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Models await judging at Hairworld 2016 in South Korea.
Models await judging at Hairworld 2016 in South Korea.

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Cut, Color, Compete

What does it take to be a world champion? Reporting live from the Olympics of hair

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The history of the world is one of competition. Evolution has long been thought to be driven by it. Competition for survival, for land, for resources, for mates — humans have engaged in these pursuits for millions of years.

We also compete to be recognized, appreciated, celebrated, known. We play sports and enter contests. We love games and rankings, both formal and not. There are competitions for all the activities you can imagine, and even the ones you can't, hairdressing included.

Hair competitions are those of skill and speed. They're about pushing the fundamentals of coloring, cutting, and styling to their logical conclusion and producing something fantastical. This is not "normal" hair, this is not even prom hair. This is technicolor-dreamcoat hair sculpted in just 15 minutes while hundreds of people gaze on. This is hair most easily described as Hunger Games hair, which makes sense since competitive hair legend Ann Bray worked on the films.

These competitions happen all over on various scales, and then every two years on a global stage at Hairworld, the so-called "Olympics of hairdressing," where stylists from far and wide can prove they are the very best at the thing they love the very most.

Depending on where you are, and who you talk to, competitive hairdressing is either thriving or dying. Everyone agrees the barriers to entry are high, probably too high. It's an entire universe existing within our own that most people, many in the beauty industry included, know nothing of. This is very likely the first story you've ever read about it.

Competitive hairdressing has not been particularly well-documented, and much of what has been recorded comes courtesy of the Organisation Mondiale Coiffure, or OMC, the governing body of elite hair competitions that claims to be the world's biggest beauty organization with 45 member countries.

Hairworld participants wave their countries' flags.

As per a marketing pamphlet, "OMC was founded in 1946 with the goal to unite hairdressers from all over the world and raise their professional competence, recognition, and image to the highest standards." It's a little more complicated than that. The Confédération Internationale de la Coiffure (CIC) is actually the group that was founded in 1946, in Lyon, France.

The CIC evolved from various trade unions that were established as a result of the syndicalism movement in France, when workers began organizing themselves into unions. In addition to providing educational programs and a host of other services for members, it also sought to "stimulate creativity among coiffeurs and stir up interest in the latest hairstyles among the public," as Steven Zdatny writes in his book Fashion, Work, and Politics in Modern France. This is, most likely, where competition came in.

The concept of elaborate, of-the-moment hair had been important in French society for centuries, dating at least as far back as the court of Marie Antoinette. "As historian Fernand Braudel observed, ‘The coquette easily took five or six hours to dress, in the hands of her servants and even more under the care of her hairdresser,'" writes Zdatny. "The result of these efforts was hair ‘built up so high that the eyes of the beauties seemed to start out from the middle of their bodies.'" The hairdresser of the 18th century was considered "more architect than hygienist," fashioning headdresses that "often became a sort of discourse, where creations like ‘The Spaniel's Ears,' the ‘Drowned Chicken,' ‘Mad Dog,' and ‘Sportsman-in-the-Coppice' evoked nature or some historical motif."

According to OMC lore, the first hairdressing world championship was held by the CIC in Paris in 1947 and involved competition between France, Belgium, Great Britain, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. There were three different tests, all for women's hair; men's tests were introduced in 1954 and juniors' tests for young stylists in 1980. The OMC itself was formed in 2000 when the CIC merged with the Dutch-founded Organization Artistic International (OAI).

The concept of elaborate, of-the-moment hair had been important in French society for centuries, dating at least as far back as the court of Marie Antoinette.

There are now 36 tests at Hairworld. Some are for women's hair (known as the ladies' competitions), some for men's (known as the gents'); some are on live models, some on mannequin heads; some require cutting, others styling updos, and still others down styles. You can compete as an individual representing your country, but also as part of your country's team. All dyeing is done prior to hitting the competition floor, and all tests except for the few that necessitate preconstructed headdresses are timed. There are also aesthetic competitions for makeup and nails.

"My father's era was really more setting and styling hair," explains Robert Passage, son of the late Leo Passage who competed for the Dutch in the late 1950s and then on the very first US team in the early '60s. "All the competitions back then involved roller sets and finger-waving and pin curls and those types of things, which you don't see as much of anymore, but those same principles apply with modern competitors."

The looks were more conservative, and certainly less colorful, but they were still non-commercial styles that, as Robert says, offered up the "opportunity to express your creativity on a platform in front of your peers rather than the typical work you would do day to day in the salon."

Like any proper subculture, this is one riddled with characters. Leo Passage and Ann Bray are names you hear over and over again, but the most prominent and spirited figure active in the community today is Salvatore Fodera.

