I never aspired to become a player in New York’s exclusive and incestuous world of “Russian hair” wigs and extensions, where long silky blond tresses sourced from the scalps of young Slavic women are “hairy gold” for a certain segment of the city’s beautiful people. I always thought I was destined for more highbrow pursuits, having graduated from Columbia University, then built a journalism career in Eastern Europe, for a time as editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Playboy, then eventually editing and publishing a successful fashion magazine, B.East, for almost a decade. But when the magazine collapsed during the financial crisis of 2010, I was penniless and stuck in Kyiv, the crumbling capital of Ukraine, where I had moved at the urging of a local oligarch whose big promises about investment and rebranding turned out to be as empty as the bankrupt nation’s finances. I was single and pushing 40. The resulting midlife crisis called for desperate measures.
I considered working as a journalist again but didn’t fancy being on the losing end of a dying profession. I was burnt out and ready for a radical and lucrative break from my penniless past. Ukraine’s freewheeling and corrupt capital was a hustler’s paradise, full of male expats brokering dodgy deals to fund their glamorous lifestyle in the boozy city often billed as having the most beautiful women in the world. A Danish friend sold wood from the country’s lush forests to Scandinavia, while a New Yorker I knew charged Ukrainians hefty fees for the fake promise of getting an American green card. Broke, disillusioned and tired of being the smartest — and yet poorest — guy in the room, I decided to take a stab at emulating these hustlers.
I’d read an article in The Guardian about the furious global demand for extensions made from Russian hair, and I was intrigued. I wondered if there was a way to get in on this lucrative business. An American friend was selling Ukrainian sunflower oil and linen on the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba, and he suggested I start there. So I put an advertisement up, naming my new business WhiteRussianHair in a nod to the famous cocktail, and stating that our company was offering gorgeous, blond Russian ponytails. I sourced pictures from around the internet and was able to make my listing look as legitimate as others on the site. I knew nothing yet about wigs or hair extensions and had no idea about the difference between “Russian” or “Indian” or “Chinese” hair mentioned in the other listings, but that didn’t seem to matter.
Within a week of placing the ad, I was contacted by a prestigious hair salon in Melbourne, Australia. The owner said that he had been scammed by other unscrupulous hair sellers and was looking for someone he could trust. We spoke briefly on the phone. He seemed to be impressed that I was an American living in Ukraine and agreed to wire $15,000 to my personal account for a first order.
It was more cash than I had seen in years. Absolut Vodka had once paid as much for a back cover ad, but we also had to create, print and distribute an expensive paper magazine across Europe. By comparison, this hairy deal felt like winning the lottery.
Now I just had to get some blond locks.
I wandered around the salons of Kyiv asking for virgin Russian hair and was greeted mostly by puzzled looks. The locals had no idea what “virgin” hair meant and neither did I. But many of the salons did sell hair, which was very blond and displayed in glass vitrines, like cold cuts at a New York deli. I ended up buying shiny blond ponytails from a matronly hairdresser with a blond beehive hairdo, mainly because she also offered me “free” haircuts as part of the deal. It was a good arrangement for both of us, I reasoned. I bought five kilos of hair from her and decided to have it shipped to Australia by FedEx.
But when I got to FedEx, the managers told me it wasn’t possible to ship the hair to Australia without first getting a document stating that the hair was lice-free. So I had to find an epidemiological institute in Kyiv and take the hair there, where friendly babushkas in white lab coats, who had probably been working there since the Soviet days, went through each ponytail checking for lice before approving them and handing me the certificate so that the hair could be shipped.
I made almost $5K from this sale, enough to live the high life in Eastern Europe for a few months. The money and the ease of doing business was exhilarating. A few weeks earlier, I had considered joining the Kyiv Post as an editor and grinding out a living; now I had made more in a day than I would have earned in months.
