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Purple-Headed Warrior

2004-08-18 - 10:14 a.m.

First of all, huge kudos to Anarchaspud for reminding us that we must always remember to never forget: someone's gotta pay for everything, and usually it isn't the person who should be paying. So, while I support the Olympics in theory, I agree that there are far cheaper, more sustainable ways of celebrating sport, and that we should start pursuing them. In fact, I charge the anarchists and revolutionaries of the many nations to create a Sustainalympics, where the opening ceremonies are done with recycled materials, where the idea of the nation-state is deconstructed, and where I can watch swimmers that I'll be able to have a political discussion with afterwards. That is, if we ever get around to talking.

Sorry to be naughty, but last night I did something I haven't done in more than two years: I dyed my hair purple.

Now, dyeing hair like mine is no easy task. My hair is nearly pitch black, with red-brown highlights that appear only after spenidng a good long time in the sun. In addition, it's thick enough to bounce rocks off of. Now, don't get me wrong, I love my hair. In fact, it's the feature I'm most vain about; I could never imagine shaving my head or worse, losing my hair (knock on wood). Thick black hair runs on both sides of my family. My maternal grandfather died in his 60s with a full head of hair, not a strand of which was gray. while his sister, my Tia Tencha, the undisputed matriarch of our family, has only just now started having salt-and-pepper hair in her late 80s. I'm hoping that the X chromosome I got from my mother is the same one she got from her father, because if so I won't need to even think the word Rogaine for another four decades.

I wracked my brain all night, but for the life of me I can't remember what first moved me to dye my hair purple. It was back in the fall of 1999, one of the best years of my life so far, and we were working on a show calle The Serpent, which wound up being one of our best. If I had been in the cast, I would never have been able to dye my hair, but I was the assistant director. I do remember that dyeing hair seemed like an easier, less permanent alternative to tattooing or piercing, and that, with a skin-tone as blue as mine, blond hair or even red hair would never work. So, with the help of a future Harvard Law Student, I set about to change my hair, and with it, my life.

The first thing I found out was that I was going to have to bleach my hair. This had me worried, because when I was in high school a friend of mine, Crawl (his actual nickname), decided to bleach his hair. Now Crawl, like me, had Latino blood in him, and he didn't realize that bleaching Latino hair is not so much a crapshoot as a game of Russian roulette. When he came into school, he asked, "Is it Sick Boy?" referring to the Trainspotting character played by Jonny Lee Miller (When I heard Bob Dole denounce Trainspotting, I said to myself, "Okay, I've seen that movie, and no one would ever be dumb enough to see it as a guide to life." I was so wrong on that one). I wanted to say, "No, it looks like someone dumped a carrot-and-raisin salad on your head and then shellacked it," but, in my infinite mercy, I said, "You might need to bleach it again to get the real Sick Boy look, but then again that might damage your hair too much." Fortunately, he was forced by the school to dye it back to brown after a couple of days, proving that, on occassion, a dress-code has its merits.

Fortunately, I was being helped in this endeavor not by my drug-dealer best friend, as Crawl was, but by a girl who learned to dye her hair at her mother's knee. So she knew how to apply the bleach on tufts of hair and then wrap them in saran wrap to keep the bleach from getting on hair that I wanted to stay black, and she was careful not to get any Fudge Purple Haze--my very first unnatural color--on my scalp, and after we were done she was ready with a steaming coffee cup full of water, in which floated the essential part of any hair dyeing experience: a tube of VO5 hot oil treatment.

If there is a goth or punk reading this, particularly one of the male persuasion, let me take a moment ot educate you. The next time you dye your hair, head first to the hair-care section of your local drug store or supermarket and get yourself a VO5 hot oil treatment. Instead of the dry, brittle strands that you thought were your curse, you will have hair that is both colorful and silky, like the feathers on a bird of paradise. When I bought this latest batch of dye, the goth boy at the counter said, "Now you should use a little bit of shampoo and a lot of conditioner afterwards," as though imparting a trick of the trade that only an experienced punk would know, but I gave him a look and clued him into VO5, information that he took in with wide eyes. I thought to myself, "Honey, I may be vehemently opposed to totalitarianism, but when it comes to hair-care, I believe in the power of a REGIME."

The Fudge purple haze went over well, and lasted a good month and a half, but then I wanted to try turqoise, and I made the huge mistake of using Manic Panic. Not only did my hair come out jade green (which was a lovely color, but not what I wanted), but within a couple of weeks it was fading fast. While fading hair often turns interesting colors, when it finally starts going brown you get disgusted and reach for the scissors, or, if you're smart, the phone to call a stylist. When I dye my hair, I expect to be able to wait at least a month before even thinking about a touch up.

That is why I love Special Effects: provided you ignore the directions calling to leave it on 15 minutes and instead leave it on for two hours, it lasts for months. I discovered that beautiful brand when I dyed my hair for the third time. I chose Blue Velvet, and it has been my go-to color ever since. The first time I did it, I just did highlights, and it was a massive success. I called it my "comic-book hair" because, in comics, black hair is highlighted in blue, and that's just how my hair looked. I felt like Wonder Woman. I got compliments from everyone around me, even people who otherwise look down on people with purple hair. Even my mother thought it had its good points.

She was ready to kill me, though, for what it did to the shower. Fortunately, I discovered the other tool that has been indispensible all these years: bleach spray. Within minutes, the bath was back to its pristine porcelain condition, and the only purple to be found was on my head.

