The cueball chronicles

Gersh Kuntzman talks about baldness cures, from the stinky to the effective, and how the tragedy of hair loss has shaped the course of empires and the cutting edge of science.

By Suzy Hansen

Published May 31, 2001 5:59PM (EDT)

Half of all men suffer from hair loss. And for many of them, "suffer" is the right word. There are proud-domed exceptions like Michael Jordan, Telly Savalas and Yul Brynner, but men still tie themselves in knots in front of the bathroom mirror trying to get a look at that bald spot, or monitor their receding hairline as if the North American continent were crumbling into the sea. With the advent of drugs like Propecia and Rogaine, not to mention those trusty hair clubs, balding is no longer inevitable. Yet the subject is still touchy, bringing up as it does issues of virility, vanity and decrepitude.

Why do men obsess about balding? What is the true significance of this catastrophe visited upon the testosterone-ridden? And how can the dread scourge be stopped? New York Post columnist Gersh Kuntzman, suspecting that even the great pharaoh Ramses brooded about his cueball, struggles to answer these questions in "Hair! Mankind's Historic Quest to End Baldness." What he finds is that men from Julius Caesar to Al Gore have gone to bizarre lengths to remedy hair loss, and with varying success. In the course of his book Kuntzman probes Rogaine and combovers, Rug Men and the Bald Pride Guys, the relationship of hair thickness to penis size, and most importantly, the status of the ultimate hope for the bald -- the Human Genome Project.

Kuntzman spoke to Salon from his office in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Are you bald?

Not at all.

You're under no threat of imminent baldness.

No, I'm not genetically predisposed.

Anyone in your family?

Nope, no baldness at all. And the question often asked is: How and why could a guy with hair --

They must resent you!

-- write a sensitive treatment of bald men? My readers know me as -- and if you go to my Web site you'll see -- an unbelievable specimen of male virility and ... maleness. I am just a male god. However, 20 years ago, when I was in college, I was kind of overweight and looked like "Welcome Back Kotter" only 30 pounds heavier. You know, it's not a good look. So I, on a daily basis, experienced the same kind of prejudice and social outcasting as bald men experience every day. I know what they go through. I could tell their stories with sensitivity.

And you did. That is, if I, a non-balding woman, can judge. I was surprised to find out that balding woes date back to the Bible. You quote some funny passages. How did you hear about them -- did you remember them from school or something?

Unfortunately, I'm not much of a Bible thumper or even a Bible reader. I knew the Samson and Delilah story, everybody does. But, also, I have a friend who's a priest and I asked her whether there were other examples in the Bible. She told me that the be-all end-all story was in the second book of Kings. [After the baldheaded Elisha becomes the prophet Elijah's successor, he orders a group of children killed because they tease him and chant, "Go up, you bald head!"] Then, just after she told me, I went into a hair transplant surgeon's office and noticed he had the passage framed on his wall. Symbolically it was his way of saying to his clients that if they feel self-conscious about being vain about their baldness, don't worry; this goes way back. And you don't have to feel guilty about wanting to make a change.

I don't really understand that story in the Bible. If this guy's the prophet Elisha, rather than commanding God to kill the kids, he easily could have commanded God to grow him some hair. I've never really understood the purpose of it, other than to emphasize how destructive male vanity is. But the subtitle of my book is "Mankind's Historic Quest to End Baldness" and the Bible passage shows that man's efforts to deal, whether medically or psychologically, with his baldness, have been going on for a millennium.

And they've been trying to find all these strange cures for so long too -- why do you think that the grossest, smelliest cures were popular?

That's actually not just a symptom of antiquity. In our own snake oil era, which was from the turn of the century through the '40s, it was always the most noxious, smelly things that these snake oil salesmen would sell. It's the idea, and you see this today in cough syrups, that if it tastes bad it must be working. That's a marketing strategy that goes back to the ancient Romans or Egyptians. People's belief in the utility of a product is based solely on the idea that no naturally occurring substance would taste this bad so it must be some formula they cooked up that must work. Like dandruff shampoos -- hey, it tingles, it must work! Well, nothing's supposed to tingle.