The Australian, however, was not happy with the hair. He had wanted “virgin Russian hair” and that’s not at all what I’d sent him. What they call “Russian hair” in the industry could come from Russia or from nearby Slavic countries including Ukraine. In the hair extension industry, it is described as being superior to all other hair. “Genetics, lifestyle and diet make this the best hair in the world,” states one explainer, problematically. “It’s the diamond standard of hair.” And “virgin” in this case means straight from the head, uncolored and unbleached. In a world where flowing blond locks have long been a status symbol, this “virgin Russian hair” fetches the very best prices.
But what I’d sold the Australian was neither Russian nor virgin. It was “Chinese hair,” meaning it came from Asian people, and in this case it had been heavily bleached, its outer cuticle layer stripped and then colored blond. The hair had been so traumatized that it would tangle and turn into “horsehair” in a few months. It was not what these high-end salons and their rich white clientele were looking for.
However, instead of asking for his money back, the Australian sent even more money for another five kilos. It was bizarre. I had been a writer and journalist for almost 20 years, and although I considered uncovering the truth to be my mission in life, I realized now that trust was even more important than truth. The truth was often an abstraction, but trust was a conscious decision. This businessman in Australia had decided to trust me, and that was a miracle in itself. He had staked his own money on this decision, and his instinctive trust in me was greater than any truth I could tell him about myself.
I felt so beholden to his trust that I didn’t dare disappoint him this time. I researched the issue as an investigative journalist would, learning everything I could about “Russian hair” on the Ukrainian internet, visiting every single salon that advertised “virgin hair” on its website, then visiting them in person to check the quality of their product. Most salons actually sold the same dyed-blond ponytails that I had bought earlier for inflated prices.
I eventually stumbled upon two fast-talking track-suited Ukrainian hair dealers — Slava, slim and tense; Vova, paunchy and jovial — who were the real deal. (I’ve changed their names here, as well as those of several other people mentioned in this article.) They had barrels and barrels of gorgeous, washed, natural Russian hair languishing in a claustrophobic basement studio on the seedier “left bank” of the city, across the river Dnipro from the golden Orthodox spires of downtown Kyiv.
Their offices smelled vaguely of bleach and cheap shampoo, and they both looked like the kind of guys who hung around smoking outside the McDonald’s at the train station. But appearances were deceptive: They were raking in cash from this hairy endeavor and both drove Porsche Cayennes. Their biz-nis was thriving, despite their obvious lack of sophistication, because their product was what everyone wanted.
Their thick natural blond ponytails were so smooth and silky that, for many of the men I would come to meet in this industry, running one’s hands through the soft tresses was an erotic experience, evoking feelings of sexual bliss. I would witness serious, grown men sigh softly, even giggle guiltily like a teenager in lust, as they silently savored the pleasure of stroking these smooth blond locks.
To be honest, it was the same with me that first time I bonded with those luxurious ponytails. I remember smiling goofily at Slava while fondling the gorgeous hair.
“Moscow pays the best prices for this hair, even more than those in America,” Slava boasted. “We go there all the time for hair shows.”
“I love Moscow,” I replied. “I worked there as a journalist years ago.”
Slava winked and moved closer to me in their claustrophobic basement studio.
“Then you’d know that the Russian capital has the best prostitutes in the world.”
Their hair, though, didn’t come from Moscow. It came from the steppes in the east, badlands on the border between Russia and Ukraine, on the edges of empires, where poor women in small towns sold their “virgin” blond locks to be sent off to the big city.
I still knew very little about hair, yet even then I sensed that those tresses in that damp basement were what I was looking for. Their appeal was compounded by their rarity: Like black caviar or white truffles, Russian hair couldn’t just be churned out in a factory. It had to be grown — on the heads of white women.
It was an irony that blonds for once — at least poor Slavic blonds — were the exploited, and not the exploiters. For someone like me, who had grown up in India, a place colonized and plundered by Europeans, this fact felt empowering in a way. Surely, it felt wrong too, sacrilegious even, but the writer in me was fascinated by the guilty pleasure of selling the very embodiment of whiteness: blond hair. This internal idea that I was embarking on an ambitious literary experiment made it easier to dispense with the ambiguous moral aspects of the venture.
