WE MAY never know how many of the estimated 300,000 women who used a hair straightening product called Rio actually went bald. But we do know this about the company that advertised its miracle product on networks like Black Entertainment Television: At last, it has been publicly put to shame. This past fall, California's attorney general announced a $500,000 settlement with World Rio Corp. -- the result of a consumer protection suit against the company and its owner, Hal Z. Lederman. And in the coming months, a separate class action lawsuit is expected to be negotiated on behalf of an estimated 30,000 users of Rio.
Marketed as the world's first all-natural hair relaxer, Rio became an instant sensation after exploding on to the scene two years ago via a savvy late-night infomercial. Promising black women an answer to the dilemma of kinky hair in a white society, the Rio hair-care system couldn't be shipped fast enough to enthusiastic mail-order customers. My mother got a call from Chicago soon after the sensation hit. It seemed that her hometown running buddy, Erma, wanted Mom to swing by the company's L.A. headquarters, pick up a box and send it to her direct to avoid the six- to eight-week mail-order wait. Send it overnight, UPS, Fed-Ex. Whatever. Just make it quick, girlfriend.
But this magic mixture allegedly imported from the deep jungles of Brazil proved to be a scam, as Rio customers learned upon discovering clumps of their beloved tresses falling out by the handful. Nine months after its debut, U.S. marshals acting on behalf of the FDA were forced to seize boxes of Rio from a California warehouse to prevent the product's further sale. I started investigating Rio after an employee leaked me information about the company's attempts to hush consumer complaints. The result was a story for the L.A. Weekly that was, in part, about a menacing product that caused thousands to suffer hair loss, discoloration and scalp burning. Yet by the end of my reporting, it was clear to me that the Rio scam was also about an on-going need among black women to fit into white America. To be desired by Her. To be wanted.
In Rio's infomercial, Mary Mercado, a slender woman with skin the color of cafe au lait, glides on stage in a skintight, flaming red dress. As if announcing the next Lotto winner, Mercado tells her audience that they are about to take "the most fascinating trip" of their lives. A trip to Rio de Janeiro, to natural. Mercado's words are thick with metaphor. A wash of imagery -- heavy heat and damp lust -- blurs and merges into a precise equation: Rio equals Straight Hair and Straight Hair equals Black Desire. From there, the infomercial quickly moves into hard sell. Demonstrating the ease with which her new hair shakes and moves, Mercado brings Philadelphia hair-stylist Andre Desmond on stage. "Rio frees you," announces Desmond, "by gradually reducing the curl. When you use chemicals, you go into bondage. You're enslaved to the drudgery of what you do in the morning, what you do in the evening. With Rio, you're free."
As a marketing tool, the infomercial was a work of genius. It played on subconscious black desires so deftly that one wonders how its white creator could be so attuned to the cultural profundity of black hair. Ever since harsh lye-based relaxers were discovered in the 1930s, they've had a tendency, as one writer put it, to "fly off drugstore shelves" into black hands. Even Malcolm X endured the pain and burning of relaxers to achieve the flaming hepcat "conk" of his youth. The reason is clear: As the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica tells us, hair is the most reliable measure of "racial purity."
In essence, Rio's infomercial resurrected the age-old notion that beauty equals whiteness. "When my man first saw my hair," one model testified, "it wasn't the words he said. It was just immediately going to my hair and wanting to touch it \. \. \. and every woman wants to be touched." Desmond warned women that "if you put this on your hair \. \. \. you run the risk of people coming up and saying things to you." Lowering his voice seductively, he added, "Things like, How you doin'?' Can I do this?' or Can we do that?' "
What gives power to such a pitch is the tormenting suspicion among real-life black women that, absent the social stigma of interracial relations, many brothers would gladly "cross over" into relationships with lustrously straight-haired white women.
The Rio pitch also manipulated Black Power narratives of the 1960s with brilliant finesse. While it used to be that wearing a "natural" (or Afro) was linked to empowerment, Rio inverted words like power in the service of a new, post-liberation logic. When Desmond invited viewers to break out of bondage, slavery was no longer associated with hot combs or lye relaxers (as it had been during the '60s), but with nappy-hea\dedness. In fact, as Desmond, Mercado and three models cheered "Rio! Rio" at the infomercial's conclusion, several actually had their fists raised in an eerie approximation of the Black Power salute. What Rio really marketed -- and what black women really bought -- was a sense of entitlement; permission to cultivate blow-hair unencumbered by antiquated notions of political correctness. In a word, Rio marketed freedom. Like every other black woman, I too have suffered hair trauma on more days than I care to remember. At age 9, I felt my best friend Sylvia's disgust when I told her I wasn't allowed to wash my own hair, and that my mother or grandmother did it for me once a week. My friend Sylvia was sitting across from me in the tub. Her face knotted into a grimace, and then she did the unthinkable. She dunked her blond bob under a running faucet and proceeded to lather up. I wanted so badly to abandon all logic and dunk my head as well. But how would I comb it out without the requisite lotions, oils, detangling sprays and ponytail holders? And poor Sylvia. She might never recover from witnessing the chaos that would be my hair the morning after.
