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Hair Wars David Humphries hump the grinder Detroit
Image Courtesy of David Humphries and Hair Wars

The hair stars turning wigs and weaves into fantastical works of art

Ahead of the 2018 Hair Wars show, founder David ‘Hump The Grinder’ Humphries looks back on over 30 years of incredible hair creations

In the nightclubs of Detroit, way back in 1985, a DJ known as David “Hump the Grinder” Humphries started throwing a weekly party known as the “Exotic Hair Night.” Here, hairstylists sent models onto the stage sporting the latest looks that drove the crowd wild – and subsequently ushered business into their salons every weekend.

Word got out and the party quickly took off. Realising he had a good thing going, Humphries re-conceptualised the show and created Hair Wars: a platform for hair education and entertainment that has taken the United States by storm for more than 30 years.  

Whether featured on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, on “America’s Next Top Model,” in the book Hair Wars by David Yellen, or most recently as part of an event hosted at New York’s MoMA P.S.1, Hair Wars has become the synonymous with style, fashion, and art – it is the place to break new looks, set the trends, and create works of fantasy so spectacular you’ll barely be able to believe your eyes.

Returning to Detroit on April 15, this year’s edition of Hair Wars is dedicated to “The Musical” – and it’s likely that it will feature plenty of looks worthy of the biggest divas you can imagine. Ahead of the show, we caught up with David Humphries, as he talks us through what it takes to transform weaves and wigs into bonafide works of art.

IT STARTED AS A THEMED PARTY IN DETROIT

“The Detroit scene in the 80s was pretty hot because there was no internet, there were just clubs – that was the way to meet and interact with people. I was playing the trendsetting clubs for style, fashion, and hair, all over Detroit: Eastside, Westside, and downtown. I was a mobile DJ too, so I did private parties all over the place.

I used to do all kinds of parties with different themes. We had the ‘Tight Dress Competition,’ ‘Hat Night,’ and ‘The Perfect Bootie Contest.’ Then we decided to do an ‘Exotic Hair Night’ for four weeks. That’s how it really got going. A lot of my friends were hairstylists and they wanted that stage to show what they could do and it just took off. We had no idea it would last as long as it has – it’s been 33 years and it’s still going strong.

We used to do it every week back then: a mini show in the clubs with about three or four hairstylists and three or four salon teams. It started with big French rolls and waves but the degree of difficulty was very high. When you looked at those styles, you couldn’t duplicate them easily. The stylists were making good money putting them together – and people would pay for it. Their hair was a priority.”

IT TIED IN TO THE CITY’S FAILING AUTO INDUSTRY

“Detroit was known for having the most straight men doing hair because they came from the auto factories – they were laid off auto-workers who wanted to make the money that they were making in the plants. The hair business was the one thing you could do without a degree. A lot of men got into it and broke the stereotype. The women loved it because the men were dressed up and smelling good.”

THINGS GOT PRETTY CRAZY

“People were going all out to top each other and it started getting pretty outrageous – to the point where you would see a lot of styles you couldn’t wear every day. Detroit was a city where you would have a lot of wild hairstyles anyway, and you had to top all that when you did a show, so they started coming up with these crazy different ideas.

People were coming to me, wanting that stage and a segment in the party. At that point I realised I had something and said, ‘let me rethink this.’ I had to sit down and think about rules and regulations, create a format, hire staff to work the show, and move it to a larger venue. We went on the radio, we did direct mail, and I had a cable TV show. We were creating Hair Stars. They were the celebrities.”

“When Lady Gaga was first starting out, her and her people came to Hair Wars and wanted seven hair pieces; Weaven Steven got that hair gig because he could do them fast and give them what they wanted” – David Humphries

IT TAKES A LOT OF WORK TO PARTICIPATE

“We’ve been having different themes for the past 10 years. At each show, every stylist gets five minutes and can have up to ten people on a stage including models and dancers. Teams get ten minutes and up to 20 people on stage. They usually hire a DJ or sound person to make a soundtrack that’s going to fit their show. The show is just for fun. But at the same time, everyone is an entertainer. They work with choreographers and acting teachers; they do a lot to put a show together. They are going out there with their personality and their style. I don’t tell them what to do or how to do it. Our rules and regulations are simple: keep your clothes on and keep the profanity to a minimum. But if you are late, you don’t go on.”

COMPETITION IS FIERCE

“You can’t rehearse in the open. We tried that a long time ago and it was a mess. No one wanted anyone to see their skit and steal their ideas. Now, contestants have the layout and dimensions of the stage to practice on their own. They do a lot of work. Sometimes they practice for two or three months. They want to get out there and show people what they can do. Once they get their name out there, other opportunities come: hair companies come to the show, grab them up, and hire them as platform artists at hair conventions. When Lady Gaga was first starting out, her and her people came to Hair Wars and wanted seven hair pieces; Weaven Steven got that hair gig because he could do them fast and give them what they wanted.”

...BUT EVERYONE’S A WINNER, REALLY

“We do not give out prize money at Hair Wars. They all receive an award. It’s not a competition. When you get people who are all the way up there and they’re all on the same level, it’s hard to distinguish who is better than who. It’s like judging art. Who is to say that picture is better? It’s just someone’s opinion.

Every hair competition I have seen, they start out with a lot of big people and then they crash – because people get tired of losing. If a person is really good and has a reputation for being the best, how are you going to go to these shows and keep losing? It’s embarrassing to come back to your clientele and they say, ‘You lost again?’ and they say, ‘It’s fixed. It isn’t fair.’ So I stay away from that because I have seen it go terribly wrong. I’ve seen fights break out before the show was over because the winner is taunting the other people. It’s all love at Hair Wars.”

HAIR WARS IS NOW REACHING A NEW AUDIENCE

“Hair is universal. You can do so much with hair. These stylists can take hair and turn it into works of art. They are so creative and have so much ingenuity – there are scientific things going into these pieces. It makes you wonder how they even thought of it. I’m so glad MoMA P.S. 1 looked at it as art. We also did an exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York a few years ago, and the Smithsonian came out and got some pieces from us too.

“Hair is universal. You can do so much with hair. These stylists can take hair and turn it into works of art. They are so creative and have so much ingenuity – there are scientific things going into these pieces” – David Humphries

We brought the show to the Apollo (New York) n 2004. It was the first show we had where a lot of white people came and we loved it. All of our crowds have been all-black but it was amazing seeing it finally start to crossover. New York is more open-minded than any place as far as the diversity of the people goes.

I love seeing our work reach people it might not ordinarily: I loved seeing Steven Meisel’s photographs for Vogue Italia, for example. The more that people look to us for inspiration, the better – it’s good for business.”

AND THERE'S STILL TIME FOR PEOPLE TO LEARN

“It took many years for the stylists to get recognition. You have to have patience. Don’t expect anything too quickly because it doesn’t happen overnight. These OGs put a lot of work in. Find a mentor. A lot of people have health issues and can’t do shows anymore but they have so much knowledge and wisdom. They want to share it with young people, but the young people have to step up and say, ‘I want to learn from the best.’”

Hair Wars takes place in Dearborn, Michigan this weekend. Tickets are available here