I kept experimenting over the years. I moved on from highlights to doing the whole head. I did pink tips one year (specifically so they could be seen onstage, as I was doing an event for new-student orientation and I wanted the freshmen to be able to see that there were people with unusual hair colors at their new college). I did cherry red and magenta. I then started blending colors, usually Blue Velvet and another purple color, with the help of Shkbob and Marguerite. I stained and scrubbed many a shower, not to mention my neck and fingernails, but I had a hell of a time.

The one person who didn't enjoy it was my Dad. He HATED that I did it, and I had to come up with all sorts of stories to justify it the first time. Eventually, I just got used to dyeing it back to black whenever I went home, always meticulously hunting down the last strands of blue. It wasn't that I was worried he'd yell at me; it was just that, truth be told, my father rarely asked anything of me, and so when he did, I always tried to oblige.

When I graduated from college, I knew the party was over, at least for a while. I wanted to get a decent job, and that meant back to black. When I went home to Austin, I realized that it would be this way until I left the city. I began missing the look of Blue Velvet in my hair, the way it went from near-midnight tones to almost an evening-sky blue as the showers went on. I vowed that I would dye my hair again once I sent off my acceptance letter to graduate school.

Yeah, in case you hadn't noticed, I'm something of a procrastinator.

Last night, though, it was finally time. As much as I was worried about the way I would be treated at the DMV or when getting insurance, I decided that if I waited too long, it would never happen. So I called one of my new friends up and asked her to come over and turn my hair purple. She came over. We bleached, wrapped my head in saran wrap to trap the heat, and waited. I rinsed, vaselined my hairline (to prevent stains), and let her act as the Delacroix of my scalp, blending together my old friend, Blue Velvet, with streaks of Virgin Rose. We wrapped my head again, waited two more hours, and then it was time to pop that coffee mug in the microwave. I rinsed, applied the hot oil, rinsed again, shampooed, rinsed yet again, and put on my new favorite accessory, a Fructis fortifying-conditioner hair-mask, which I discovered thanks to Shkbob. I rinsed a final time, used an old towel to dry my hair, marveled at the fact that I had managed not to stain my hands too severely (although the nails are still purple today) and was ready to look in the mirror.

So I looked. And found that I couldn't stop looking.

Later on that night, we went to see a movie being shown as part of Oakland's 2nd Annual International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Black Film Festival. After a boring and horribly made short film, we settled down for a movie called Punks, about four friends living in Los Angeles. Now, Punks in this sense of the word refers not to mohawk-wearing fans of The Clash, but to the perjorative black slang term for homosexuals. The film played to a lot of stereotypes--the main character was the a hopeless romantic who didn't believe in casual sex, the best friend was older, slutty, and HIV positive, the Latino friend was shallow and slutty, which thrilled me to no end, because there is nothing I love more than negative portrayals of Latinos in queer cinema and theatre, OH WAIT--but it was also funny. My favorite character was Crystal, The Wise Black Drag Queen, a gay-film stereotype if there ever was one, albeit one based on truth. There are a lot of gay men who argue that drag queens are sad and fucked-up, but they tend to have raging cases of internalized homophobia, and so are not worth mentioning. You show me the strongest person in the world, and I'll show you a Fierce. Black. Drag. Queen. And yes, all those periods should be read as snaps.

As usual, Crystal (whose real name was Jazzmun) was full of heart, soul, and wisdom, and always had the best one liners (except for one moment when the Latino said, "Anybody who's anybody sucks dick!" which I want on a T-shirt). Coincedentally, my books had arrived in the mail that afternoon, and as I opened them up I found two drag autobiographies on the very top of one of the boxes: RuPaul's Letting It All Hang Out and The Lady Chablis's Hiding My Candy. I perused both of them last night and this morning, and I got plenty of laughs and truths even in the few pages I glanced over.

As I read all this and thought about Crystal, RuPaul, and Chablis, and I looked in the mirror at my hair, at the blend of blues and purples and deep reds, and at the one strand of fuschia at the left temple, and I realized that my funky hair colors are my Drag. Now, as RuPaul always says, "We're born naked. Everything after that is drag." I agree, but I also think that everyone has a Drag. As RuPaul would describe it, it's clothing that allows you to access a different part of yourself. I remembered when I first began to dye my hair, how it awakened parts of me that were a little more daring. It was after I started dyeing my hair that I went through my period of sexual and drug experimentation, discovering in the process that who you are has a lot more to do with sexiness than how you look. I also remembered feeling so trapped by not being able to dye my hair, how I wanted to show up among my revolutionary friends with blue-violet tresses and call out, "This is who I truly am!" like Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods. I remembered how I loved singing Tori's "Take to the Sky," specifically the line, "I dyed my hair red today," loud as anything, changing one word to suit whatever color was appropriate. More than anything, I remembered how having purple hair opened me up to a lot of people, allowing the punks and goths and radicals to see me as a possible kindred spirit.

I couldn't stop looking in the mirror, and I couldn't stop smiling, which is a rare thing for me (I smile often, but rarely while looking in a mirror). I felt as though I was taking a favorite version of myself out of the attic (I keep few things in the closet, honey), dusting it off and remembering how good it felt to wear that persona outside. See, Drag isn't putting on an outfit to become a different person. It's putting on an outfit to let a new part of yourself come out to play, and it doesn't matter if Drag, for you, means a ball gown, a biker's outfit, a uniform, a corset, ripped up jeans, purple hair, or any combination of the above. What matters is to go out and to look forward to the way people are going to see you, because that's a power-source that fuels the stars above, and the ones on Earth, especially those glamorous divas with a little something extra in their designer threads.

Oh, and one other thing matters: a proper conditioning regime. Let hot oil be your KGB, conditioner your CIA. Thank me later.

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