Penny Orloff: How My Hair Has Defined Me

Penny Orloff

Penny Orloff

My mother hated her kinky, fuzzy Afro-Jew hair. The second of her four children, I inherited her slender frame, her father’s Mongol cheekbones, her memory for minutiae – and her kinky, fuzzy Afro-Jew hair. 

My hair made my mother angry. From the beginning, I understood there was something seriously wrong with me – something unforgivably ugly. At eight months, apparently I would scream, “No hair!” in the bath, aware that having my hair washed meant a subsequent comb yanked in vengeance, interminably, through the soggy tangle of dark curls, mom’s self-hatred magically transferred for a moment to the shrieking, towel-wrapped “object” on the table in front of her. This went on for years. To this day, I can’t go to hairdressers. If I can’t do it myself, I can’t do it – at all.

As I grew up, from time to time, mom would attempt to “fix” my bushy, too-thick mane by hacking through it with thinning shears. At the ballet studio the newly slenderized, longer strands were wrapped neatly in a tight bun, while the newly shortened ones formed a kinky aura of dark fuzz. In that inescapable wall of mirrors, my head looked enormous. This went on for years, until one evening right before “Places, please!” – right before I would bouree onto the stage pretending to feel beautiful – a rival ballerina showed me how to use that icky soap in the rest room dispenser to glue that fuzzy aura flat to my head. It worked. Nobody guessed how ugly I was.

While I was in high school, the standard of beauty was long, straight hair. I made friends with Marsha Weiss – she had the reddish-beige version of my hair. The entire basis of our friendship – We were two of the Ugly Girls. Skuzzy Skanks. Marsha and I took turns ironing each other’s hair on her mother’s ironing board, creating an odor of roasted goat hide and, occasionally, a second-degree burn or two. If you ignored the crispy, singed ends, at last I was the girl in the “Beautiful Hair – Breck” commercials… in my voluminous cloak of flowing hair –unless the fog rolled in. Moisture of any kind was the bell tolling midnight, when Cinderella once again turned into a hideous troll.

For all the grief of my love-hate relationship with my hair, I’ve kept it long for most of my life. It was a sanctuary, maybe a tattered cloak – but a cloak of invisibility. Side-bar: An ancient custom among Jews dictates that when a woman comes of age, or marries – whichever comes first – she cuts off all her hair and wears a sheytl – a sort of wig. I’d actually seen this among my dad’s older Orthodox relatives. Oy. Fukkin immigrants… The less-extreme version of this practice is to completely cover your hair with a babushka. How very ethnic! It was the late 60s! I took to dressing like a gypsy, reading Tarot cards, and wearing colorful babushkas. Sometimes I found myself speaking with a Russian accent. Oy. Fukkin actors…

So. This: What if your skuzzy, frizzy, bushy, ugly, Afro-Jew hair was your best feature?

The first threads of white appeared when I was 11. I had most of a silver streak in high school, and was significantly salt and pepper when I arrived – in my long skirts and babushkas – at New York City Opera in 1978. “Carmen” was in my first season repertory. This was a very big deal for the company hairdresser, Carolina Taitz of Riga, Latvia – “If you vud dye dese ogly hhhairs, I vud not hhhev to vig you!”

Dye dese ogly hhhhairs? Da, kanyeshna! I restored my waist-length mane to its original black, and tossed my head with abandon while chewing the scenery and holding the high note. I played a lot of gypsies. Carmen was in the rep every season at City Opera. Mostly I played Aldonza in Man of La Mancha. Lots of productions. All over the country. For years. Truth be told, my voice was too light and too high to really sing the part very well– But, I was small enough that the Muleteers could lift me and throw me around in the dance numbers. And, wow, look at that hair! They loved my hair. My hair set me apart. It had always set me apart. I didn’t quite trust people who told me I was beautiful, but I was sure glad for the work. Slowly, over a period of decades, the ugly duckling perceived that she was, indeed, a Swan. I had fallen in love with that magnificent, heavy, dark cloak.

I cut it all off when my parents died – it wasn’t anything religious or symbolic… I don’t think. I lived at their house and tended them as they circled the drain – yes, THEM, together, at the same time. They were both really strong – we’re all bred for longevity – and the grand finale lasted a long, long time. So, the hair… While dealing with the intricacies of that particular, all-consuming 24/7 job, I just didn’t feel the impulse to slather a gooey paste of dark, poisonous goop onto my head to deal with the roots. By the time they finally expired – 8 years ago last week – I had about an inch of white grown out. And no desire to turn back the clock. I couldn’t pretend to be someone who had, effectively, died several months earlier – right there at the demarcation line of “Penny just back from 5 years of touring the US in her solo show” and “Penny lifting her dead-weight, 97-year-old dad back into bed after changing the sheets yet again at 3 in the morning, before tracking down and capturing her nocturnally wandering mother – whose brain was being eaten by a shadow that had crept upward and outward from her lungs over the space of way too much time.”

I hadn’t really had the time or inclination to do much mirror-gazing while all that was going on. And Jews cover the mirrors when someone dies. So. Imagine my surprise about 10 days after the funerals, when I finally got a gander at what had been going on while I was otherwise occupied.

Late-July. A bright LA summer morning poured in through the skylight as I stepped out of the shower in my sister Rikki’s master bathroom. She had gone off to work. Up close in the mirror – lift a slender lock of hair with my left hand and ever so carefully cut right there, at the line where black and white met, with my mom’s state of the art dressmaking shears. The venerable, perfectly sharpened scissors sang in my ear. Ssssnip. Ssssssnip. Ssssssnip. Over and over again, such a satisfying sibilant sound. Ssssnip. Ssssssnip. Ssssssnip. Meditative. Mesmerizing. I had snipped from just behind and above the right ear forward and most of the top of my head – when I realized that a couple of hours had passed. It was nearly noon. I should get dressed – I was supposed to meet my sisters for lunch. Back to my room to throw on jeans and a shirt, downstairs for shoes and my purse, and dash out to the car. Just enough time to get to the California Pizza Kitchen in Westlake Village.

My sisters said nothing for a long, long minute. It dawned on me that, rather than meeting my eyes, they were staring at a spot somewhere north of my eyebrows. I reached up – oh. That. Hmmmm… slipped my mind. They chalked it up to my having to find something to do with my time, now that I was out of a job.

When we got back to her house, Rikki finished what I had started. She had to even it off a bit and when she finished, my hair was half an inch long, completely white. In the weeks that followed, people would stare and then quickly look away from the supposed chemo-therapy victim. I really liked it. I thought I looked just adorable. A couple of times while my hair was growing out, I’d find myself admiring a remarkably pretty blond woman across the room – only to discover “she” was my own image in a mirror. Eight years later, sometimes it still startles me to see this. It surprises me when complete strangers stop me on the street to tell me how beautiful I am, to ask if they can touch my hair. It amazes me when I’m booked for a film because the director thinks my hair is “way cinematic, Man.”

When Beethoven died, his closest friend cut a lock of The Maestro’s hair as a keepsake. The hair was analyzed a few years ago, and it was discovered that Beethoven had apparently ingested a lot of lead over a period of years – which explains his chronic ill health and untimely death. There’s the story, right there. Hair is autobiography. And sometimes, when the skuzzy, Ugly Girl rises from her grave to torment me – I’ll catch an unexpected reflection of myself, and suddenly I’m Lizzie in “The Rainmaker” – is that me? Is that really me?

  • Jill

    Pennette, you are SO beautiful!