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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. There's a new wave in runway fashion. It's not about the clothes, though. So it's about the coif. The artists aren't stylists, they are hair entertainers. Celeste Headlee reports from the front lines of what's being called the hair wars.

(Soundbite of applause)

CELESTE HEADLEE: There are at least 2,000 people packed into this hotel ballroom, with more trailing into the hallways and milling in the lobby. In the center of the room is a catwalk, and the models strut by while pounding hip-hop plays. But although the models are dressed elaborately, no one is really looking at what they're wearing. They're looking at their hair.

Ms. MATTIE WATSON(ph): It's just something to see, I mean, because they go way out. You know, they really get into it and everything. And it's just exciting just to see the different things they can do with hair.

HEADLEE: Mattie Watson drove several hours to see the hair wars spectacle. And like many of the other audience members, she doesn't work in the hair industry. She's just here to see the show, and what a show it is.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Please give them a hand.

HEADLEE: Women with helicopters on their heads, propellers spinning. One woman balances a barbecue grill complete with spatulas and tongs. Another has hair that's been molded into flames of brilliant orange, gold and red. Hair Wars producer David Humphries says one model was actually carrying a live, 4-foot python in her hair.

Mr. DAVID HUMPHRIES (Producer, Hair Wars): She said she was a little nervous and the thing was moving around, you know, in a separate compartment, but it was in her hair, it was a Nefertiti hairstyle that unzipped. She unzipped it and pulled out this snake. But the snake died. You know, all that traveling, he couldn't handle it.

HEADLEE: Humphries created Hair Wars about 20 years ago in Detroit. And it's grown since then into a national touring show. He says the stylists love the chance to break away from layered cuts and fades.

Mr. HUMPHRIES: They use Hair Wars as a forum to really go crazy. And Hair Wars is a place for them to showcase it. That's the platform we have for them to really be the artists that they are.

HEADLEE: Detroiter Big Bad D created a style with a fishbowl embedded in the model's hair, and inside were two Chinese fighting fish engaged in a turf war. The show lasts about four hours, with 250 models crossing the runway. Audience member Betty Paul(ph) says although none of these styles would be seen on a street corner, people like to see what the trends are.

Ms. BETTY PAUL: They want to see what's going on, what hairstyle's out, what things is being done now.

HEADLEE: And she says hair has no limits as a creative material.

Ms. PAUL: You can make hats. You can make dresses. You can make coats. You can do all kind of things with hair.

HEADLEE: Backstage at the Hair Wars, stylist Rafael has just arrived with his models. They're the picture of elegance with black and white gowns and fantastically elaborate updos. One looks like a sparkling chandelier, another like a cascading fountain.

RAFAEL (Stylist): I always been into fantasy hair-dos. I like to take the hair from basics all the way to fantasy. So it's my dream. It's inside me.

HEADLEE: Near Rafael is another stylist working feverishly, attaching sculpted pieces to a girl's head. Dangtoy Lewis says just one of these coiffures can take weeks to create and cost a considerable amount of money.

Ms. DANGTOY LEWIS (Stylist): You get four minutes on stage, but you know what? Sometimes you get pictures. I saw myself in an international magazine. You know, just that five minutes of fame is worth that to me.

HEADLEE: Back out in the ballroom, the audience applauds for a rainbow afro that's at least 3 feet wide.

Unidentified Man: Oh, beautiful.

Acclaimed artist Tyree Guyton is watching in amazement.

Mr. TYREE GUYTON (Artist): This is taking me to another level, what it can be. The possibilities, taking hair beyond what we think it should be.

HEADLEE: Guyton is used to cutting-edge art. Twenty years ago, he used found objects to transform abandoned houses in an inner city Detroit neighborhood. The controversial installation piece became a flashpoint in the city and remains a tourist attraction on Heidelberg Street. His wife, Janine Whitfield(ph), says they've been so inspired by the sculptural aspects of the hairstyles, they've decided to collaborate with the Hair Wars crew on an artistic event.

Ms. JANINE WHITFIELD (Artist): The fashion has to be from found materials, and then the hair will complement the fashions. And we're going to do a catwalk on Heidelberg Street, in the ghetto. Won't that be hot?

HEADLEE: And if the Hair Wars show is coming to your town, keep in mind that the stylists are always looking for models with good heads. For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headlee in Detroit.

Unidentified Man: Come on, you can do better than that. Give it up.

CHADWICK: You know, there are radio stories that it really helps to see. And you can see this because photographer David Yellen has documented Hair Wars in a new book by the same name. You can see his photos of the crazy dos at NPR.org.

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