Lather. Rinse. Repeat.


From Chicago Tribune (November 18, 1992)

by Leah Eskin

"Shampoo Planet" (Pocket Books, $20), a new novel by Douglas Coupland, defines a generation. Not the twentysomethings he named and skewered last year in his first book, "Generation X" (St. Martin's, $12.95), but their younger siblings, the ones he calls Benetton Youth, Global Teens.

Kids whose memory dawns when Ronald Reagan took office. Friends who know no one living with both Mom and Dad. Teens hot-wired into MTV, dependent on McJobs, blasť about AIDS and so edgy about the economy the older generation has sucked dry they're already pounding out resumes on their Macintosh keyboards.

This is the generation that cares about hair.

"Hair is important," Chapter 2 begins. It continues: "Figuring out your daily hair is like figuring out whether to use legal- or letter-size paper in a copy machine. Your hair is you - your tribe - it's your badge of clean. Hair is your document. What's on top of your head says what's inside your head."

Tyler Johnson, 20, "Shampoo's" main character, lives in "the Modernarium," a matte black, high-tech bedroom sealed off from the sandalwood and love- bead decor his hippie mother prefers. He juggles girl-next-door Anna-Louise and French Babe Stephanie. ("Europe? I don't get it," one of Tyler's friends says. "We have a perfectly good Europe here at EPCOT in Florida.") Tyler occasionally attends hotel/motel management class at community college. He speeds around the toxic landscape and crumbling malls of Lancaster, Wash., in his Comfortmobile, fitted with "maximum tunage."

And he does his hair.

His mother calls his collection of shampoos, gels, mousses, foams, lotions, conditioners and rinses his "shampoo museum." Anna-Louise calls it his "landfill starter kit."

Consulting "Shampoo Planet" as a field guide, we mounted an expedition to track and observe this clean-headed tribe in its natural habitat - shopping malls. Do teens see themselves reflected in "Shampoo Planet"? Is the image accurate? And, most important, how intimate are their relationships with their hair?

We took along a pocket-size sample of extra-firm hair spray to prove our good intentions. We spotted Michael at Muddler's Pool Hall in the mall at 1800 N. Clybourn Ave. His glossy angular cut didn't budge or sway when he stretched over the pool table for a tricky shot. He looked to be our man.

We opened with a line in his native tongue: "Is it true today's teens are totally obsessed with their hair?"

"I don't know about today's teens," says Michael, 16. "But, I am." Michael, who is sensitive about the rumor circulating at the Latin School of Chicago that he goes through half a tube of gel before school, requested we keep his last name under wraps. In truth, he only squeezes out a palmful midway through his morning routine. First, he washes, then conditions, towel dries, wets (again), gels, combs and finally sprays his do, which gets a fresh crop every five weeks at Hairtech on North Clark Street. "Then before I leave for school I check to see if it's messed up or not," he says.

His hair (his document, his badge of clean) broadcasts a message. "It says clean-cut American," he explains. And proud of it.

Michael hadn't heard of "Shampoo Planet," though he recently finished reading "Wizard of Earthsea," by Ursula K. Le Guin (Bantam, $3.95) which he describes as a Dungeons and Dragons-inspired novel.

Curl talk

The Century Shopping Centre on Chicago's North Side, "the place for progressive people," seems to be a nesting ground for the well-groomed. We approached 15-year-old Vicky Fillow (with cascading red-brown curls) who was team-shopping with Michelle Otero, 13 (with a blunt cut slicked over her shaved nape).

"People judge you by the way you have your hair," Vicky confirms. "It's really important lately." Vicky says she shampoos twice with Pert Plus, and then scrunches in L'Oreal's Studio Line Pumping Curls to make her perm even curlier and softer.

For a more permanent look, Vicky might consult Tyler's neo-hippie sister, Daisy, who wears do-it-yourself dreadlocks. The recipe involves "pouring semidissolved Jell-O over cornrowed hair. The gelatin protein dissolves the hair protein; total hair loss stops halfway through the process by pouring pineapple juice on as a stopper."

Michelle, who likes the melancholy atmosphere of Scott O'Dell's "Island of the Blue Dolphins" (Dell, $3.25) and who lets a few tendrils of hair spiral down her cheeks, knows about curl-talk. "My friend told me I look older and wild and, like, I don't have a curfew. Just because of my hair. I got mad."

Neatniks and losers

"Hair says a lot about you," agrees Chris Lotho, 18, who also is unfamiliar with "Shampoo Planet," but is eager to discuss mousse and his sleek 'do during a break from classes at Roosevelt University where he is studying radiology. "If you're a neat person, if you have everything together, then your hair is neat. It's fixed, combed, styled, shiny hair."

Chris, who works at a McDonald's, greets the morning by wetting his straight black hair, then working in mousse from several directions for even distribution. He etches in a part, tilts right, combs and voila. Three minutes, tops.

On the other hand, losers have hair that's "fuzzy, bushy, in their face, no style," says Chris' friend and classmate, Ester Cibrian, 18. "It just keeps growing out of style."

Ester lathers up with Salon Selectives ("it smells good"), no conditioner (it tends to flatten her glossy locks) and mousse. She blow dries her dark bob, slicks it back, and slides on a headband. She gets a trim once a month.

Ester hasn't heard of the book that critics claim defines her generation. But, she recently read George Orwell's classic "1984" and liked it.

In fact, in our random sample of Global Teens, 0.0 percent recognized the title or author, with the possible exception of Amanda Wegnzyn, 13, who was shopping for plaid drop-seat PJs to wear to a slumber party where she guesses that the night's activities will include braiding hair and discussing hairstyles. Amanda suspects she may have heard of the book. "Mainly the title," she says. "It sounded interesting."

More to worry about

"Shampoo Planet" is being marketed to a young readership through rock concert-style posters, underground newspaper ads and hip radio spots in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and New York. "Shampoo Planet's" publisher, Pocket Books, has been coy about exact sales figures since the book came out in September, but notes it made it onto best-seller lists of the San Francisco Chronicle and The Voice Literary Supplement in New York. The publisher does not track sales by age group.

When Douglas Coupland gave a reading at Unabridged Books on the North Side last August, nearly the entire crowd of about 100 qualified as Generation Xers, according to Chris Kennelly, the store's buyer, who arranged the reading. His guess is that the book's $20 price tag is prohibitive for a generation still working on $15 haircuts. Unlike "Generation X, "Shampoo Planet" was first released in hardcover. "When it's in paper, it'll probably be gobbled up by the age group it's talking about," says Kennelly. Pocket Books plans to publish the paperback edition in May.

Coupland refuses to comment on the subject, fearing, according to his publicist, that he'll be accused of "niche-marketing," the very sort of entrepreneurial savvy Tyler might have brought to novel writing. Tyler, whose ambition is fueled by his conviction that "poverty blows" (translation: poverty stinks), aspires to work at Bechtol, a multinational conglomerate that produces, among other things, high-tech military equipment. He envisions the company creating a chain of history theme parks where tourists strap on jumpsuits and respirators to dig through toxic landfill for remnants of the past.

But, lest anyone accuse the up-and-coming generation of a scalp-deep preoccupation with highlights and body waves, we offer comments from Naomi Alfini, 15, of Winnetka's New Trier High School, who spent Saturday afternoon at Old Orchard Shopping Center in Skokie without buying so much as a bobby pin. "We've got our own things to be worried about," she says. "It's not just centered on your hair. It's your clothes and makeup and staying in shape, too."