Hair extensions are a painful undertaking, Victoria Melody informs us in the opening of Hair Peace. They are heavy, and pull at your scalp. The glue hardens and pricks you, making it impossible to sleep. More discomfiting still, is the insight Melody offers us into the human hair industry itself. As a completely unregulated business, it is worth millions – Britain (as the 3rd biggest importer of human hair in the world) offers easy import, as hair is considered a beauty accessory, rather than human remains.
Using her self-effacing onstage persona and a Louis Theroux-esque transnational video-diary of her research missions to Russia and India (two of the world’s biggest human hair exporters), Melody unweaves the dodgy practices of this severely-overlooked industry. She identifies the profiteering middlemen – and they are wholly men – who are exploiting the vulnerability of women as suppliers (ignorant of either the selling of their hair when cut for religious reasons, or the price it can go for in the West) and the vanity of women as consumers, ignorant (often by choice) of the source of their extensions. Indeed, hair extensions have received a fraction of the ethical attention as food, clothing, or other parts of the cosmetic industry Though we worry about animal testing, FairTrade, and conditions of labour, we seem able to forget entirely about the circumstances of the anonymous individual who donates years worth of a (potentially core) part of their aesthetic identity for our three months of vanity.
Melody, however, is careful to avoid judgment. Her performed research (a form echoed by the duo Sh!t Theatre) provokes audible shock from the audience: the Indian temple which makes £22m in selling on its tonsured hair, or the woman who sells her dead mother’s plait for £5. However, as Melody introduces herself as a nationwide beauty pageant contestant, she embraces the self-obsessed, ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype as the vehicle for Hair Peace’s exploration. Although her wigs change color, length and style, her persona stays the same. (SPOILER ALERT AHEAD) In the end, her video interviews with friend Neeharika (whose head was shaved at the aforementioned temple), and sister Beverley (long-time hair extension connoisseur) defy the archetypes of the ethnic victim and the ignorant Western consumer. Neeharika feels stronger without her long hair – knowing people are only seeing her; Beverley doesn’t feel herself without the extensions, despite them not being a part of her. Melody reconciles both these women’s experiences as consensual participants on either side of an exploitative industry that connects one individual to another in the most literal sense. (HM/EW)
HAIR PEACE, Victoria Melody, Pleasance Courtyard (Below), AUG 12-16, 18-23, 25-31. Wheelchair Access, Level Access, Hearing Loop available.
More on Victoria Melody
See Sh!t Theatre for similar mix of live art/comedy/issue-based research, inc. Guinea Pigs on Trial, looking into Phase One medical trials
Homa Khaleeli in The Guardian on the hair trade