Elizabeth Searle

ACT TRESSES: Hair as Performance Art


My family moved a lot.  I was the perpetual new girl: a skinny late-bloomer with buckteeth decked by metal braces. I found refuge in elaborate pretend games I played with my sister till I was well into my teens, and in old movies we watched with Mom.  I was fascinated by Audrey Hepburn in Two for the Road— the way she transformed from the “ugly duckling” of her schoolgirl group into a radiant young wife and later a jaded glamorous jet-setter.

You can change yourself through your looks and styles, I was starting to see.  We grew up with a framed photo of JFK above our dining room table. Years before I was born, Mom saw presidential candidate JFK speak, his famously fab hair tousled in the wind.  He looked, Mom reported reverently, “like a Greek God.”

Would JFK have risen to power and immortality if he’d had more ordinary hair?  In the Biblical Samson story, hair is power. Who can calculate how much those heads of lavish Irish hair helped the Kennedy brothers?  Not to mention Jackie.  Her hair.

Another fascination I shared with my Mom.  Jackie Kennedy with her preternaturally wide-set eyes, dramatic dark brows, deeply dazed regal manner, darkly intelligent stare and the shiny helmet of hair she wore into battle beside her dashing husband.

As Ted Kennedy memorably said of Jackie in his eulogy: No one looked like her or acted like her or sounded like her.  Or, Teddy didn’t need to add, had hair like hers.

I knew I’d never have hair like Jackie’s.  But I dared to hope for Audrey Hepburn hair when I first saw Roman Holiday, one of my mother’s favorite films.  How dramatic is the haircut scene and Audrey’s transformation from princess to gamin whose bouncy short-cut hair reminded me of Mom’s.  And what I hoped my own straighter, oilier hair might somehow someday become.  If I “took care of it.”  As a kid, that meant Mom giving my sister and me what we dubbed Sha-Baths, a combo of shower and bath.  We’d sit in the tub under the full shower stream and Mom on her knees would scrub our hair, hard.  Green Herbal Essence Shampoo bubbled over my long hair and bare back.  A lush green-foamed, sweet-scented princess cape.  Not that the pre-teen me was any Princess.  Not on the outside.


My first hairdo of choice, when I was five, was a princessy ponytail. I had to “flip over” so Mom could grasp all my long brown hair and twist it, hard.  Mom was a science teacher who kept a dissected cat in a plastic bag in our garage; she was no wimp.  Her hands were strong.  With no-nonsense force, Mom would pull my hair up.  It had to be high like a crown, like the harem hairdo on I Dream of Jeanie.

Deftly, Mom would snap my ponytail into place with a double-twist motion and a single “ponytail-maker”—a number eight-shaped rubbery band decked with twin plastic marble-sized balls in different groovy colors.  The then “shocking” pink was my fave.

When Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeanie nodded her head hard to cast her spells, her blonde ponytail bobbed and gleamed as if magic itself.  Even my plainer ponytail bounced like a real pony’s tail.  It was worth all the hard brushing and twisting needed to create ponytailed perfection.  I was learning this lesson young: beauty hurts.

My mom had been pictured on the cover of a science magazine when she was in her twenties: a dazzlingly glamorous lab technician intently concentrating on her test tube, her pursed lips so darkly lipsticked they look, in the luminous black and white shot, black. Her brown hair, too, looks lushly black—like Elizabeth Taylor’s hair. I loved the fact that my mother had been on the cover of a real magazine, like a movie star.  Though Mom denies it, I always believed she named me partly after Elizabeth Taylor, considered for decades to be the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.

Mom, a dark-haired beauty and pioneering career girl in the 1950’s, had been dubbed by her Philadelphia roommate “First Most Beautiful Woman in the World.” Mom worked then in a lab testing soaps and beauty products.  She knew the dark arts of conjuring beauty.  As I grew up, Mom regularly used Loving Care to touch up her dark hair.  The chemical smell and pasty brown substance seemed anything but loving and left blood-dark stains on her headscarfs.  But I loved the results: Mom “magically” maintaining the richly brown hair color I’d inherited.  I was happy to be my mother’s hair heir.  But I couldn’t picture being happy in my mother’s quiet life now that she wasn’t a big-city scientist, but a high school biology teacher and housewife.



Gloria Steinem was my own teen-hood icon, one I’d fixated on myself, not via my Mom.  I loved Steinem’s aviator style wire-rimmed glasses and her long straight center-parted hair, streaked by ashy blonde, simple yet striking.

I wore glasses too.  I entered seventh grade wearing ill-chosen, dark, plastic stop-sign-shaped frames that prompted my South Carolina school’s Mean Girls to crow: “She look like a dog in them glasses.”  I vowed to myself that someday I’d escape to snowy college land, like Ali McGraw did in Love Story.  Another of my mother’s favorite films; one she didn’t let me watch when I was little “because it’s too sad.”

But to gawky me, the film offered a glimpse of a better tomorrow.  The tale of a smart girl who escapes to Radcliffe felt hopeful even though she dies before her senior year.  I loved to imagine a world ruled by brainy chicks like Ali, smartly attired in her black tights and black-framed glasses, crowned by her simple yet sexy “do.” Center-parted, shoulder-length, dark-brown hair.  Like—mine!   Only it looked way better on her.

