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City of Angles

The Most Unwelcome Comeback Look? Let Us Mullet Over

April 29, 2001|ANN O'NEILL

There are bad haircuts, and then there is the unkindest cut of all. It's called the mullet, the ape drape, the Arkansas waterfall, the squirrel pelt. Short on the top, long in back, the mullet became popular during the fashion-challenged 1980s, a decade also responsible for the unfortunate acid-washed jeans explosion.

A mullet lets you have it both ways. From the front, you conform. You hold down a job. You pay the bills. But from the rear, a mullet sends out an unmistakable message: Here walks a rebel, a head-banger, a major party animal. As mullet fans are fond of saying, "Business up front, party out back."

"It's for people who are slightly confused, who believe they like long hair but don't want the image that they associate with long hair," said celebrity hairstylist Jose Eber, who admits to crafting a few "modified" mullets back in the 1970s. Today, however, Eber says the haircut is "nonsense" and lacks "flow."

Thanks in part to David Spade and his new film, "Joe Dirt," the mullet is poised for a comeback. Spade grew up in Arizona, where the hippest gas station attendants wear mullets, and he has recently judged mullet contests around the country to promote the film. The winner of one such event in Dallas boasted that it took 12 years to cultivate his masterpiece. A beaver could have crawled on top of his head and died in less time.

Another hairstylist to the stars, Frederic Fekkai, hadn't heard of the mullet, but when it was described, he quickly responded, "Oh, yes. The Iggy Pop." He likes the haircut. "The influence of the '60s and the '70s is strong, and a haircut like that is perfect," Fekkai said. Vidal Sassoon is withholding judgment for now. He says he gives a style a good six months before embracing it or writing it off.

Actually, mullets have been around since man first walked upright. Neanderthal man wore one. Many mullet historians credit David Bowie and his alien glitter critter, Ziggy Stardust, with bringing the mullet to the forefront in 1972.

Nowadays, it's popular among American good ol' boys, Canadian hockey players and European soccer stars. Celebrity devotees of the so-called Tennessee top hat have included Joey Buttafuoco, Wayne Gretzky, Larry Fortensky, Rod Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Ray Cyrus, the country crooner whose achy breaky heart inspired yet another nickname for the hairstyle, the achy breaky mistakey.

Mullets cross gender lines. Martina Navratilova is the fem-mullet queen, and Meg Ryan's blond mop has occasionally been mullet-like.

It's not clear whether the haircut was named after the spiny, bottom-feeding fish. According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the term "mullet head" was first mentioned in print in 1857. It referred to a "stupid, ignorant person," but by the 1950s, it simply meant "fool."

Mark Twain picked up the slang in 1884's "Huckleberry Finn," writing: "They're so confiding and mullet-headed they don't take notice of nothing at all." A century later, the Beastie Boys immortalized the style on their B-side Buttafuoco tribute, "Mullet Head," which includes these lyrics:

You're coming off like you're Van Damme

You've got Kenny G in your Trans Am . . .

Number 1 on the side and don't touch the back

Number 6 on the top and don't cut it wack, Jack.

And there's a reference to mulletheads in the 1967 Paul Newman film "Cool Hand Luke."

Suddenly, mullets are popping up all over the Internet. Dozens of Web sites are devoted to the 'do. Among them are http://www.mulletsgalore.com, http://www.mulletlovers.com and http://www.mulletmadness.com, where movie hunk Brad Pitt can be seen sporting a sho-lo for the film "Thelma and Louise." On the site, Pitt is quoted saying the mullet helped launch his career: "Right now I've got a lot of work. But if in the future times are slow and I'm just not getting the parts, yeah, I'll definitely go back to what works. If a mullet's what it takes to get the role, I'll rock the mullet."

The mullet soon may become much more than a pop culture punch line. It has been spotted on the pages of fashion bibles, in a Gucci ad and on models strolling the runways for Galliano, Givenchy and Ungaro. April's Vogue declares the mullet the haircut of the moment and advises that the back should never see a blow dryer.

A couple of Martha Stewart employees, Mark Maiocco and Mike Reinwald, have compiled interviews with "real, live mullet heads" in a documentary, "The Mullet, Uncut," making the rounds at various film festivals. And there's even a coffee table book, "The Mullet: Hairstyle of the Gods" (Bloomsbury, 2000) by British music writer Barney Hoskyns and Woodstock, N.Y., graphics designer Mark Larson.

Larson, 49, said the book is in its fourth printing and has sold more than 40,000 copies. He continues to experience "the power of the mullet" every time he hits the mall, but he denies that the 'do is strictly for the truck-pull crowd. As for Spade popularizing the mullet, Larson dismissed the Joe Dirt phenomenon as "a mullet-come-lately deal, sort of a cultural rip-off."

This is one fad we hope fades, and fast.

*

Times staff writers Gina Piccalo and Louise Roug contributed to this report. E-mail: angles@latimes.com.

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