I can remember the exact day it began. The day I learned that by changing my hair, I could look like other people…famous people. And since everyone loves famous people, I reasoned, everyone will love me too. I was five and about to be the flower girl for my cousin Jill’s wedding. In preparation for the big day, my mom rolled my hair up in pink spongy curlers the night before and promised me that if I slept in them, I would awaken more beautiful than ever. So I endured the plastic jabs in my scalp as I tossed and turned all night until the blessed morning came and I sprang from my bed the next morning, ecstatic to see just how glamorous I was going to look. Carefully, my mother and my nana pulled the curlers from my hair, giggling at how adorable I was, until finally, they turned me towards the mirror – and I burst into tears. My hair had shrunk! How did that happen? It used to be a straight curtain past my shoulders and now it was collected in bunches of springy curls nearly up to my ears.
I was inconsolable – until my sweet Uncle Mickey knelt down and told me with a wink that I looked exactly like Shirley Temple. Me? Look like a movie star? Like the girl who sang and danced on TV? The girl everyone loved? Trepadatiously glancing in the mirror one last time, I saw it -- I did look like her! I beamed. And when wedding guest after wedding guest gushed over my hair for the rest of the day and into the night, I was soon hooked.
As I grew older, the celebrity inspirations changed, but the quest to have their hairstyles, and the attention it could garner, did not. At seven, after having seen GREASE and the rousing reception Sandy received from her perm, I happily braved the noxious fumes myself as my Aunt Bev gave me a home perm in her kitchen sink. I continued to get my limp locks permed into crunchy curls for the better part of a decade as an obsession with the Material Girl took over. The hard green and blue curlers and small squares of paper were actually more constant companions than my friends in those years as my family moved around between four states.
In middle school, as my eyebrows filled in, people called me Brooke Shields. And then in High School, when I began using Sun-In to highlight my dishwater brown hair with golden streaks, I had more than one boy tell me I looked like Kathy Ireland, asking cheekily if I could fill out a bikini like she could (sure, with enough padding I could.) In college I worked at a hair salon to help pay for tuition, but also because of the glorious discount. I became a hair model, walking the runway for Vidal Sassoon, rocking an oh-so-hip Claire Danes bob.
After that I got a little cocky and took the follicular misstep of trying to cut my hair to look like Audrey Hepburn’s famous coif from ROMAN HOLIDAY. Sadly, I looked nothing like my dark haired idol, and spent many nights willing my locks to grow. Turns out eating vats of jello and shampooing with Mane ‘n Tail does not help, no matter what Seventeen magazine says. The only thing that did work was time, and after enough of it passed, I was elated when a classmate in chem lab remarked that I must be Michelle Pfeiffer’s doppelganger. I liked the comparison (who wouldn’t) and even began to sharply pluck my eyebrows to complete her look.
As my hair grew longer and longer and I began to aggressively highlight it so by the time I graduated and moved to Los Angeles, I was actually stopped on a corner in Beverly Hills by a homeless man who pulled his overstuffed shopping cart beside me at a crosswalk and said emphatically, “You look exactly like that actress, that Reese Witherspoon.” I took it as a sign and enrolled in acting class where one of our first exercises was to come up with a “logline” for each other, a description to help an agent sell us to casting agents. My classmates dubbed me “The love child of Mena Suvari and Denise Richards.” Inexplicably unhappy with that comparison, I immediately found a famous salon, Juan Juan in Beverly Hills, saved up my money, and had a very talented (read: expensive) colorist give me strawberry blonde hair. The woman in the chair next to me immediately proclaimed me to be the spitting image of Nicole Kidman.
I’ve had Meg Ryan’s shag, Farrah’s wings, and Gwyneth’s matching Brad Pitt boy cut – however somehow I never got around to getting “A Rachel”. It was exhilarating to transform my entire image, and therefore what others thought of me, with just a trip to a salon. But over time, the work and expense to keep it all up took its toll. So when I traded in acting for my deeper dream of writing, and stepped out of the limelight, I decided it was time to go back to my natural color -- whatever that was.
I allowed my roots to grow out, astonished to see grey hairs mixed with the light brown that I remembered from my pre-teen years. I found a colorist and asked her to match the color as best she could from my roots to the ends, saying goodbye to my golden locks that had inspired the moniker “Golden Holden” that my reps delighted in calling me. And as the stylist turned me towards the mirror, just as my mother and grandmother had all those years ago – I cried. I didn’t recognize the girl in the mirror. She didn’t look like anyone I’d seen on TV or in the movies; she didn’t look like a celebrity at all. My husband couldn’t understand my despair – how could he? What man has ever spent countless hours and unfathomable amounts of money to look like someone else? How could I explain that without the borrowed identity of the stars, I felt like I no longer had any identity at all?
That night, when he caught me searching myself in the mirror for the umpteenth time, my husband smiled tenderly and said, “You’re beautiful.” I looked at my reflection and lamented out loud, “But I don’t look like anybody!” He laughed and said, “Of course you do, you look like you.” I look like me? I took another look, and just like that, I could see it. Moreover, I could see me. I looked like me! Not Madonna or Elle Woods or even Golden Holden, but Kara. I finally recognized the girl in the reflection, not as a wannabe starlet, but as a long lost friend. She smiled back at me and I could feel the years of comparing and curling and dying and trying just melt away like mousse under a faucet. Emboldened I took one more step towards follicular independence – I got a pixie cut. And with the weight of the hair gone, the weight of expectations disappeared too and I began to feel, well, free. Free to just be me. And it feels pretty darn good (especially on a hot day when I can feel the breeze on my neck!)