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Storyteller Lauren Poppen
Art Montes
Storyteller Lauren Poppen

As mammals, hair is something we all have in common - more or less. It's part of how we see ourselves and how we see one another. And, it is something we can control - more or less. This episode is a gathering of hair stories from Lauren Poppen, Ayanna Ellzey, Nathan Kilen, Bria Smith and Kim Shine. Kim is also the episode’s co-host, along with Joel Dresang. Sam Woods is the editor, and JJ Draper is the producer.

Episode transcript below from Ex Fabula's Real Storie MKE series.

Joel: Welcome to Real Stories, MKE, brought to you as part of Ex Fabula’s mission to connect Milwaukee through real stories. I'm Joel Dresang.

Kim: And I'm Kim Shine. What's up everybody? We are back for season five. Are you excited? Because Joel and I are very excited for this. And y'all already know that everyone has personal stories that are worth sharing. And since 2009, Ex Fabula has been cultivating storytelling through public workshops and community StorySlams, where folks get to share their true personal experiences on stage. And in this episode, we're keeping those vibes going. We are bringing you five of those hair-raising stories.

Joel: Yeah, that's right Kim, because our theme this episode is hair. As mammals, hair is something we all have in common - more or less.

Kim: I think I have more than you Joel.

Joel: You know, hair plays a role in identity. It's part of how we see ourselves, how we see one another. And it's something we can control - more or less.

Kim: Yeah. I mean, right now my hair is a mix. It's half blue and half silver.

Joel: Yes, I actually thought you were, like, doing that for the Detroit Lions.

Kim: Yeah. And I definitely said, “no, I am not”. This is just a vibe.

Joel: I didn't say that though, because I could tell it wasn't Honolulu Blue, which is the official color.

Kim: You know, you do have to be particular, and I can't believe you know that, but that's great.

Joel: I’m sorry that I do.

Joel: So, when I was 24, I had a dream, and it might have even been a recurring nightmare because I remember it so vividly. But in my dream, when I was 24, I got out of bed and went in the bathroom and looked in the mirror to see that I lost my hair.

Kim: Oh no!

Joel: And at the time I had a full head of strawberry blond hair. You know, with a little styling, it could have been almost as dashing as Sonny Crockett on Miami Vice. Yeah, but. Well, now my dreams have been realized. Yeah. Fate is a fickle barber. Yeah.

Kim: I think you look great!

Joel: Well. Thank you. You have to say that. I think - I suppose that there are things I can do, but I wear hats and all that stuff, but.

Kim: Yeah, but I mean, why? Do you – I don’t know what to say!

Joel: I'm thinking. Well, yeah, I know, it's just I have less control than you do. That's all I'm saying.

Kim: Yeah. I'm like, I wonder, okay, I mean this in the best way, but how much? How far out does your hair grow now? Because you still have a good amount.

Joel: Oh, yeah. Well, thank you. You know, as long as I want it to grow, I guess.

Kim: Oh man. Because there's…

Joel: There's no limit.

Kim: If you've never seen Joel, he keeps it relatively short. That's why I'm asking this. But I would love to see it just kind of blown out and flowing in the wind.

Joel: Okay. Yeah. We'll do that for you sometime. Yeah. and, you know, you have your own hair story, and we're going to get to that later. and what I love is that I wanted to do an episode on hair before I even heard your story.

Kim: I think that's dope. And I wanted to do an episode just because hair, honestly, is everything.

Joel: It is. Yeah, well. And not just to you. It's-

Kim: It's everybody!

Joel: A lot of people. Right? Yeah. So our first hair story comes from Lauren Poppen. Lauren shares her experiences of what happened when she changed her hair and how it resulted in mistaken identity, creativity and a feeling of empowerment. Here's Lauren!

Lauren: Going back ten or so years ago, I had taken time away from my job and decided to do a year of volunteer work, which is how I ended up in Milwaukee. I just never left. So, in that year, because I didn't have a real office job to go to, I'm an accountant. I decided, well, I can do whatever I want with my hair, for like, once in my life.

So, first I colored a green and then when it got towards the end of the year, I was like, you know what I've never done? Because I already had, like in college, I had colored hair and that sort of thing. So like, I have never shaved my head, so that was the time to do it. I was like, okay, well, it's May now, and I won't be getting a job until September.

And that's six months to grow out. And I've had short hair before, so I got time. So, I shaved my head. And the last part of this volunteer year was being a summer camp counselor for mostly high school kids. I think that might have been high school and middle school. I don't even remember anymore. So, our general attire for the summer was I wore a unisex size small t shirt, but I'm a rather small person, so a small t shirt is very baggy on me.