What do you think was the most grotesque cure from antiquity?

Either hippopotamus fat, which I think was classic -- I don't even know where they got all that hippopotamus fat -- or the burning of domesticated mice. They turned it into a paste and spread on their heads. Those are certainly kind of disgusting.

Yup, pretty nasty. In your book, you write that Julius Caesar really wore those laurel wreaths to distract from his baldness. That was a bit tame compared to hippo lard. But is it true?

A historian claimed that Caesar was quite the dandy and was very vain. He wore the laurel wreaths all the time. He probably wanted to show authority because he lacked confidence in his imperial image. But also, this historian claims that he wore them because he didn't want to appear bald. Baldness was considered quite the scourge in ancient Rome, and one reason was because Caesar was bald and felt bad about it. It trickled down to the populace.

Cleopatra tried to fix that, I'm sure.

Oh yeah, she used the burnt domesticated mice. Didn't help.

It's sort of valuable historical information. Great empires might have hung on men's hairlines and their shallow girlfriends. Was Mark Anthony bald?

I think he wasn't. Caesar probably felt bad about that too. It always gets back to sexual rivalries.

And the most offensive of all of the ancient cures came from the ancient Romans. They invented the combover, and what later became spray-on hair. Back then, it was actually paint-on hair. People would go to a stylist and have hair artistically drawn on their head with paint. Both of these exist today and both of these are methods that are the only truly scorned remedies for baldness. Even bald men, who are so sensitive to being mocked themselves, mock guys with combovers. That's how bad that is.

Like Mayor Giuliani's, for example?

Ugh. That guy needs some help. Someone's got to tell him that's he's got to get rid of that combover.

How long has he been doing this?

This is a guy who has isolated himself to the point where nobody in his inner circle is willing to confront him on anything, let alone his hair! Meanwhile, I think all New Yorkers are suffering from his inability to reject the combover. If you look at pictures of the mayor when he ran for office the first time in 1989, it was a combover but it was a very thick combover. It's just gotten progressively worse. And obviously a guy who doesn't have to run for reelection doesn't care what he looks like. He's trying to make the combover acceptable, and even bald men tell me that the combover is not acceptable. Hair transplants are acceptable. Toupees are acceptable. But not the combover.

Who else has a bad combover?

Sam Donaldson had a combover for a long time. It's mostly on older guys. They think they're kidding people. They let that part go further and further down their head and then they sweep it over, to the point where it's absurd.

Well, I guess it feels more natural because you're using your own hair.

That's the theory behind it. But it doesn't look good on anybody. That's the point of the quote from the Roman poet Martial: "Nothing is more unsightly than a bald man covered with hair." It didn't look good even then! You're talking about 2,000 years ago! How have we not abandoned this? This has been ridiculed for 2,000 years. I can't imagine that you can name even one product or custom that was being ridiculed 2,000 years ago that still exists.

Do you think that has to do with shame? Maybe people aren't really talking about it so they don't get feedback about it?

The idea of bald men feeling ashamed or having their self-image suffer because of their baldness is obviously omnipresent. Bald men are conditioned by society's treatment of bald men to feel worse about their baldness. Obviously they try to cover it in any way. A guy with a combover looks in the mirror and thinks, "Oh, I've got some hair up there still" and that's the problem.

That's the attitude that the Bald Pride guys want to counter. The Bald Pride movement says, "Hey, listen, if you want to wear a toupee, that's fine because that's your way of dealing with your baldness or if you want to go bald, that's fine too." It's all about acceptance.

But the Bald Pride guys don't accept the combover?

Combovers are this middle ground that nobody accepts. Subsequently, it only makes people feel worse because they still get mocked. If you shave your head, no one's going to mock you. And if you wear a toupee, a good one at least, no one will mock you because A) they're hard to detect and B) we live in a different age.

