Stylists duke it out on ‘Hair Battle Spectacular’

The reality-competition train keeps rolling along this summer with the premiere of “Hair Battle Spectacular,” premiering 10 p. m. Aug. 10.

Anyone who’s ever caught an episode of “Top Chef,” “Drag Race,” “America’s Next Top Model,” “Project Runway” or the myriad other shows of that ilk knows the drill: Some talented individuals show off their talent to more talented and/or successful judges. As expected, there are copious amounts of drama, cattiness and inflated egos along the way. And every week, someone gets the boot, crushing his/her dreams of glory. The last person standing gets a considerable cash prize and bragging rights for as long as anyone cares.

For “Hair Battle,” the talent on display is fantasy hairdressing, where stylists create outlandish-looking hairdos that will hopefully steal the show. It’s an art form Derek J, a judge on the show, knows a lot about. The out hairstylist’s expertise in the field allowed him to launch a number of successful salons around his home base of Atlanta and snagged him screen time on TV shows like “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and in the documentary “Chris Rock’s Good Hair.”

Fantasy hair gathered steam in the African-American community, but J said “Hair Battle” is just another sign that the phenomenon is moving further into the mainstream.

“The white community considers it to be a ghetto situation. But when it crosses over into the white world, it’s couture, fantasy and avant-garde. It did start in the black world but when it crosses over into the white world, people look at it differently. We started seeing fantasy hair walk the runway at fashion week. That’s when it started crossing over. When Vogue magazine does a layout of fantasy hair, it becomes more of an art form than just a ghetto hairstyle. People are tired of seeing the same thing over and over again. Fantasy hair allows you to create and do whatever you want to do. If you feel like putting a city on top of someone’s head, you can do that in the fantasy-hair world and it’s understood why you’ve done that. On the everyday basis, people are tired of seeing the same thing over and over again.”

J added that fantasy hair has a lot of supporters and practitioners in the gay community.

“We are the ones that are doing it,” he said. “As hairdressers and makeup artists, that’s part of the community. We dominate that world. Fortunately, we’re creative people. So when it’s time to put our mind into doing hair, it creates a fabulous piece. We had no choice but to support it because we’re part of it.”

J added that he likes to draw inspiration from drag queens for his work.

“That’s where I get a lot of my ideas from. I go to drag shows across the country. You get that one performer that comes out and I’m not beyond getting up out of my seat and asking: ‘What is that going on up here?’ I learn every day. When I see a piece that is just crazy, I’m backstage asking, how did you do this?”

J said filming “Hair Battle” pulled him away from his businesses, which are apparently very lucrative.

“In the hair salon, for me, was $2,000” — the most he’s seen a client spend for a new ’do. “I’m scared to say it.”

Two. Thousand. Dollars.

Damn! Does that include the tip?

“Fantasy hair can be more than that,” he continued. “The piece isn’t what costs so much. It’s the trial and error of making the piece. Fantasy hair doesn’t have a rulebook you can go to. It’s kind of like, what can I use to make this look realistic and stand up? So you go to the art store and you buy everything you can and you start putting hair on it. And if it doesn’t look good, you have to throw it away and try something else.”

Two. Thousand. Dollars!

So … how does one leave clients who willingly drop $2,000 on their coif to do a television show?

“I was gone for almost two months,” J said. “I have 12 stylists. I have a great manager. She held everything down for me until I got back. It’s kind of hectic because I do a lot of extracurricular things other than doing my salon clients. It’s like juggling. I have to make sure I get my schedule straight.”

Surprisingly enough, even with the high price tag of his services, J’s schedule doesn’t include a great number of celebrity clients. And he prefers it that way.

“I’m not a big celebrity hairstylist. I like them as friends, but as clients, it’s a different story. I’m a different kind of hairstylist. It takes a different kind of client to deal with me.”

In “Good Hair,” Chris Rock took a comedic (and somewhat sobering) look at the $9-billion black-hair industry (those $2-thousand hair appointments add up). J was featured prominently in the film and said he enjoyed it despite some inaccuracies.

“There were some things that could have been changed about it. There were some terms that could have been used differently throughout the movie. As a consumer watching it, it was a great movie. As a hairstylist, there were a few things that had me concerned about watching it.

“I just wish that he would have done a little more fact-checking on things before he would talk about it. They were calling relaxer a perm throughout the whole movie, which was driving me crazy. A perm makes your hair curly. Relaxer makes your hair straight. I spoke to Chris after the movie and I told him I understood where he was going with the relaxer thing but he never offered other options. It was like: ‘Relaxers are bad.’ That’s it. Are there other options you can get? He never touched on those bases. He just dogged it.”

In the documentary, audiences saw J easily beat out a bunch of his peers in an outrageously over-the-top hairstyling competition. So, would he win “Hair Battle” if he were a contestant rather than a judge?

“I would like to say yes, but some of the things we were asking these contestants to do were unbelievable,” he said. “And they we’re pulling it off. From my experience of doing fantasy hair, one piece may take us a week and a half. They didn’t have that type of time to do things. So I don’t know.”

Having a winning hair display means nothing if your model doesn’t have the skills to keep it presentable or, worse, from falling off entirely. But J said he never worries about that happening because of the particular models he uses for competitions.

“I have models that I have used for years. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I have one girl that has won me hundreds of thousands of dollars. When it comes to my fantasy pieces, she has a fabulous body, a great walk and she understands how to pull something off no matter what I put on her head.”

J said he doesn’t enter as many contests these days because of his crazy schedule — and because he’s become the one to beat in them.

“It is a lot of pressure, not only because you want to win. But then, you really can’t lose. That’s why after I won, I’ve competed a couple of other times. But you never know. I’m scared of losing now. I know what I want to come up with in my head. I have fabulous ideas. But you have to remember, somebody is trying to think 10 times bigger than you because they want to beat you.”

“Hair Battle Spectacular” premieres at 8 p.m. Aug. 10 on the Oxygen Network.

Larry Nichols has a new appreciation for the Chop Shop on South Street and can be reached at [email protected].