The Hair Trade’s Dirty Secret
Graham Wake is hardly looking at me but one glance is enough. “I could pay about £75 to £100 if you had a pixie cut,” he says briskly. “If you went for a short bob I’d give you £40.” It’s not often you get paid for a haircut, but Wake’s business, Bloomsbury Wigs, now relies solely on hair sourced from the heads of women in the UK. Each week 30-40 envelopes stuffed with ponytails arrive at his office. Every day, one or two women visit to have their hair valued, cut off, and restyled. Some are bored with long hair, others need the money, and a few are raising money for charity.
Wake says he prefers paying a fair price to women in the UK to buying hair from agents, and that 90% of the coils piled into the transparent plastic boxes that surround him are used to create wigs for people who have lost their hair. The rest are for hair extensions, which is what my locks could become. “If your hair was any curlier, we couldn’t take it,” he says. “It would just matt after a while, but as it is I could use it.”
It feels faintly embarrassing to be discussing the monetary value of something as personal as my hair. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at myself; women’s hair has always been a contentious issue. From orthodox Jews, Muslims, and nuns covering it for modesty, to a badge of femininity and beauty in fairytales such as Rapunzel, hair has always exerted a powerful metaphorical pull. Even in today’s more secular world it acts as a lightning rod for our attitudes to women: something US gymnast Gabby Douglas discovered when her gold medal win at the Olympics was overshadowed by a row over whether her messy ponytail reflected badly on the black community. Miley Cyrus’s decision to cut her hair short in the summer was taken as a sign that another teen pop star’s life was spiralling out of control, much like Britney Spears in 2007.
Today, hair is more than just a symbol: it is big business. From India to Peru, the human hair trade has spread across the globe, and it has the UK in its grasp. Last year HM Revenue and Customs recorded more than £38m worth of hair (human, with some mixed human and animal) entering the country, making the UK the third biggest importer of human hair in the world.