Now armed with the silkiest hair in the world, I built a website (whiterussianhair.com), where it was surprisingly easy to find hungry buyers. As a former journalist and an American (I was born and raised in India, but my mother was born in Pennsylvania) it was effortless to charm prospective clients from Australia, America and elsewhere in Europe. Just speaking fluent English was enough then to stand out from the competition.
I soon connected with a few clients in New York, but they didn’t want to order online; they were afraid of being scammed. So it was only a matter of time before I decided to take the leap and fly there for a visit, kilos of golden tresses stowed away among the jeans and sweaters in my check-in baggage.
I didn’t declare the hair at JFK customs that first time and was lucky to waltz through immigration without getting stopped. With the hair in my suitcase, I felt like a drug mule having accomplished a successful mission. It wasn’t far from the truth. On that first trip, some of my prospective clients turned out to be just as shifty and manipulative as drug dealers in the movies. There was an angry, obese man who stormed into my Airbnb flat and spent long minutes sniffing and stroking the hair in a creepy rapture before offering a ridiculously low price and storming out after being rebuffed.
“You’ll regret this,” he warned, spitting into the stairwell. “I know everyone in town.”
Then there was the goateed Zohan-lookalike Israeli wigmaker who walked barefoot around his humongous Midtown flat and calmly propositioned me, dismissing the hair as “too expensive” after I bristled at his touch.
Fortunately, not everyone in New York was so cheap and salacious. One of my first clients there was a celebrated Italian-American wigmaker with a studio on the Upper East Side who immediately took me under his wing — and bought most of my stock without bothering to bargain.
“Your hair’s the real deal,” he affirmed. “Not like the gook some of the others try to pass off as Russian hair.”
Tony was a genuine celebrity in the wig business, and his approval meant a lot to a budding hair entrepreneur like me: He had been profiled in The New York Times and catered to high-end clients — wealthy New Yorkers who had lost their hair to cancer treatment, or who simply wanted long, silky locks for a wedding or gala event. The gorgeous handmade wigs he sold cost upward of $5,000 a piece.
I might have been intimidated around him, but with his gray stubble, rumpled black T-shirt and Brooklyn accent, Tony had an unkempt charm that was immediately disarming. He could easily have been one of those “old timers” from a Martin Scorsese film like Goodfellas.”
“Goodfellas, huh?” he said when I mentioned the film. “I knew guys just like that growing up in Queens, jerks who’d shoot you in the leg for nothing!”
We skipped out for an unpretentious pastrami sandwich at a Greek diner later, and he regaled me with tales from his decades in the Russian hair business.
“I knew a Russian guy in Brooklyn years ago with a garage full of hair,” he marveled. “He called me over and there were just hundreds of them shoeboxes stuffed with the silkiest, longest hair imaginable. I think he had been in the KGB or something like that.”
He hummed loudly and drummed on the Formica table.
“It was so cheap then — just a few hundred dollars a kilo! I should have just bought the whole lot from him. Because he decamped to Brazil or somewhere down there soon after.”
When we parted ways, Tony even offered to help sell my hair through his boutique. I was honored and said I’d consider his offer and get back to him.
It was a sunny, late-fall afternoon in New York, and I walked down Second Avenue with a skip in my step. I’d recently started dating Olena, a beautiful and introverted Ukrainian girl, and I excitedly called her back in Kyiv to announce the news about my new client.
I cashed Tony’s substantial check and took the subway down to SoHo to splurge in the downtown boutiques. As I finished up with a triumphant beer at the Shark Bar, one of the last dives on Spring Street, another wigmaker called and pushed for a meeting right away.
“Tony sang praises about your Russian hair,” he said breathlessly. “Is there any left?”
It felt weird to be flush and sought-after in New York for a change. My memories of the city had always been of penury and penny-pinching, of decrepit shared lofts in deep Brooklyn, of magazine editors shaking their heads and bemoaning budget cuts.
It had been a lifelong dream to make a living as a writer, but now working at a magazine seemed old-fashioned — and even downright boring. Weren’t writers supposed to be iconoclasts and provocateurs? Wasn’t this dodgy business closer to the spirit of literature then?
