Thursday, August 27, 2015

Documentary Works at Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Victoria Melody's Hair Peace

Victoria Melody in Hair Peace
Performers of all sorts come to EdFringe to tell their stories. According to her website, Victoria Melody "makes one-woman theatrical shows, performance interventions and films about British pastimes, passions and tribes."  Her latest show is Hair Peace, a surprisingly fascinating look at the multinational business of selling hair. 

The idea for the project came when Melody entered a beauty pageant in hopes of becoming Mrs. U.K. A hairdresser suggested she fluff up her look by wearing hair extensions. "Gross" was more or less Melody's response.  "It's just like wearing someone else's knickers that have been washed," the hairdresser retorted. To Melody, it seemed more like wearing someone else's fingernails, but she had her eye on the prize and did what she needed to do. Melody took the title of Mrs. Brighton, but her dreams of going all the way did not come true.  The results of her experience became the subject of her show Major Tom and then led her to investigate the genesis of the hair in the extensions she wore. 

Having watched CSI, Melody's first stop was a lab to have a DNA analysis of the hair conducted.  The scientist couldn't help her identify the individuals whose hair the extensions contained, but he was able to tell her that some of the hair was Indian and some was Russian.  (This meant that the extension was not "remy" or from only one person.) Armed with this information, Melody headed off to India.

At the Hindu temple of Tirumala Venkatswara, more than 12,000 pilgrims have their hair shaved each day as an offering to the gods.  The practice is representative of shedding your ego. Many pilgrims, most of whom are women, travel for days on foot in order to make this offering.  Melody shared a video in which she talked with a woman who had made the pilgrimage to Tirumala.  She stood in line for three days before being seated in one of the 650 barbers' chairs.  The audience watched a variety of emotions--shock, gratitude, elation--flow over her face as she went from having a full head of beautiful hair to the head of a monk. 

Indian hair is desirable for use in hair extensions because of its width and because it typically has not been processed (hence the reference to "virgin" hair). The temple makes millions of dollars each year from the sale of tonsured hair. For an interesting article about this practice--and what happens to the hair--click here.  

A hair factory in India
While in India, Melody interviewed Benjamin Cherian, a Harvard graduate and President of Raj Hair International. Her interview included a visit to a hair processing factory. The interview left me with no doubt that hair exportation is a big business.  Writer Scott Carney, author of "The Red Market," estimates the global market for human hair at $900 million annually, about 40% of which comes from hair extensions.  (Click here for an NPR interview with Carney, whose book covers the sale of body parts and blood as well as hair.) 

Melody's journey continued on to Russia, referred to as the "Rolls Royce of hair extensions."  (A bit surprisingly, a quick google search yielded no articles on the use of Russian hair in extensions.  I did, however, find lots of websites for ordering wigs and extensions made of Russian hair.  I wasn't tempted.)  Melody showed a video of a woman negotiating the sale of her dead mother's hair, which seemed more than a little bit creepy to me.  The practice is apparently fairly common. 

At the end of the day, Melody was not able to find out whose hair she wore on her head, but she had learned a lot about the hair business.  And so had I.   

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