Sunday, 28 August 2011

Confessions of a mullet head

In rap lyrics and as fodder for stand up comics, and from serious academic studies to spoof movies to society's swankiest salons, the mullet has become the hairstyle that just keeps on giving. Every three or four years it barges back into fashion and the popular culture, prompting fresh bouts of hand-wringing, head-shaking and head-banging. In her 2001 documentary American Mullet, filmmaker Jennifer Arnold suggested the mullet had become racially and culturally charged like never before, as the preferred hairstyle of working-class Southern men, lesbians and Mexican Americans.

Just last year the 'Kentucky Waterfall' was back in the headlines when it was banned in Iran as decadent. I don't recall if they actually caught a mullah with a mullet (although I now keep singing this in my head to the tune of The Smiths' Vicar in a Tutu). Perhaps it was all Andre Agassi's fault. Anyway, in the name of Method Journalism, some years ago in Hong Kong I had the most hideous mullet wig made and sallied forth to see how many 'don'ts' you can get from one do. Here's the story:

'One on the sides/don't touch the back
Six on the top/and don't cut it whack, Jack ...'
The Beastie Boys, Mullet Head

It's almost 11pm and I'm standing in a half-empty carriage on Hong Kong's MTR subway train. A creased grandma peers at me sadly and shakes her head. Two young Chinese couples exchange puzzled glances and start giggling behind their hands. A snooty western businessman in a grey suit shoots me snide looks over his magazine.

As the train snakes and wobbles from Kowloon to Central, a breeze luffs my mane, ruffling the short blond spikes on top and transforming the long golden tresses caressing my neck into a billowing bouffant. I sneak a peek at my reflection in the tunnel-blackened windows. I look like the improbable lovechild of Ziggy Stardust and Martina Navratilova. Tonight, you see, I'm a mullet head.

Of all the ridiculous coiffures down through the ages - powdered periwigs, shock-therapy afros, pink punk spikes, vertiginous beehives - none elicits such instant contempt and hilarity as the mullet. Beloved by footballers, heavy metal guitarists, country singers and the sort of people who attend monster truck shows, the mullet, which for years teetered on the brink of extinction, is making a comeback. The Beastie Boys rap a paean to it. Catwalk models flaunt it. Websites paying tribute abound. The Prozac-popping mafiosi on The Sopranos even discuss its merits at length. You may not know the name, but you know - and probably once sported - the look: short or cropped on the top, long and luxuriant at the back.

What better place to test the powers of the mullet than amidst the packed pubs and clubs of Hong Kong's Lan Kwai Fong and Soho districts? Sporting a truly hideous example of the genre, painstakingly crafted by a wig-maker in the bowels of Kowloon city, I'm venturing into the night to see what a difference a mullet makes. To collect evidence of mullets past and present. To test its reputed pulling power. And to find out why for some, this rug is a drug.

Let us pause, however, to bring readers up to speed on the history of this tonsorial travesty. According to Mark Larson and Barney Hoskyns, authors of The Mullet - Hairstyle of the Gods: 'It's the hairstyle that dare not speak its name.' Perhaps not, but a veritable mullet lexicon has evolved, lovingly codified by websites like 'What's all this madness?' it asks. 'Everybody knows the mullet by a different name. There's the SFLB (short front, long back), the short-long, or the two-haircuts-in-one. There's the Tennessee top hat, the Kentucky waterfall, or the Canadian passport. Whatever you and your friends choose to call them, these lovable, furry friends are plentiful and spotting them can be fun for the entire family. Don't forget your mulletcam and send us your best pix.'

The names don't stop there. The ape drape. The soccer rocker (think Robert Baggio or Glen Hoddle). The hockey head (check out the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jaromir Jagr). Then there's the mud flap, the squirrel pelt and the either-or. You get the idea. The mullet knows no borders and spans class, age and race. 'In Holland, a friend told me the name,' writes Larson. 'It has lots of consonants but basically means carpet neck.' In German it's accorded the acronym Vokuhila, for Vorne Kurz, Hinten Lang, or short front, long back.

According to the book, Neanderthal man, ancient Egyptians and Assyrians, Visigoths and Vikings all appreciated the aesthetics of the mullet. Buffalo Bill reputedly hid one under his 10 gallon hat. But the authors lay the blame for its massive resurgence in the 1970s on one man - David Bowie. 'Perhaps he would not like to be associated with something so passe,' says Hoskyns. 'But he had mullets in three separate eras.' Ah yes. What serious student of the mullet could forget Bowie's blond masterpiece, cascading down the back of his lime-green jumpsuit on the cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars? Or the blow-dried puff-ball he sports on Aladdin Sane? Or the transdogrified fur-ball of his Diamond Dogs do? 

Billy Ray Cyrus, the redneck with the Achy Breaky Heart, proudly waved the Confederate flag for his Tennessee top hat. Tennis star Andre Aggassi's was a beauty, until it started to fall out in clumps. Wrestler Hulk Hogan, as his dome thinned, did his best to popularise a sub-species: the skullet (none on the top, long in the back). Other mullet-men past and present include Mel Gibson, Michael Bolton, Kurt Russell, Michael Keaton, Mike Myers and Patrick Swayze. Prodigious goal-scorer and substance-abuser Diego Maradona not only had the 'Hand of God' but for a time affected the hairstyle of the gods.