See, and I thought they were the worst. Is that because of all the advancements in toupee technology?

How old are you?

I'm 23.

That's strange. People slightly younger than you will have slightly less of a problem with toupees. I'm a good decade older than you and for me, the image of the toupee is the classic image of the 1970s head-hugger. It didn't matter if you were bald or partially balding; this thing covered your entire head. It was an unbelievable shag carpet of a toupee. Some guys still wear these today, but most are smart enough not to. The guy in my book who wore one looked absolutely absurd, but back then he looked perfectly normal.

It was like an Afro, right?

Yes, it was a white man Afro. If you wore one today you'd look ridiculous, but the problem is too many people are still wearing them because they grew up in that era and they think that having a toupee means having a lot of hair. Anytime that a guy who's 60 tries to look like he has the hair of a 20-year-old, he's going to look ridiculous. But toupees are better than ever now. It's a golden age for bald men in all areas.

Do men get mocked for having hair transplants?

In the early '80s, New York's former Gov. Hugh L. Carey openly mocked Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire for having had a hair-transplant operation. That was almost two decades ago, when you could make fun of someone for how they appeared. You can't really do that openly anymore -- except with the combover. We have come a long way, but the combover is not in that camp. Combovers are ridiculed and should be.

While we're on politicians, it's pretty interesting that there aren't a lot of bald ones running around.

The University of Arizona study of 1990 lumped congressman, senators and governors all together. I updated that study using the same methodology. Whereas they found something like only 35 percent of all the top-ranking officials were bald, we found that this year only something like 27.5 percent were bald. That's compared to 50 percent of the general male population. We're actually slipping ground. Despite the decades of the civil rights movement for blacks and minorities and American Indians, bald men are actually taking a full step back.

I found that there are nine states in which there are no bald congressman, senators or governors, which led me to the conclusion: How can a bald man in those states truly feel represented when nobody is openly bald in the upper echelon?

Which states are these?

Arkansas, Hawaii, Indiana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Rhode Island. No openly bald officials at all.

How strange. Not really states you would peg for vanity.

You know, South Dakota even has Sen. Tom Daschle, who has an unbelievably atrocious hairpiece, so he's ashamed of his baldness. And that other senator from North Dakota, Kent Conrad, does a combover. There's obviously a lot of shame in those states. I'd imagine if any piece of bald legislation comes before the representatives of those states, they're going to pretend they're not bald. That's shocking.

I wonder what the Hair Club for Men membership is like in the Dakotas.

That's something to research. I didn't have enough time for that in my book, but you've obviously hit on something. It's shocking! You've got 50 percent of the male population bald or balding in those states and Tom Daschle walks around in his hairpiece thinking, "Those aren't my constituents."

Well, let me tell you something, Tom -- and I openly address Tom in this -- those are your constituents and I think you have to accept that and accept who you are, too.

Did Eisenhower get criticized for being bald? He was shiny bald.

That was another age. He was a military man. In the military and the business community, baldness was never seen as a weakness. In fact, academic studies show that while people tend to think of bald men as less virile or less manly, they do tend to think of bald men as more intelligent. In the business community, for a guy like Ron Perelman or Ronald Lauder, these big bald guys in New York, their baldness has not been a problem. They go into a meeting and people say, "Hmm. There's a guy with stature."

Is it an egghead thing, do you think?

Partly. One of the guys that I talked to was an early Rogaine user, 25 at the time and had just joined a law firm. When he would go out to a club or on a date, he didn't like the fact that women thought of him as older because he was losing his hair. Yet, when he went to work in the morning, he found that it was an advantage, because the partners in the firm would think they could trust him or that he was seasoned. For a guy like Eisenhower or like Ron Lauder, their baldness helps them in that they're seen as being more respectable or more mature, whereas in highly superficial fields, baldness is seen as a detriment. And it is a detriment.

What about Al Gore -- wasn't he using spray-on hair or was that a rumor?

