AS CO-OWNER of the Grooming Room on Brooklyn's Nostrand Avenue, a street so dense with beauty outlets that it almost seems zoned for that purpose, Tiffany Brown is a high priestess of the do. When I first met her yesterday, her face was framed by closely cropped bangs and tresses hanging to her chin. Today she looks altogether different, with hair pulled tight against her scalp into a ponytail just an inch long. Tomorrow, it might well be glamorous locks cascading down her back. The secret of Brown's chameleon powers: extensions made from human hair. It's "a necessary accessory, like earrings or a necklace," she says. "It lets me be whoever I want to be for a day." Her clients feel the same way; they spend about $400 a month maintaining their extensions, she says, though a few drop thousands. Between shops like hers and celebs who might shell out $10,000 or more for a single wig or weave, the demand adds up to a $900 million global trade in human hair—not counting installation.
Chris Rock's 2009 documentary, Good Hair, focused attention on the trouble and expense many a black woman goes through in her quest for straight hair. "Have you ever put your hands through a black woman's hair?" Rock asks some guys in a barbershop. The response: "Hell no! Not a black woman's hair!" (Too expensive.) But extensions are "not a black or white thing or even a woman's thing," says Lori Tharps, coauthor of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. She points to the recent admission by tennis star Andre Agassi that for much of his career his signature mullet was in fact a weave.
In any case, those seeking a high-end look know what to ask for. It's called "remy" hair, which is more or less synonymous with hair from India. Top salons prize it for the way it's collected, in a single cut, which preserves the orientation of the hair's shingle-like outer layer, and thus its strength, luster, and feel. That's what defines remy, and that's the reason it commands a premium price. "If you want cheap hair," sniffs one supplier's blog, "you're going to get a cheap looking hairstyle." Beyoncé wears remy hair, as do Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, and any Hollywood starlet who's been within a mile of a first-class weave. "The only hair worth buying is remy," says one of Brown's clients, her hair wrapped around enormous curlers. "They say that it's cut from the heads of virgins."
VIRGINS, CHECK. But also mothers, fathers, little kids, and not-so-pure American reporters. To see the whole process up close and personal, I have traveled to Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, a sprawling Hindu temple in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Tirumala is the planet's top supplier of remy hair and point of origin for at least 30 percent of the Indian trade, a fact that doesn't seem to bother devotees of the resident god Venkateswara—an incarnation of Vishnu.
A throng of ripe humanity presses me through a series of wrought-iron gates and into the Kalyana Katta, the temple's tonsuring center. As we inch slowly toward the inner sanctum, cracked concrete floors give way to cool white tiles. After 15 minutes, a uniformed man hands us paper tokens imprinted with a bar code and a picture of Venkateswara. The next official I encounter, clad in a stained brown shirt, hands over two razor blades: one for my head, one for my throat.
The crowd of men and women proceeds down a wide staircase whose landing is covered in a soggy mixture of tepid water and black hairballs. The air is moist and smells of rancid coconut oil. The stairs end at a vast, tiled chamber resembling a neglected Olympic swimming facility, where long lines of men face tiled benches running along the walls. (Women are herded into a separate room.) In the center are four massive steel vats.
I match my token code—MH1293—to a sign on the wall, then take my place in a queue of about 50 bare-chested men in black sarongs. The pilgrim at the head of the line bows low as a man with a straight razor makes swift work of his curls. Satisfied, the barber looks up, spots me, and beckons me forward. He has a ragged cloth tied around his waist over white striped boxer shorts. No high priest, clearly. Just a worker bee for the holy hive.
I assume the position as he fixes my blades to the razor handle. "Start praying," he says. I try to remember the god's face, but there's no time to contemplate: The man forces my head downward and runs the blade down from the top of my head with the practiced efficiency of a sheepherder. Satisfied, he grabs my chin, sticking a thumb in my mouth as he prepares to dispense with my beard. I watch the brown hair fall away in clumps, joining the dark, wet mash underfoot.
The curly-haired guy, like me, is now bald, with small nicks in his scalp and pink streaks of blood dripping down his back. He meets my eyes and smiles broadly. "Venkateswara will be pleased." His wife is offering her hair in the other room. Together they will return to their village bearing a symbol of humility and devotion that all will recognize.
A woman in a blue sari flashes by and scoops my hair from the gutter into a bucket. Each time her bucket fills, she stands on her tiptoes and empties it into one of the tall vats. By day's end all four will be filled with hair destined for the auction block.
Name-dropped in the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata, Tirumala is holy ground for 50,000 pilgrims who arrive daily from across South Asia to seek favors from their god. In addition to monetary donations, about one in four offer their hair, which will then be offered to the gods of the marketplace, reaping a reported $10 million to $15 million each year. Including donations, the temple boasts that it takes in more money than the Vatican—a dubious claim. In any case, temple leaders announced a plan last October to plate the walls of the sanctum sanctorum with gold. (Profits from the hair, according to the temple website, are used to support temple programs and feed the needy.)
