Brushes With Fame

Movies immortalize the intimacy of neighborhood beauty salons, even as the real thing is changing

May 10, 2007|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN REPORTER

It's Saturday morning in any neighborhood hair salon. Dryers are whirring, curling irons steaming.

Amid the machinery, women are gathered - talking, laughing, gossiping, and at times maybe even crying. There are rollers and bobby pins, yes, but more importantly, there's intimacy here. And comfort.

The neighborhood beauty shop is a place where stories are told - which is what makes it a perfect setting for a movie.

Over the years, many filmmakers have picked up on this notion and set their movies in or around the goings-on in beauty salons.

In 1975, there was the sexually charged Shampoo. In 1989, the heartbreaking Steel Magnolias.

More recently, there have been a spate of comedies - mostly starring African-American casts - that involve the bustling neighborhood beauty parlor.

Beauty Shop, Barbershop and Hair Show, with Baltimore comedian Mo'Nique, are just a few.

The latest in the run of hair salon-related movies is The Salon, starring Vivica A. Fox.

David T. Odom, the film's executive producer, says he picked the beauty shop as a setting for this movie because "other than the church, it's the longest-standing meeting place that we have in the black community."

"I was raised by a woman who went to the beauty shop every week, and she stayed for hours on end," says Odom. "So from an African-American man's perspective, I just assumed that the women in the beauty shop are talking about a whole lot of stuff."

Odom's romantic comedy, which was filmed in Baltimore in 2005, opens tomorrow. It centers on Fox's character, Jenny, a successful single woman who owns a hair salon that is threatened with closure by the city because of development needs.

Fox and her hairstyling co-workers fight to keep the business open - and in the neighborhood where it has always been.

Although fictional, Jenny's goal is a worthwhile one, says Sarah Gjertson, artist and professor of studio art at the University of Denver. Small neighborhood beauty salons are disappearing around the country, and with them a slice of Americana.

"The way that we interact with our hair these days is a lot different [from the way our grandmothers did]," says Gjertson, who spent years working on The Parlor Project, a mixed-media study of small hair salons in Middle America. "We're a Supercuts culture. We go if we have time, if we can try to squeeze it in between things. So, in terms of people coming in, knowing everybody in the hair salon, talking about their grandkids and life, with coffee and cookies, that does still exist, but it seems to exist more and more only for a particular demographic of women who are aging and even elderly."

Film producers who set their movies in friendly, intimate neighborhood salons often are drawing on the nostalgia of beauty shops from their childhoods, says Gjertson.

Today, many women eschew the small salon for the trendier spa experience - usually, a bigger, more luxurious and less personal setting.

"These tiny neighborhood beauty parlors, these are distinctly different than salons and spas," Gjertson says.

In the award-winning movie Steel Magnolias, for example, shop-owner Truvy, played by Dolly Parton, knew all her customers' favorite hairstyles - and all their business, too.

That's because her customers also were her neighbors.

Movies that capture that true center-of-the-community feel usually have hit it right on the head, says Sue Ebert, owner of Kumbyah Inc., a small, locally famous salon in Hampden.

"I know everyone who's having an affair in Baltimore, all the juicy stuff," Ebert says, "but I don't open my mouth about it. That's how I've stayed a hairdresser for 20-plus years in Baltimore."

People who come to her shop on 36th Street come for more than just an occasional cut or color job, Ebert says.

"It's really a part of people's lives," she says. "From weddings to children to grandchildren, you get to be a part of their entire lives."

Despite dwindling numbers, that familiarity is still the case in many small beauty parlors across the country, beauty experts say.

"Salons are the backbone of American culture," says Shannon Lamm, a salon owner in Raleigh, N.C., who teaches advanced classes for hairstylists, including some at Goldwell Professional Hair Care, in Linthicum Heights. "Many decisions - political, personal and financial - have been decided over a long facial or a much-needed haircut."

When filming The Salon here, says Kym Whitley, the actress who plays Fox's best friend, Lashaunna, many of the actors and actresses felt right at home on the set - an old florist shop converted to look like a city beauty salon. That's because many of them grew up frequenting similarly comfortable barbershops and salons in their own hometowns.

"The beauty shop, the salons, the barbershops, for years have been the places where people get together, especially of the same culture," says Whitley. "It's like being in someone's kitchen."

In African-American hair salons, in particular, peddlers come in selling their wares. Sometimes, people bring in homemade dinners.

"The beauty shop has so many different characters coming in on a different day. Anything can happen," Whitley says. "We don't lock doors."

Even though she's an actress in major movies, such as 2005's The Perfect Man and 2004's Along Came Polly, Whitley says she still prefers to have her hair done at a small salon, where everybody knows her name - but doesn't treat her any differently than they always have.

"I'm one of those celebrities that doesn't think they're a celebrity," she says. "I'm like, `It's a job, just like everyone else's.' So I still enjoy going into the shop and having that experience."

"The Salon," starring Vivica A. Fox and Terrence Howard, opens tomorrow.

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