I met an old writer friend at Peter Luger that evening, and he confirmed my thoughts over a rare porterhouse steak and more than one bottle of Italian red.
“You’re a legend,” he crowed. “Selling Russian hair while the rest of us grind out a living at a dollar a word!”
He was right: With money flowing into tech and away from high culture, most writers were now forced to hustle for a living. And it wasn’t just writers. The “side hustle” had now become one of the dominant themes of American life. I had a once-famous war photographer friend — a veteran of conflicts in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq and Syria — who now grew tomatoes on his farm in Tennessee to supplement his meager income. A tenured film professor hustled rare books and films on eBay to help pay for his son’s tuition. Others made forays into the dark arts of public relations and ghostwriting to support their lifestyle in an ever more expensive New York. Among millennials especially, the side hustle — whether stripping on weekends or dealing marijuana after their nine-to-five — had become a badge of honor, a cynical pushback against a rigged system that rewarded the rich and exploited the rest.
In my new life as a successful hair merchant whose business feasted on the vanity of the one percent — people willing to pay top dollar for silky wigs and flawless hair extensions — I was met with a mix of jealousy and judgment. One friend who balanced his passionate musical career with a dead-end job in corporate PR mused that he wished he too could sell hair to the rich and devote more time to his music instead. I hadn’t ever expected to be feted in the bars of New York for trafficking in human body parts, but it was another sign of the strange zeitgeist that was transforming America in the early 2010s.
My last stop on that first visit was to a renowned Hasidic sheitel macher (Yiddish for wigmaker) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The rabbis had recently banned the use of “Indian hair” for the wigs that Orthodox Jewish women were required to wear. The hair in those wigs came from Hindu temples (Indian people shave their heads as an offering to the deity, and the temples sell them onward to hair companies) and was thus sacrilegious. So the more expensive wigs made from Slavic hair were now in high demand.
Esther worked out of an unassuming brownstone in South Williamsburg. She greeted me in her street-facing living room, the view blocked by a large golden menorah, bigger than a television. She was in her 90s and looked more like a mannequin than a living person; she barely moved as men in black suits and side curls bustled around her. Her skin was chalk white and wrinkly, and her large head with its perfectly coiffed black wig seemed too big for her tiny body. She immediately launched into a story about being liberated as a young girl from Auschwitz, then finding refuge in Budapest, where she had learned wig-making to survive. She had eventually moved to America in the 1960s, where she built her business.
“I was in Russia once in the 1990s looking for haar,” she told me in her raspy, Central European accent, with its rolling “r” and hard consonants. “But it was dark times back then with the mafia everywhere. We were lucky to come back in one piece.”
“Where’s the haar?” she asked suddenly, cutting short her monologue.
Taking her cue, I spread the wavy ponytails across her large black dining room table. Everyone crowded around the hair, chattering excitedly in Yiddish. Like always, the hair itself had the power to bewitch.
“Beautiful,” murmured Esther, running her ancient veiny hands through the soft youthful hair. She brought the tresses up to her face and smelled them deeply.
“It’s Russian haar,” she announced finally. “How much do you have, young man? I’ll take it all.”
She pointed at a short and paunchy gray-bearded man.
“Leon will take care of the details,” she said, before shuffling slowly out of the room.
Once downstairs, however, among the harried workers diligently sewing hair into wigs one strand at a time, Leon began picking apart the hair.
“This ponytail is too stringy,” he complained, tossing it aside. Soon we were left with less than a kilo of hair, and he even had the gall to then demand a cheaper price for it.
“What about Esther?” I asked, in shock. “She loved the hair and wanted to buy everything.”
He grunted loudly and shuffled papers impatiently on his desk.
“She’s an old woman who’s lost touch with reality and has no idea how to run a profitable business,” he announced in a voice loud enough for the entire room to hear. “I’ve bought a controlling stake in her business and am the only one keeping it afloat now.”
It was only when Esther reappeared and pleaded with him that he reluctantly took out his checkbook.
