What do Jon Bon Jovi, Bradley Cooper in American Hustle and Corrie's Deirdre Barlow have in common? Godawful perms, that's what. And I just got one. But before you recoil in horror, hear me out.
Humans, eternally dissatisfied with our lot, are all guilty of wanting what we don't have – myself included. I've got wavy-at-best hair, and I spent my youth scorching it with curling tongs in the hope of having the same effortlessly tumbling locks as my friends (of course, they wanted my more manageable, smoother hair). I didn't know how to style it properly and curled each chunk in the same direction, from the root right to the tip, into the tight ringlets of King Charles II, rather than the nonchalant waves of a beach babe.
Forever in search of the perfect curl, my Instagram saved page is brimming with women who are blessed with them naturally. You'll find countless photos of Mica Argañaraz's halo-like waves, Cris Herrmann's rad '70s curly shag cut, Sirena Warren's thick mane of curls, all of which I've tried to emulate through various styling tricks, from plaiting my hair wet to liberally applying salt spray and air drying. Nothing quite stuck, though, so when I saw that mega hair stylist Luke Hersheson's eponymous London salon was championing the return of the perm, I was intrigued.
I know you'll immediately think of the cursed perms from the '80s, all static, uniformly corkscrew and totally unnecessary (everyone had them, from Dolly Parton and Cher to George Clooney and Twisted Sister), but it's 2019 and haircare has improved tenfold since then. Plus, our perspective has changed; while we once thought the '80s was the one decade that would never be revisited, it's enjoying a renaissance across all fields, from fashion and beauty to music and film – let's be real, Deirdre Barlow looks straight out of a current Alessandro Michele Gucci campaign.
I booked a consultation with hair stylist Libby Carlton at Hershesons' new space in Harvey Nichols, to see if a perm was the only way to achieve my dream waves. The salon has designed two treatments: the Maxi Perm and the Hair Thickening Braid Perm, and Libby said I was the perfect candidate for the first thanks to a lack of bleach in my hair. She won't give perms to anyone with bleached hair (sorry blondies) or with heat-damaged or heavily dyed hair, as damage on top of damage will royally ruin your lengths.
I showed her my references, which ranged from Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally to Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. My more contemporary wish list of curly 'dos included model Elif Gonen, photographer Natalee Ranii-Dropcho and fashion editor Alyssa Coscarelli, who all have their natural curls in face-framing shag cuts. Fortunately, Libby felt this look was achievable as, thanks to my propensity for changing up my hair every few months, I had a shag cut already, with layers and a curtain fringe prime for perming.
With Libby happy that my hair was in good condition, I came in the following day to take the plunge. Still slightly nervous, I had some pressing questions: would the curls be tight ringlets? Thankfully, no. The technique has changed, and curling on an angle means the waves look more natural. You can also choose the size of the rods, so the smaller you go, the tighter the wave. Libby used tighter ones towards the top of my head, and went wider the lower down she went, which gave my roots more lift and ends more bounce.
Would the grow-out be awkward? Libby assured me that the curls tend to drop slightly within two weeks, so rather than that poker straight roots and super curly ends look, the grow-out would be more natural and wavy than extreme. She actually encouraged me to go tighter on the rods, as previous clients who have been apprehensive have gone for the wider ones and been disappointed at the waves loosening up after two weeks. This is definitely something to consider if you book.
I had the rods applied to my dry hair before the chemical liquid, which breaks down your hair's bonds, was poured on top. Left for about 15 minutes, Libby then rinsed the liquid out while the rods were in place, before towel-patting my hair and then soaking it in the binding agent, which rebuilds the hair in its new curled form. Once that had been on for seven minutes, conditioner was added and rinsed, then the water wrung out by hand.
I was immediately thrilled. Libby advises air-drying over using a diffuser, which can encourage frizziness, so she applied Hershesons' new Almost Everything Cream, £10, a one-size-fits-all product that acts as a primer, shine-booster, frizz-fighter, texturiser, tamer, curl-definer, conditioner and mask. She rubbed a pea-size amount between her palms before gently scrunching the curls up, rather than raking through, which she said would break up the curls and again mean frizziness. By the time I got home it had air-dried into a glorious collection of soft curls.
I was told not to wash my hair for three days but was allowed to revive bed-bashed hair with a liberal spritz of water. From there, it's simple: wash as and when, and use a weekly mask to deep-condition. I'd been advised by naturally curly-haired friends to avoid a regular towel and use a microfibre one instead, to use argan oil or anything with natural ingredients to avoid that '00s crunchy look, and to tame with water and serum throughout the day.
On day four I washed my hair with Bumble and Bumble's Curl Sulphate-Free Shampoo, £24.50, and Conditioner, £26.50, before liberally applying Moroccanoil Treatment, £32.85. Rather than raking through my hair to define the curls individually, I find that shaking my head from side to side (like a wet dog) makes them fall into their natural place. The summer heat has meant that by lunchtime my hair is about 1000% bigger than it was in the morning, so I've filled a spray bottle with water to spritz on and shake loose again. For me, scrunching my fringe up with a little Ouai Wave Spray, £22, and Kevin Murphy Motion Lotion, £23, helps define the shape, too.
The curls have loosened up since the day I had the treatment, and I can't wait to see them move further into beach waves. I've already got my next appointment booked. All hail the return of the perm.
Perm treatments at Hershesons start at £150.
This article was written prior to salon closures and enhanced safety precautions as a result of COVID-19.