Godly Locks: Inside L.A.'s Bizarre Human Hair Business

Wig-making may be the only industry that relies on religious devotion, Hollywood glamor, and raw materials harvested from human heads.

wigs3.jpgLeft: Indian devotees at the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple pose with freshly shorn scalps (IndiaDivine.org); right: Paris Hilton wears a wig at a fashion show (Reuters).

Spend any time in the San Fernando Valley and you'll come upon a house like this: ceiling pocked with acoustic spray that could easily contain asbestos; gold-flecked wallpaper and beveled mirrored tiles; bulbs that sear Stasi-watt light onto a mute carpet; bedrooms with doors ajar just enough to know you don't want to enter. It was in such a house on an evening in the mid-1990s that I found myself drifting past guests chattering in Continental tongues into the kitchen where my host, Isaac Bracha, was chopping mint. We had met a week earlier at some chic gathering in Los Feliz. He had mentioned what he did for a living, but I suppose I had thought he was joking.

Now, standing amid stacks of cookbooks, I happened to look down. On the worn linoleum floor next to the stove lay a blue plastic vat. Inside it, floating in a dark liquid, was a thick coil of human hair. Shiny, silky, medium brown.

"Come see my office," Bracha rumbled, and tossed aside the towel he'd been using as an apron. He opened a door off the living room and descended into the darkness of the basement. Fluorescent lights buzzed alive and I blinked.

A disembodied lock of hair recalls Freud's essay on the uncanny: the familiar that is oddly frightening.

It might have been a hydroponic marijuana farm. It might have been a crystal meth lab. Double wrong. For starters, there were the plastic vats, just like the one in the kitchen, but rows of them arrayed here on metal shelves. The silent mounds within these vats were further evidence that the sodden clump nestled by the stove upstairs had been just a tease. Once I surveyed the contents of the basement, it became clear that I beheld the fledgling business of a human hair merchant.

***

Human hair. When we cut it, the cut is painless, bloodless -- and often devastating. En masse and gleaming, it can be alluring. But a disembodied curl lying in a vat calls to mind Freud's essay on the uncanny: the familiar that is oddly frightening. Even while lying reassuringly on the head, hair is charged with paradox: by the time it is visible, it is already dead. "Come hither," it teases. "I am a sexy omen of your very mortality. I am death in life's trappings."

At this point, a little taxonomy might be useful. Item number 0501 on the US Harmonized Tariff Schedule pinpoints the product, raw human hair, as that which is "unworked, whether or not washed or scoured" -- hair, in other words, that has been freshly razed. As a commercial item, human hair is insignificant when compared with, say, bananas. In 2011, the U.S. brought in over $1.8 billion worth of fresh bananas. During the same 12 months, around $1.3 million of raw human hair entered this country. Still, it is a noteworthy import, given that it is harvested not from banana plants but from human heads.

In the past year, thieves have stolen from U.S. beauty salons as much as $230,000 worth of human hair, overlooking flat-screen TVs and full cash registers in their quest. During one of these heists, a salon owner was killed. No question, in its own way, human hair is a booming commodity on the world market. As such, it faces a grim future.

In 2011, two-thirds of the raw human hair brought into the U.S. came from India. Mainly the source is benign: itinerant peddlers pay village women a few coins for their shed hair. Occasionally, the means are more coercive: gangs hunt down women for their hair; husbands force their wives to shave their heads.

There is a third source. In the state of Andhra Pradesh in southeastern India is a cluster of seven hills. Perched atop one is Tirumala Venkateswara. Dating back nearly two thousand years, it is the most visited religious site in the world. With attendance three times that of the Vatican, Tirumala hosts nearly 20 million pilgrims a year. About half are women participating in a ceremony they hope will bring good luck. Perhaps they still haven't found a husband. Perhaps their child is sick. For their luck to change, they believe, a special action is required.

So, after waiting in a queue that is miles long, 25,000 women each day mount the steps of a special building. Inside sit some six hundred barbers. The women bend over and, with a few deft strokes of a straight razor, the barbers shave off their hair. The hair used to be thrown away. These days, if it is virgin -- that is, never colored, never processed, never cut, having cascaded from her head two or three feet or more -- it will have a significance that is not merely spiritual. It is auctioned to licensed peddlers; this past year Tirumala held several online auctions, in one day reaping $27 million. Peddlers sell the hair to exporters, who sell it to manufacturers, who process it and sell it to distributors, who sell it to salons, who attach it to the heads of millions of Western women. Removing the hair had been a means of ego eradication; adding it serves now as an ego boost.

***

When you start researching human hair, you end up noticing the stuff on people's heads. On Isaac Bracha's head it is black, flecked with grey, cut very short. His face is long and his eyes convey unmistakable humor. Five centuries ago, Bracha's Jewish ancestors were expelled from Spain. They resettled in Bulgaria, survived the war, and in 1948, immigrated to the new state of Israel. Bracha was trained as a medic in the Israeli Defense Forces, but in 1988, he came to America, seeking his fortune in textiles.

In Los Angeles, he met a quiet, self-possessed woman named Elizabeth Dirks, an Aleut transplant from a tiny island in the Alaskan archipelago. Together, they sold hand-made garments to Macy's and Bloomingdale's; one year, Quincy Jones attended the Oscars wearing a vest they had designed. Then Macy's went bankrupt and Bracha lost over $50,000. He was heading back to Israel when a family member asked him to help sell men's toupees. Bracha learned his craft, then sensed an opportunity in a larger market: human hair. But where best to operate?

It's a quiet thicket of female heads: pigtails and braids, blond and brunette. If they turned around, they'd have faces.

It was the early 1990s. Post-Soviet Russia had a population that was the sixth largest in the world, but its people were impoverished. Bracha reckoned there might be women willing to swap hair for cash; he headed to Moscow and set up shop. His intuition was impeccable. His business thrived and predictably the Russian Mafia wanted in. Armed with a duffel bag, a bottle of vodka, and a shotgun, they threatened Bracha's manager who promptly demanded from him a 20 percent cut of the business. It was time to move on. But where?

Again he turned east, this time, to India. Once Bracha started importing hair from there, he realized that the local operator was not screening hair at a high-enough standard. Eventually, he opened his own factory near Chennai but much time passed before it functioned properly.

Still, problems continue. "Can you see this?" Dirks is doing inventory. It is several years since I stumbled on the vat in Bracha's kitchen; I am visiting his 3,500-square-foot office in the heart of Van Nuys, another drab San Fernando Valley community not far from his home. I nod at Dirks, but I'm hard-pressed to spot the nuance. She goes to the window and holds the sample of hair in the sunlight. Despite her usual reserve, I can tell she is annoyed at the dye job. "Even if there were a slight difference," she says, "they might have gotten away with it, but that's too noticeable." She will send the hair back to Chennai to be fixed; in the process, it will lose valuable length.

Bracha appears and tells me I'm in luck. While most of his hair comes from India, he still imports raw hair from Ukraine, and a shipment has just arrived.

In the middle of the workroom sits a large cardboard box. "This is how the Russian hair comes to us," he says, opening its flaps. "Exactly as it comes off the girl." We peer inside.

It's a quiet thicket of female heads: pigtails and braids, blond and brunette. If they turned around, they'd have faces. On impulse, I pick one up. It weighs nothing. Soon, the red ribbon binding it will be removed and, with it, the last trace of the former owner.

Next: The woman who puts hair on the heads of Paris Hilton and Samuel L. Jackson

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Jean Lasker Gottlieb is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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