And I'm also not super well and but endowed in the upper body region. So, it's not very form fitting. And then I wore jeans with it. And so most of the summer, as a 25 year old woman, I was mistaken for a 14 year old boy rather than the leader of the camp, which, you know, in some cases it's really fun.

Like you're volunteering at the nursing home, and I had all these nice little old ladies say, “oh, if I was younger, I'd want to marry you. You're such a sweet young boy”. Or they try to set me up with their granddaughters. And it was- I mean, you just have to laugh when that happens. Like, you can't get offended.

And I recognized that you can look at those pictures. I looked like a 14-year-old boy, I'm not going to lie. So, the thing that was also different about that summer is besides my identity of like, what gender people mistook me for, this is also a Christian camp that I was leading, and they expected a lot of their camp counselors like- 16-hour days.

And yeah, one day a week you got to sleep in until eight in the morning. But it was kind of rough. I got sick a lot. I wasn't feeling all the like, “Jesus vibes” there anymore, and I was- I was expressing this to them along the way, saying like, hey, this is kind of making me not do the whole God thing anymore.

And they're like, “whatever, you got to get your work done”. And that felt a little wrong to me. So eventually, two weeks before the summer was over, I quit or was fired. I'm not really sure. I think I quit, but I was going to be fired if I hadn't quit. So, it was a rough summer, and after that I grew out my hair.

And then four years later, I was like, you know, I love having this long hair and it's great, but I want to shave my head at a time when I like, like myself because, you know, it seemed better. So, at that point, I was like living in Milwaukee. Loving things, had a new job, new place to live, all these great things.

And so I shaved my head and it was summertime and it was a hot summer, and it was wonderful. And I think- I know I didn't get mistaken as a boy as much, but I got pulled over by a police officer for having a license plate light out, and he pulled me over. I rolled down the window and he said, excuse me, sir, can I see your license?

And I said, “actually, I'm a girl”. And then he felt really bad, and I didn't get a ticket. Even though I didn't even have a license with me at the time, because I just forgot. I was dropping the babysitter off. And anyways, I didn't think I needed to bring anything with me. So sometimes it can be a benefit to be mistaken for the wrong gender because you can get out of tickets.

But anyways, so I enjoyed this experience so much then, that I- a month after shaving my head, shaved it again. And this was also during the time that I was able to, like take time away from working and explore creativity. I created a dress to put in the fashion show. I made this dress out of tea bags, y’know garbage and used dental floss.

It was all just- it was a really fun thing. But I got to do all of this stuff that I loved and have a shaved head and just feel, like, free and empowered and wonderful. And it was one, just one of the greatest summers I think I could remember. But this is like six years ago based on the length of my hair, so who knows, maybe it'll happen again.

Joel: That was Lauren Poppen. She shared her hair story at a 2020 Ex Fabula StorySlam with the theme “identity”. Kim, let's do some ultra shorts.

Kim: Yeah, it's about that time. Okay, so ultra shorts, if you guys don't remember or if you're new to the show, they are little stories, true stories that you write on a piece of paper at a slam. And this is if you don't want to get on stage, you can still get involved. So it'll be a 30 second story. You write it down and the host will read it.

Joel: Legibly. Write it legibly.

Kim: Yes. They have to be able to read it.

Joel: Okay, I have one. it's from anonymous. It says: “In eighth grade my friend got cancer and as an act of solidarity, me and a couple of friends shaved our heads. To this day, my mom doesn't know why I ever did it.” Adrian, wherever you are, I hope you're well.

Kim: Oh, that's really sweet.

Joel: That's nice.

Kim: Well, this one is from Alexis: “My most proud, my most sexy, my most me. I am braided up, braided bae, parted locs precision. Not just a hairstyle, but a vibe. A force for the culture that is Black Excellence.”

Joel: Here's one from Flash Gorski: “A friend and I were on our way to a party when an amazing creature ran by and into the gathering. Short blond hair, leather jacket. Is that a boy or a girl? My friend asked, breathless. I replied, ‘don't know. Don't care. Gonna get it’. And that's when I realized I was bisexual.”“By the way- it was a girl and I got her”.

Kim: Oh, I like that. Congratulations to you. So, Joel, one place that has long been at the core for community storytelling is barbershops and beauty salons. And so back in 2011, Ex Fabula hosted a story slam at a barber shop and salon in Milwaukee's Capital Heights neighborhood and that is near Hampton Avenue. Our next two stories are from that slam.

Kim: The first is from a then 12-year-old whose name is Ayanna Elzy, and she shares her hair story about the first time she got a relaxer. And if you've ever gotten one, you already know where she's going. Here's Ayanna.

