Hair Fairies: The Price of Lice

This story is unpublished. It was written for a class while Molly was attending Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

It is Halloween morning, and Kelly Kraft is dressed as a louse.

I, a reporter, am not dressed as anything (though I am dressed). I am standing on the stoop of Hair Fairies in Lincoln Park, and I have just realized my mouth is hanging open.

Kraft, 30, is the manager of Hair Fairies, a salon that manually removes head lice. As she guides me inside, I admire her brown boots, all the rage this fall, and a dress that might have looked nicer without the extra sets of arms pinned to it.

I am startled to discover another employee masquerading as a nit, with a white trash-bag body and aluminum foil “glue” to bind herself to a hair on some enormous unseen head. I am not sure if I should shake hands.

“It’s going to be a zoo today,” Kraft says happily. “We’ve got a group of five already in here.”

Hair Fairies Inc. is a privately held company, owned by Maria Botham.

After reading an article that named head lice as the top reason why children miss school, Botham, 38, spent two years working in physicians’ offices and researching lice shampoos. The first Hair Fairies salon opened in Los Angeles in 1999. The company has expanded into three other cities – New York, San Francisco and, in December 2008, Chicago.

“I wanted to have salons where we always place ourselves in the Beverly Hills of that city and make the salons really beautiful to break the stigma of head lice,” Botham says. “People think that it’s a problem with underserved communities, but really head lice don’t discriminate. We have every A-list celebrity go through our salons.”

The people I saw, aside from the bug and the nit, weren’t celebrities, but children. Surprisingly quiet children. All had a GameBoy, DVD player or other noise toy in their laps, and they sat calmly while Kraft and the five other Chicago employees combed through their hair.

Botham estimates the Chicago shop sees between 250 and 300 heads a week, and Kraft says they inspect at least 20 people a day. The process involves combing the hair when it’s dry, again when it’s wet, shampooing, applying an oil meant to prevent the lice from wanting to be on the hair and then blow-drying the client.

“I was a hair stylist for 11 years,” Kraft says. “I was doing high fashion! This is the whole other end of the spectrum and to be honest, it’s much more gratifying.”

Hair Fairies’ objective is to offer relief to parents who are too grossed out to do the work themselves and too stressed out to deal with their kids’ tears of shame. The Fairies, bearing brushes and tissues and toys, are there to do it for them.

“Most clients come in and they’ve already spent over $500 between dry cleaning, cleaning their homes, hair products, and they’ve missed a week and a half of school,” Botham says. “They are very distraught. They’re emotional, upset. They’re agitated. They’re usually exhausted.”

To be a Hair Fairy is to be a nanny, doctor and a therapist, one who can interact with children and adults. The Fairies soothe anguished parents – some of whom drop their children at the salon and speed away before anyone can see them.

They also explain and discuss the medical side of lice – like the fact that the bugs cannot fly, hop or jump. (Their ability to skip remains to be determined. It is thought unlikely.) They explain that the bugs go dormant when they’re exposed to extreme temperatures or if you hold your head under water. They explain that lice are asexual.

A Fairy would tell you that lice can only be transmitted through head-to-head contact and not through clothing or bedding. (Headbutt champions and Siamese twins: beware. Ladies of the night and hat models may breathe easy.)

Employees are trained for 90 days before they can start their Fairy duties. Kraft says she “had no less than six interviews” to land the job and Botham refers to a “three-inch thick manual” of conduct and information. Hair Fairies has roughly 60 employees between the four salons and Chicago will be hiring again next month.

A. Jae Matthews, 26, is a loud, cheery black man. He is a Hair Fairies employee, and today he’s wearing a sparkly black wig that makes him look rather like Rick James. Matthews was a promoter for a theater before he became a Fairy and tells me he dislikes insects.

“I don’t do well with bugs,” he says.

“Were you worried about that coming into this job?” I ask.

“I was apprehensive about a lot of aspects of this. It’s funny though, working here hasn’t helped me with bugs, but with people. I still have all my reservations about spiders, just not head lice or humans.”

Kraft says most clients take comfort in knowing that the salons are full of people who have lice, so everyone in the shop is tolerant. She suggests they feel a type of camaraderie. I almost suggest they form a street gang.

“People love that every other person in here has had lice or is not freaked out by lice,” she says. “The biggest thing is that parents aren’t educated on the subject, and they don’t have a clue how to make it better, and that’s their job as a parent. And so I get those mothers and fathers and then I get to give them the knowledge and calmness to feel like they’re in control again, all in an environment where they’re comfortable.”

The Hair Fairies shop has a wood-paneled floor with bright, overhead track lighting. Mirrors at each station are hemmed by thick wood frames carved to look as if the wood was woven. There is a waiting area in the front, filled with magazines like Cosmopolitan, Shape and Self.

“The salons are absolutely gorgeous,” Botham says. “They feel like mini spas!”