Fodera is the Sicilian-born force behind OMC, having been its president since 2004. He was just unanimously reelected for his fourth consecutive four-year term, so he'll be in power until at least 2020. Nobody ran against him, he says, because "nobody could fill my shoes." He speaks loudly, he dresses loudly. He wears his white hair in a modified mullet and is never seen without his signature smoky aviators. His friends call him Sal.

Sal's career in hair started when he was 12, in the town of Mazara del Vallo, where he worked at a salon after school. He came to the United States at the age of 16, and a year later began working at the just-opened Hilton in Rockefeller Center, the largest hotel in New York City then and now. By 1975, he had opened his own salon at the Warwick Hotel; in 1991, he moved his business to the St. Regis, a ritzy hotel off Fifth Avenue, where he still works today with his sons, Vincent and Gianni.

OMC president Salvatore Fodera on the competition floor.

The wall in the salon's reception area is covered with press clippings (from Fortune and GQ) and pictures of Sal with his famous clients (Johnny Cash and the less impressive Dennis Farina), as well as a framed photo of Gianni with his Hairworld medal. Like his father, Gianni is a world champion, and the photo capturing his victory is perfect. He's screaming, punching one hand in the air while the other holds up an American flag. He looks like an Olympian who's taken the podium.

Sal, now 71, began competing in the 1960s after seeing competitions at the Hilton, first starting with children's haircuts and then graduating to men's cutting and styling. He entered and won competitions all over the United States and Europe. After winning an individual gold in the gents' classic cut — what he calls "one of the most skillful cuts in the championships" — at Hairworld 1986 in Verona, Italy, he retired from competition and turned his attention to training and judging.

But this peek into what was happening on the inside left him frustrated: The rules and regulations around competition were oblique, the system difficult to penetrate. So he became a delegate for the OAI and began proposing and implementing changes, eventually being elected president in 1998. When the OAI and CIC merged in 2000, he sat out the first presidential election and won the second.

Sal has spent the last decade restructuring the OMC, cutting costs and turning it into a profitable business, for Salvatore Fodera is nothing if not a businessman. The OMC not only organizes competitions, it now includes an entire educational arm with courses offered through certified cosmetology schools and a whole library of instructional DVDs. There's a Prestige Club program that salons and stylists can join. There are many, many ways to spend your money with the OMC.

Competition has been cleaned up under Sal's watch. Though he dismisses the alleged cheating and bribery that went on for years as unfounded rumors, he has instituted a system of yellow and red cards — "like World Cup soccer," he explains — to penalize judges who show bias in their scoring. All scores are published publicly now, and other safeguards are in place, such as mandatory juror seminars and the elimination of outlying scores as well as scores for a judge's home country. "We find a way to make sure that hanky pankies doesn't happen," he says in his heavily-accented English.

Sal has also written a 24-page pamphlet called "The Secrets of Success" which can be found on the "magazine" page of OMC's website. It has been translated into Spanish, French, German, and Russian. On the front cover, and on a total of four separate pages, is a quote attributed to Sal: "The good leader does not abandon the past to build the future, he preserves the past as a foundation on which to build the future."

One of Sal's "secrets" is persistence, which he illustrates with two examples: the first, about how he lost the world championship in the '80s, only to win gold two years later; the second, about Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reaching the summit of Mt. Everest.

"I would like to share with you that I sell myself as being THE GREATEST — just like Muhammad Ali," another page reads. "And would you like to know why customers fly in from Palm Beach, Los Angeles, or Canada to have me cut their hair? Because in addition to a great cut, I make them feel like the greatest."

"Do you really think that there is not someone around who could give them as good a cut as I do?" it continues. "Of course there is! But there is no one who can make them feel as good as I do. When my clients leave my chair, they are high! Yes, high! They are reenergized. And it is no accident. I have given a performance that makes them feel that way. My salon is my stage, and my chair is where I practice my art hair styling."

How come you've never heard about competitive hairdressing? How come you don't know about Sal, or Leo, or Ann? How come even the person you pay to cut your hair, who is a hair professional themselves, has no clue this thing exists?

If you live in the United States, it may be because competition has been on the decline here for at least 15 years, really since the formation of the OMC. The 1980s were considered the heyday of hair competitions internationally and Team USA was a powerhouse. Then things tapered, and then they flatlined.

Amanda Cassidy has been involved in competition in the US for more than three decades. She was trained by Ann. At 52, she's seen it all.

"We started with a hundred people on the floor. My last time that I tried out, it was like 50 people. Now, if you get 10 or even five, you're lucky."

"When I started competing in 1982, we had to win a state competition," she explains. "Then we could go to a regional competition, then we would have to make top five to make the national competition, then in the national competition you'd have to make the top four or five to represent your country in the world championships. We started with a hundred people on the floor. My last time that I tried out, it was like 50 people. Now, if you get 10 or even five, you're lucky."