Ayanna: Well, I'm 12 years old, so I got a relaxer when I was maybe in the fifth grade. It burns bad. It hurts a lot. It's one of the worst pains ever. But I look good, so it doesn't matter. But. Yeah. So, I went to the salon, and it was called Ivory Coast Salon. Still there. I went there and it was a lot of waiting.

It's a lot of waiting. When you go to a salon, it's sitting and sitting. My butt went numb from sitting. And so, I was sitting there, and then I finally go to the bowl and they wash my hair out, and then they put the relaxer in and it just starts hurting, like your head is on fire.

That's what it feels like. Like your whole head is just on fire. But then, she washes it out and I go sit down, and I go to the dryer, and I dry my hair out and everything. And then I sit in the bowl. I mean, I sit in the chair, she cuts it, and the scissors are really sharp.

And then she flat irons it. And it's like every time she, like, touches my head with the rollers. And it's a little hot. I'm lying. It was really hot; it was very hot. It burned. Yeah. And when you go to a beauty salon, there's a lot of talking and everything. So. lots of gossip. And when you leave a beauty salon, you find yourself talking a funny way.

“Did you hear what Denise said!?”


“She's stole a man. That's wrong.”

It's just the way of the salon. It's just how it works. Just how it goes. It's, like contagious. It's like smiling. Like laughing. I've got you all laughing in here. That's funny. (Ayanna forces laughter) Ha ha ha ha! See? It's working. Thank you.

Kim: That was Ayanna Elzey, and an update from her. She's said the salon at the StorySlam was owned by her uncle Ronnie, whose full name is Ronald Sherald and has since closed. Unfortunately, he passed away more than ten years ago and she has gone “natural” since that story. If you don't know what that means, that means she's no longer using a relaxer to straighten her hair and whatever it- however it comes out of her hair naturally or however it comes out of her head naturally. That is how she wears it.

Joel: I hope she still goes to a place like that to get sorts of stories like that.

Kim: Yeah.

Joel: All the voices she used, that was great.

Kim: I hope so, because she gave me flashbacks, let me tell you that.

Joel: At that same story slam in 2011, Nathan Kilen told this story about a two chair barbershop in his hometown where he used to sit with his dad and learn lessons about life, which he didn't appreciate until later. Here's Nathan.

Nathan: Hi. I grew up in a relatively small-town rural community. We had a barber: Bill’s. Well, It was actually Gordy's barber shop. Gordy's claim to fame, he could tell stories. You go in there and listen to Gordy talk, and all the guys are in there talking and B.S-ing and do what they do about, you know, “how's the football team doing?”

You know, “I want this Cadillac. I like this one. I like it better than Lincoln.” “What's going on with the farms? You know what's happening there?” He had a partner named Bill. Bill's claim to fame was that he can cut hair.

Gordy would be doing his work and talking. Somebody’ll come in. “How are you doing? Oops.”

And you'd get a little skinned back there or somebody’ll get a little trim and, you know, one here, and kind of here. And if you look like this in the mirror look pretty good. Bill will cut hair. My dad would take me there and we would play this game. Two guys are already getting their haircut, and there's one other person waiting.

And my dad would say, “well, do you want to be next to the guy in line, or do you want me to be next in line?” And so I’d analyze. I look at Gordy and like, okay, Gordy looks like he's wrapping up. Bill looks like he just started. So the next guy is going to get Gordy. So yes, I want to be right after that guy because I'll get Bill.

I mean, sometimes it would work, sometimes Gordy would get done. That next guy would come in and say, yeah, batting season, just take it off real quick. I got to be out of here in three minutes. Damn!

But I rarely, rarely got Gordy because my father would say, “yeah. I'll do it.” Looking back, there are certain lessons I didn't realize I was learning at that time. One, I was kind of learning how to assess a situation and make a best bet. And if I lost, I was mmmm. You know, you’re gonna get a bad haircut.

f you won, you got a good haircut. But my dad would always say, no, I'll take the bad haircut because I'm 13 at the time and I want, you know, the Don Johnson look, don't mess up, Sonny Crockett. And my dad was like, “I don't care”. And now that I don't have kids my own, but there's something kind of punk rock about not caring about how- how it is.

I kind of wish I can get a Gordy haircut just to show people and wear it with sort of a, you know, I got a goatee.

Kim: Thanks, Nathan. All right, Joel, it's time for some more ultra shorts.

Joel: Okay, here's one from anonymous. “It was an ordinary winter night driving through downtown Appleton for our family haircut. Driving in dad's car. Seat belts were optional. Railroad crossing lights blinking, train passing, car approaching, dad screaming. Crash front end gone. Train gone. Car starts. Dad driving with hand out the window because hood was up in the air five minutes late.”

