Hon-estly, hon, it's just fun

Like dumping water on a beehive hairdo, critics try to deflate the Hampden Honfest

June 13, 2008|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun reporter

Suddenly, it's hard out there to be a Hon.

Honfest, this weekend's kitschy celebration of beehive hairdos, cat's-eye glasses and pearls, may be the city's biggest neighborhood festival.

But as Honfest grows, so does the backlash against it. Some Hampden dwellers, local fashionistas and even John Waters - who helped perpetuate the image of the Hon as a Baltimore icon - are fed up with the 50,000-strong festival that began as a simple beauty pageant.

Waters frowns on all the Hon hype. He said he won't use the word or the image in any of his scripts these days, and he doesn't think the city should get behind it either.

"To me, it's used up," Waters said of the Hon. "It's condescending now. The people that celebrate it are not from it. I feel that in some weird way they're looking slightly down on it. I only celebrate something I can look up to."

Of course, the number of anti-Hons is eclipsed by local shop owners who appreciate the two-day boost in business and the thousands of tourists who come from in and out of town for the festival.

But there are enough dissenters to stir up fiery verbal protests and boycotts of Honfest, which they see as pointless, patronizing and gimmicky.

Bill Brewer, a 65-year-old who has lived in Remington and Hampden all his life, plans to leave town before all the revelers arrive.

He's so sick and tired of the silly celebration that he's almost at a loss for words.

"It's hard to articulate stupid," he said. "It means nothing. It serves no purpose."

Who knew Honfest could be so controversial? It began in front of Cafe Hon in 1994, and since then, it has grown into a hearty two-day celebration stretching up and down The Avenue.

Anything so big is bound to rub somebody the wrong way, said Denise Whiting, the owner of Cafe Hon and the festival's founder. She brushes off the detractors as poor sports.

"Not everybody likes Oprah Winfrey," she said. "Not everybody's going to like you, and I accept that."

But Whiting was surprised to hear some of the anti-Hon opinions, especially coming from Waters.

Waters inserted the image into some of his movies - most notably Hairspray in 1988. The movie was later adapted into a Tony Award-winning play and, most recently, back into a film starring John Travolta. Hairspray is undeniably a big reason why Hons are seen as a Baltimore icon, Waters said. And at one point, the Hairspray look was popular here.

"I used to say, 'Come to Baltimore and you would see people with those hairdos,'" Waters said. "You no longer see that. They're dead or in nursing homes."

Members of the local arts community like April Camlin side with Waters. Camlin, a fashion designer and hair stylist who organized the first Baltimore Fashion Week last year, would like to see less attention focused on Honfest and more on some of the trend-setting art, music and fashion coming out of the city.

"[Honfest] doesn't really express anything that is creative about Baltimore," she said. "There are a lot of really great things that are coming out of Baltimore right now. And so much of what the country sees is this Hon stereotype we try to project for some reason."

Baltimoreans may have held onto the beehive longer than other cities across the country (at one point, Waters dubbed Charm City the "Hairdo Capitol of the World"). But the 'do didn't start here.

"It's not a Baltimore thing," said Holly Alford, a fashion professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. "It was being done in New Jersey, New York - all over. It was a very popular hairstyle."

In fact, hairstylist Margaret Vinci Heldt, the self-professed "queen of the beehive," claimed to have invented the look nearly 40 years ago in Illinois. A beauty magazine challenged her to design a trend-setting look, and she answered with the beehive.

The word hon has also been a part of American vernacular for ages - something Whiting freely admits. She has heard it used in a McDonald's all the way up in Connecticut.

"Hon is universal," Whiting said. "It's a universal term of endearment. It's not something that's unique to Baltimore. We just happen to celebrate it."

The press - at home and abroad - loves the Hon and the Honfest. This year, several British journalists are traveling to Hampden specifically for the festival.

Honfest might be a big deal in and around Baltimore, and some outsiders might be familiar with films by John Waters and Barry Levinson, but Joe Tourist generally does not know about this particularly colorful and quirky aspect of the city's past, said Nancy Hinds, the vice president of public affairs for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

If you were to list Baltimore's biggest attractions, Hons would be nowhere near the top, Hinds said. Tourists mainly come to the city to stroll through the Inner Harbor, visit historical neighborhoods such as Mount Vernon and crack open steaming hot crabs.

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