She still competes, most recently in the ladies' fashion category. For years, she competed in the technical category, but competition got too stiff once the tests shifted from live model to mannequin. Live models' hair couldn't withstand the precise and aggressive combing required of the fanned and spiraled technical hair, and many of the Asian countries had risen to dominance when it came to mannequin styling. So she switched to the less rigid fashion category, with its nighttime updos and long-hair daytime looks. Every year she says it will be her last, but she always comes back.

Amanda isn't just a member of her team, she is also its trainer, and since she's been in the game for so long, she puts the team together herself. There are no local or state or regional competitions that can help you qualify anymore anyway. There is no large-scale US national championship.

"The United States also used to have sponsorship for 100 percent of it, where we would go and not have to pay a penny for the world championship," says Amanda. "But with the economy and different things, manufacturers don't want to give up $30,000 to send a team to compete."

In reality, the cost is more like $30,000 a person. Amanda estimates it costs her at least that much annually ($40,000 might even be more accurate, she says) since she participates in live model competitions, and thus needs to cover travel for two people. In addition to Hairworld, she tries to compete in at least one of the OMC's smaller international competitions — the Americas Cup, the Europe Cup, or the Asia Cup — each year to keep her skills up in between Hairworlds.

It's all prohibitively expensive, especially for young stylists still trying to establish their careers. And it doesn't help that there's no prize money involved in OMC competitions either. It's about pride and glory and bragging rights, but nothing more tangible than that.

This issue of expense and lack of sponsors and the troubled economy comes up over and over again, all over the world. China even addresses the cost in a booklet from the China Hairdressing and Beauty Association it hands out at Hairworld. A message from the president of the organization reads, "At present, the economy is in downturn, with continuously increasing industry costs and expenses, but the government has decided to strengthen support for [the] service sector, so opportunity and challenge coexist for CHBA."

Contrary to popular belief within the competition community, this doesn't mean the Chinese government provides funding for competition, according to CHBA secretary general Guo Weibin. The team is funded partly through the sponsorship of private businesses, but competitors incur much of their own costs.

One of the very few countries that does have government help is Poland. "I was talking with Andrzej Matracki, the trainer and also the president of the Polish hairdressing federation," says Robert Passage, "and Poland actually pays for their competitors' training as well as their travel. They even pay to have a photographer there." This is obviously a rare luxury, which the OMC is well aware of.

"Taking account of the global economic situation, as well as observing a decline of competitors in some of the tests," the board of directors' activity report reads, "OMC has taken proper measures to improve your national as well as OMC's international championships."

One of those measures includes introducing the option to compete on mannequins in more categories; it's much cheaper to fly a few mannequin heads around the world than a whole other member of your team. For the first time, they're also introducing a commercial "salon style" category. Only two colors — a base, plus one other — will be permitted for the dyeing of the hair, and the style itself will look similar to what you would get at, yes, a salon.

"They don't want to come and look like a fool. They see a competition, and they say, 'No, I couldn't do that.' And that's it."

This is a big departure from traditional competition hair, which is the whole point. It's intimidating for new competitors to jump into the ring. As with many sports, there's an ever-widening gap between the amateurs and the pros. Competition hair is intimidating, it's complicated, it's many steps removed from what a stylist does on a daily basis. As Sal puts it, "They don't want to come and look like a fool. They see a competition, and they say, ‘No, I couldn't do that.' And that's it." By introducing a category that assesses a stylist's everyday skills, OMC is hoping to draw more people into the competition world.

Attend an international hair competition and you'll notice that the countries that fare the best — have the biggest teams, win the most medals — all have something in common: student participants. OMC competitions have three levels, with seniors being the main event, juniors for younger professionals, and students for those still in school. It's clear that cosmetology schools are integral to the survival of competition. You learn how to compete in school, and you get hooked, advancing from student competitions to juniors to seniors; that's what happened with Amanda.

Amanda grew up poor in West Virginia. Like most teenagers, she wasn't quite sure what she wanted to do with her life, but a friend of hers who was in cosmetology school tipped her off to a student competition in which the prize was full tuition to Parkersburg Beauty College. She thought hairdressing seemed fun, a creative outlet that would also allow her to make a living, but she and her parents would not be able to foot the $17,000 bill if she enrolled in school without a scholarship.

At the time, in the early 1980s, competitive hairdressing was in its prime and hosting competitions to attract the best prospective students was a way for a school to ensure they would have winning teams. Amanda had never styled hair before, but practiced on a mannequin her friend gave her and entered the competition.

The head of the school was impressed, and offered her a free education so long as she competed on his student team. "So five weeks later I'm in cosmetology school, seven weeks later I win the national championships," she says. "And then after that, I made the USA student team that went to the European championships in Sweden, and then I trained a world champion from my school. She was a world champion in 1984 in Las Vegas. That's how it started. I really got involved because it gave me self-worth. The competitions were a big thing."

