How green was my pompadour

Flash hair and mega piercing go looking for work.

Published March 5, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

I accidentally dyed my hair green once.

I realize that saying you accidentally dyed your hair green sounds a little like saying you accidentally moved to Texarkana -- it's not the kind of thing that happens without at least a little planning. But what I mean is I meant to turn my hair blue, but something went wrong and it came out a kind of sea green. That was OK. It had been green before (you have to do something at Christmas), and eventually I got the midnight blue I'd been after. It's also been red, and it's been thousands of other colors as the semipermanent Manic Panic slowly washes out over a period of months.

And I've been gainfully employed the whole time. So naturally I was interested in a lecture called "Cut Your Hair, Get a Job?" which promised to answer the musical question "How did we end up with green hair in the workplace?" And so I found myself in the basement of a Financial District wine bar one recent noontime with about a dozen female executives and entrepreneurs and a celebrity hairstylist named Joseph Roland, who goes by the uniname Roland in his day job, which is co-owning the minimalist-looking and very tony Elevation Salon + Cafe. Roland has done makeovers on TV, gets interviewed by glamour mags a lot, that sort of thing. He is, in the line of work he's been pursuing for 14 years, a dude.

The women were members of ECF, which stands for Enterprise, Community & Friendship (doesn't anybody use the word "and"?), which is a group of women who "have an entrepreneurial spirit, embrace professionalism, and exhibit genuine friendliness toward their colleagues." None of them, however, had green hair. I didn't either. My hair's back to its natural color: dark brown, with some gray mixed in. I think I blended in pretty well.

Roland used transparencies and an overhead projector, which reminded me of astronomy class in my freshman year of college. The class was at 1 p.m., so we'd all file in after a big starchy lunch in the dining hall, the professor would turn off the lights and make with the transparencies of the supernovas and whatnot and whoomf! -- dozens of freshmen out like grandpa. I remember struggling awake and looking down the row at heads as far as the eye could see, all leaned back, eyes closed, tongues lolling.

Fortunately Roland was a lot more interesting than my old astronomy prof. (And the food was a lot lighter than that rib-sticking dining hall stuff -- my quesadilla got into the minimalist spirit when it came to the queso.) He breezed through a history of hairstyles, starting way back in ancient Egypt. "Ugh!" and "Ooh!" said the women as Roland described Egyptian noblewomen pulling every single hair out one by one with special golden tweezers, then polishing their heads. I eyed Roland's Caesar salad. He talked about how hair has been used to make statements about class, power and status ever since people figured out they could style it, which was a long, long time ago, though Mickey Rourke still hasn't caught on.

It's only recently that elaborate hairstyles have spread from the upper classes, Roland explained. Used to be that poor folks didn't have the time or money to devote to their hair, or to the pursuit of eccentricity. "Now," Roland said, "being different is not just for the aristocrats."

Longer hair for men began to be accepted in the workplace in the '70s, Roland said, but only if the hairstyles stayed within the mainstream. It's only in the past decade that nonmainstream styles have infiltrated the working world. Roland showed charts about the booming economy and the low unemployment rate by way of explanation. When there aren't as many people looking for jobs, you can't be discriminating against the weird-looking. "At this stage a warm body is better than no body -- piercings included," says Rebecca Fischer, an attorney from Boulder, Colo., quoted on one of Roland's transparencies. This phenomenon has helped me, though not nearly as much as my writing ability or those compromising photographs of Salon executives that I keep in a safe-deposit box.

But: "These factors alone don't account for the new tolerance," Roland said, "because there have been other times when these factors have been present. The mitigating factor here is the nature of the industry that's driving the growth." That would be the Internet industry, which is selling "the diversity of humanity." Its culture has spread to the business world, fostering a new tolerance.

I have to disagree. A bigger mitigating factor is MTV, which has been putting weird-looking people in suburban living rooms from San Diego to Eastport for a couple of decades. Try to imagine this, young punkers: When I was a rebellious teenager, it was hard to find black jeans. Now seventh-graders can walk into Hot Topic at the local mall and plunk down their baby-sitting money for some black lipstick, pink hair dye and a navel ring. Marc Andreessen didn't put that Hot Topics store in the mall. Madonna did. The Internet may have brought green hair to the workplace because it put young iconoclasts in positions of power, but those iconoclasts have green hair because of MTV.

Roland concluded with some advice to the ladies who hire and fire -- go with the pierced, tattooed, multihued flow "unless there's a solid business or safety reason not to," because rules against unusual visual styles can so easily run afoul of free speech or discrimination laws. Then he talked about Elevation Salon + Cafe's hot style, the "Fractured" cut, which is a jagged, layered shag with an array of colors mixed in. Other salons call it a "shattered" cut, though there'd been no discussion of it at the Shaw Barber Shop on Market Street, where I'd gotten a haircut just the day before for $7.

When Roland sat back down at his salad, which I swear I never touched, I asked him how many women come in to ask for a green dye job. "It's mostly men," he said. "They're entrepreneurs, they own businesses that sell skateboard clothing, videos. You know, the younger entrepreneurs, like 30, and their clientele is influencing the image they're pretty much trying to portray." For the women, he said, outré means ultrablond or platinum.

Embracing professionalism, I went over and sat down among some women with entrepreneurial spirit and asked if anybody had a co-worker with green hair. They exhibited genuine friendliness as they all shook their heads and said, "Not me, no way."

"If you're dealing with somebody who has a lot of money and wants it invested," said a woman who worked at what she called a verr-ry conservative bank, "you're not going to give it to someone with green hair."

"Would you go see a physician with a tongue ring?" asked a doctor. "Or green hair?" I said I thought I would. "Well," she said, "it's hard enough getting them to accept the idea of a woman." I said I found that surprising in this day and age. "They're looking for that Marcus Welby look," she said.

I left thinking maybe the charge of the green-coiffed into the workplace isn't as advanced as I'd hoped. But I'm willing to do my part. This time I think I'll try Manic Panic's new color, Electric Lava, which glows under black light. But first, a reassuring trip to the safe-deposit box.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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