AS CO-OWNER of the Grooming Room on Brooklyn’s Nostrand Avenue, a street so dense with beauty outlets that it almost seems zoned for that purpose, Tiffany Brown is a high priestess of the do. When I first met her yesterday, her face was framed by closely cropped bangs and tresses hanging to her chin. Today she looks altogether different, with hair pulled tight against her scalp into a ponytail just an inch long. Tomorrow, it might well be glamorous locks cascading down her back. The secret of Brown’s chameleon powers: extensions made from human hair. It’s “a necessary accessory, like earrings or a necklace,” she says. “It lets me be whoever I want to be for a day.” Her clients feel the same way; they spend about $400 a month maintaining their extensions, she says, though a few drop thousands. Between shops like hers and celebs who might shell out $10,000 or more for a single wig or weave, the demand adds up to a $900 million global trade in human hair—not counting installation.
Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary, Good Hair, focused attention on the trouble and expense many a black woman goes through in her quest for straight hair. “Have you ever put your hands through a black woman’s hair?” Rock asks some guys in a barbershop. The response: “Hell no! Not a black woman’s hair!” (Too expensive.) But extensions are “not a black or white thing or even a woman’s thing,” says Lori Tharps, coauthor of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. She points to the recent admission by tennis star Andre Agassi that for much of his career his signature mullet was in fact a weave.