In 2015, Zendaya tweeted a cryptic exchange she had with a man who was confused as to how she was able to wear a short crop, cornrows and waist-length hair in the span of three days at Paris Fashion Week. “A guy came up to me and was like, ‘One show you have short hair, now you have braids—how??’” she wrote. “I turned over my shoulder and said…‘Magic.’” Two years later, she got a little more explicit, releasing a YouTube video that explained the difference between her wigs, weaves and extensions and then posting to Instagram that she was happy to finally see her natural curl pattern returning after wearing these heat-protective styles. Zendaya didn’t owe anyone an explanation about what she does to her hair or how she wears it, but her openness to sharing her hair journey reflects a growing trend in beauty: measuring authenticity not in terms of “natural” but how a woman chooses to express herself.
Until recently, celebrities’ hair extensions were more of an industry secret, and wearing a halo (hair attached to a thin headband-like wire), clip-ins (tracks of hair attached to clips) or a weave (extensions sewn into braids) was something that was kept between a woman and her hairstylist for fear of seeming inauthentic. Jen Atkin, hairstylist and founder of hair-care line Ouai, addressed extension shaming on Instagram in 2015. She posted a photo of a table of hairpieces with the words “Who cares?” scrawled across it and wrote: “I’m always reading comments like ‘I bet it’s extensions,’ ‘She will probably just put in extensions’ or ‘That’s not her hair.’ Guys, hair extensions ARE NOT bad or something to be embarrassed by.”
Chrissy Teigen, Kelly Ripa and Selena Gomez would agree: They have all gone on the record about wearing hair enhancements, but they are hardly the only ones. “On camera, hair tends to photograph small or skinny,” explains Bridget Brager, a Los Angeles-based hairstylist who readies her celebrity clients for red carpets, music videos and print photo shoots. “To be honest, I use them all the time in my work in magazines. A couple of hair extensions in the right place give you that width or volume needed for the camera.”
“The truth of the matter is, I don’t care who you are—99 percent of women who are high-profile wear hair,” says Harry Josh, a New York-based hairstylist who counts Gisele Bündchen as a loyal client. “Even the hair icons that we look at and think ‘Wow, what a head of hair’—they still add more on top of their already amazing hair.” With so many ways to experiment with length, texture and volume, says Josh, stylists and celebrities want to create hair that’s on steroids: super-thick and bouncy or super-long and sleek, the latter favoured by the likes of Nicki Minaj and Kim Kardashian—both of whom have sported lengths over the past year that would give Rapunzel hair envy. Their hair is obviously not real, but neither are their contoured cheekbones—and what’s the difference between the two when it comes to self-expression?
For women of colour, wearing hair enhancements often comes tangled with deeper historical messaging and social or professional pressures. British hairstylist Natasha John-Lewis, who works at My Hair Bar near London’s Regent’s Park, recalls a recent client who felt she needed to straighten her hair while hunting for a job in banking. “She had been to over 50 interviews and was only given a chance when she went for a hair change,” she says. Despite this, John-Lewis believes that the overall perception of natural hair is changing, thanks, in part, to black women celebrating their hair texture on social media and empowering others to embrace it too. Still, when Beyoncé’s long-time hairstylist Neal Farinah posted an Instagram photo of the singer with a cascade of natural curls last December, critical commenters questioned if her own hair could really be so long. In a subsequent video, Farinah reminded people (without dropping Bey’s name) that wearing wigs, weaves or extensions is every woman’s personal choice and not one that black women make because they need to cover up—or can’t grow— their natural hair.
“Just like other beauty products, hair extensions allow you to fully express your style and can make you feel your best,” says Jennifer Parrott, owner of extension-focused salon Locks & Mane in Toronto. A loyal extensions wearer for more than a decade, Parrott typically books off an entire day every six weeks to get hers installed, dropping about $400 each time to pump up her hair—and her sense of self. “I feel so much more like me with hair extensions,” she says.
This feeling is not quite universal. Toronto-based hairstylist Roger Medina decided to enter the extensions game after noticing a culture of openness to them in the United States, something he wants to import north of the border. “In Canada, it’s still very private,” he says. “It’s almost like consumers feel ashamed.” This year, he launched his own collection of clip-ins, available in 18 shades and designed to add length, volume and colour without commitment. “I want to start an open conversation about hair extensions and enhancements because, aside from the glamorous aspect of it, there are also people who want them for a confidence boost after chemotherapy, alopecia or hair loss after stress or giving birth.”
At a time when beauty can be defined however you wish, “you can have any head of hair you want on the planet if you’re willing to put in the money and the work required to maintain it,” says Josh. “Fantasy hair is now everyone’s reality.” And it’s a welcome one at that.
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of ELLE Canada.
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.