Together with donating your sperm and pharmaceutical trials, selling your hair online is one of the easiest ways to make money without working. Wigmakers, high-end "doll artists," and hair fetishists are willing to pay over a thousand dollars a head for top-quality product.
Human hair is valuable because it's a scarce commodity unequaled for a range of uses. With tiny scales that soak up oils while repelling water, hair cleans up tanker spills better than most other fibres. But the real demand comes from the cosmetics industry. Extensions and wigs made from premium-grade human hair sell for several times the price of synthetics. Apart from the natural sheen and texture, real hair also doesn't melt when exposed to heat, a major advantage when using a blowdryer.
International trade flows are moving hair to where the money is. For 2014, UN stats show that the US imported over $650 million worth of human hair—raw, processed, or worked into wigs, false beards, or eyebrows. Italy and the UK were also major destinations, both reporting over $50 million in imports. China's natural wig exports were over $2.2 billion, and weighed in at just under 12 million kilograms.
The supply chain can be shockingly unethical, however, with middlemen traveling around Indian and Chinese villages offering peasant women a pittance for hair worth hundreds on Western markets. In 2004, the Guardian reported that Russian prisons and mental asylums were making a profit by forcibly shaving inmates and selling their hair abroad. (Victoria Beckham even boasted about being the proud owner of a Russian prison wig, a claim her hairdresser later denied.)
But the internet has created opportunities for women to get a fair price for their hair, by directly linking them to buyers around the world. George Horton, a hair stylist from California, got the idea to set up onlinehairaffair.com back in 2007, after he dared two girls to sell their hair on eBay.
"We went to the salon, cut their hair, shaved their heads," he said. "We didn't have any idea what would happen. But people went crazy on the bidding."
Altogether, Horton's stunt brought in about $4,000, he told VICE. Obviously there was an untapped market, so he created the site, first as an auction platform, then as a direct online marketplace.
Competitors soon followed. One of the first was buyandsellhair.com, a UK-based company that went up in 2010. The owner, Sandip Sekhon, told us that colour, thickness, and quality all affect price. Red hair gets the best returns, at $30-$80 an inch, followed by blonde. Hair considered "virgin"—pure of dyes, bleach or chemicals—also brings in a bonus. But length is the most important factor, with a head of quality hair over two feet likely to demand $1,000 or more. Sekhon's website lists $6,500 as the highest price ever paid to a user, for 45 inches of thick virgin hair.
Who's paying all this money? Over the course of a year spanning 2013 to 2014, Sekhon's company surveyed its buyers to find out what they were doing with their purchases. He told us that 83 percent reported making wigs or extensions, while five percent listed "art, design, or fashion," including porcelain dolls, clothing, and buttons. The remaining 12 percent willingly admitted that they needed the hair for a fetish.
And fetishists are happy to pay more if they get a little something extra. Some buyers offer a premium if women provide a video feed while shaving their heads, Sekhon said. In some cases this is simply an insurance measure, he told us, since sellers have been known to defraud customers by mixing horsehair with their own strands. But in about half of video transactions, special requests give away the buyer's sexual inclinations.
"They'll say something like 'I would like to see your face as you cut it,'" Sekhon said.
Kimberly Christensen of Eagle Mountain, Utah, who's selling 16 to 17 inches of her hair for $280 on hairsellon.com, was courted by what sounds like some kind of hair fetish video ring. A man contacted her, offering $1,500 for what he called an "extreme makeover."
"They wanted to shave all my hair off," she said. "He wanted me to fly to Alabama and they would film the makeover. They offer more because they sell their videos. It sounded very strange."
Then the man came back with more conditions. He wanted a taste of what was to come, and asked her to film it.
"He said 'you have to cut off a piece from your scalp right now or no deal,'" she told VICE.
Kimberly needs money to pay back student loans and other debts, but says she's not in dire financial straits. So she refused. She says that she still receives messages from the man.
VICE called the phone number she was contacted from, but only got a non-descript answering machine. Messages were not returned by time of publication.
Kimberly says she's also been in contact with buyers who make porcelain dolls. Besides wigs and extensions, dollmaking is the most lucrative application for human hair. Kim Malone, who runs an online doll store called the Dollery, told us that many high-end doll artists (and they do insist on being called artists) use human hair, perfecting what's already an eerily unsettling lifelikeness.
"Artists from all over the world search for these specialty wigs created just for art dolls," she told VICE. "Sometimes they cannot find them and have to make their own wigs, or they hand insert the hair into wax on the dolls' heads."
Malone said that real human hair is most common for dolls over $1,000, particularly those on limited edition runs, which can fetch as much as $13,000.
Cristina S., who also advertises on hairsellon.com, is currently negotiating with one of those doll artists. She told us that she always asks buyers what they want to do with her hair.
"Some make crafts. Some just collect it and store it in boxes as some sort of peculiar hoarding," she said via email. "One buyer even asked if he could cut my hair himself. This introduced me to the haircut fetish disorder."
There's nothing wrong with having a hair fetish but online hair marketplaces might not be the most appropriate venue to find willing partners. Cristina certainly wasn't happy about being propositioned.
"I would never feed such unhealthy behaviour," she said, "no matter what they pay."
But some women will, according to Sekhon.
"Many sellers accept," he said, "because they can demand extra money for it. They'll say, 'Sure, you can see a picture of my face.'"
Besides, these sorts of mutually beneficial transactions are far preferable to an alternative arrangement: fetishists posing as charity representatives to get the hair they so desperately need. Locks of Love, a charity that provides hairpieces for children, says they sometimes get calls from salons complaining about fraudsters. When one salon found out that the charity doesn't directly solicit donations, they set up a stakeout.
"The next time [the suspected hair thief] came in the police were there," the charity's president, Madonna Coffman, told VICE. "He got arrested and the judge ordered him to have a psychiatric evaluation, because it was some kind of a fetish."
That case was years ago, Coffman said. Now salon owners everywhere can rest assured that anyone with an insatiable urge for the hair of strangers can get their fix elsewhere. For the right price.
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