Indian hair is sold to two distinct markets. The bulk of it, some 500 tons per year from short-haired men like me, is purchased by chemical companies that use it to make fertilizer or L-cysteine, an amino acid that gives hair its strength and is used in baked goods and other products. The more lucrative hair of female pilgrims—temple employees call it "black gold"—is tied in individual bundles and brought to the tonsuring center's top floor, where women in cheap flower-print saris labor over small heaps of the stuff, sorting it by length. An armed guard frisks all who exit. There's no way anyone is going to get past him with a single precious strand.
Human hair contains all sorts of secretions, including sweat and blood, plus food particles, lice, and the coconut oil many Indians use as a conditioner. Put 21 tons of the stuff in a room blooming with mildew and fungus and the stench is overpowering. One volunteer, her own long hair bound in a tight braid, appears to smile at me, but she's wearing a scrap of cloth over her nose and mouth, so she might be grimacing. It's difficult to imagine that bits of this foul-smelling heap may one day adorn the heads of American pop stars.
THE REINCARNATION of temple hair as a beauty accessory started out as a relatively humble affair. Until the early 1960s, the temple simply burned the hair it collected. (Citing pollution, the government banned the practice during the 1990s.) Then wig makers began seeking raw materials at Tirumala. At the temple's first auction, in 1962, the hair sold for 16 rupees a kilo—about $24.50 in today's dollars. Now it fetches up to 10 times as much, and the auctions have become cutthroat affairs.
To check it out, I drive a few miles to the bustling town of Tirupati, where the temple's marketing unit operates out of a string of warehouses filled with drying hair. In a large boardroom, Indian traders representing 44 companies are crowded around tables, prepared to drop millions of dollars in a complicated process of backroom negotiations. "The hair business is unlike any other," says Vijay, who owns a hair-exporting house called Shabanesa, and like many South Indians goes by a single name. "In any other business, buying a commodity is easy; it's the selling it to retailers that is difficult. Here it's all reversed. It's simple to sell hair, just difficult to buy it."
Tensions are running particularly high today. The temple is pressing for a higher price than last year's, and traders are worried that the global economic meltdown will batter the extensions market. Halfway through the evening India's largest hair reseller—K.K. Gupta, whose Gupta Enterprises did a brisk $49 million in sales in 2008—accuses the temple directors of trying to set an inflated price and walks out. After an hour, which Gupta spends in the parking lot making calls and threatening to go to the papers, the price is set slightly lower. Then another reseller loudly charges that Gupta is trying to corner the market. A muscular bidder has to step in to prevent fisticuffs.
Another three hours and it's approaching midnight. The price for the longest and most durable product hovers around $193 per kilo ($70 less than last year, I'm told). Over the next few days trucks will deliver the hair to the distributors, where the alchemy of transforming human waste into a luxury product takes place.
SOME EIGHTY-FIVE MILES from the auction site, on an industrial lot on the outskirts of the coastal metropolis of Chennai, George Cherian, chairman of Raj Impex, one of India's largest hair-export houses, awaits his delivery. The hair must be checked for lice, painstakingly untangled, washed in vats of detergent, and combed until it's of export quality. "The real value of what we do is right here, when we grade the hair and transform it from waste into something beautiful," Cherian says. He pulls out a handful of smoothed hair the size of a riding crop, noting that it will fetch $15 on the international market.
The bulk of hair sold in India isn't tonsured, he notes—it comes from garbage bins, the floors of barber shops, and the combs of long-haired women. Nomadic families and small businesses go door-to-door bartering hair clips, rubber bands, and trinkets for it. "This work supports tens of thousands of people across India in cottage sorting and collecting industries," Cherian says. "The rule is simple: Remy hair goes to the US, the rest goes to Africa."
In a storage room, he shows me 400 kilos of hair packed in boxes and bound for cities throughout the world. His warehouse contains several tons more, ready to ship. "The demand is huge," Cherian says, "but I don't think that anyone outside of India would ever be able to do this. We survive because of the cheap labor. No one in Italy, or California, could prepare the hair for less."
California, in fact, is where a good deal of the hair ends up—mostly in places like Oakland's Glamour Beauty Supply, where three rows of human-hair wigs sit on Styrofoam heads behind the counter. China Bullock, a fiery 24-year-old Denny's waitress with bangs the color of cherry soda, is looking at nonremy extensions, which are $21 a pack—a splurge considering that you need two for a proper do. She can't resist asking about remy, but when the shopkeeper points out the price—$120 per pack—Bullock recoils. "It's way cuter," she laments, settling instead for two $12 packs of synthetic hair. Maybe one day, she says, she'll be able to afford the real thing.