I was relieved to head back into the sunshine and catch the train to Manhattan, where there was gold enough for my Russian goldilocks.
After that first glorious trip, I started coming back to New York every few months to feed the hairy beast, carrying flowing locks that I got mostly from Vova and Slava. The Russian hair world was incestuous, rich and tight-lipped, and infiltrating it felt like gaining admittance to a secret society. My writer’s gift of the gab helped, though, and I picked up a new client or two on almost every trip back. Soon I had a network of hungry hair heads who competed to be the first to pick through the fresh supply upon my arrival.
I always chose Leonora, the Italian-American owner of a high-end hair extension salon in Manhattan, for that first jet-lagged meeting in New York. I had met her through a friend of a friend, and she turned into one of my most dependable and lucrative clients. She worked with Hollywood celebrities and was willing to pay top dollar for the best of the best “Russian hair.” She happily forked over $150 an ounce for the silkiest ponytails, which valued them at more than the price of caviar at New York’s most exclusive restaurants. And she always paid in crisp Benjamins that smelled of the promise of America after a long nonstop flight on rickety Ukraine International Airlines.
Leonora was gorgeous, with long flawless dark hair — sometimes accentuated by my Russian extensions. Her Rapunzel beauty helped justify the illusion that the hair business served a higher purpose, sculpting the glamorous American dreams that inspired the world.
Our meetings, however, weren’t so glamorous. We always met in her black Range Rover, parked mysteriously under a dodgy underpass near the West Side Highway. Like everyone else in the Russian hair business, she was paranoid and didn’t want anyone to discover the source of her flawless product. So we always met in secret, like married lovers. Sometimes she brought her cousin Carlo along, which made the hairy meetings feel even more like a scene from a gangster movie.
It was Leonora’s cash infusion that set the tone for the rest of my time in New York. Usually she bought hair for at least ten thousand dollars, and that more than covered my expenses, plus my pricey steak dinners with old friends and subsequent shopping sprees. I’d then meet up with Tony, who always picked off a few kilos, before slowly working my way down the list, sometimes heading back across the bridge to Brooklyn.
The hair opened doors in the city that had been closed to me for so long. Before launching this business, I hadn’t been in New York for over a decade. It just seemed so expensive for a struggling magazine publisher, and I had lost faith in finding a place in the city again. My memories were of endless struggle. Now old friends and media acquaintances came crawling back out of the woodwork, and I felt more at home in the city than I did in provincial Ukraine.
I was enjoying New York immensely and was torn about making the jump to living there again. Olena and I had recently gotten engaged, and she dreamed of living in the countryside surrounded by woods and silver birch trees. She was weary of the hustle and grime of a big city. But I enjoyed the freedom my side hustle offered. I’d go back to Ukraine and work on my writing, play poker in smoky underground clubs, take trips around Europe with Olena, and forget about hair until it was time to hit up Manhattan again to fund my lifestyle in the East.
But life rarely stands still. Tony had a prodigal son who had turned his back on his father’s “boring” business and instead chosen the hardscrabble life of a journalist. The old man pushed us to get together, hoping that I’d talk some sense into his idealistic son. And as fellow writers who both enjoyed to drink, we quickly bonded over too many whiskeys in the dive bars of the West Village. Mark was intrigued that I could treat the “godawful” wig business as a side hustle, and that shift in perspective made it interesting to him again. Like me, he was also quickly running up against the financial limitations of a career in journalism. It was his idea to open a “hair boutique” in New York offering exclusive hair from Russia and elsewhere. Tony quickly agreed to come in as a minority partner and provide the initial capital.
“I just want to see my son successful and be able to buy his own place one day,” he told me. “And hopefully my work doesn’t just die with me.”
A contract was drawn up and a company was created with Mark and I as equal partners. I was still leery of jumping full-time into the hair business, but Mark was also a writer and we promised each other that we’d maintain the spirit of the side hustle while prioritizing writing and staying creative.
