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Mirror, Mirror: A change of heart about hair

Fake tresses, such as lace-front wigs, are not so distressing.

Mary J. Blige (left) and Tyra Banks are two celebs who have worn lace-front wigs to add body or length to their hair. (AP)
Mary J. Blige (left) and Tyra Banks are two celebs who have worn lace-front wigs to add body or length to their hair. (AP)Read more

Hairstyles come and go, and two years ago when I first wrote about the lace-front wig - the secret behind the back-length tresses of Tyra Banks, Vivica A. Fox, and Mary J. Blige - I hoped this mane phenomenon would have a very short shelf life.

I was wrong. But when it comes to weaves, tracks, and the epitome of fake hair - lace-front wigs - I've evolved.

I think.

Part of it is due to personal growth. My girlfriends (even my own sister) have been known to slip in a piece (or two) of long, straight or curly, even blond hair. And these African American women aren't conformers, nor are they anti-natural. For them, the decision simply is a fashion choice.

But my new lease on locks mainly was a result of a recent visit to the Jaguar Luxury Beauty Showroom, a 5,000-square-foot, lavender-scented enclave selling all kinds of hair on West Philadelphia's Lancaster Avenue.

Owner Terry Briggs invited me to check out the two-year-old facility that attracts a bevy of women seeking ease in hair maintenance and versatility. The staff is pleasant, and I noticed that most women don't share my hair hang-ups.

"We are finding that women like change," said store manager Janelle Muhlanga. "And so do I. I can wear straight hair one day and the next rock an Afro puff. It doesn't say anything more about me."

Lace-fronts have been on the fake-hair scene since the late 1990s when transvestite entertainer Rupaul wore them. But as lace-front hair-shaker Beyoncé Knowles grew more popular over the last five years, so did the wigs. By the way, Beyoncé wore one in the movie Obsessed: color 4 (brown) mixed with 27 (honey blond) with highlights 33 (a reddish/auburn).

The allure of the lace-front, when glued properly, is that it creates the illusion of hair growing from the wearer's scalp. But this is also the part that leaves me feeling skeevy. It's one thing to wear fake hair. It's another to make it appear as if it's naturally growing out of your scalp - when you know your hair could never grow out that way.

Generally, lace-fronts are made from human hair from India - one source is the 20 million pilgrims who annually donate their hair in a ceremony at the Tirupati temple. The most high-end is called remi. With these wigs, all of the hair ends are attached to the hairpiece in the same direction, and that allows for fewer tangles and more natural styling. The wigs usually cost $600 to $1,000. But because of its business connections, Jaguar's remi wigs sell from $250 to $400.

Still, fashion is about creating an identity as much as it is about following trends - and this is where I seem to get stuck in a state of lace-front hate. Hair is emotional for all women, but unfortunately for black women, the texture and length of our hair often directly affects our self-esteem. Long and straight is perceived as better than short and curly.

Despite my current dreadlocks, I was not immune to this. When I was a little girl growing up in the 1980s, my mom often pressed my kinky hair straight while we watched Soul Train.

In high school, I transitioned to Vigorol - a rotten-egg-smelling chemical that softened hair so it could be pressed out longer and straighter. In college I used a relaxer, and that lasted about 10 years; I had enough of setting my scalp on fire every six weeks.

It took a lot of convincing (by myself of myself), but my natural hair was going to have to do.

So when I walked into Jaguar Luxury, I brought with me my natural-hair-is-never-good-enough baggage. And my first thought was: Why did Briggs - a black man from New Orleans - think it was a good idea to sell Indian hair to his largely African American clientele?

For Briggs, it was a business decision. "We felt it was a recession-proof product," he said.

The words of a true entrepreneur.

Briggs began his career as founder of East West Realty Group. In 2006, he predicted that the bottom was about to fall out of the real estate business, so he met with colleagues Victor Harry and Kevin Reid to brainstorm new business opportunities. They decided there was a gold mine in the hair and beauty industry and formed East West Beauty and Hair Group.

Briggs had connections in China - the true fake-hair capital of the world - from which he was able to import remi hair and package it. In April 2007, he opened the Lancaster Avenue store, primarily to sell to stylists, and a second location at 60th and Chestnut Streets. He has plans to open two more stores in Philadelphia and one in Atlanta.

When the economy started to tank late last year, Briggs - partners Harry and Reid eventually left - switched the bulk of the business online, making sales directly to customers.

Store manager Muhlanga said she gets dozens of phone inquiries and several walk-ins a day. Briggs hired Shawna Dorego, a wig wearer and former New York City teacher, as the company's CEO.

Sales, Briggs said, are good.

"We started out in the low six figures," he said. "But we are expecting to sell over $1 million worth of hair this year."

Still, I wondered, is all this fake hair really beneficial for women's self-esteem?

And then Aisha Campbell walked in wearing a turquoise crocheted beanie on her shoulder-length lace-front tresses. She didn't like the wig she had on, and she wanted to get something curly for the summer.

"I wear them because I like to do different things with my hair," Campbell, 27, said. "It's about self-expression and wearing a lot of different looks. I feel good about myself. I love the hair that's on my head, but I love switching it up."

And because that is what fashion is all about, I'm trying to get over my issues. After all, the definition of beauty can include all womankind - those with natural and relaxed hair. Although I still don't think I'd ever rock a lace-front.