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It was a good night for the city of Los Angeles: On July 1, the Lakers paid $153 million to sign the best basketball player in the world, likely ending the Cleveland Cavaliers’ four-year NBA Finals streak. And along with LeBron James, LA will be getting something else: the NBA’s most famous rat tail.
Its proud owner is JaVale McGee, who is leaving the Golden State Warriors to play for that other team in the Golden State. But even without the tail, McGee is not exactly the NBA’s most traditional dude. For one, he owns a slightly malevolent-looking hairless cat and has a giant tattoo of George Washington on his chest. Then there’s his alter ego Pierre, which is also the name of the hip-hop album he released in April. And when he won the NBA Finals last year, he tweeted this:
I'm the only person ever with a rat tail and a NBA championship! Let that sink in!— Javale McGee (@JaValeMcGee) June 13, 2017
McGee, however, might just be the perfect spokesman for a hairstyle that’s up there with scrunchies, fanny packs, and Canadian tuxedos as oft-maligned trends from the late 1980s and early 1990s that might actually be cool in the year 2018. Like the rat tail itself, McGee is a bit of a weirdo, a guy who tweets literally anything that’s on his mind without a whole lot of concern for what everyone else thinks about it.
When he debuted his triple-braided version in 2016, however, he didn’t have a lot to say. “Something new that’s all!” he wrote in a Facebook post. Evidently the rat tail needs no explanation. But like many trends from that particular era, to many of us, the rat tail definitely does need an explanation. In short, it’s for people who want to look different.
“Rat tails were just a somewhat rebellious hairstyle, like having long hair or a mohawk, but a pretty low-risk one,” says Frank Manna, a 37-year-old systems administrator who had one in the late 1980s. They were a choice look for surfers and skaters on the Jersey Shore (where Manna grew up) who imbued them with a bit of an iconoclastic attitude.
To the rest of the world, however, rat tails might be more closely associated with a “trashy” look. There are a few Reddit threads about this, including one comment from a poster whose teacher told him his was ugly and should cut it off, and another about someone who kept his until his 18th birthday after being rejected from a nightclub for not “suiting their image.” (He bought a knife at a 7-Eleven, cut it off, and went back to the club.)
And like anything else that visibly marks kids as different, a rat tail on someone made him an easy target for bullies.
“A lot of people teased me and would pull it, so when I went to middle school I decided to get rid of it,” says Zack Auron, a 28-year-old filmmaker who had a rat tail from 1993 to 2000. In his case, it was a family affair: He grew one because his cousins had them. But when he cut his off, it wasn’t to blend in. Before going to sixth grade, he dyed his hair blue.
The rat tail’s infamy, though, is also what makes it so appealing to certain types. The style is stereotyped as the haircut of the few and the proud: Jedis, lesbians, and now the best athletes in the world.
Thanks to their historically bad rap, the decision to grow a rat tail might be an inscrutable one for some peole. In 2014 Rodrigo Palacio’s off-center rat tail was widely ridiculed for being the “most horrifying hairstyle in the World Cup,” while Zhang Hao’s was named among the “8 fashion crimes committed” in pairs figure skating at the Sochi Games. But to others, they’re rad as hell.
“They have a pretty shit stigma, but for some reason I think they look hot,” says Hasan Khalid, a creative strategist. “I remember seeing it in Star Wars and was like, ‘Damn that looks cool.’ Rat tails and mullets usually sit side by side with me at the top of my ideal haircut.”
Indeed, the tide may be turning on the rat tail’s legacy. Against all odds, Shia LaBeouf received multiple “in defense of” op-eds when he debuted his American Honey rat tail in 2015, with some comparing it to Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap and others calling it “the super-cute boho braid of dreams.” Though it was certainly thicker than the traditional skinny, wispy tail, LaBeouf’s (along with McGee’s) proves there’s plenty of diversity to be found for the look. And if you’re thinking about trying a new hairstyle on the cusp of a possible comeback, perhaps heed the advice of LaBeouf himself and just do it.