Hong Kong's hairdresser to the stars, Kim Robinson, is a big fan. 'Every hairstyle has its place. The mullet can be ugly, but it can be beautiful as well. You have that nice, short choppy top and nice and shaggy at the back.' Has he ever worn one? 'Of course. I think it suits me. It can be really sexy.'

Larson and Hoskyns trace the term back to 19th century England, where the epithet 'mullet-head' was on a par with cretin or fool. In the 1930s, they say, the term was used to mean 'curling the hair'. They write: 'The mullet’s genius lies simply in the opportunity it affords one to become two people: someone who from the front looks like a regular person but who from the back is an untamed party-animal-cum-guitar-hero-cum-Viking-warrior. There are two keys to recognising the mullet. Does it look like two hairstyles on one head? And are the ears showing?'

I peek into the train window again. Two hairstyles? Check. Ears visible? Check. Then the doors hiss open and I take a deep breath and plunge into the crowds of Central station. A quick pause to adjust my rug, and I'm striding confidently through the throng, drinking in the admiring glances. Ziggy's wheedling, reedy riff whines in my ears. In my wake I hear whispers, snickers and guffaws, but I leave them in my silken slipstream. Out of the station and I aim my mullet up the hill until I come to Vodka Bar, an uber-trendy watering hole with 99 varieties of vodka and a likely mullet-count of zero. 

Make that one. 'Is that real? Jesus mate, you look like an idiot,' says Richard, 26, a London limousine driver with a head full of vodka and a mouth full of opinions. Er, thanks, Richard. Confidence dented but mullet defiantly erect, I puff out my chest and try to look as hard as one can in a long blond wig. OK, Richard, pop quiz. Name your top five mullets of all time. 'Er, right. David Bowie, of course. Who else? Ronnie Wood from the Rolling Stones? Chris Waddle and Glen Hoddle, definitely. Great footballing mullets. Shit, that's only four.' 

Nice try. I ask him what it is about the mullet that gives it that certain je ne sais quoi. 'It's just because they're so offensive, innit?' He claims that he's never had one. I charitably fail to point out that this is probably because he's bald. After two vodkas, I notice that I'm not exactly beating the women off with a stick. It's time for a proactive approach. I saunter up to a pair of busty babes knocking back what appears to be vodka-soaked Mars Bars. 'Ooh, gross,' squeals one. The other simply stares with a disconcerting blend of pity and icy contempt. 'My brother had one of those once,' says the first. 'We held him down and shaved it off.'

The bartender, another chrome-dome named Oggy, wanders over. 'What the fuck is that on your head?' he wants to know. I deem the question rhetorical, and decide to take my mullet where it will be more appreciated. 'Ere, hang on,' says Oggy. 'You look a bit like Steve Coogan? The comedian? That character that drinks lager from cans. A Rod Stewart wannabe. Limahl, too, he had a good one.'

I leave Oggy and his snobby posse to join the al fresco revellers in nearby Le Jardin. Oasis is pumping from the speakers and men in expensive suits shout loudly over inane lyrics in between gulps of pricey red and puffs of stogeys. Not a single mullet adorns the bar, bar mine. 'Hey,' says Alex the Bartender, as I strike a jaunty pose and toss my locks, 'you look like the guys on Chucklevision.' This means nothing to me. 'It's a UK kids' show on the telly,' he explains. 'Two blokes with mullets jump around and act stupid.' He leans over the bar and pats my spikes. 'It's very eighties hair metal. Why would anyone want one? It's the antichrist of haircuts.'

A couple of beers and umpteen brush offs from members of the opposite sex later, I stumble down the hill to Insomnia, a noisy late-night meat-market in the middle of the Fong. If a man with a mullet can't make his move here, he might as well give up. The hard man on the door gives me a long, hard look, but lets me enter. I notice in the mirror my mullet has become skewed. I ponder whether the biblical Samson rocked the mullet, but resist the temptation to get in a brawl to test whether my do has given me new powers.

As I attempt to realign my wig, a hulking great chap wanders over and introduces himself as 'Sasquatch'. Conversation seems preferable to lone mullet-topped booty-shaking, so I join his group. In my best Austin Powers voice, I leer at one of the females and inquire 'Do I make you horny baby? Do I?' She laughs and her face goes red. At last, a reaction. 'I had a mullet once,' says Sasquatch wistfully. Why? 'I dunno. I guess I wanted a bit of that Mel Gibson/Wayne Gretsky kind of sex appeal. To show my wild side.'

'I had a mullet about 10 years ago,' volunteers Paul, a lawyer who also stars in a local drag revue and stands about six foot five in high heels. 'It was when I was in London and I was going through a gothic phase. I had a jet-black mullet and black eyeliner. Actually, it was cut by Vidal Sassoon and cost me 60 quid. The very thought makes me cringe. I must have been very brave.' Could the mullet make a comeback? 'Did it ever really go away?'

Good point. Perhaps the mullet is always lurking in our collective unconscious, never far - quite literally - from our thoughts. Mine, though, is now a mess. It has become a tangled thatch that stinks of smoke and itches like a bastard. It has moulted stray strands all over my face. I reach up and rip it off. There's an immediate blast of cool air and a sense of relief. But I'm also no longer the centre of attention. The jokes dry up, the anecdotes stop. I'm just another bloke with a boring barnet. I make my excuses and leave. I slump in the back of a taxi, wig resembling roadkill on the seat beside me. I think I miss my mullet already. 




  1. Glad you are back on track mate! or mullet should I say! chill and all the best to you!