Winners on the podium during the Hairworld awards ceremony.

American schools' involvement has dropped off in the decades since, and the US can barely field senior teams, much less juniors or students.

"The big difference," says Robert, "is that students in the United States go to school full-time. They attend a clock-hour institution, usually. That training is typically less than one year. For most of our counterparts overseas, especially Western Europe, students are in school and/or apprenticing for anywhere from two to five years. The process is much longer. They have more time to get traction with students than we do here in the United States. I think that's why the US has never done very well from a youth vantage point, because their counterparts have just had that much more practice."

This is something Andrea Turrisi, one of the world's most sought-after trainers, sees too: "At schools that are very good at competition, the people in charge say, ‘We're going to get a good reputation by having these people compete.' They let them do it all day long: competition, competition, competition."

The International Salon and Spa Expo, or ISSE (by now you've surely realized that the beauty industry loves a good acronym), is held every year in Long Beach, California. It's put on by the Professional Beauty Association (or, you guessed it, PBA), and is a massive trade show with brands promoting their latest goods at countless booths on the show floor, and in various classes and demonstrations held throughout the weekend.

The PBA (which, just to complicate things further, used to be the National Cosmetology Association, or NCA) also happens to be the OMC's partner in the US, so Amanda has flown out to California to teach a competition class and recruit new potential team members. This is where she's hoping to find fresh talent.

"Even when I won the world freakin' championships, do you think any of the industry magazines interviewed me? No."

Competition is not a priority for the PBA, which has given way to tension between the organization and the competitors, though it does nominally sponsor Team USA, providing them with T-shirts and jackets, as well as a small stipend to cover some travel costs. It tries to procure free mannequins and products for the teams to train with, but it's hard to get brands on board when it's nobody's full-time job to court sponsors.

"PBA's talking about how competition is dying, and this and that," Amanda says. "You can't expect people to try out for a team to spend money to compete in the world championships. It's just impossible. The only way it's going to change is if they help get sponsors for these teams. It would be easy for them to find a sponsor for us because of me — I've been here for a thousand years. All they need to do is get out there, get their fingers into it, start talking to sponsors, start trying to get us money. We can't even get a sponsor to give us blowdryers and curling irons for God's sakes."

It's January, and Hairworld is to be held in March in Seoul. Team USA originally planned to send three teams to South Korea: two for senior ladies' fashion (both a mannequin team and a live model team) and one for senior ladies' technical, a mannequin-only category. The fashion mannequin team dropped out, citing fears over the competition's proximity to North Korea and also the recent terrorist attacks in Europe.

Amanda is here with her teammate Svitlana Vechera, who is based in Los Angeles; ISSE provided a good excuse for Amanda to train her with minimal travel costs. William Carillion, the third member of the team, had a training with Amanda on the East Coast, and their fourth member dropped out due to financial reasons. The technical team has also descended upon the Long Beach Convention Center to train together.

Manuel Rodriguez, the technical team's trainer, is frustrated. "They never talk to us," he says of the PBA. "We don't need more money, we need more support," team member Elena Bosnova chimes in. They do, of course, need more money, but the neglect cuts deeper. As Manuel explains it, "There is no window open for us there."

Dale Dees is also at ISSE and has been in the competition world for 20 years. He won gold at Hairworld 2008, which was held in Chicago. After winning, he became a trainer; this year he was supposed to train the fashion mannequin team.

"Even when I won the world freakin' championships, do you think any of the industry magazines interviewed me? No," he says. "Did I have any special treatment from the NCA? No. It was like, ‘Good job. You just represented the entire country, good job.' And I paid for the trip. I did go on the Today Show, and locally I got a lot of fame and accolades. That was not due to NCA, PBA. They didn't push me out there or say, ‘Okay, let's do a photoshoot, let's do a spread. Let's build this thing up.' Nothing."

He did get a taste of stardom thank to a Hairworld documentary, which aired on PBS and Logo. He's also been able to attract celebrity clients, and appears on TV and speaks at conferences. "I get to do a lot of cool stuff, and a lot of it does come from my competition experience, but I do all of it on my own," he says. "Our industry hasn't done anything to help us, and they could."

It comes down to this: Since there's little interest in competition in the States, it doesn't make sense for the PBA to devote resources to it, but if the PBA devoted resources to it, there could be significant interest. It feels like a catch-22.

Svitlana, Amanda, and Amanda's model Michele Hughes are holed up in a hotel room at the Hyatt Regency Long Beach, which is connected to the convention center where ISSE is being held. The space is strewn with mannequin heads, products, pins, and tools. They've been practicing all day.