No, listen. Listen. My book fully probes the Gore situation. I believe that he was not using a spray-on product. I am convinced from my sources -- and, as you know, I work for the New York Post so I have fairly good sources in the bald community -- and they tell me he was using a shake-on product. That's that product called Toppik.

Which sounds great.

Yes, it's actually a very effective product, but the catch to that product is that it's chopped up sheep hair. Now sheep hair, similar to human hair, is a keratinized protein, protein that's been hardened. It's not live; it's a dead protein. If you chop it up into small pieces and put an electric charge on it, it sticks to your hair, thus filling in the spots. It's a perfect product for a guy like Gore. It's not a product for a guy like Jesse Ventura because basically it looks like spray-on hair when there's nothing for it to stick to. It ends up looking like copier toner. Gore used it to great success, so there's an example of a bald guy who covered the bald spot and won.

Do you think being openly bald really would have affected how people felt about him?

Come on. Had he actually let that -- I call it the flesh yarmulke -- if he let the flesh yarmulke show all the time, I think it would have affected him. That 500,000-something popular vote count might have decreased to anywhere from 400,000 to 380,000. You're talking about a significant chunk of people. Obviously, he still would have won the election -- but we don't want to get into the controversy there. We know what happened.

Who discriminates more, men or women?

Very glad you asked me that. There are academic studies that deal with this, and I updated them for my book as well. Men are much more likely to think of bald men in negative terms than women are.

Do bald men know that?

No, that's the problem!

Here they are so upset and worried about not getting women.

The results are quite shocking and should hearten bald men around the world. I'm trying desperately -- and hopefully with this interview -- to get these results out because not enough bald men know. I've sent it to the Associated Press but for some reason they just didn't have the guts to print it.

So, here's the latest results: Only 30 percent of women who responded to the poll thought of bald men as old or unattractive, while a whopping 69 percent of male respondents described bald men with the same unflattering terms. Only 30 percent of women thought that a man becomes less attractive as he loses his hair, while 60 percent of men thought so. Two-thirds of women said that a bald man and a man with hair are equally attractive, while only 36 percent of men felt the same way. Men are much more inclined to think of bald men -- and therefore themselves -- as less sexy.

Is it a locker-room thing?

Men are conditioned to think of baldness as the first sign that they're getting old. And men and women are vain in slightly different ways. With men, being thought of as old is totally connected to their own virility. It always has been. Bald men are seen as less virile. All the typical signs of male aging such as less strength, less ability to run the bases in a softball game, inability to get an erection or inability to remember things -- these things happen much later in life. But when the hair goes, sometimes in the 20s or 30s, that's the first sign that they're getting old. Women, whose hair loss happens so much later in life, have a totally different way of thinking of themselves as old.

None of the women responded -- out of hundreds of responses -- that the word "failure" pops into their mind when they see a bald man, but 10 percent of the male respondents said that word pops into their head when they see a bald man.

And also there's some weird sense that baldness is correlated to penis size. Is that a male invention too?

This was in a study of college students. The students were shown pictures of hairy men, maybe just chests and arms, and they were asked to respond whether they thought the man had a long penis or a short penis. That was the question! And across the board they would see the hairy chest and they would say, "Oh, that guy's hung." Whereas if they saw the hairless chest, they would say, "Oh, he's got to have a limp dick." Now this was done a decade ago, so I'm not sure if the results would be the same today. Apparently, women are finding hairless chests more attractive now so maybe the results of the hairy/virility study would be different. But this is something that's in the common perception of bald men: You're bald, you don't have it down below.

Well, since there's evidently no shortage of grant money out there, shouldn't someone do an actual study on the correlation between hairlessness and penis size, to dispel some of these myths?

People should do a study on that. I think people should do a study on everything related to penis size. And hair. And they should buy my book. But, yes, if you can find the grant money, that's a good idea.

Do you think it's better to have partial loss of hair or be totally bald?

It depends on the age. There are guys that start going bald at 18 and that's very traumatic. If you catch it early enough, and use Propecia, you can basically stop time. When it's used properly, it's effective.

