This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Fairy tales and mythology are fodder for TV and movies these days, but that doesn't explain why so many Rapunzels, Lady Godivas and Cousin Its (not to mention Samsons) are running around town with long, lustrous locks cascading behind them like veils with highlights. Rogaine? Minoxidil? Miracle-Gro? Why bother when there's a much quicker fix. If it's true that the bigger the hair, the closer to God, as they say in the South, then hair extensions really are the new religion.
"When I take a yoga class in L.A.," says film hairstylist and SHE by SoCaps hair-extensions celebrity artistic director Sacha Quarles (Sex and the City, Gangster Squad), "I really see it on downward dog: tape, glue, bonds at the roots, everyone has extensions. And not just celebrities."
After Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Kim Kardashian and assorted pop stars made mile-long locks aspirational, it only was a matter of time before every girl wanted them. Demand has created supply: There are all types of hair extensions at all price points, each with its own benefits (no more bad hair days) and downsides (breakage and extreme hair loss if done badly).
"Women know no matter what waif look Michelle Williams or Carey Mulligan has, men prefer long, Gisele-like hair," says hairstylist Yuki Sharoni, whose Beverly Hills salon offers extensions. "Long hair is synonymous with sex appeal." And we all know sex holds much more sway in Hollywood than style.
The side effects are legion: Jennifer Aniston famously outed herself as an extension-wearer who suffered breakage in 2011. Jennifer Lopez lost a few while dancing onstage in Connecticut, and Naomi Campbell was photographed with bald spots. John Blaine, a celebrity hairdresser who makes custom extensions and has worked with Dita Von Teese and Janet Jackson, advises that "no one should add more than 4 or 5 inches of length to their own hair. The longer it is, the heavier it is and the more it pulls."
Yet the upside seems to outweigh the down: Such celebrities as Vanessa Hudgens, Halle Berry, Jessica Simpson and Mindy Kaling have admitted to using them. Beyonce is rumored to haul around three trunks of hair custom made by her longtime hairdresser Kim Kimble to wherever she performs. Says editorial hairstylist Clyde Haygood, known for working with the Kardashian family and lots of pop and hip-hop divas: "We've been putting three times the amount of hair on singers than they actually have for years. It started with wigs, went to falls, now it's small pieces that can be woven in." Quarles mentions a reason for actresses to embrace extensions: "Directors much prefer them to wigs in movies, which have to be lit differently and can inhibit actors. And I can give someone a totally new look for a scene with extensions in an hour."
In real life, hair extensions have become fashion accessories, says Ken Paves, hairstylist to such stars as Eva Longoria, Victoria Beckham and Simpson: "Now putting on hair is just part of the wardrobe." And what Chris Rock said about African-American women in his 2009 documentary Good Hair -- "Black men know never to touch a black woman's head: Those weaves cost too much" -- now applies to women as a whole. "It's so expensive, now it's status to have them. It means you can afford to spend that money," says Piny Benzaken, the Beverly Hills wig and extension maker who claims to have invented extension wearing in 1977 for Farrah Fawcett (that's right -- those famed megalocks were augmented!) and Dolly Parton. "This is the new reverse snobbism."
Price points can range from $100 for a walk-in at Just Extensions, L.A.'s first hair extension "bar," to $4,500 and up for a session with Benzaken. What determines the price point is service, technique and quality of hair. "So many people are using extensions, it's gotten much harder to get great hair," says hairstylist Tina Dizon of The Private Room in Beverly Hills. "The problem with some hair shops is, they can say hair is 100 percent human hair" -- which can be styled, ironed or colored, unlike synthetic hair -- "even if only a fraction of it is. You need to trust someone in a good salon to get the best hair." Benzaken pays top dollar for hair from Russia for his A-list clients, who then fork over $400 to $1,500 a row for an average of one to three rows. Rasanda Rivera and Melissa Brown, the hair extension team at Meche in Beverly Hills, get their hair from India. Blaine, who works with a company called Milano Collection Wigs, says another big issue in hair quality is, "If you don't get the right color and texture match, extensions will look 100 percent fake." Agrees Rivera: "When the color is off, it's a hot mess. We always work in tandem with a colorist."
There are two widths of extension: "individuals," about 1-inch-wide pieces, and "wefts," which vary from a few inches wide to the whole circumference of the head. Then there's application: The "hair lock" method -- which uses a special gun to clamp a small metal bead around a real hair and an individual extension to bind them together -- is nearly extinct now because of breakage risks. Both the tape- and glue-affixing methods, which last a month or more, are quite popular and more affordable, costing hundreds of dollars as opposed to thousands, and can be removed by a gentle application of oil. The hair itself can be reused for up to a year.
A popular, apparently safe and pricier method is keratin bonds: taking an individual strand with a keratin strip attached to the end and wrapping that tip around a piece of real hair an inch off the root. Heat is applied, "but it shouldn't go above 230 degrees Fahrenheit," warns Quarles. "That's where the damage comes in. A lot of people let the heat get to 500. Past 350, you could be ruining your hair." An acetone-like solvent loosens the bond after it has been worn for two or three months. Sessions cost $1,800 to $2,500, and unfortunately, you can't reuse bonded hair. (Actresses often have this covered by the studios.)
The best news: The time required for application and removal now varies from 45 minutes to two hours, as opposed to the six hours it used to take to attach and take out hair-lock extensions every couple of months. All extensions have to be tightened every few months to prevent the tangling that pulls out real hair.
The fastest and safest solution are clip-on extensions, which start at $200 for quality pieces. While they used to be just for special occasions -- and have been used for photo shoots and videos for 20 years -- some women wear them all the time. Clients have hairdressers custom make them, which they must remove themselves at night. "You should never sleep in them," says Dizon. "That will pull your hair out." Also, clip-ons can move, fall out and are easier to spot on windy days. But they have become so prevalent that Dizon started a maintenance service: The Locks Lab. She can help you create personal clip-ons ($20, plus cost of hair) or condition, color and blow-dry the ones you have (starting at $40). They'll even do highlights and recut the wefts (starting at $100). "That instantly thickens the look of the hair but doesn't damage it," says Dizon. "But they can't be shampooed with regular shampoo or with detergent; they really need special care and maintenance."
At Benzaken's studio off Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills, there are photos on the wall of him with Paula Abdul, Avril Lavigne, Steven Tyler and Kirsten Dunst, on which she wrote: "To Piny: Keep Hollywood looking beautiful." Jokes the Israel-born former pro soccer player, "I'm the first person who did extensions on white people in Beverly Hills." His first client was Liberace, for whom he made toupees. "There's no way that scene in the new HBO film of him with his wig off could be true. I stuck them on his head with glue and wove them into his own hair." He also has made extensions for Tom Cruise for Rain Man, John Travolta for Pulp Fiction ("Tarantino came over and took pictures to make sure the hair would move right in the dance scene"), Ashton Kutcher for Jobs, Pamela Anderson, Lopez, Johnny Depp for The Brave and Charlie Sheen for a few films. Benzaken's unique process of combining tiny braids, beads and wefts allows extensions to stay in for up to five weeks and come out in 15 minutes. He says, "I love it when people feel beautiful, and beautiful hair is the fastest way to become beautiful."