'Big Hair Alaska': Can Sarah Palin's Beauty Parlor Make For Good TV?

The Wasilla salon where the former vice presidential candidate gets her hair done is the subject of TLC's latest series, premiering tonight

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TLC


When John McCain introduced his running-mate in the summer of 2008, Sarah Palin faced the world for the first time. She emerged onstage with her hair pulled back in an updo, her bangs curled over her forehead, looking like a beauty queen—which, as it turned out, she was.

Palin had big hair. But as Melanie Griffith taught us in Working Girl, "If you want to be taken seriously, you need serious hair." Palin had been going to the same beauty salon for years, long before her ascent in politics and tabloids. She and her hair learned a thing or two along the way, and together, tried to be taken seriously. Jessica Steele, the owner of Wasilla's Beehive Beauty Shop, wielded the scissors and comb behind the scenes, sculpting Palin's do as it evolved over the course of her career. Steele will now step out into the spotlight with a reality show to premiere tonight on TLC—the network behind the season-long run of Sarah Palin's Alaska. The title of Steele's program has a familiar ring to it: Big Hair Alaska.

"The client that really put me on the map was Sarah Palin," Steele says in the premiere, explaining that she created the updo "so that those earrings didn't get stuck in her hair when people give her hugs and stuff. And it just kind of evolved into her classic look."

The first episode opens with a series of three shots: a stream rolling over a rocky path, a grizzly bear, and Steele's salon. Out of context, a viewer might think that one of these images is not like the other, and the salon does not belong with the other two. Not so, in Wasilla, Alaska, as we soon learn from a distraught client, Julia, who arrives at the Beehive with news involving her 15-year-old son and an angry bear. This type of storytelling is commonplace in beauty shops everywhere, but the details of the tale are distinctly Alaskan.

"Sheldon said he could still remember the way it felt, feeling that fur go over his face," Julia says as Steele combs back her hair and sighs. Sheldon then drives up to the salon in a four-wheel motor bike for his own haircut, and tells his mom that he plans to go out hunting that evening. Steele explains to the folks at home that, where she's from, danger is everywhere. And when your child goes out hunting, you've just got to pray.

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AP Images

The salon has bubblegum pink walls and sundry girly accoutrements—chandeliers, glitter, beauty supplies. Although the Beehive gained recognition for catering to Palin, who has remained a client, the show isn't overtly political. Like any salon, it's an escape, where the cosmetic supersedes one's inner convictions. "Big Hair Alaska" acknowledges Palin as its raison d'être, laughs at it, and moves on.

"So we've got another client coming in," Steele announces at her staff meeting. "She's a ventriloquist, puppeteer, Sarah Palin impersonator."

"What?"

Steele turns to one of the stylists, Mariah, to explain, "I do the real Sarah Palin. That's our home girl. You can do the wannabe."

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Betsy Morais is an editorial assistant at The New Yorker.

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