“Same bowl haircut. Buckle up. Priorities.”

Kim: This one's from T-Dub. “Cucumber placed on my eyes. A mint facial mask rubbed over my face, a full body massage. Sounds relaxing. Right? And then it happened. The woman poured water over my hair and began to wash- to most and everyday experience. To a Black woman, it is a death threat. Cucumbers went everywhere, my dark skin turned red, and my long, silky locks now look like an Angela Davis afro water, a Black woman's silk press Kryptonite.”

Joel: You'd think that the hairdresser would have known better.

Kim: You know, that's what I'm saying.

Joel: Oh my goodness! Yeah. Okay. here's one from anonymous: “Driving to the Upper Peninsula, the U.P with my older brother. It's the 80s, and my brother had 80s hairband hair. We got a flat. I'm a guy who doesn't do car things. So, the long-haired brother was taking care of things. A passerby stopped to be a good Samaritan, stepped behind my brother and inspected his work, then quickly remarked to me, ‘you're going to make her do all that!?’”

“The six-foot, seven-inch, long-haired brother slowly stood up. The guy, here to help, back pedaled so quickly, saying, ‘oh, sorry, sorry!”

Kim: I like that one.

Joel: Judge a book by its cover right.

Kim: Our 4th hair story comes from Bria Smith. Now Bria participated in an Ex Fabula-Teen StorySlam back in 2019. The theme for those stories was GOAT, which is greatest of all time. And as Bria tells us, her encounter with one goat included.

Kim: A really, really…interesting, yet cool observation of her hair. Here's Bria.

Bria: So this summer I went on a, 2-month long tour and I toured 65 cities with the March for Our Lives. We did voter registration, we talked about anti-gun violence. We had town halls and panels and all these cool discussions of young people, and we went to all these different places. And I had an AR 15 pointed at me in Texas, because Texas is own country, am I right?

No. Okay. No. Laughter. So, throughout that entire experience, I met a lot of cool people politicians, celebrities, and I was always brought back to one memory of when I met a GOAT, Harry Belafonte, in his New York office in New York. It was really, really cool. I remember him just talking about all the things that he did, his, coalition work with MLK, and how he was the first black man to ever kiss a white woman on television.

So, he did like landmark history, like he was like a notable person. And it was really interesting to see how cool he was. He’s relaxing in his like hoodie, you know, just sitting back drinking iced tea in a hoodie, just talking about all the cool work that he did. And I was just like, “yeah, you're awesome!” And it was really interesting.

But I remember one specific moment just sitting in Harry Belafonte's office and him just saying all these really cool things to me. I had like this, like this, like twisted up bang, and then a scarf on my head. And it was it was a rush that morning, but it was okay. And I remember going up to Harry Belafonte after a meeting just being like, oh my God, you're a great person.

Like you're a pivotal activist, like you do such great work for all these people. You- you just push movements forward and you donated so much money. This is right. Like you're awesome.” And he just touched my twist and he said, “black girl magic”. And I was like, oh, that's all you have to say. You're a GOAT. But okay, black girl magic.

And then I walked away and I was like, I'm gonna remember that moment until I die. Yeah.

Kim: That was Bria Smith. Now, we don't have an update from her. But I laughed so hard at this story. I mean, she had great expectations. And yeah, now she has probably an even better story.

Joel: Yes, yes. And finally, Kim. Yes. As I said, I was thinking about hair stories and how people often talk about their hair or someone else's hair and how much of a fuss bad hair can be, and how great it feels to have a good hair day. And then you shared your hair story at this 2023 story slam, which had the theme fear.

Joel: So, with no further, a-do, you see what I'm doing there? here's Kim Shine.

Kim: A few years ago, I used to work in news, TV news, and I was in a whole different city. I was in South Bend, Indiana. If anybody knows about South Bend, Notre Dame, all that great stuff. And if, you know, with the news, especially television, although we really care about your stories, we want to make sure it's truthful, factual, all that good stuff is educational.

Image matters. Right. So, I'm really not a person who likes wigs or anything. My dad would always say “where are your natural…?” Whatever it is. So it's my nails. I would pay my nails, rainbow colors, everything. He would get mad. I would still do it because it was great. But in TV you got to be a little bit more calm, right?

Kim: So, with my hair, I would normally wear it straight like this, which is ironic because I just got my hair done earlier today. So, this is like kind of a full circle moment at the time, and that'll really make sense once I finish this story. So, I went back and forth between wearing my hair straight and then wearing it curly because I got like natural curls.