Svitlana is self-taught and passionate. She's quiet and somewhat deferential to Amanda, the clear queen bee, a small spitfire with short blonde hair. Amanda's outspoken, she's emotional. Michele towers over her by almost a full foot and balances her out completely; she's calm and wise, almost preternaturally serene.

"I've watched both of them cry like babies. They'll practice until they can't breathe. They haven't slept. They haven't ate. They just go, go, go."

Amanda is the creative one, Michele the numbers person who organizes and budgets their trips. When she's not competing, she owns and manages a few businesses, including a gym and several vending machines. They're an odd couple, but it works. Michele has been Amanda's model since she was 16, and they have stories upon stories about working together. The stories often end with Amanda in tears. Crying is a theme.

"I've watched both of them cry like babies," Michele says of Amanda and Svitlana. "They'll practice until they can't breathe. They haven't slept. They haven't ate. They just go, go, go. For me, on my end, to watch them put their whole everything into it, it makes me feel like, ‘Oh shit. I've got to really show this off well because I've watched them work so hard.'"

"I couldn't do it without you," Amanda interjects. "Will you stop crying?" Michele teases.

In Korea, they'll compete in two different phases of competition for the live model fashion category: day and evening, or downstyle and upstyle. The inspiration is "vintage," meaning 1940s pinup girls.

"It's pretty much anybody's game," Amanda says of the tests. "That's why we've been working for a year and a half to try and be able to make sure that we're in those top three places as a team. Russia is in there, but their outfits are prettier than their hairwork. And we were in Paris watching this year, and Russia was beaten by a team that has never won anything. It made everybody realize that it is possible to beat Russia now, and it has to do with the new rules and the new judging seminars."

Amanda and Svitlana practice on mannequins every day before their 12-hour shifts in their respective salons. They send each other pictures and have training sessions over Skype.

"I'm better today than I was even four months ago," says Amanda, "because I'm finally learning to use the right type of products and learning how to get the different levels of the movements, the highs and the lows as we call it. In competition, it's all dimension — you can't have anything one-dimensional. It's got to be three, five-dimensional, if you could think of it that way. Hair has memory, so even if you brush it straight, you can get the curl back just by picking and stretching and fluffing. It's like magic."

Amanda (left) practices on Michele in the competitors' village, with assistance from Svitlana.

Amanda talks a lot about the future. She doesn't know how much longer she wants to compete. She wants to stay involved, perhaps working for the OMC in some capacity. She wants to go to Hairworld, but without the pressure and stress of trying to win. She's getting older and thinking about retirement and spending less. She also doesn't know how much longer Michele wants to do this, and breaking in a new model isn't an option. Michele tells her she would still come to competitions to cheer her on, even if she uses a new model down the line. Amanda starts to cry. "This has been my whole life, since I was 18."

She wants others to have these highs too. She wants those both inside and outside the beauty industry to recognize the value of competition. She wants to be known and help young stylists be known, and so she and Michele have been talking about how to ramp up competition in the United States. Among the ideas they throw around is charging admission for fashion shows at nightclubs and hiring drag queens and comedians to host. They want to hold classes to train prospective competitors and also to raise money for the team.

"It would show people how much fun competition can be and what it gives back to them," says Michele. "It's just a really cool feeling to watch competitors walk across the stage and get medals after seeing them put in so much time. Their hard work pays off."

The next day, on the ISSE show floor, an extension brand called Hairtalk has attracted a huge crowd to their demonstration, which is taking place on a small elevated stage. Two dancing stylists tend to a woman standing in a sheer, thonged bodysuit with strategically placed sequins worn over fishnet stockings. They braid and tease her hair while bouncing around to remixes of "Hotline Bling" and "Bitch Better Have My Money." It's beauty entertainment in the most literal sense, and the audience is eating it up, cheering and screaming.

"It's stressful when there's something you have so much passion for and you're trying to make it happen. It's inside your heart."

"You know they could have the Olympic team on the main floor at this show and they could show all these girls how to do beautiful hair," sniffs Manuel. "But we have nothing, there is nothing."

"We need to make our coaches more famous, because nobody knows them and we have such great people. Amanda Cassidy, Dale Dees, Manuel Rodriguez — nobody knows about them," says Elena. Before competing for the United States, she competed for the former USSR. She says the attitude is very different where she grew up. "Every single hairdresser knows the famous Russian coaches. All people dream to work with them. Here if you go outside and ask every single person, they don't know anything about competition."

There is certainly an appetite for beauty as spectacle, and little does anyone know that tucked away in a conference room one flight up are world champions who put these stylists' work to shame. Amanda is holding her competition class and the room is mostly empty. Michele and some of the technical team have come to support her, and a handful of interested would-be competitors cycle in and out throughout the hour.

