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Aging on television: Is it real?

March 13, 1994

Toupee or not to pay: KREM reporter takes it off for television

By Jim McLaren
Special to Perspective
The Spokesman-Review

January 1964. The Beatles debuted on American TV Sunday night. On Monday morning, I left the tube of Brylcreem in the drawer and instead of slicking my hair back, I combed it down over my ears. It just barely reached. It looked cool.

January 1994. I was on Spokane TV Sunday night. On Monday morning, after four years of wearing a hairpiece, I left it in the drawer and went out bareheaded. It felt cool.

I have been a television reporter, anchor and sportscaster for 10 years in Spokane. About four years ago, my then news director brought up the idea that I wear a hairpiece. People don’t want to see people lose their hair on TV, he said. Recently, I took the hairpiece off. I feel good, but was the news director right? What will viewers think?

In 30 years, my generation’s hair has gone from crewcuts to shoulder length and ponytails to receding hairlines and bare tops. For many of us, hair was our first rebellion. We came of age in the 1960s and we wanted to make our own decisions. Along the way we stood up to parents, teachers and bosses. They told us how important appearance is. We countered, saying it was only a personal cosmetic decision. At the same time we wore our hair like a badge identifying our age, politics and the gathering of our power.

Some people praised our hair, some damned it, someone even wrote a play about it. “Hair” celebrated long beautiful hair, gleaming, streaming, hanging down to there, hair. Our hair was long and full. We had potent follicles.

It was about this time I suffered my first hair loss. It came at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., at the hands of an Army barber in 1967. Army barbers are the clearcut loggers of hair. With the roar of the clippers, my hair was gone as were my ties to many of my generation. In an instant, I became a part of the Establishment.

It would be nearly four years before my hair would escape regular military assaults. When it did, I let it grow for more than a year, until it dropped to my shoulders.

Back then I didn’t think about the future of my hair. Oh, I expected to lose some. A glance at old family photos told me not to expect an entrance into old age crowned by fluffy white locks. What I hadn’t anticipated was the conflict. I had underestimated, forgotten, the emotions hair gives rise to.

Blow-dried TV reporters may be a cliché, but unlike my hair, clichés have strong roots. It was the questions about my hair and my news director’s concerns about what viewers want to see on the heads of people on their TV screens that sent me to the hair merchants.

It was 1989 and after my news director suggested a hairpiece, I thought, “Let’s give it a shot.”

OK, OK, there was a little vanity involved here as well. But there was also this equation at work:

My human hair “appliance” cost $400. I installed it on the air during a segment I wrote titled “Bald or Beautiful?” My hairpiece made its debut during a ratings period. We got little feedback except for the few men who called to say they would give it a try, too.

I never felt at ease with my Filipino-grown hair. At first I walked like I was balancing a bowl of soup on my head. Once that passed, other more insidious fears came on. Was that lady pointing at my hair? Was that guy laughing? Is the man I’m interviewing trying to figure out which hair is mine and which comes with a money-back guarantee?

It was also hot. During the summer, I’d sweat under the hairpiece. One advantage: it kept my head warm in the winter and I had fewer colds.

But if you have a public image, a hairpiece becomes a trap. You HAVE to wear it, because it is part of the identity your are asking viewers to accept. Leave it home, as I sometimes did, and my wife would overhear two kids in the store saying: “Yeah, that’s the guy on Channel 2 without his hair.”

One day as I taped and clipped my hair into place, I looked in the mirror and asked: “Why am I really wearing this?”

The answers weren’t attractive. Perhaps I couldn’t accept getting older. Or didn’t like who I was becoming.

Questions led to challenges. Who’s in charge of my head, me or a fuzzy skullcap? More troublesome. Will my job and news director allow me to lose this hair? And what about public reaction? Will people channel-surf past a bald sports reporter?

And, of course, vanity came back for a few words. Over the years, you get used to the idea you’re losing your hair. There is comfort in the slow, natural process. Now I was going to lose all my hair in 24 hours. Hair today, gone tomorrow.

My way of jumping headfirst into this was to ask my new boss during contract talks, whether the station was willing to foot the bill for a new hairpiece. Paul Brandt said cosmetics weren’t a consideration for him, nor did he think the audience would mind.

So I just did it. One weekend, I had the hairpiece on. The next weekend, it was in the back of the closet.

More viewers noticed and commented on my losing the hairpiece than did when I first laid the rug. The reaction has been positive. Viewers have told me they are happy to see people on the air look natural. They said they are glad I was willing to step out of the stereotype of the blow-dried TV reporter.

I think that I’m part of a healthy trend in broadcasting. As the audience ages, it wants TV reporters to do the same.

I’ve let my hair go and it looks cool. And I’ve found out parents, teachers, bosses and teenagers were wrong 30 years ago. Hair is not that big of a deal.

Jim McLaren, 46, is a KREM-TV sports reporter and weekend anchor

Sunday March 13, 1994

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From → KREM

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