African tribes, like the Masai of Kenya and the Nzinga of Nigeria, began it centuries ago. In the U.S. black women like Cicely Tyson have been cornrowing their hair for years. But it took Bo Derek to make it a cross-cultural craze and beauty-salon bonanza nationwide. Since “10” premiered, Beverly Hills women have been phoning black beauty parlors in Watts for appointments and information, and the most diligent name-droppers have been trying to track down Bo’s own beautician. All the while the lady in question, Ann Collins, has been working quietly as the $300-a-week cosmetics manager at Robinson’s department store in Los Cerritos, Calif.
Ann, 33, did not apply for the movie hairdressing job. She was sitting in a Century City health food restaurant with her sister-in-law, Dean Hilliard, waiting for an avocado salad when she first spotted the actress. “We saw this white woman walk by,” she recalls. “Her hair was in braids and we were really knocked out. We’d never seen anything like that.” Ann ran after Bo to ask her about her hair. “Could you do it better?” wondered Bo, who until then had been attempting the plaiting on her own.
Collins and Hilliard agreed to try a session at the Derek home. “It took 12 hours,” Ann says, “and Bo just sat there and smiled. We ate peach Jell-O, graham crackers and orange juice while [her husband] John supervised the whole thing. He had bought beads and stained them, and he put the look together.” The Dereks were so pleased by the outcome that Ann became official braider for “10” and was paid $1,200 for a total of three sessions.
To duplicate the style for plain citizens, U.S. parlors charge from $50 to $400 (depending upon the number of braids). Usually the tightly woven plaits are laced with beads, feathers or even semiprecious stones. Understandably, the painstaking process frays the nerves of hairdresser and client alike.
The braids survive a month to six weeks—if the wearer is quiescent in bed and sleeps in a stocking cap. Ideally, the hair should not be shampooed during this period. Collins recommends an antiseptic rinse, and if the plaits frizzle, she rubs baby oil into the scalp. Reports to the contrary, Collins insists that cornrowing causes less damage to the hair than a perm.
Born in Clearwater, Fla., the daughter of an engineer, Ann remembers plaiting her doll’s hair as a child. She studied business administration at St. Petersburg Junior College and after stints as a model and dancer moved to California four years ago with her three children (aged 10 to 14) and husband Van, an aircraft designer at McDonnell Douglas. Right now Ann fits in two or three private clients a week after work but has no plans to quit to take on hoeing cornrows full-time. “We’ve always worn our hair like this,” she says crisply, “but it’s just a fad for whites.”