My Bizarre Reign as New York’s King of “Virgin Russian Hair”
Complete strangers wiring me $15k on the spot, smuggling blond ponytails across the Atlantic, secret rendezvous under the overpass — I just may have had the weirdest side hustle of all time.
I never aspired to become a player in New York’s exclusive and incestuous world of “Russian hair” wigs and extensions, where long silky blond tresses sourced from the scalps of young Slavic women are “hairy gold” for a certain segment of the city’s beautiful people. I always thought I was destined for more highbrow pursuits, having graduated from Columbia University, then built a journalism career in Eastern Europe, for a time as editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Playboy, then eventually editing and publishing a successful fashion magazine, B.East, for almost a decade. But when the magazine collapsed during the financial crisis of 2010, I was penniless and stuck in Kyiv, the crumbling capital of Ukraine, where I had moved at the urging of a local oligarch whose big promises about investment and rebranding turned out to be as empty as the bankrupt nation’s finances. I was single and pushing 40. The resulting midlife crisis called for desperate measures.
I considered working as a journalist again but didn’t fancy being on the losing end of a dying profession. I was burnt out and ready for a radical and lucrative break from my penniless past. Ukraine’s freewheeling and corrupt capital was a hustler’s paradise, full of male expats brokering dodgy deals to fund their glamorous lifestyle in the boozy city often billed as having the most beautiful women in the world. A Danish friend sold wood from the country’s lush forests to Scandinavia, while a New Yorker I knew charged Ukrainians hefty fees for the fake promise of getting an American green card. Broke, disillusioned and tired of being the smartest — and yet poorest — guy in the room, I decided to take a stab at emulating these hustlers.
I’d read an article in The Guardian about the furious global demand for extensions made from Russian hair, and I was intrigued. I wondered if there was a way to get in on this lucrative business. An American friend was selling Ukrainian sunflower oil and linen on the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba, and he suggested I start there. So I put an advertisement up, naming my new business WhiteRussianHair in a nod to the famous cocktail, and stating that our company was offering gorgeous, blond Russian ponytails. I sourced pictures from around the internet and was able to make my listing look as legitimate as others on the site. I knew nothing yet about wigs or hair extensions and had no idea about the difference between “Russian” or “Indian” or “Chinese” hair mentioned in the other listings, but that didn’t seem to matter.
Within a week of placing the ad, I was contacted by a prestigious hair salon in Melbourne, Australia. The owner said that he had been scammed by other unscrupulous hair sellers and was looking for someone he could trust. We spoke briefly on the phone. He seemed to be impressed that I was an American living in Ukraine and agreed to wire $15,000 to my personal account for a first order.
It was more cash than I had seen in years. Absolut Vodka had once paid as much for a back cover ad, but we also had to create, print and distribute an expensive paper magazine across Europe. By comparison, this hairy deal felt like winning the lottery.
Now I just had to get some blond locks.
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