Costly coiffures

Sunday, June 9, 2002

ATLANTA -- Some of the frizzy and curly haired, tired of spending hours with a hair dryer forcing the loops out of their locks, are turning to a new straightening treatment that promises months of silky straight hair.

Getting rid of curls doesn't come cheap, however, with some salons charging $1,000 for a process that will need a touchup in a few months.

Available at just a few dozen salons nationwide -- including a handful in Atlanta that are drawing customers from throughout the South, the process is called thermal reconditioning or Japanese hair straightening. It takes at least three hours, sometimes a whole day, as chemical straighteners are applied to the hair, then ironed through, strand by strand, with a tiny flat iron heated to 350 degrees.

The result, according to those who have tried it, is permanent silky hair far straighter than can be had from a drugstore relaxer or traditional salon treatment.

The process costs about $500 for most clients, although salons in New York and Los Angeles charge up to $1,000. Some stylists add manicures and foot massages to alleviate boredom during the long process, driving the price up even more.

It's a boon to the stylists who offer the service.

"All of a sudden, they're calling every day," said Mandana Zeimaran, an Atlanta stylist. "I've never even advertised that I do this, but I'm getting people from Tennessee and Florida."

'Ball of frizz'

Straight hair is a big deal to women such as Laura Stallone, a New York City research manager who used to be "a big ball of frizz" on humid days and showered at night because it took so long to dry her curly hair. A month after spending $500 for the treatment at a Maryland salon, she has no regrets.

"Just the amount of time I save makes it worth it," said Stallone, 34, who said she tried dozens of fancy relaxers that didn't take the kinks out of her long, brown hair.

Jessica Farbman, a 31-year-old underwriter for a New York bank, said the process changed her life.

"It's the best thing that ever happened," she said. "I'll do this the rest of my life. I used to hate going outside when it was humid, and I really hated going on vacation to the beach. Now I can get ready in 10 minutes and go."

The treatment starts with a hair consultation to make sure the process will work.

It's not recommended for hair that's been colored or recently straightened by another process; some stylists turn away about half of the hopefuls.

Hairdressers then work a creamy chemical straightener through the hair, wait 20 or 30 minutes, and rinse it out. After drying, the hair is ironed in tiny sections four or five times over with a hot iron. A plastic edge prevents scalp burns, but women still are warned to sit still.

The work doesn't end when the hair lies flat several hours later. Clients can't wash their hair for at least two days -- they're encouraged not to even get it wet -- and they can never curl that hair again.

The straightening is permanent, but clients have to come back about twice a year to iron out the roots. In between treatments, women use a hair dryer to smooth the frizzy roots -- although fans say the hair's length usually pulls the roots tolerably flat.

Hairdressers say the arduous process isn't turning people off.

Not since the 1980s perm craze have people been so interested in a chemical process, they said. And because thermal hair straightening is still relatively rare, the stylists who do it are booked months in advance by clients who drive hours for the treatment.

Japanese origin

The treatment appeared in America about five years ago after stylists noticed it being done on women in Japan, where even a slight wave stands out like a cowlick.

"It changes your life. It's really that dramatic," said Yuki Sharoni, a Beverly Hills, Calif., stylist best known for giving a hair makeover to Linda Tripp, the former Pentagon worker who taped her conversations with Monica Lewinsky about President Clinton. "We get clients from all over. Everyone thinks it's a waste of money until they see it. And then they want it no matter what it costs."

Other stylists dismissed Japanese hair straightening as a fad that will soon plummet in price, and popularity.

"Unless you're extremely wealthy and have all the money in the world, you're not going to do it," said Nicole Marie, a stylist at Atlanta's upscale Studio Oliver.

"I have clients ask about it all the time, but once they find out what's involved and how much it costs, they're like, 'Forget it.' To me it seems kind of silly for the general public," she said.

One thermal reconditioning fan insists the pricey treatment is worth it for people who spend an hour a day fighting their unruly tresses.

"All my life I've been struggling with it," said Kasey Wilson, 23, who works in a health foods store in Dana Point, Calif. "I had chemical relaxers before, and basically that was a nice temporary fix. This is totally different. I literally jump out of the shower and go, and that's awesome."

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