In front of the small crowd, Amanda is composed and authoritative, dressed in black from head to toe, though her button-down shirt is adorned with sequins and fabric swatches that act as fringe. She tells the group that competition helped her develop her styling skills and also time management. It taught her how to work under pressure.

"Competition has basically built my clientele," she says. "Articles in the newspapers, if I'd won a competition, they brought me new clients. It allowed me to build a business to where I could travel the world today. There are benefits to competing and being involved in competition. But it can be very difficult at times because it's stressful when there's something you have so much passion for and you're trying to make it happen. It's inside your heart."

It feels appropriate that Hairworld is being held in Korea this year, since the country is the current beauty capital of the world. Over the past few years, Korean brands have flooded the international market, introducing those outside the country to BB creams and sheet masks and essences and more, prompting non-Korean companies to develop their own versions of these K-beauty mainstays.

Scenes from Hairworld 2016.

The last time Hairworld was in Seoul was in 1998. Over the years, Milan, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, Tokyo, London, and DC, among others, have played host. This Hairworld is special, as it involves OMC's 70th anniversary gala, which will include the annual OMC Golden Globe Awards, where sponsor awards and other honors are handed out; winners are given gold statues with the OMC globe logo. Sal plays host.

Nearly 1,600 people sit at the room's dozens and dozens of round tables with white tablecloths. Team USA is sitting with members of Team Canada, but only the fashion team is present — the American technical team is back at the hotel training with Manuel.

Amanda and Michele joke and chat all night, they calm each other down and exchange knowing looks. They got to Korea over a week ago and spent the first couple of days touring before getting down to business. "It was hell," Amanda says. "I colored her hair for seven hours yesterday. Seven hours to get it the way it needed to be." The way it needed to be is a dark base with ombré that goes from red to orange to blonde.

The team has been getting up at seven each morning and working until four because "that's all the girls can take, sitting in a chair getting their heads torn apart"; Amanda has a cough from "all the hairspray and oil." Sometimes they break for lunch, but they've got room service the last few days. Tomorrow is the first phase of competition, and Amanda says they have more work to do tonight and that they'll wake up at the crack of dawn to practice some more.

"I've cried, Svitlana's cried," Amanda says. "Michele is like the glue, keeping me from wanting to kill myself. The buildup is really stressful. It's harder, the older I get. It means more and more to me." Amanda doesn't think she's prepped enough, she never does. Michele jokes she told the hotel maids to keep the bleach away from her.

"We show the world that being a hairdresser is the best job in the world for the simple reason that we make everyone beautiful."

Soju shots are thrown back and wine glasses are filled over and over again. It's time to relieve the stress of competition, at least for a few hours. Everyone at the table reminisces about the good ol' days. They share memories of Ann Bray, who now spends much of her time on movie sets, and of team members who passed away, of Athens in '80 and Vegas in '84.

The entertainment for the night kicks off with a video projected onto a massive stadium-style screen. It has an intensely dramatic score and graphics of a rocket hurling through space, whizzing past nebulas and black holes. Then dancers come out in glow-in-the-dark body paint and headdresses. And then others in black latex with elaborate headpieces made out of hair and rhinestones; with the video playing in the background, they look like gorgeous space overlords. And still more models parade out, this time in crystal-studded dresses and wildly ornate hairstyles, like couture brides gone rogue.

Fireworks are shown on the screen, and "Happy Birthday" is sung to both the OMC (70 years old) and Sal (71). As is his way, he shares many platitudes with the crowd, but one in particular sticks: "We show the world that being a hairdresser is the best job in the world for the simple reason that we make everyone beautiful."

All of the Hairworld action takes place on a single square stage. It's huge, covered in red and black carpet and topped with rows of Takara Belmont salon chairs and mirrors that face one another. Spectator seating along three of the sides can accommodate hundreds of people. The judges perch at a table at the back of the stage while competitors mill about.

There's the French team — so young, so cute, and so male, you would mistake them for members of a boy band, except they're in full Adidas track suits (red, white, and blue with FRANCE on the back) and white sneakers, and so they look like gymnasts instead. The Colombians give off the appearance of swaggering soccer stars in their tapered warmups in country colors. As teams wait to get their assigned chair numbers, you can hear chants from the "competitors' village." A group of fans holds up a red banner with "Canada" in big white letters, a little boy waves a Japanese flag. It really is all remarkably Olympian, just like the photo on Sal's salon wall promised.

Teams wait to get called to the competition floor.

Several tests take place on the stage at once, and after a few go-arounds, you get acquainted with the quirks of competition. You see that mannequins have full faces of makeup to complement the hair. You observe that men tend to enter the gents' competitions and women the ladies', but that there are many, many exceptions. You learn that people called "wise men" make sure all hair in the timed competitions is totally combed out before the timer starts. You start to anticipate the styles' swirls and recognize the intricate dye jobs that took months, even years, to perfect. You sympathize with the shaking hands and exasperated looks. You appreciate the frantic blow-drying and hair spraying and smoothing and teasing.