At 11, I chopped it all off and tried to grow an Afro. It was 1976. I wanted to marry Michael Jackson. But since I was the biracial love child of a black mother and a white father, my hair already knew what I had yet to learn -- that it would forever live in the margins, too kinky to be straight and too straight to be kinky. After weeks of sleeping with a headful of hard rollers, I gave up. In junior high, I battled with relaxers, blow dryers, hot combs and curling irons. I was desperate for a Farrah Fawcett "feather." But by the time I reached 21, my politics and my hair were fundamentally opposed. When I decided to travel across Spain, North Africa and Central America, I did it in a blaze of kinks and Rasta-woman glory.
In graduate school at the University of California in Santa Cruz, I rented a cabin 15 miles from campus, in a small working-class town called Felton -- which I later learned had one of the largest concentrations of KKK members in the state. Little did I realize when I found Caribe, a woman who did braids near the Santa Cruz pier, that this latest hair experiment would be the most frightening of all. Whereas with one smooth braid running down my back, I might have "passed" (albeit unintentionally) in Felton, flinging 50 tiny ones to and fro changed the picture entirely. Wearing braids raised the question of race in ways that I'd never experienced.
The need to claim allegiances suddenly became immediate and non-negotiable. As I jogged the hilly roads surrounding my cabin, the "Portugal" T-shirt I wore took on new meaning for one neighbor, bothering him so much he tried to settle the question once and for all: Did the shirt mean I was "Spanish -- or what?" Wearing braids made me feel, for the first time in my life, indisputably black. Suddenly, I too fell victim to the intense, invasive scrutiny that darker-skinned black women and men must feel every day.
Where do I stand on hair now? To be seen as indisputably black in a place like Felton is terrifying. Then again, wearing my hair straight among some black people means a different kind of exile. But if one can lay claim to the privileges of whiteness by not scaring white folks with naps, and to those of blackness as well, by not flaunting "blow-hair," choosing to straighten seems a simple act of pragmatism. Like packing a lighter, less cumbersome bag for a long journey. Eventually, I returned to my Revlon and settled into my contradictions. More by reflex than conscious decision, I reasoned that as long as dominant white beauty standards prevailed in America, my "good" hair and light skin would continue to be hurtful no matter what I did. I was too tired to care.
So when the Rio rage hit, I told myself that I'd already conquered the hair demon. It was a lie, of course. Standing before a steamy bathroom mirror, I watched my hair frizz as it neared the requisite six-week "touch up" mark. And I too, like hundreds of thousands of black women across the country, flinched at the nappy monsters. Had I been unhappy with chemical relaxers, I surely would have fallen for the Rio pitch myself.
Lucky for me, I didn't. By September of 1994, just six months after its infomercial debut, the Better Business Bureau reported that Rio was amassing a history of "unsatisfactory business performance" including "failure to provide adequate instructions on mixing of the materials" and "difficulty contacting company representatives." Many customers complained that the solution was turning their hair green. Indeed, Rio later conceded that its original formulation was not suitable for red, blond or light-colored brown hair.
One irate customer claims she first noticed hair breakage after using Rio three times. Not only was she left with what she referred to as "zip-lock bags of hair all over the house," but her facial skin erupted in an allergic reaction as well. After repeated calls and complaints, the woman received limited compensation in the form of free weekly shampoo and conditioning treatments. But it wasn't enough. "I cherish my hair," the woman told me as she began to cry. "It affects my social life in every way you can name. These days, I sleep hair, and I dream hair \. \. \. . This kind of thing messes with your mind after a while." Afew years ago, Essence confronted its readers with the question, "Is Your Hair Still Political?" No matter how we try to couch our choices in terms of personal preference and individual freedom, the answer remains yes. Rio was able to make in excess of $10 million from black women largely because we remain a conflicted, subjugated people. Like white folk, we too believe that blond and straight and skinny are better, more beautiful. Unlike white people, however, we live the odd quandary of being both assimilated and estranged at once.
The meaning of hair for black women remains complicated. To me, black nationalists who wear their kinks as badges of authenticity, judging at every turn, are just as dangerous as processed beauty queens. The constant weight of our hair -- making us more or less black, or special depending on the day, the weather and the style of our do's -- is so heavy. How much longer must we shoulder the burden of having it represent all that we are?
The Rio ruling is a victory for those generally deemed powerless -- working-class black women in particular. But the unearthing of this one scare changes nothing about our collective understanding of beauty, desire, hair and race. Black hair remains problematic in that many of us continue to equate political legitimacy with style, while failing to admit that what works politically is not always pleasing before bathroom mirrors. I, for one, want the freedom to relax my hair. Just as I want the freedom to wear makeup. Or sometimes just smile. We should know by now that blackness is not something to be proven or upheld, defended or protected. Our blackness simply is. As it should be. Kristal Brent Zook, a free-lance writer in Los Angeles, writes frequently on politics and culture. This is adapted from a piece that appeared in the L.A. Weekly.