My senior year, my family’s cross-country moves landed us in Arizona.  In my fourth high school, I nabbed the lead in the school play and published stories in the Chaparral High literary magazine, my long brown hair streaked now with blonde highlights by the fierce Phoenix sun, my pallor and acne tanned away.  Plus, I was old enough for contact lenses.  So I wasn’t Ali McGraw, but things were looking up.


How important is hair in life?  How big a role did my own auburn brown college-girl hair play in initially captivating my future (and present) husband?  A turning point came as I sat at age nineteen beside my future mate, then a worldly twenty-eight, in his bachelor apartment on what I later learned he called the Make-Out Couch.

“Can I touch your hair?” John, who had a major head of hair himself, asked me.

John came from a family of major hair.  His mother had what she deemed “many colored hair,” which no doubt caught his dad’s eye on the same Oberlin College campus where I met John.  By then I knew that, like plumage on birds, bright hair attracts mates.

My mother and father had fallen in love at first sight, dancing to “Love Me Tender.”  They married a mere four months later.  But my mom had been twenty-nine at the time, after almost a decade on her own, having her “career-girl” adventures in Philadelphia.  I married at the tender age of twenty-two, some of my own adventure seeking still untapped.

Together, John and I left the cradle of our midwestern college town to head east—

where I found myself wanting bigger hair to match my bigger ambitions.



It seemed like a good idea at the time.  The first perm: in my mid-twenties when I was still in graduate school and we could barely afford groceries, much less pricey salons.  But I loved rocker Kate Bush’s wild mane of lioness hair.

This was back in my own wildish days.  I was trying out experimental fiction at Brown University’s MFA program, whilst experimenting with my hair, too.  Years of perming wound up frying my once-shiny hair into a too-bushy frizz; a do that matched the stressed-out frenzy of my post-graduate aspiring writer years, scrambling for literary success in Boston.  Not that there weren’t some swell parties along the way in the nineties when my first books were published.

My husband describes women like guitars.  “Acoustic & Electric.”  I may have started as an Acoustic girl, with loosely curled hairdos and natural looking makeup.  But by the mid-nineties, I was trending toward Electric, with darker lipsticks and shorter skirts and higher heels.  My teaching job at Emerson College planted me in posh downtown Boston, where I had my hair more expertly permed.

Then motherhood hit.  Nothing was the same after our son was born, including my hair.  Like most new moms, I barely had time to brush, much less style.  I also hadn’t had time to follow the swinging singles show Friends.  But when I emerged from my baby-besotted daze long enough to get a haircut, I wound up accidentally Aniston’d, my wavy hair woken up and amped up by angled layers.  My hair was nowhere near a Jennifer Aniston level of lushness and sheen, yet her signature layers gave middle-aged me— sidelined from the writing life—a lift.  Inside, as well as out.



The segue from writing fiction to writing libretti for an opera and rock opera in my forties marked another era change for my hair.  This time, the hairstyle I eventually chose was not like anybody else’s.  It was my own and my hairdresser’s concoction, designed to fit the new me.  As a writer of literary fiction and a college teacher, not to mention a frazzled mom, I’d kept my hair and clothes simple.

But around the time my lively son was old enough to stop running me ragged, my writing career took a dramatic turn.  At an age when many writerly careers are on the wane, I reinvented myself, stumbling into a project that brought my work national attention for the first time, and even a touch of notoriety.

For years I’d been obsessed with the infamous 1994 Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Olympic skating scandal, in which skater Kerrigan was whacked in the knee by an assailant and suspicions focused on rival skater Harding.  I’d first written about Tonya and Nancy in a novella, Celebrities in Disgrace.  But when I hit on the idea of turning their larger-than-life tale into an opera in 2005, I found my work drawing a new level of attention.  I wound up writing the libretti for both an opera and rock opera and talking for years, several times on national TV, about the shows and the lurid knee-attack scandal itself.  I also found myself drawn into a world I’d always loved from afar: theater.

So it was that on a spring night in 2006 my mid-forties, I found myself driving from a Harvard Square theater rehearsal of Tonya & Nancy: the Opera, to a nearby mall on an urgent mission to purchase a clip-on ponytail.

The lovely singer playing ice skater Nancy Kerrigan in our opera had all she needed to embody Nancy and belt out her “Why Me” aria—except the long ponytail.  Incredibly, photographers from the AP were coming to capture our girls in costume, amidst our strange and heady surge of media attention.

Normally a cautious driver, I sped down Route 3 to the Burlington Mall, ran in just before closing time, bee-lined to a garish booth.  Breathlessly, I tried on several high-end ponytails.  I splurged on a glossy $70 model.  Triumphant, I raced to my car with my ponytail still clipped on, more gleeful than the sullen teens I galloped past.

What have I been doing with my life?  I found myself thinking giddily in my car, glimpsing myself in my rearview mirror.  My Aniston cut had grown too long, but the clip-on ponytail revitalized it.  I roared back to the theater, greeted like a hero for having found the perfect ponytail.

