hair and that the “biggest question of every single person on this planet” has to do with frizz. “Hairdressing today is, take every single head of hair and reduce it to a straight line,” she said. “It’s all we know. It’s a mass interpretation of a belief system that we have just succumbed to. Everybody wants to be free.” I learned from watching Dickie that when it comes to curly hair, there are a lot of rules I have to follow in order to be free: I shouldn’t shampoo it, shouldn’t dry it with anything other than a microfiber towel or cotton t-shirt or pillowcase, should have it cut dry, and, of course, should use Deva products.
When I came to Dickie’s, I admit I wasn’t unfamiliar with Deva. I had been to two Deva salons, but the methods didn’t click. It all seemed like too much work, and the idea of not shampooing my hair was distressing. Dickie first heard about Deva in the early aughts. He signed up for a class to learn the method, even though he hadn’t been given any sort of lesson in nearly 40 years. Lorraine refers to Dickie as one of Deva’s “long-term” followers. His certificates from Deva hang in a corner near the sinks. He has two: one for “Dickie” and another for “Gaetano,” his real name. Dickie sells the sulfate-free Deva products in his own salon to clients like me. Instead of shampoo, which dehydrates hair, Deva has “No-Poo,” a “zero lather conditioning cleanser.” Instead of gel, a curly girl is supposed to put “AnGEL” in her soaking wet hair, designed to hold curls in place without the crunch. She should spray her hair with “Mist-er Right,” a lavender mixture, to keep it looking fresh. I was instructed to use “One Condition,” a daily Deva conditioner, “AnGEL,” and “Mist-er Right.” Dickie tells clients that he worries about sounding like an advertisement. “That’s why you don’t hear me talking about products,” he said. “I’d rather show you.” He’ll show you and then sell you everything on the shelf for a discounted price.
Once I left Dickie’s after my cut, I couldn’t stop looking at myself in the mirror. My hair was darker, back to its natural color, which I hadn’t seen since my freshman year of high school. It was fluffier, but wrong. My hair is supposed to be a weight — a constant reminder of my major physical flaw.
Later that day I sat down next to a friend. “You look like … who do you look like … is it Annie?” he said.
Typical. Another friend passed by: “I love your hair. You got it cut, right? It’s gorgeous!” Really? I thought. But I just thanked her. The next morning I decided I would try the Deva regimen. I took my Aveeno shampoo and conditioner out of the shower and replaced it with the stylish green Deva bottles. I applied generous amounts of Deva “One Condition” in the shower, washed it out, flipped my head over when finished, shook the water off the way a dog would, pounded on the Deva gel, dried with an old t-shirt, let it sit. I emerged, hair sopping, confidence wavering.
I stole glances at myself whenever I could. This is disastrous, I sometimes thought. As soon as it starts to grow out it’s going to look weird. It’s going to start to feel greasy without shampoo. Plus, my signature dance move involves shaking my hair around, and that just doesn’t work now. But sometimes I thought: This is it. This is what I was waiting for.
I went back to Dickie’s salon two days later. He looked at my hair and told me, “Right now, I love it!”
“Yeah, I like it a lot too,” I said. “But I was nervous it was too short…” I said. In those early days post-haircut, the curls piled themselves on the top of my head, making a curly faux-hawk. Dickie told me to scrunch, and once I did they jumped back in place. Still, I realized my haircut wasn’t perfect. It lost its shine late at night, and expanded when I was stressed. If I applied the wrong amount of product, it bent in odd ways, leaving curls askew. But I liked my hair. I liked touching it without the fear of sticky fingers. I liked the way it made my face look — longer and thinner.
My new hair made my eyes bigger and browner. I continued to follow the Deva steps laid out for me, and my hair obeyed. It had become a beast I could control.
That weekend was Halloween. Growing up, Halloween was a difficult holiday for me because my hair always prevented me from having a convincing costume. Every time I tried to look like someone else, I always ended up looking like a version of me. I spent many evenings answering the question: “Who are you supposed to be?”
This year I tried to think of a costume that I could adapt to my new hair. Harpo Marx (or, rather, Lucille Ball as Harpo Marx) was an option, but as I started to dress for a party, all I wanted to do was wear a pretty dress and boots. I put on long earrings, which were now visible without my mass of hair, and sprayed “Mist-er Right,” until the floral scent overpowered my tiny room. I looked in the mirror of the dirty bathroom my suite shares with the four boys across the hall. My hair was shiny and soft. I looked good.
What was I going to say when asked who I was pretending to be for the holiday? “Esther Zuckerman.”