When time is called, capes come off the live models while half-shirts of tulle, feathers, lace and more go on the mannequins (mannequins get earrings, too). Then the judges come out, and so does Sal; he walks around in a blue suit with a purple striped shirt and purple tie. "It's mostly creativity," Anthony Zaccharia, a Canadian judge, says of the scoring. "The color blending, the balancing of the hair styles. The suitability. It's not just one thing."

Hairworld competitors are eager to talk about what they do, and every country operates differently. In Hong Kong, some people take four months off of work leading up to the event to practice all day, every day. They're not subsidized by the government or by sponsors — they often go without salary for months, and also have to find a way to pay their trainers and buy mannequins, dye, and other tools. There are 50 people on the French team, though only the top 18 compete internationally; the rest compete in various competitions within the country. In France, the birthplace of competitive hair, being a champion is still a very big deal.

You sympathize with the shaking hands and exasperated looks. You appreciate the frantic blow-drying and hair spraying and smoothing and teasing.

There is a single entity representing the Middle East this year: Palestine. "There's just one in the Arab world — not Saudi Arabia, just the famous Team Palestine," team member Ahmed Darmousa boasts.

They practiced for just five months, having never competed before, with the help of Andrea Turrisi. "I went to Ramallah, and I met the people there," he says. "They were wonderful people, very warm. They made me feel at home."

Andrea told the Palestinian team it would be too soon for them to compete at Hairworld, but they insisted on coming to Korea. They wanted a seat at the table, they wanted to be known. "They came in top 11 in the world. It was impressive to see that," says Andrea. "I was happy, and my reputation is to win the world championship, not to come in 11th place. For their first time and for having never being exposed to this, I was very impressed. I was impressed by the attitude, the willingness to learn. Sleeping two hours a night in Korea is probably the most that we did, but it was worth it."

He normally charges a training rate of $1,000 a day, but waived much of it for Palestine: "It's a small country with not a lot of money in it, so you have to be understanding."

Ahmed and his teammates used Hairworld as a coming out party of sorts, introducing themselves to competitors from every which country and chanting, "Free, free Palestine!" as they made their post-test parade around the stage after judging. They wore keffiyeh fabric tied into bandanas around their foreheads for "Yasser Arafat, our guy"; the fabric was also patched onto their competition button-downs and worn by their mannequins.

When explaining why they wanted to compete, Ahmed says the team wanted to show people that "Palestine is salaam," using the Arabic word for peace. "Israel is not salaam. Israel? No peace. Palestine's in peace." (Israel typically sends competitors to Hairworld, but did not this year. Still, the Israeli flag was included on banners and other promotional material at Hairworld.)

"When you come here," says competition director Carmelo Gugliotti, "you see that our organization is global. Different regions and different countries and different languages and different philosophies of life, but you see that all together, we make a great family — a great friendly family. There is one goal: to be the best you can be in your field and have a high respect for each other. Each one of your competitors are your brothers and sisters. The feeling you have when you see all those people from all over the world become one big family — it's amazing."

Team Palestine displays its styled mannequins.

While there are competitors from North American and South America, Europe and Asia, there are no African countries that participate. There are almost no black competitors period, and the only black model at all of Hairworld this year participated in the fantasy category, where she wore an elaborate headdress that covered her hair.

"I was the first African American to ever win the world championships," Dale Dees says of his 2008 title, "and I'm really proud of that." He did not, however, compete using a black model. This is because the OMC tests are designed for hair without any texture, and so most models are white or Asian. Competition mannequins are made of hair from Asia, usually India or China; sometimes yak or goat hair, which has a similar feel and appearance, is incorporated too. There are also limiting rules around what kinds of extensions are allowed on the head during competition.

In the United States, black hair competitions are far more popular than traditional OMC-type competitions. Among the most prestigious are those held every year at the Bronner Bros. Beauty Show in Atlanta, which has women's weave and fantasy competitions, as well as a men's barbering competition. They attract tons of competitors and spectators and also involve cash prizes.

"At Bronner Bros., the competition is the highlight of the trade show. It's not the booze, or the shopping — people go and see the competitions," Dale says. "You can win $5,000, $10,000, and those people get bragging rights and they're in magazines. Just from winning that one competition!"

Bringing these two competition worlds together could be a silver bullet for competitive hairdressing, particularly in the United States. They just have to look north for proof.

"It packs the stage. We've sold out every competition across Canada, and we like that it's mixing two cultures."