What a thrill—like playing dress-up dolls, only better— to watch as our perfectly attired and pony-tailed Nancy and Tonya emerged that night to a barrage of AP flashbulbs.  Somehow buying that ponytail marked a turning point for me; it made me realize that theater writing was more than a passing fling.  And that I needed a new look for my theatrical writing life.



My Mommy-hair days came to an abrupt end the day ESPN Hollywood called.  When ESPN said they were sending a cameraman to my home in two hours for an interview about the opera, I hung up in a giddy panic, wondering if I should tidy my living room or do my hair.  It was a no-brainer. I seized a ratty brush from my nightstand and bent over to give my hair a vigorous brushing.  The aging brush snapped in half.

I phoned my usual salon, could not get in, then dialed a trendy new place I’d noticed.  The stylist told me my plentiful yet baby-fine hair would “respond to product.”  Loading my hair with foam, powder and spray, she teased it so hard my scalp ached.  But when she was done, my hair had magically expanded.  I looked less like a middle-aged mom and more like a wild and crazy librettist who’d cooked up an Olympics-scandal opera.

Over the subsequent busy years of interviews and rehearsals and further crazier adventures writing a rock opera, my big hair helped me muster some extra moxie.  I was getting my professional mojo back.  I began giving livelier fiction readings, too.  With my hair high, at age 48, I won a “Literary Death Match” medal.

Unlike a perm, teasing is temporary.  So I can switch from casual carpooling-Mom hair to big hair as needed.  My do is a tad retro.  But it works for me.  Better than beta blockers or Botox, having my hair curled and teased lets fiftyish me feel a little onstage oomph.

“Hair, makeup, wardrobe,” a long-ago TV ad mused. “Where would an actress be without them?”  Or an actress at heart, like me?  All my life, I have taken on different personas with different hairdos.  My mother is the opposite.  After cutting her long hair to begin her working life in her early twenties, Mom has basically stuck with the same short bouncy haircut and the same Loving Care hair color, on into her eighties.

She will never be ready, she’s decided, to go grey.  But she was up for a relatively late-in-life career change.  In her fifties, she shifted from teaching science to earning a new degree and taking a new job as a children’s librarian.  Another quiet profession, but one in which she could act out her own love of theater by reading aloud to kids, energetically voicing the different roles.  Yet “Mrs. Searle” always looked reassuringly the same to her young students—and to me, still, when I visited her, and still do, in sunny Arizona.  She moves less briskly now, but she has the same level, blue-eyed gaze and same game, lipsticked smile.  Mom, with her Jackie O. sunglasses and her short Audrey Hepburn hair, always the same warm shade of brown.  I’m the one who’s changing my hair color as I age, opting for lighter highlights to soften my face.

I see now that, for me, hair has always been a performance art.  In my newest version of my Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera script, still evolving after two professional productions, I added a line awarding Nancy Kerrigan ”Best performance by a ponytail.” Even for those of us living far from the Olympic-sized world stage, our hair is a kind of performance we give throughout our lives.



Nowadays, in my early fifties, I am happily schizo with my hair: keeping “Acoustic” in my day-to-day housekeeping and teaching life, with my shoulder-length hair hanging loose, but changing things up to my more “Electric” style when I need to be “on.”

“Everything comes and goes,” Joni Mitchell sings, marked by “lovers and styles of clothes.”  And, I’d add, by styles of hair, too.

Hillary Clinton, famous for her shifting hairstyles, has said wryly that over the years she has grown not only older and wiser but “blonder.”  Like Hillary, I have found mixing in “golden brown” streaks to mask the scattered white in my still-brown hair helps brighten my midlife look and outlook, like Christmas lights in midwinter.

Everything does indeed “come and go.”  Styles change as quickly these days as the ever-shifting celebrities who set off one hair craze after another, whilst rising and falling themselves with Internet-powered speed.

Still, we each primp hopefully for our own little star turns. My mother at age 84 still Loving Cares her hair.  New hairstyles give me a boost when life gets a bit blah, whether from the pressures of motherhood or middle-aged angst, or worries over what lies beyond.  Luckily, I have little time lately to fret over my advancing age.

Mixing it up with youthful high-energy theater folk is one way to stay young at heart.  Recently in New York City in the spring of 2013, I slipped into the ladies’ room of a music studio where our rock opera was being performed as a staged reading showcase.  The ladies’ room was still redolent with the heavy-duty hairspray of the actresses, some of them Broadway pros.  I pulled out my own purse-sized bottle of hairspray, breathing deeply to calm my nerves.  And I felt, as I inhaled their spray with mine, a sense of sisterhood with these starlets.

Like them, in my own smaller way, I primped as if I were suiting up in battle armor.  A few well-aimed spritzes of spray made my hair, and my spirits, rise.  Head and hair high, I opened the door to face my audience.


“Act Tresses: Hair as Performance Art” is from Me, My Hair and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession, edited by Elizabeth Benedict, Algonquin Books, Sept. 2015.

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