The last time I saw someone wear a Jheri curl with a straight face was in the summer of 2015. In June of that year, retired NBA point guard Baron Davis appeared on ESPN’s First Take sporting a high-and-tight take on the activator swirl.
His was in the big-Luther tradition of being “not quite right”; yet he wore it with authority even while drawing the ire of many on social media. Then, in August of that year, Straight Outta Compton featured Jason Mitchell and O’Shea Jackson Jr. portraying Eazy-E and Ice Cube, respectively. It would have been unthinkable for them to play the roles without the drip-drop tresses, and that hair on the silver screen was a sight to behold.
It’s been 40 years since Irish-American hair entrepreneur Jheri Redding published Anatomy of a Permanent Wave, the definitive text on the chemistry and cosmetology of what we now call the Jheri curl, and I’m still at a loss for words to explain how that hairstyle became simultaneously ubiquitous and reviled. At the height of its popularity in the black community, there were cultural products pointing out the sheer absurdity of what black folks were doing with their hair.
One was this scene from Coming to America:
Another, this sketch from the underrated Hollywood Shuffle:
These scenes clearly lay bare the preposterousness of the curl; yet, truth be told, only men wearing do-rags and tank tops while smoking Black & Milds were more pervasive than the Jheri-curl wearer, once entrepreneur Comer Cottrell found an affordable way to bring this style into black homes with his Pro-Line’s Curly Kit. (I would argue that we should call it the “Comer curl” instead of the “Jheri curl,” since it was Comer who brought it into the black community.)
A significant part of what intrigues me about the Jheri curl is the variety. Black folks are an aesthetically creative people; although two people may have used the same kit, rarely did two people have the same kind of curl. So to mark the 40th anniversary of Redding’s Anatomy, let us pause and appreciate the best kinds of Jheri-curl styles.
Eric Dickerson, the Los Angeles Rams great, is, to my mind, one of the most notable examples of this version. The juicy curl has a loose composition and, if it has too much activator, can make you look like you just rubbed Crisco on your face. Further, a consistent problem with the juicy curl is its tendency to be too tight; when this happened, it ended up looking like a wet plastic helmet, à la Eriq La Salle:
Dickerson is notable because he found a way to make his hair flow comfortably even when wearing goggles or sweatbands. Further, the way the sun hit his hair when he took off his helmet was enough to make an atheist believe in God:
For many, the Jheri curl was a sign of success—and Deion Sanders embodied this like no one else.
From his legendary song “Must Be the Money” to the showy high-step he employed as he entered the end zone, Sanders was flashy in everything he did—and his curl was no exception. He called himself Prime Time, and that was precisely the audience for which this style of curl was designed. The flamboyant style usually had a slight puffiness that betrayed a lack of polish, but the arrogance and self-assurance with which one carried oneself often covered for that slight fault.
Sanders was the patron saint of the flamboyant Jheri curl. His, like Luther Vandross’, had a “not quite right” execution.
However, it perfectly matched Sanders’ flashy, slightly tacky persona. The flamboyant curl screamed to be recognized as highbrow but lacked the finesse to pull it off.
One cannot overstate the influence N.W.A had on hair care and fashion. More than a few contemporary Raiders fans took note of the team because of the group—but, arguably, N.W.A’s most significant legacy is how it gave young black men fighting to survive urban decay the freedom to express themselves through their hair.
And this freed other young black men to follow suit. Notably, Tupac had an S-curl (a spin-off of the classic Jheri, created by Luster Products).
I, once upon a time, had a Duke curl because I wanted, very badly, to look like this:
It didn’t work out quite as I planned.
Children are often the victims of their own trichological curiosity. In the ’80s, this meant that a number of kids had Jheri curls. As result, many black 30- and 40-somethings now hesitate to take home a romantic prospect because they are afraid that their parents will show the suitor embarrassing pictures of when they had a curl.
For many, seeing these pictures would lead them down a dark path from which they may never recover; and for that reason, there is no photo here, since I don’t want to break up any marriages.
All hail the Jheri curl. The best worst thing that ever happened to black hair.