I flew back to Ukraine, excited for Thanksgiving with Olena, hoping to convince her over turkey dinner to move to New York. And then, out of the blue, something unthinkable happened that changed everything.
Long-suffering Ukraine plunged into bloody revolution.
It began when students marched on Kyiv’s Independence Square to protest the president’s decision to postpone closer ties with Europe and steer the country toward Russia instead. In the days that followed, the riot police stupidly roughed up the protesters — leading to some being hospitalized — and it was that callousness and arrogance that shocked peace-loving Ukrainians out of their apathy. A hundred thousand Ukrainians demonstrated the following weekend in solidary with the students, and in support of further European integration. Thousands eventually camped out in the center of the city, demanding a fresh agreement with Europe, and calling for the ouster of the Putinist president.
These were heady times in Kyiv indeed. Journalist friends from Moscow in the 1990s and elsewhere began showing up in the capital, and I got roped into reporting on the revolution for New York’s Daily Beast website. With the city in chaos, I enjoyed slipping back into the role of foreign correspondent, spending the days among the fiery opposition activists on the maidan, and evenings carousing the bars with old friends from my carefree youth.
In the face of an idealistic revolution, the hair business seemed even more dodgy and exploitative.
Having lived in Ukraine for over five years already, I understood the defining impulse of the revolution: It was in many ways a pushback against the side hustle, as well as the wheeling and dealing and humiliations that defined life in a poor post-Soviet nation still under the thumb of the cynical Russian bear. Ukrainians didn’t want to have to have to bribe and swindle their way through a corrupt system anymore. They wanted to just have a proper job with a normal salary and live in light and freedom like their neighbors in Eastern Europe. Swept up by their idealism, I also decided that I wanted a more normal and meaningful life.
The hair business was, all of a sudden, not an option anymore anyway. With the revolution and then a bloody war with Russian separatists in the east of the country, the hair supply had completely dried up. Most of the hair that Slava and Vova supplied me with had come from the steppes along the border with Russia, where Cossacks once roamed to protect the lands against the Turks and Caucasian bandits. Now there were Russian tanks among the rolling sunflower fields, and the hair gatherers had chucked their scissors for Kalashnikovs.
“The separatists are now controlling the hair business,” moaned Slava one afternoon. “We’re just working with Chinese hair these days.”
I was as impotent as a shorn Samson without my gorgeous Russian hair. There was no point in going back to New York without it, and so I threw myself into writing articles, and even working on a book proposal about Ukraine. I began to focus again on my journalism career, eventually becoming the Ukraine correspondent for Politico. I rang Mark in New York and called off the hair boutique.
A few years later, however, I thought to test the hair business one more time. There was some decent hair around Kyiv again, and I flew back to New York, ready to make a killing. But I had been naïve to assume that a vacuum endures for that long. Ukraine was now an American ally, and it was easier to get a visa, so hungrier competitors from the country had entered the market. There were even rumors of well-connected generals getting into the Russian hair business. Tony shook his head upon meeting me and said that he was inundated with hair these days.
“At least once a week some guy in a leather jacket from Odessa or Kyiv or elsewhere comes through with a bag of decent hair.” He wrung his hands in sympathy. “There’s too much around hair around these days. It’s not like it used to be.”
Leonora was nice enough to buy a few ponytails, but even she demanded a discount this time. I sold the rest to the Brooklyn wigmakers for even less than I’d paid for it.
I should have been devastated, but I was relieved instead. The side hustle had now gone mainstream, and it had thus lost its appeal. Inspired by a Ukraine that had gone to war to uphold the dream of an honest life, I wanted to push back against the hucksterism that defined Trump’s America. So I decided to go back to where I had come from. A writer, alone and idealistic, a Luddite who still believed in the power of words to change and inspire.
And I already had the strands of a strong story. I just had to weave them together, bleach out the clichés, gloss over a few inconvenient details, highlight the epiphanies, cut out the boring bits, color in the rich background, and wash it clean of any errors. Then sell it to the highest bidder, hoping its message resonated far longer than even the most gorgeous wig made from the finest Russian hair.