Canada has spent the last few years revitalizing its OMC program after experiencing the kind of lull Team USA has known for too long. Systems have been put in place, training has been standardized, sponsors have been won over. Most importantly, though, regular competitions are now held four times a year in Canada, hosted by the Allied Beauty Association, their version of the PBA. One of the ways the ABA has built up interest in these quarterly events is by introducing a "battle of the barber" category, which largely attracts black and Latino competitors and models.

"We've really brought in a whole new community," says Kelly Kalmbach, manager for the Canadian Hairworld team. "It packs the stage. We've sold out every competition across Canada, and we like that it's mixing two cultures. Sometimes they can be separate — ‘Oh, you're a barber; oh, you're a hairdresser' — but I love the fact that we're standing together and strengthening the industry."

Backstage, in the competitors' village, the American ladies' fashion team prepares for their first test, the day test. Amanda wears black yoga pants and a blue T-shirt with the PBA logo. She lies on the floor and listens to music through her headphones as she runs through the steps in her head. Then she narrates them to Michele: up high, down low, then around.

The models' hair is set with clips and hairspray up until the very last minute; it will have to be combed out on stage only to be built back up again once the competition clock starts. They're wearing off-the-shoulder black dresses and black platforms to play up the pinup aesthetic.

Amanda and Svitlana talk about nerves and adrenaline, while Michele is, as always, perfectly calm. William is still practicing on his model. "That's what he should be doing," says Amanda, who assesses his work and offers up tips. "Shoulders back, eyes up, photo shoot face, that's awesome," she says to Svitlana's model, who is visibly anxious. "Just go out there and be you, it's like a photo shoot — the judges are just taking a picture in their minds."

Michele strikes a pose for the Hairworld judges.

Amanda is clear in her instruction and kind in her praise; she's a leader that the team respects and wants to please. She has everyone hold hands: "I know this is weird, but I want to say a prayer. To my team members, I want to wish you patience, I want to wish you focus. I want you to do what you want to achieve. You have skill enough to do it, you just have to have enough faith in yourself." She jokes that she needs a shot.

Minutes later, on the competition floor, Amanda is focused and precise, making sure each swoop is shaped just so, each strand is in place. Michele grips a barrel brush, a spray bottle of water, and a can of hairspray, handing them off to Amanda as she needs. Comb, spray, clip, spray, blow-dry, spray. Amanda uses a small hair iron to create delicate waves, and the result is an elegant retro look, which stands in contrast to the teased and fluffy hair that nearly every other country puts forth.

This first test went well for Amanda, though her performance at the next day's evening test comes as a disappointment. "It was shitty," she says, standing near the stage as the judges make their rounds. "My ornament broke and fell into her lap after time was called. I started to cry. What can you do?"

She's sad, but takes pride in the work she did the day before and in the work of her teammates. Svitlana is worried she made her model's hair too oily, but Amanda assures her the end result was impeccable. She tells William it's the best he's ever done. "It balances out — William had a better night look and I had a better day look. He fixed my ass today and I fixed his yesterday! That's what teamwork's about."

"It balances out — William had a better night look and I had a better day look. He fixed my ass today and I fixed his yesterday! That's what teamwork's about."

Hours later, the Hairworld awards ceremony has started to fill with team members, family, and friends. After two days of tests, the competitors are equal parts spent and energized. The ceremony is delayed 15 minutes and then 30 and then 45 — judging has taken longer than usual today due to a number of penalties — so one by one the countries decide to take the stage with their flags, cheering and chanting and dancing as music blasts from the speakers.

"We have a nice time, but don't break the stage!" a voice yells over the PA system. "Please leave the stage now! The stage can't support such a weight! We're all excited, but security is important! The most important thing is security!" And so the fun is spoiled.

The wait drags on — "If this was the Oscars, it would be all set up," Sal jokes — and the mood dampens a bit. Some teams have snuck in mini bottles of booze. Many are dressed as if it's the closing ceremony of the Olympics (obviously, you say), wearing smart blazers coordinated in country colors. Finally, the awards are announced.

Winners run to the podium draped in flags as triumphant instrumental tracks play. There's screaming and jumping and running and crying. Korea, China, and Taiwan win big in the ladies' categories; Japan, Mongolia, and Hong Kong in the gents'; France and Italy in both. Russia has a good showing, too.

The US ladies' fashion team places fourth, with Amanda receiving an individual fifth place honor in the day test and Svitlana fourth in the evening test. They go on stage along with the rest of the top five, and they are thrilled. Amanda seems even more excited for Svitlana than for herself. "It shows I'm a good trainer. How do you like that for your story?" she says with a wink.

Svitlana bashfully beams. "On the one you were most nervous about, you won!" her model exclaims. Svitlana clutches her chest. "My heart!"

Her heart.

Julia Rubin is Racked's features editor.

Editor: Meredith Haggerty
Copy editor: Molly Osberg

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