The High Drama of 'Hair Trauma'

From hot oil treatments to heated arguments with siblings, the reality show Hair Trauma covers the hectic life of celebrity stylist Ellin LaVar. Farai Chideya chats with LaVar and the show's producer, Lashan Browning.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

What do you get when you mix a celebrity stylist, her opera-singing brother and a sister that's been fired from the salon 18 times? It's called drama, or more specifically, it's the reality Hair Trauma. Ellin LaVar is the star of the show that goes inside her hectic life where she balances business and family.

The show's producer, Lashan Browning, is joining us as well from New York. And Ellin is here with me at NPR West. Welcome to you both.

Ms. ELLIN LAVAR (Star, Hair Trauma): Good to be here. Yeah.

Ms. LASHAN BROWNING (Producer, Hair Trauma): Fantastic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: So, Ellin, let me ask you. You have like a very diverse client list. You have Mary J. Blige, Whitney Houston, but also white folks. Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon. How did you even get started in this business?

Ms. LAVAR: I got started in the business by having a bad perm and my hair falling out. So I started doing my own hair first, and just word of mouth. When people saw my hair, they loved it and they told friends. And that's how I got most of my clients, actually.

CHIDEYA: In this series, we get to see you interacting with two very important people in your life: your brother and your sister. Why don't you describe them for us?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAVAR: Well, my brother is an opera singer. He has a double masters, one in business and one in music. He is very much the opera star. He's used to being, you know, the center of attention and on stage. And coming to the salon was definitely culture shock for him. My sister, however, is the complete opposite of both of us. She's not about work at all. She's about getting paid, but she's not about working.

So I have to deal with a lot of different aspects of both of their personalities.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. Well, before I get more about some of those interactions, Ellin, what do you think makes this show spark? I mean, it's your life. Does it feel different when you watch yourself on TV?

Ms. LAVAR: It most certainly does feel different when I watch myself on TV, because I see parts of me that I didn't know that I had. So it's very revealing. Being on television with my family helps to bring to the forefront some issues that may have been left unsaid or untouched if we hadn't been able to have a camera there to show us what was going on with us. We're actually closer now than we were before.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's listen to a little clip of some of your interactions with your sister.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Hair Trauma")

Ms. LAVAR: Kim?

Ms. KIM LAVAR (Cast Member, Hair Trauma; Ellin LaVar's Sister): Yeah.

Ms. LAVAR: So what's the deal?

Ms. KIM LAVAR: (Unintelligible) wanted me to do weaves that I don't want to do.

Ms. LAVAR: No. I said two rows. Two rows. I'm not forcing you. You work...

Ms. KIM LAVAR: But you already know...

Ms. LAVAR: Understand it.

CHIDEYA: You and your sister definitely are no joke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAVAR: No we're not.

CHIDEYA: What is it like dealing with celebrities?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAVAR: It's my job to keep them in line when they come into the salon, to let them know that once they enter the salon, they are a client like anyone else in the salon. So they have to respect the other clients in the salon. So when it comes to Miles Davis, who treated me like a daughter, he would come and say I need my hair done right now. And he would want me to stop what I was doing and attend to him. And I told him, no. I have a client in my chair. When I'm done with this client, then I will attend to you.

And, you know, I've even had Whitney come in and I said, Whitney, could you go back there, speak to my client? You know, say thank for allowing you to take about five, 10 minutes of her time? And she does. And I think that clients that are celebrities, when they are treated in a respectful manner but also in a normal manner, that they're just a regular person. I think they like it.

CHIDEYA: Lashan, what's the difference between reality as it happens and then how you film it, how you cut it, how you make something out of it?

Ms. BROWNING: The difference is, and we got some, you know, some of the reviews were, you know, that Ellin was too nice. But it's really how Ellin runs her business on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She's been there - how long, Ellin? What, 20 years?

Ms. LAVAR: Almost 20 years.

Ms. BROWNING: Almost 20 years.

CHIDEYA: Wow.

Ms. LAVAR: But I wanted to say also with Lashan and the reality show - the only reason I did it was because it was with Lashan. I didn't want to be viewed as someone that was using black women and their hair issues for my own personal gain.

CHIDEYA: Before we wrap up, let's talk about black women and hair. I mean, some people say that, you know, the way that white women might worry about their skin or something else, black women worry about hair. Hair is everything. Ellin, what is the relationship between black women and hair?

Ms. LAVAR: I think that the relationship between black women and hair is one of the most important relationships that we have. If our hair isn't right, nothing is right, and I don't care how you wear it. Whether you wear it natural, you wear it permed, you wear it weaved, you wear a wig, it doesn't matter. You have to look in the mirror and feel confident that you look good and presentable to whoever or whomever you are going to see that day, or to the world in general.

In our society, our youth is actually correlated with our hair. If you have a full head of hair, you're considered to be younger...

CHIDEYA: So that's why God created the weave, huh?

Ms. LAVAR: I think so.

CHIDEYA: Well, Ellin LaVar and Lashan Browning, thank you so much.

Ms. LAVAR: Thank you.

Ms. BROWNING: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Ellin LaVar is the star, if you can call it that in reality TV, and Lashan Browning is the producer of Hair Trauma, which airs on the WE Network.

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