Divine secrets of the combover brotherhood

What makes powerful men embrace the world's lamest do? Twang those glistening strands and you'll hear a strange song about virility, status and even death.

Published July 26, 2005 2:51PM (EDT)

A few weeks ago, I found myself at a party at an exclusive club several flights above the streets of Manhattan. It was a really bad party -- a TV industry event that felt obligatory rather than celebratory, despite the free-flowing booze. Some low-level celebrities were sprinkled here and there -- I had a pleasant talk with Harold, though Kumar was a no-show -- but I was most intrigued by a paunchy guy with a graying swoop of hair curled around his head like stray mop fiber. This guy was loud and obnoxious, but still I tracked his movements around the room and followed his conversations, all the while wondering why I was so perversely interested in him. Then I realized: It was the combover.

Admitting you love the combover is a little embarrassing. (Just ask the guy who spent nearly two years working on the yet-to-be-distributed "Combover: The Movie.") After all, the combover of today is the mullet of yesteryear: unloved -- "In all the hairdressing books I've looked at, I've never seen anything about it," says hair historian Steve Zdatny, a professor at West Virginia University -- universally derided, and an increasingly rare example of unchecked, unironic bad taste. (And thanks to Rogaine et al., it's increasingly rare.) Unlike the mullet, though, the combover isn't likely to undergo that so-bad-it's-good makeover, simply because, at least for now, most hipsters aren't bald. But in an era when even haircuts are postmodern, there is much to recommend the purity of a look that aims to mislead so naively. It's almost charming -- look how hard it's trying not to be noticed!

Let's be clear, though: It's not the aesthetic of the combover that's appealing. Whether it's the toupee-like tuft, or the cartoonish strands stretched and layered just so, combovers can only look bad, or worse. No, the combover deserves celebration not for its rarefied ugliness but for the insight it gives us into the wearer: You actually thought that was a good look?

Like performance anxiety or Scarlett Johansson, hair loss hits men hard, leading even the most urbane to regrettable decisions. "I used to have this thing, this weird little line at the front of my head -- a fringe, I called it," recalls writer Jonathan Ames. "And I just happened to have no hair in the middle or at the top of the head. In wind it might suddenly fly forward. Or if I saw photos of it, it was like, 'Oh my God, it's just like a couple of strands.' It was so dispiriting."

Still, he persevered, even writing about -- and diagramming! -- his combover (which he calls a comb-back) in his book "What's Not to Love?" and conducting a small study into who else sported the fringe. ("Matisse. James Baker, former Secretary of State. And I think Joseph Biden.")

"I was somewhat deluded into thinking it looked more like a head of hair than it actually looked," Ames says now. "I thought I was pulling it off. [But] people were like, 'Why don't you cut that down?'" (He eventually did, though not without dismay. "I miss having options," he says sadly.)

Hair offenders like Ames "use the defense mechanism of denial to completely not think about how silly it looks," says Sandra Dawson, a therapist and radio show host in El Segundo, Calif., who specializes in self-esteem issues. "And rationalization can be used alongside it."

And combover-ees don't just think they're fooling people, adds Sheldon S. Walker, a psychologist based in Calgary, "They think it looks really good." (For the record, he's not speaking from personal experience: "I have a full head of hair.")

So having a combover goes hand in hand with massive denial and/or massive powers of (self-) persuasion. Is it any wonder so many politicians have them?

"They convince themselves it makes them look like they have sage wisdom," says Hank Sheinkopf, a New York political consultant. Yet friends, family and business associates can all be paralyzed in the face of such extreme delusion. Just ask anyone on Broadway.

"Oh my god, that guy!" screams Jon Jordan, the hair and makeup supervisor of "Hairspray." That guy -- Rick Lyon -- is a distinguished puppeteer who developed the characters for "Avenue Q," the Tony-winning musical. He originated several of the roles. He sings. He dances. He does it well. And he does it while wearing one of the most vicious combovers I've ever seen. It even overwhelms the puppets.

Jordan hasn't even seen the show, but he knows all about Lyon and his massive comb-pas. "It's legendary," he says. "It's epic. If I worked there, and had been the hairdresser, I would eventually talk to him about it." (In his salon days, Jordan says he was the only one with the guts to confront an assistant who sported a combover. Eventually, the guy caved and shaved.)

But until then, Lyon, who declined to comment for this article, remains a prime example of a peculiar truth about combovers: The men who love them often happen to be quite powerful. (According to Zdatny, hair is a class signifier.) How else to explain the fact that no one -- not Lyon's fellow puppeteers, say, or Trump's apprentices, or Caeser's minions -- had the courage to say, "Hey, boss, what's with the hair?"

Unless -- is it possible that some people actually find the combover attractive? Not according to a poll in this month's issue of the men's magazine Cargo, which found that 99 percent of women surveyed were against the look.

"I have never met one woman -- spouse, daughter, mother -- who said, 'I think the combover is the way to go,'" says Chris Marino, 39, the long-haired, long-obsessed filmmaker whose "Combover: The Movie," a documentary about his nationwide search to uncover the perfect specimen, is about to hit the film festival circuit. "Invariably, they all say, 'Shave it off.'"

And sometimes they're successful. When his then-fiancie Judith Nathan convinced Rudy Giuliani to give up his much-mocked splayed locks for a chrome dome, it made national headlines and proved that occasionally, there is someone who can break the combover spell (and, apparently, it isn't Donna Hanover). But having that kind of sway is still a rarity, because as Marino discovered, pretending to have a full head of hair is only superficially about attracting women.

"Men do it for men," he maintains.

Like arm wrestling and binge drinking, the male impulse to measure up to their brothers isn't exactly the sign of a well-developed psyche.

"You're really talking about an emotionally immature man," says Dawson, the therapist. And since hair is associated with virility ("If there ever truly was a cure for baldness, it would make Viagra look like peanuts," Walker says), when men grow their hair into a bi-level '80s do and wrap it around their skull like some kind of talismanic protector, they actually want it to be some kind of talismanic protector. "It's just one more sign of the dance to the music of time that we all engage in, that ends in death," sighs Ames. Having a combover isn't a fashion statement; it's a cry for help.

And it's one we don't want to hear. According to his friend Bruce Vilanch, Nathan Lane was so mortified by the combover he had to wear during the filming of the movie version of "The Producers" that he didn't go out for two months -- and he had his head buzzed as soon as production wrapped.

Even our politicians are moving away from the look and its retrograde image. "People find them kind of a throwback to old-style politics, to people hiding something, and when you get rid of the combover, you kind of look clean and clear," says Sheinkopf. "It's OK to be bald. In the politics of the 21st century, it's OK to be who you are."

Maybe. But if we lose the combover, we lose all the secrets it reveals, from self-esteem to social status to fear of death. In the quest to get into the heart and mind of the Other, the combover provides answers that Foucault (who, incidentally, shaved his off) never could.

Let's see the mullet do that.

By Melena Z. Ryzik

MORE FROM Melena Z. Ryzik

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Donald Trump