It was Friday night in the Valley. Britney Spears' chauffeured ride neared a stretch of Ventura Boulevard lined with repair shops.
Bikes, brakes, fingernails—if it can be broken, it can be fixed here. Souls, too, provided they belong to shoes.
With no fewer than a half-dozen beauty salons to choose from on this block of commercial salvation, Spears and her bodyguards stopped at the one with the sign that advertises only razor-sharp results in capital letters: "HAIRCUTTING."
One week after Spears took an Omega trimmer to her scalp at Esther's Haircutting Studio, the pop star is back in rehab, the discarded locks and extensions are awaiting a buyer and the scene of the shearing is, by outward appearance, back to its workaday self.
But with every image of Spears' stubbled head or blond mop of a wig, the act's infamy grows, looming larger than just about anything in the entertainer's tabloid-tracked life—the Madonna kiss, the 55-hour marriage, the unbuckled-baby flap. Even last fall's paparazzi-flashing crotch shots.
"There was no outrage over that baldness," observes Diana York Blaine, a senior lecturer on writing and gender studies at the University of Southern California.
But this baldness is different.
"I've worked with her a lot," says celebrity hairstylist Kevin Mancuso. "And it's always been about her hair."
In the beginning, the hair was worn in pigtails. Then it got freer and longer. Then shorter. Then darker. Then blonder. Then longer. Then darker.
But no hairstyle provoked more reaction than no hairstyle. The close shave was, depending on the theory or rumor, a cry for help, a bid for publicity, or even an attempt to avoid a drug test.
Maybe Spears was making a statement, or maybe she wasn't. Either way, she made one. Hair, Blaine says, is political—especially so when the hair belongs to a female sex symbol.
"If you dare to defy gender norms," Blaine says, "you will be the victim of an enormous attack."
Mancuso acknowledges the public's primal reaction to the haircut. "The male-female thing with hair is a big thing. And that's it in a nutshell," he says. "And especially other women are going to say, 'Oh my God, she's just insane.'
"Trust me," Mancuso says, "she's not insane."
Mancuso, Spears' longtime stylist and, in the name of full disclosure, a cousin of this reporter, has worked with the entertainer from her "Oops!...I Did It Again" days, seeing her through five music videos and two album covers. He last saw her two weeks ago. She looked gorgeous, he says.
And so when Mancuso first heard the report about Spears' shaved head, his reaction was that it was just a joke. "Then I thought, Shame on CNN for reporting on anything that's not real news," he says.
Looking at the haircut as a stylist, Mancuso doesn't see it as all that radical. And it's not something he would have expressly ruled out in his chair.
"If she really wanted it, I guess I'd ask her where she's going with it," Mancuso says. "Is this something she thinks is going to be good for her image. Is Sinead [O'Connor] an inspiration for this? Is this an act of renewal? Is it a spiritual move?"
If the cut was part of a calculated image makeover, or the forerunner to a new musical direction, Mancuso says, it might have played.
But calculated moves and direction don't currently seem to be Spears' strong suit.
"I think she's got a lot on her plate, and she doesn't know what to do," Mancuso says.
Right now, Mancuso says he isn't thinking about Spears' hair, or lack thereof, or even about the next time he'll style it. He says he's just thinking about Spears.
According to Blaine, public acceptance of the falling star is but one conventional head of long, flowing locks away.
"We'll be here rejoicing when it starts to grow back," Blaine says. "And now with extensions today, you don't need much."
On Ventura Boulevard, on the eve of the one-week anniversary of the close shave, the hair story can't grow away fast enough. To be sure, there are no TV trucks, no gawkers, not so much as a single pedestrian. But just like Spears' barely there do, all isn't really normal.
This reporter and a leashed poodle stand outside Esther's Haircutting Studio. Neither the reporter, nor the poodle is allowed inside. The owner, Esther Tognozzi, is tired of talking to reporters. (The poodle presumably has its own issues.)
A frazzled Tognozzi cracks open the glass door to explain why she doesn't want to talk.
"She's discombobulated my life," Tognozzi says.
There is no doubt who "she" is.
Tognozzi complains of obscene phone calls. To tamp down on things, she says, the salon is only open now to "my people."
There's no chance to ask about the $1 million hair sale on Tognozzi's Website. Tognozzi asks for the reporter's phone number but doesn't call. A message to her number is not returned.
Across the street at Sandy's Salon, where Spears didn't drop by, Susan Tieu doesn't envy Tognozzi's situation.
Not now anyway.
"At first, we were all, 'Oh, it should have been over here,'" Tieu says. "But now, when things are starting to unfold, I think that it was better off that she didn't come."
There is still no doubt who "she" is. Hair or no.