The Real Story Behind Felicity's Infamous Haircut That Caused Death Threats, a Ratings Crash and Changed TV Forever

Keri Russell's hair change in the second season of the WB hit caused a national uproar--and it all started with a practical joke

By Tierney Bricker Sep 28, 2018 11:00 AMTags
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Where were you when Felicity Porter cut her hair? 

Almost 20 years later and we're still talking about the infamous moment in 1999 when Keri Russell, the young ingénue who won the Golden Globe award for The WB's college-set drama Felicity, chopped off her iconic curls, debuting a pixie cut in the second episode of season two. 

National hysteria ensued. Fans revolted. Ratings rapidly crashed. TV history was made. 

The hair cut had such a pop culture impact that it turned Felicity's name into a cautionary tale used across all genres: Anytime a TV character has made or contemplated making a major hair change it's referred to as "pulling a Felicity." You know Jennifer Aniston's iconic "The Rachel" hair style from Friends? Consider this the opposite of that. 

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Teen dramas that followed Felicity including Buffy the Vampire SlayerOne Tree Hill, and even Sabrina the Teenage Witch, all made quips about the moment. The latter's is particularly memorable, when Sabrina, who is receiving flack for exposé she wrote, asking, "Why is everyone looking at me like I'm the girl who told Felicity to cut her hair?!"

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30 Rock, Gilmore Girls, Six Feet Under, Happy Endings, and, yes, even Family Guy have also made Felicity's hair-related references during their runs.

But what was the real story behind-the-scenes of Felicity choosing to chop off her infamous illustrious curls?

When it came to the storyline of season two, with Felicity reeling from her break-up with Ben, the guy she'd literally followed to New York, it made total sense. What girl hasn't believed at one point that changing her hair would magically cure her of all of her heartbreak?

"It's such a typical college-girl story," Russell said on the show's reunion panel in June at the 2018 ATX TV Festival. "The guy breaks up with her and then she goes and cuts her hair and it's really bad."

However, the classic girl-cuts-hair-after-despair moment wasn't initially in the showrunners' plans…until Russell decided to play a practical joke on them.

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"The way it all totally went down, was they were wrapping up the first season…and the hair people were putting away everything they had into boxes and there was a little boy's wig," Russell explained. "We put it on me at like 2 in the morning as a joke…and we took a polaroid and over the summer we thought it'd be really funny to send to J.J. (Abrams) and Matt (Reeves) and say, 'I cut my hair — hope you like it.' Totally as a joke."

Her joke became their inspiration, as Abrams then called Russell to ask her if she would seriously consider cutting her hair.

"I was with my girlfriends at some lake and I got this phone call…and [Abrams] said, 'Hey, we got your picture.' No laughing. No nothing. ‘Would you really cut your hair?' And I was like, 'I guess?'"

As for how the actual act of cutting off her hair went down, Russell did actually begin the process on-camera, which was used as the ending of the episode, with viewers being forced to wait with bated breath to see the final look the following week. 

"We shot that scene at like 4 a.m. on a Friday. And the hair girl's in slow motion, like her cutting my hair, sniping it," she recalled. "And then a few hours later I went to a hair salon and someone cut the rest of it off."

While viewers didn't love the chop, the person who really had no poker face when it came to seeing Russell with the short 'do for the first time was Scott Speedman, her then boyfriend and co-star,who happened to play the guy who inspired Felicity's hair cut in the first place. How meta!

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"We were actually dating at the time, and I'd been such a disaster of a boyfriend up until then," Speedman told Jimmy Kimmel in 2017, with Russell sitting beside him. "And I knew I had to put on a good show when I was going to see her new haircut. And I was like, Come on, man, you gotta bring it home. You gotta do it. And I got to work, and she turned around the corner, and my face sort of froze in a half panic, half smile was a chia head sort of vibe to it."

He did follow up and clarify, "It did turn into something great. We all recovered from it!"

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While Speedman wasn't initially into the cut—and ditto when it came to the fans, but we'll get to that in a minute—Russell said she "loved" it even if she knew it wasn't exactly her "best" look ever.

"I thought that was such a good storyline. And I think the thing that was so surprising to me about the reaction…is that Felicity was never a fashion plate anyway," she said on the ATX panel. "I was wearing baggy clothes and so I didn't think everyone cared so much about the way I looked. It wasn't the best, but it was so good for the character it didn't matter."

Still, the backlash was real—shockingly so.

Russell took part in a Late Night With Seth Meyers' sketch in 2016, that had celebrities offer advice to their younger selves in "A Message to My Younger Self."

"Your life is going to be so exciting, but whatever you do, don't cut your hair short during the second season of Felicity," she said. "No, I'm serious. People will freak the hell out. You'll get hate mail. You'll even get death threats. But, gradually, your hair will grow back and your fans will forgive you, but you will never—and I repeat never—forgive your fans."

Yeah, death threats over a haircut. And you thought fandoms in 2018 were invested. 

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"I did not expect all the hysteria," Russell told W Magazine. "Strangers did come up to me on the street and say things like, 'You were so pretty before you cut your hair.'"

And  they weren't just passing along their objection to the cut to the star alone, writing to executives at The WB and the showrunners, with Abrams eventually going on to publicly take the blame.

''We take full responsibility for the idea of cutting her hair,'' Abrams told The New York Times. ''People revolted against the look and the show. She's so gorgeous, we thought, 'Who cares how long her hair is?' The answer came back pretty quickly. Frankly, we thought of extensions and all sorts of things."

Brad Turell, a spokesman for WB at the time, issued a statement to The New York Times about the backlash to the cut, saying, ''We got a lot of e-mails and letters and feedback from our friends in the industry who were fans of the show. People were disappointed and angry at us and at Keri for cutting off her hair. 'Who made that decision?' they asked. Women kind of identified with her. When she cut her hair, they basically said, 'I don't want to be that person; it ruins the illusion for me.' We heard that over and over again.'' 

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But were those vocal fans also the part of the mass exodus of viewers who also allegedly decided to stop tuning in once Felicity's hair was gone? 

When Felicity suffered a slight sophomore slump, one of theories was that the haircut alienated the fanbase, and that theory was—shockingly—adopted by the network. 

"Looking back on it, Keri Russell as Felicity was becoming an icon in television culture, and part of the icon was her hair," WB Entertainment president Susanne Daniels told reporters at the 2000 Winter TCA Press Tour. "Part of that strong image of Felicity was the shot of Felicity's profile by the window in her dorm room talking into [a tape recorder]. When they cut the hair off, and I couldn't foresee this, then you diluted that image. You diluted that icon."

She continued, "I think it turned some audience away, in particular men and some women." (Never mind that the network changed the show's time slot. moving it from Tuesdays to Sundays, and the considerably darker storylines of the sophomore outing.)

Finally, Daniels admitted that all hair changes across the network would be given more consideration moving forward, saying, "I think it's going to be given more thought at the network than it previously would have." 

As Felicity's hair slowly started to grow back, the ratings slowly increased, but never reached the same numbers it hit in season one.

And that is how a pop culture urban legend is born.