All the children are occupied with games or toys, and there’s a counter with snacks available for anyone who wants them. Occasionally a child – in a zombie-like trance, with eyes and thumbs still glued to whatever device he or she is holding – will stumble over and select a sweet. Everywhere there is the smell of toasting hair as clients are styled. It floats above the slight tang of Botham’s all-natural lice shampoo.

All the furniture is slick and cold to the touch. Most of the seating is wooden. As I look around, I realize the place – without the buzzing, happy Fairies – looks rather stiff and uncomfortable.

“The bugs can live for 24 to 48 hours and they need a fiber to travel, so everything is leather or vinyl or wood,” Kraft explains. “That’s so we’re not passing it back and forth through our environment.”

The décor is not sterile, however. Perhaps it’s the glittered, brightly colored fairy art hanging between the mirrors. Could be the bustling workers or the happy (if technologically occupied) children. Or the moms who can snatch moments to themselves while their kids get colored gels slathered on their hair after a treatment.

Barbara Kizziah is one such mother. She is a 43-year-old blond who enters Hair Fairies clutching a Starbucks cup and a Chanel bag. Her pink cable-knit sweater has no pills, pulls or puckers. She is loud, tan and attaches herself to Lane, a bucktoothed nine-year-old getting green streaks.

“I didn’t find anything this time,” Kraft says.

“Yahoo!” Kizziah shouts, pumping her fists. It is their final visit in the Hair Fairies four-part treatment.

“She got it, we think, from her carpool,” Kizziah tells me, with one hand on my forearm. “My first thought was ‘Holy shit.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got to be kidding me.’”

Kizziah said she didn’t think she had the time to comb through Lane’s hair and wasn’t sure which products would be most effective. She admits to being “slightly panicked,” but feels she is making the best of a lousy (louse-y) situation.

“I just didn’t want to do it, and I didn’t feel like I’d do an effective job,” she says. “The cocktail conversation is not bad, though. Last weekend I was like, ‘O.K. people, lice – can you stand it?’”

Botham says the company is healthy. Kraft says the Chicago shop is always busy. (It’s nice to know there are enough lice in Chicago to keep six people occupied.) But the social status of the clientele brings up an important question – how much does all this cost?

The number for the price depends on the number of the lice. There is a one-hour minimum per person per visit, which totals $95. After that, it’s $23.75 for every additional 15 minutes. Kraft estimates most people pay about $380.

Upon hearing that, I was ready to jump, hop, fly and maybe skip to the conclusion that Hair Fairies was entirely a luxury and only available to the solidly wealthy, or as we call them in America, the upper middle class. Not exactly so.

“We’re many times covered by medical insurance, which opens up the demographic,” Botham said. “We do get parents who are absolutely wearing a big hat and sunglasses and when they enter the door and they see it’s all their colleagues and see it’s the same kind of person that they are, that’s when they open up.”

Kraft says: “Our clients here are professionals, and they feel comfortable when they run into other professional-type people here.”

Hair Fairies is both notable and deplorable. It’s a wonderful concept – take something that icks people out and give them a 100 percent guarantee you’ll solve the problem. It’s hands-off, a sure thing. That’s also why I think it could be bad for us– it’s the Stepford way to do things. No matter how unpleasant, part of parenting should be to sit on the edge of the bathtub and scrape bugs off a child’s scalp. It tells the child they care enough to do something gross. (Better still if the father can contain his gagging noises at the smell of over-the-counter lice treatments and the mother can still her shivers when she sees a live bug.)

I got lice when I was in sixth grade. (We think it was from wearing hats during a school play. Even now that she knows this is highly unlikely, my mother still insists a traveling theater troupe gave us the bugs. “It was a rogue licing,” she says with great indignation.) When we consulted my aunt, an elementary school teacher well versed in the ways of lice, and I was pronounced bug-positive, I was grasped firmly about the shoulders and pressed into her breast for a big hug. It was the best way to cure my self-loathing. We then spent a month dousing my head in poisonous chemicals. My mother was behind me for the combing but beside me for the experience. And that counted. I remember that.

If I had instead been taken to Hair Fairies, I think I would have felt differently. She would have dropped me off and gone to run some errands. Maybe to meet a friend for lunch. Maybe to hit up a quick yoga class. Either way, she wouldn’t have been there. She wouldn’t have needed to be. I had friendly, cheery Fairies attending to me and some moving images to stare at.

Which is not to say the people that use Hair Fairies are bad parents. They aren’t. And Botham’s not a bad person either. She’s a rich person, or on her way.

“We’re trying to be the Starbucks of head lice removal,” she says. “We’re trying to build an empire here.” Botham is currently opening a store in Seattle and plans to be in all 50 states within five years. “Maybe less.

“When I told all my friends I was going to start this corporation, everyone laughed at me and told me I was nuts. But I really knew in my core that this was something people needed,” Botham says. “Head lice is like getting a cold, that’s how common it is. I knew I could create a brand that was massive.”

I have seen all I need to see at Hair Fairies. I collect my notebook and pen, wave goodbye to the people and bugs I’ve met, and step onto the crowded Lincoln Park street. My skin crawls a bit, but my scalp doesn’t itch. I am very, very glad.