Farrah, Farrah on the Wall

Farrah Fawcett is dead. Let those of us who were young in the seventies observe a moment of silence. And noting this journal’s preoccupation with hair (vide Oppenheimer posting, “We Partied Like It’s 2009,” May 18, 2009) and my own hair being of “urban legend” (ibid), I could not let this occasion pass without paying personal tribute to the “Farrah-do.” Growing up in Hamden during the seventies, I sported the Farrah-do, first at Sleeping Giant Junior High (now a condominium complex) and then at Hamden High School. I’m convinced that it was this hairstyle that saved me from social suicide, helped bridge the internal “town versus gown” issues I had as a Yale faculty brat at my school, and finally, paved the way for my college years at Harvard.

A lot from a single hairdo, I know. But what a ‘do. Tousled, cascading layers. A sexy, casual, windswept, just-got-out-of-bed look. Farrah smiled down at us from that poster with that mane. And every girl worth her salt had to have that ‘do. For me, a Chinese girl with hair and parents as straight as a grove of bamboo stalks, achieving that look was no easy feat.

First, I first had to convince my mother -- who ascribed to the general zero-sum notion that any attention I paid to my looks took away from my attention to my studies -- to let me have a perm. She only relented on Rave, a home perm that gave soft loose curls. Then, we found an inexpensive hair cutter in to give me the actual layered haircut, which I had to style to perfection each day. With my own allowance, I bought a hairdryer, a curling iron and a set of hot rollers. After trial, error and much practice, I learned the hot rollers worked best on me. So, every day before leaving at 7:20 a.m. to catch the school bus, I plugged in hot rollers and did my hair: three medium-sized rollers for the fluffy top and two wings, and three large rollers for the back. If I had time, I added the flip with a small-barrelled curling iron.

The only other Asian girl in my class, Elly Tanaka, also a Yale faculty brat, kept her hair straight. She liked to flip it around a bit. Shiny and black, it looked okay, but having the Farrah-do was a universal ice-breaker, an automatic “I’m-okay-you’re-okay-because-we-share-a-hairstyle” with the non-faculty brat set at my school. Janet Gallo, the most popular girl in our junior high, also sported the Farrah-do, which she achieved each morning by using a blow-dryer and round hairbrush (we discussed this one day).

There was no mirror for Asian women yet in the public media. No Gong Li, no Sandra Oh, no Ziyi Zhang. The only person I saw who looked remotely like me on television was Mrs. Livingston from “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” So, for me to emulate Farrah Fawcett was just as far-fetched as any other role model.

At first my parents fought me, preferring that I try to get in a half hour of piano practice before the school bus. But eventually, they gave up, and instead began to take notice of my dedication and perseverance with my hair-do. I knew they finally understood who I was when my mother asked me the summer after senior year, why don’t you learn haircutting so that you can earn pocket money at Harvard?

This is how I ended up studying at the Gal-Mar Academy of Hairdressing, Nails and Beauty in North Haven alongside aspiring hair technicians and beauticians. I’ll always remember the morning, Miss Julie, who owned the place with her sister, Miss Gail, had us gather around a willing student guinea pig, to teach us the Farrah Fawcett cut, or as it’s known in the trade, the long-layered feathered shag. We learned how important it was to section the hair carefully, to keep the hair hold perfectly elevated and to shift the cutting line. Then to cross-check each side of the head against a spot in the center to make sure all the lengths were even. Finally, to use the point-cutting technique to feather the hair ends and give it a softer look. Voila, Farrah.

I walked out of Gal-Mar with a certificate for haircutting only – no color, no perm – but I set up shop out of my dorm-room bathroom a couple afternoons a week, and ran a pretty lucrative business of haircuts at $7 a piece, often $10 with tip. Guys from the rugby team would come, and some daring girls for their version of the Farrah-cut. Other people stopped by and stayed a bit, and often the whole occasion became quite social.

Today, one of Charlie’s Angels is Lucy Liu, a Chinese girl who wears her long black hair straight down her back proudly. I have two daughters with beautiful straight hair in its natural state. That is how I wear mine too, now. But I will always have a soft spot for my Farrah-do of youth.