But Propecia has side effects.

Here we go. It doesn't really. It's actually one of the safer drugs on the market. All drugs have side effects. In Propecia's case, 1.7 percent of the men who use it experience temporary impotence. That's a very low figure and the funny thing was, in Merck's study, 1 percent of men taking the placebo experience impotence. If you stop taking the drug the side effect goes away anyway and it's an unbelievably safe drug. It was developed as a prostate drug.

Because prostate and hair loss have something in common with the way testosterone is transformed?

Testosterone gets broken down and if you are genetically predisposed toward baldness, that byproduct of testosterone, DHT, chokes your follicles.

So that's how this myth that baldness comes from too much testosterone got around?

Unfortunately, that's not true. The biggest thing that determines baldness is that your hair follicles are genetically predisposed to shrinkage when they encounter DHT.

And your maternal grandfather's bald status doesn't determine your own?

Total bullshit.

That's amazing. People really believe that.

I wondered how this became part of the common understanding when it was totally founded on a myth. In 1916, a female doctor, for some political reason, wanted to prove this even if it wasn't true. She threw out the results that disproved her original theory, which is the cardinal sin of medicine. It took four decades before a doctor went back to the research and checked it out and it found out it's not true. Baldness is a gene like anything else, it comes from either side. It doesn't skip a generation either.

And hats don't cause baldness?

That's a great one.

I really believed that. It makes sense, baseball hats rub at your hairline.

Listen. If you wear a hat that's way too tight and you're forcing it on to your head, yes, you can experience what they call "traction alopecia" which is basically you're putting pressure on the hair follicle and the follicle dies. That's true. But if you wear a normal hat, you're not going to go bald.

And you won't if you masturbate either? You mention that in the book. That one, I never believed. Or ever heard of.

Right, I totally forgot about that one.

What is it with masturbation and hair in general? I don't get it. The Jehovah's Witnesses in my neighborhood used to hand out pamphlets all about that stuff.

It's that old wives' tale that if you masturbate you will grow hair on your palms. Which is absurd because the palms and the soles of your feet are the only areas of the body where you can't grow hair. There's no hair follicles.

This guy who wrote this about masturbation, Isidore Nagler, was obviously a guy who was very guilty about his own masturbation. He even refers to the fact that he did his own research -- which I think was his way of admitting that he masturbates. And felt guilty about that and wanted to find a way to discourage masturbation among his male peers. There's no explanation for his theory on this other than guilt and, you know, idiocy. As a masturbater myself, I have hair so it's clearly not true.

How does baldness rank in male concerns compared to things like gaining weight?

It used to be No. 1. Until Viagra. What Viagra did was allow men, rather than to suffer in silence and shame about their erectile dysfunction, to actually treat it successfully. Now that you can get a drug for it, men think maybe they should worry about it. It brought it out of the shadows. Baldness is something you can see and society tends to mock the bald, but you can't really mock people who are impotent. Society is inclined to see impotence as a serious medical condition, whereas baldness is something you just make fun of.

TV shows did it. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" had Gavin MacLeod, the bald sidekick. They would never have "Mary Tyler Moore's sidekick -- he can't get it up." So I'd say that baldness is No. 2 now and it's going down. Men's health magazines are making men feel increasingly vain about other things, -- like, "Man, I don't have a six-pack." Or "I don't have good pecs." These are things men never worried about. But most men are sitting in an office feeling flabby. The men's magazines are there to make us feel flabbier. Baldness has become less of a concern. Flabbiness is moving up.

That's a good thing for bald men. In a decade, bald men will be seen like Michael Jordan. Bald men will be seen as virile, athletic people.

Michael Jordan helped. Who else is a bald hero?

The late, great Telly Savalas, of course. However, when "Kojak" aired in the early 1970s, women and men were more likely to see a guy like Burt Reynolds -- he had hair back then -- as sexy. People like to think that Telly Savalas was sexy back then -- that's a little revisionism. But it definitely started the idea that here's a successful, crime-fighting detective who's bald.