Kim: It's kind of big when it wants to be and when the weather is rainy or bad or whatever it gets even puffier and sometimes, I can't really control it. So eventually I caved-in and I said, hey, I'm just going to get a wig, and I want it to be as close to my hair as possible. First time doing this and it was great.

It looked literally just like this. It was just a little bit longer, super natural. So, I'm on the air, I'm reporting, I'm anchoring, I'm doing all the things and it's like, oh man. Like I, you know, I look like myself. And that that's perfect, right? Because for me, looks don't matter. I'm telling you the story. I'm out here reporting for you and telling your stories, and that's what matters to me.

But I still look good, right? So, the makeup.

Kim: Everything looks really, really, really good.

I'm impressed, because I don't really do makeup either. Right? You know, that's it. Dad said keep a natural. And hey, that's really what I do. So, one day, I have my wig on. I don't really take it off because it's one of those wigs that has like, the I don't even know what it's called, but it looks it looks real.

So, you put the - spray, the little glue on there, the hair cap, and then you put the wig on and it's like you can't take it off. So, I will leave it on for, you know, a few days. And think everything was fine until I took it off one time and my hair started coming out and.

Kim: Right, right. So. my hair came out on the sides.

Kind of like I had a mohawk and it was so bad. I was so terrified because, I mean, like me coming up, I do a lot of my own things, you know, so I was used to doing my own hair, but I, you know, I'm used to getting haircut and all that. So, because I messed it up. But my hair has never fallen out, like that was a big deal.

And again, I'm on TV.

So that's really bad. So, I have two bald patches on my head and I call- I call my friend Jasmine. She's been doing my hair ever since I was in college. She's the bigger sister of my two, twin roommates or whatever. And we're like a huge family, so I'm like, “Jazz, I don't have any hair, and I need to know what to do.”

“Like, is it gonna grow back? Like, can I cover it up?” Because you really couldn't see it when my hair was down, but I knew it was there. And then if the wind blew, you knew it was there.

So, I had to figure that out.

She was like, “oh, don't worry about it. Just put on, you know, some oil and massage it and things like that. You'll be okay. It will eventually grow back.” I'm very skeptical, very curious about things, probably, which is why I'm in the industry that I'm in. So, I did not believe her. I'm like, this is never going to go back.

I'm just going to be bald. We will accept it and maybe I'll get a tattoo. I don't know, we'll figure it out.

But as you can see, my hair did grow back. I don't even know how long it took it. Maybe it took about six months. And you know what? Yeah, I think I was here. Yeah, I was here. I was going to say I was in another city, but no, I was in South Bend. and it did grow back.

And years later, I have hair. And I got it done today not knowing that I'd be up here. But you see that it's back.

And one last thing. I have not worn that wig since it is still in my closet, and I don't think I'll ever wear it again.

Joel: So, is that a story that you just came up with at the last minute, or had you been thinking the theme “fear”? And this is something that-

Kim: It was at the last minute. I believe that we needed some more, more telling. Yes. Right. And I was like, man, “what can I think of about a time that I was actually scared about something?” and it just popped into my head and I was like, oh my God, I still have the wig.

My hair is back, but my hair straight. Let me tell this story and see if people laugh. I'm still traumatized to this day, but I, I think in the story I said that I didn't. I would never wear the wig again, but I've changed my mind since telling that.

Joel: So, you still have the wig. Why?

Kim: I still have the wig. Because, you know, one day, even though that experience happened, one day I might have a bad hair day. Or one day I might just not want to do my hair. And now I know what to do.

Joel: Sure. Okay.

Kim: You know, traumatized, but I'm informed.

Joel: Yeah, well, Kim, not to give you the brush, but it's time for us to put a bow on this episode of the brush. But don't pull your hair out. Ex Fabula has been around for more than 15 years, so there's plenty of storytelling goodness, including stories on audio and video at exfabula.org

Kim: Yeah, and I hope you guys are having as much fun with this episode as we are. The Ex Fabula-website lists upcoming storytelling workshops and slams, and we really do hope you'll join us at an event and maybe even share one of your own tales. You can also connect with Ex Fabula on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, and also you can listen to more Real Stories MKE wherever you get your podcasts.

Joel: Thanks to everyone who makes this program possible, including funders like the Milwaukee Arts Board and the Herzfeld Foundation, Ex Fabula staff, the storytellers, our producer JJ Draper, and of course, audio engineer Sam Woods.

Kim: For Real Stories MKE, my name is Kim Shine.

Joel: And I am Joel Dresang. Remember, everybody has stories worth sharing. Think about telling yours. Thanks for listening.

The hosts of "Real Stories MKE" are Joel Dresang and Kim Shine.