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Road Test: I tried getting a perm for my dead straight hair

WORDS BY KAYA MARTIN

Curly girlie.

I think I missed the lesson in girl school where I figured out what to do with my hair. I can’t do a french braid or use a curling wand. The only hair product I’ve ever owned is a cheap bottle of dry shampoo bought begrudgingly for a music festival.

On nights out, I’ll labour for hours on my makeup and outfit, run a brush twice through my hair, and rush out the door. I think part of the reason I’ve never been too interested in hair is because mine is completely fuss-free.


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It’s dead straight. There have been eras of my life where I didn’t even brush it because it would just fall effortlessly into place when I got out of the shower. Straight privilege, if I may. Although I am grateful for the simplicity of my hair, I always felt it was just that: simple.

No pizazz. No personality. So when a friend showed up to drinks looking like a fuzzy little lamb, I was intrigued. His hair had been transformed into a luxurious shag rug of curls. I had an urge to run my fingers through them.

When he told me it was the result of a perm, I was shocked. “What is this, the ’70s?” I teased. But I couldn’t deny it looked great. Maybe it was me who needed to get with the times.

This is how I found myself sitting in the chair of Grace Romanin, a senior hairstylist and trainer at the Victorian International Academy.  “The minute you say ‘perm’, a lot of people will just visualise old lady curly hair, but they’re not visualising the creative side of it,” she tells me.

The perm has a bad reputation. Aside from its association with the past, it takes a long time to do and can be dangerous if done wrong. As I was calling around on the hunt for one of the few salons in Melbourne that still offers the service, I heard a horror story about a client’s hair getting so fried that it snapped off. Not ideal! I must admit that made me a little uneasy. But for the sake of journalism, I persevered. 

Grace assured me that the chemicals used now are gentler than they were back in the day. I felt safe in her capable hands. After evaluating the condition of my hair (virgin, prime candidate for perming), she grabbed the largest size of roller and got to work as I chatted eagerly with her lovely team of student stylists.

One showed me a picture of her son, who had recently gotten a perm inspired by TikTok. We agreed that the platform has played a role in bringing perms back into the spotlight, and theorised a number of other influences: K-beauty, celebrity curly shags, ’80s movie remakes, a sense of post-lockdown freedom… Whatever the reason, the chemicals are back out and the permanent waves are once again waving. 

Grace wrapped a cotton strip around my hairline and smeared my face with protective cream. As she drizzled on the solution, it felt similar, in both sensation and smell, to someone peeing on the top of my head (not that I have experienced that, but one can imagine).

While we waited 20 minutes for the ammonium thioglycolate to break the protein bonds of my hair, the smell got stronger. My eyes watered a little. Despite the cream, my forehead burned and turned pink. I was all too ready for the timer to ding. When it did, I headed to the sink for a rinse and a couple of rounds of neutraliser to reform my hair into its new shape.

As we arrived at the mirror, I was both stunned and delighted. It was so voluptuous! So bouncy! I felt, for a moment, like Shakira. I thanked the team profusely and they sent me home with a can of vanilla-scented mousse and instructions not to wash my hair for 48 hours.

Throughout the day, I couldn’t stop staring at my own reflection. My hair having any shape at all was such a dramatic change. I liked it a lot, I just wasn’t used to it. There was a part at the back which puffed up a little and when I came home that night, I took out my brush and tried to flatten it. 

As any curly-haired person would know, this was a BAD idea. The more I brushed, the more frizzy it became, and I kept brushing to try and fix it. Then I stopped and I grabbed my phone, urgently typing ‘brushed perm is it ruined???’ into the search bar.

The answer was a resounding yes. Somehow, in all our happy chatter, I had missed one of the most important rules of the perm: no brushing. I went to bed feeling as deflated as my hair. I spent the next two days with my frizz clipped back and hidden from sight.

All I could do was hold out hope that when I was finally able to wash it, it would miraculously reform. I studied hard for tips and tricks. On the big day, I tried TikTok’s curly girl method, which involved drying my hair with a cotton T-shirt, scrunching it with a healthy dollop of mousse, and wrapping it in the shirt to set. 

To my abundant relief, it worked. My new curls looked just like they did at the salon. I will say, as I washed my hair for the first time, the texture felt different – a little thinner, stickier. But when my hair dried, it bounced right back, giving me the messy shag of my dreams. 

The perm wasn’t exactly the quick-and-easy curl solution that I had pictured, but with a little work, I now leave the house each day with a mop of long-lasting, playful waves. Plus, it’s forced me to learn the basics of hair maintenance, and I’m grateful for it. 

For more on perms, try this.

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