Michael Jordan really brought it up a notch because he did something that nobody -- other than Savalas -- was willing to do, and that is understand that if he allowed himself to go bald naturally, as an athlete, he never would have become the international marketing celebrity that he became. People would have thought: bald athlete, he's weak. Instead, he shaved it and didn't allow society to define his baldness. He redefined what baldness means. He turned it into an icon of virility.

Do you think it's different at all for black men, or darker-skinned men?

It was then. I don't think it is now as much. Let's face it: It still looks better on a black guy. I don't know why.

Have any other famous actors or athletes had major hair transplants?

Nicolas Cage has a hair transplant, not a particularly good one. Burt Reynolds wore toupees. Sinatra had a toupee and maybe also had some hair transplant work.

What about Robert Redford -- is that hair all his?

You know, I don't know. Most of the stars opt for toupees because it allows them to look different for each role. And with hair transplants you have to keep going back and you always look different.

You always have to go back?

Yes, for example, if Gore had one today in this golden age on that flesh yarmulke, it would look great for a year or two. And then the natural hair around all the transplant sites would recede even further, and he'd have to have another one. To really have it look good, you have to go three or four times over a decade.

How much do they cost a pop?

$5,000. And most men don't go back. Then you have a situation like the New York Knicks basketball coach, Jeff Van Gundy, who had a plug-graft, probably a decade ago judging by the way it looks, and if he had gone back to have a fill-in session, he'd look great. Instead, he has that Kansas cornfield look. He just didn't go back.

You watched a transplant. Sounds pretty horrible.

I watched five of these operations. It's fascinating. It's gruesome in that they're cutting a swath of your head off, an oval-shaped swath of your head off, and then sewing your scalp back together. Yeah, it's gruesome, but at the same time, it's very sound medically. It's robbing Peter to pay Paul; the only downside is, you're robbing Peter to pay Paul so that Paul can have cosmetic surgery. It's sort of a weird concept medically, but it's legitimate, like any transplant.

At the Bald Pride conventions, they don't care about whether there will ever be a cure? Do they just instead say, "You're bald, be happy"?

They're not against looking for a cure. Their whole idea is acceptance. If some bald men need to wear a toupee or take drugs, that's fine. But there are cheaper alternatives and that alternative is: I'm here, I'm bare, get used to it.

And they're very confident about it so that probably affects how people look at them. Wouldn't you say if you're bald and confident, it matters less?

That's another study. Bald men who are men, rather than mice, are totally accepted. In the business community, they say baldness gives you stature. That's a self-fulfilling prophecy. You end up feeling better about yourself. But in the singles bar scene, if a woman is looking at a young guy and thinking he's 40, it sends the message that you're useless, and that tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. So "We're here, we're bare, get used to it" -- that's the attitude you've gotta have.

To your knowledge, has anyone in the history of this historic crusade opted for castration, since that's the only cure for baldness?

Not intentionally. It is the only cure. They figured that out by studying castrated men in prisons in the 1940s. That was the typical punishment if you were a sex criminal. This doctor, who was studying genetics, was in a prison cell studying this guy. His identical twin brother comes in and he's bald. The guy in the cell who has no testicles is not bald. The doctor realizes they have the same genes, but the difference is that one guy is producing testosterone and the other wasn't.

How far away is a cure?

The product or procedure that will grow a Chia Pet on a bald man's head -- we won't see that for decades. The only way they could do that is if they break the genetic code for baldness.

Well, that could happen soon!

But there's a lot of genes involved. The Human Genome Project is on its way to us. I believe it's one big federally financed boondoggle solely to figure out the cure for baldness. Sure, maybe they want to fix cystic fibrosis or heart disease or whatever, but that's low priority. You've got a lot of bald scientists working on this. In fact, bald scientists have been behind the invention of the hair transplant, the development of Rogaine and Propecia. They have a lot of clout behind the scenes.

Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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