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The Straight Story: Hair Treatment Rules the Waves

Locks that stay smooth and silky is the promise of a new perm that's catching on among the frizz-weary

May 31, 2002|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Julie Mitchell's long, wavy hair normally coils into an unruly mass. "I'd spend all this time getting ready, and I'd still be a big ball of hair walking down the aisle," said the 38-year-old flight attendant for Southwest Airlines.

That was life P.P.--pre-perm. Now her shoulder-length hair hangs ramrod straight, and her daily battle with the blow dryer is over.

Her frizzy, out-of-control waves are getting flattened by a new kind of chemical- and heat-based straightening process that's putting Marcia Brady-perfect tresses on the heads of hundreds of relieved men and women.

For those with crazy, wavy, frizzy curls that spring and sproing, the new treatments are to hair what Botox is to wrinkles: a guaranteed quick fix for one of life's most vexing beauty hassles. Tamed into a slick and soft texture, hair treated with the new straight perms, also called retexturizing, radiates with an indelible, natural-looking shine that was once impossible to obtain artificially.

Mitchell has become so committed to her fuss-free straight hair that last week she flew from Phoenix to have her third $350 treatment at Gavert Atelier in Beverly Hills, which she discovered on the Internet. She compares her natural hair to "Seinfeld's" Julia Louis-Dreyfus character, Elaine, and has tried everything, including relaxers that fried her hair.

"Anything that said it would straighten, I would get. Anything that said it would defrizz, I would get," she said. "I was obsessed with it."

So was Rhoni "Sweet Pea" Kahn, 38, an extraordinarily wavy-haired boutique owner in Carmel who paid a San Francisco salon $450 for her first straight perm in February.

"It literally changed my life," she said. "I'm telling you as a person who is in the garment industry who is very fashion-conscious and ... completely obsessed about my hair, it's unbelievably incredible," Kahn said. "It gives me an amazing amount of freedom. You'd never know that I wasn't born with beautiful, straight, WASP-y hair."

Like Botox injections, the treatment requires a commitment of time and money. In upscale Los Angeles salons, prices start at $250 and can easily hit $600 or more for the three- to four-hour process, while New York prices can begin at $800 or $900. By comparison, a session of intricate color highlights can hit $150 or $200 in some of these same salons.

"It's like the coolest thing that has happened in hair in a long time," said Mary Atherton, editor in chief of Modern Salon, a trade publication based near Chicago, a city where the treatments are gaining popularity.

The several brands of perms now common in the United States derive from a heat-based technique developed in Japan about seven years ago. When used on already straight hair, the process gave the typically coarse texture of Asian hair a soft and glossy finish--silk instead of wool.

Like a curly perm in reverse, most procedures use a combination of ammonium thioglycolic acid to soften the hair, which is then meticulously ironed to perfect flatness. A final neutralizing solution locks in the texture and straightness.

Unlike traditional relaxers or straighteners, which are harsh, short-lived and apt to damage hair, the process actually improves hair condition, vanquishes frizzies and lasts for months, said Stuart Gavert, who has been offering the service at his salon for a year and a half. The products and the ironing lock down the outermost layer of the hair shaft to deliver softness and shine. Only about 5% of Gavert's retexturizing clients are men, but he said that number may increase as longer, and harder-to-tame, hairstyles become more popular.

Though straight perms are becoming increasingly available on the coasts, they're still new to many mid-size cities. "No one had ever heard of it in Phoenix," Mitchell said, "so I thought it was worth it to come out and do it." Mitchell's wavy-haired sister, Janet Townsend, 35, loved the look on Mitchell so much that she flew in from Albuquerque for her first treatment, joining her sister at the Beverly Hills salon.

Though costly, the perms allow hair to emerge frizz-free from a humid day or a dunk in the pool. For Carmel boutique owner Kahn, that means Hawaiian vacations are no longer nightmares of hair taming and desperate visits to hairdressers. Now that her hair air dries reliably straight, Mitchell said she has shaved 30 minutes from her grooming routine.

Mitchell also said, however, that after her first treatment, not even a hot curling iron could put a bend in her tresses. After her second treatment 10 months later, her hair became a little easier to manage and to style into a soft wave.

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