When I turned 10, my naturally blonde hair began fading to what a particularly cruel friend told me was “mouse brown.” I didn’t have access to a mouse, so I compared my darkening head to my elderly brown hamster and found that they matched.
Thus began my downward hair-dye spiral: First the sun-in, and then regular visits to the salon to fix the blotchiness caused by the sun-in.
This was the age of Britney, Christina, and Lizzie McGuire. I practically stalked each of them from my family home in Maryland, watching every music video, every interview, every interaction with Ethan Craft, wondering how they all had so much beautiful, healthy hair. My hair was brittle and dull, a chemical mess.
In a classic preteen way, I started mistaking glamorous hair for talent. I thought it was a je ne sais quoi that Britney was born with -- that she woke up, put some mascara on, and was instantly “Oops I Did It Again” ready.
Maybe, like Samson, Christina’s vocal strength came from her naturally white blonde hair—it didn’t occur to me it was dyed. I assumed that I could never survive 8th grade with the same panache that Lizzie McGuire did because I couldn’t grow out my hair as long as she could. I mean, in "The Lizzie McGuire Movie," her hair was down to her waist. To her waist. And she kisses two boys. TWO.
Almost 15 years later, I’m still obsessed with hair. My Pinterest boards are packed with photos of Lucy Hale’s ombré and Kelly Osbourne’s lilac. When a friend mentions she wants to change her hairstyle, I get way too involved, sending pictures of my favorite celebrity looks and demanding play-by-plays of salon visits.
However, 24-year-old me knows better than poor little cutting-my-own-bangs-with-child-proof-scissors 10-year-old me. I understand that hair does not equal talent. I’ve seen young women with impossibly shiny rich-girl hair fail at all sorts of things: public speaking, talent shows, and kissing boys.
But in terms of celebrity hair -- the kind I used to covet and kick myself over -- I’ve been filled with an immense sense of peace. Because I realized that it’s all fake! Once Britney shaved her head and began wearing very visible extensions, my eyes were opened.
How did I ever think her full “Oops I Did It Again” up-do was actually made out of her natural hair? She’d been wearing extensions all along—that’s how she could bleach the bejesus out of her hair while avoiding the deranged scarecrow look.
Celebrities are more open about using hair extensions these days than during my pouty middle school years. Kylie Jenner has a black bob one minute and turquoise mermaid hair the next. Ashley Benson posted a video on her Instagram documenting her hair stylist on "Pretty Little Liars" removing her hair extensions. Jennifer Lawrence pulled out of one of her own extensions on "The Tonight Show" and joked about how she wished she could cut it in half and use it for two bushy eyebrows.
Lindsay Lohan on OWN (I know I am one of six people in the world who tuned in) showed a professional hair stylist coming to her apartment to install hair extensions. After some extensive Googling, I found out that hair extension housecalls like that can cost a few thousand dollars. The Hollywood Reporter noted that actresses often use studio funds to cover the costs.
No wonder those celebrities’ hair looks better than mine: I consider $7 John Frieda shampoos from CVS a big purchase, and there is no way in hell I could include hair extensions on this month’s invoice at my office job.
But, just like that time I wrongly assumed I could cut myself some Lizzie McGuire bangs, I couldn’t shake off the fact that only money (OK, and makeup artists, personal trainers, and extensive spa treatments) stood between me and a celebrity style.
Determined to figure out how to attach extensions to my head without the expensive assistance of a professional, I enlisted the help of my craftiest, most glamorous friend. She had worked with hair extensions in her past life as a beauty pageant contestant and told me to buy Remi hair and microlinks. Microlinks are like tiny metal noodles lined with silicon on the inside.
My friend explained that she would combine a piece of my hair and a piece of the extension in the microlink and then use pliers to flatten the microlink, sealing the two types of hair together.
I thought hair extensions would be hard to find in my price range (I prayed to find some sort of fake-hair dollar menu), but one Yelp search connected me to a handful of stores on the outskirts of Downtown Los Angeles. I called the Yelp listings before I ventured over to check out the prices, and I’m sure this strategy would work in any city.
By the end of the day, I had bought a set of clip-less 20” hair extensions in a warehouse-like store that also sold fishnet stockings, neon wigs, and false eyelashes made out of tinsel—probably the same place Kylie Jenner gets hers.
My total was $42. Less than what I usually pay for a haircut (since I stopped trying to do them myself).
I was so excited to get blonder without the bleach! The hair smelled like cardboard and weighed about five pounds once it was microlinked to my head. At first, the hair extensions were so straight and perfect, they didn’t blend in with my real hair at all. An old, stale fear bubbled up inside me.
“I knew it,” I thought. “I’m not worthy.” But celebrities make having tons of someone else’s hair stapled to their skulls look easy. That’s part of their job. I found out quickly that creating the illusion of natural, healthy hair could take hours, but it was possible.
Curling my hair helped with the blending, and after some practice I could manage it in about 20 minutes. However, when I showered, my hair stayed wet for what felt like two full days. I read recently that Kim Kardashian gets a blowout every five days, and now I can see why. Let the records show that my amateur blow-drying is free, even if it does take a full work-week to accomplish.
Wearing hair extensions did not suddenly transform me into a celebrity. I have yet to be mistaken for an Italian pop star and/or wooed by a cute guy on a moped who wants me to sing a duet with him in front of thousands of people. Let’s just say, hair extensions are not what dreams are made of. The only thing that has transformed is my attitude.
Trying to manage hair extensions helped me realize how much work and money goes into Hollywood beauty. Knowing that celebrities have to pay professionals to make them look like that has made it so much easier for me to avoid comparing myself to them.
I love my $42 extensions. They represent a secret that should have been obvious to my younger self: Celebrities are just people. They did not just wake up like that.
It’s a huge relief to know that just because I wasn’t born with a certain je ne sais quoi—whether it be Rapunzel hair or pop stardom—doesn’t mean I can’t work for it. And, for the sake of middle school me, I totally will.