Why you should care
Because behind this obsession is a character to match it.
Back in 1956, there was a hairdresser named Leila Cohoon from Independence, Missouri. Before we go any further, you should know the proper pronunciation: Lee-eye-luh, from Missour-uh. Now that that’s out of the way, you should also understand that the young hairdresser set off on a spring day that year with the intention of buying a pair of Easter shoes.
But then she spotted a hair wreath in a storefront window at the Country Club Plaza. It was like lightning hit. “I bought it instead,” the 86-year-old Cohoon says. And so started what would blossom into a collection that numbers more than 750 hair wreaths, as well as more than 2,000 pieces of hair jewelry. “My husband says it was the most expensive piece in the world … because look what it started!” Cohoon exclaims.
Indeed. The only hair museum in the world is in this exurb of Kansas City — at least it’s the only such museum according to Cohoon, and nobody has challenged her yet. For $15 ($7.50 for seniors), visitors can mosey through the modest three rooms that contain everything from Cohoon’s first purchase, that antique Austrian wreath, to locks snipped from celebrities, including Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy. Leila’s Hair Museum has been featured on Mike Rowe’s CNN show Somebody’s Gotta Do It and is set to be the centerpiece of an episode of Ozzy Osbourne’s A&E reality show in the near future. The museum contains other oddities, such as hair rings and lachrymatory vials, vessels used in Roman times to hold mourner’s tears.
“It’s a way of connecting with the past. And with family,” Cohoon says.
Some people say, ‘Ew, that freaks me out.’ But I say, ‘No, you don’t understand.’
Ron Potter, president, Vaile Victorian Society
One room is decked with hair wreaths, including one created from the hair of more than 150 people, whose listed names form a follicle family tree. “It’s genealogy done with human hair,” Cohoon explains. The wreaths are often paired with portraits of their former bearers. “Some people say, ‘Ew, that freaks me out.’ But I say, ‘No, you don’t understand — it’s not just a bunch of things from dead people, it’s history. It’s really well-done family history,’” says Ron Potter, president of the Vaile Victorian Society in Independence and a frequent visitor at Cohoon’s museum.
Another room is dominated by a celebrity wall. There are Presley’s lustrous locks, cut right before he headed into military service. There’s some from George Washington, whose hair ring can be seen at Arlington Cemetery too, and a broach with hair from Jenny Lind, the 19th-century “Swedish Nightingale” of Barnum & Bailey fame. In fact, Cohoon’s brushes with fame haven’t just been hair brushes. She once wrote letters to then radio host, and future president, Ronald Reagan, whom she met five times. When Osbourne stopped by recently, she didn’t even ask before scissoring a few strands right off the nape of his neck. Cohoon also jokes that she has some of Michael Jackson’s hair from the day it caught fire in the infamous 1984 Pepsi commercial.
Is it worth the journey to the Kansas City area to see hair art? Although Cohoon says people have traveled from as far as Paris (France, not Missouri, she’s quick to add) to visit, it might be better tacked onto a larger trip. Not everyone will quite get the cult of the cuticle. Aspects of the collection, such as hair from “the first White child” born in Wisconsin, might leave the casual visitor skeptical.
But if you don’t come for the hair, come for the character. Despite being an octogenarian, Cohoon has hardly slowed down — she still teaches classes at the museum on how to create hair wreaths and owns a nearby hairdressing school. Her first book on the art form was published a few years ago, and she is working on a second and a third: one full of photos of people donning hair jewelry, the other for teachers looking to guide students in the practice.
Her biggest lament? People don’t know enough about the stuff sprouting from their heads. “Hair grows at a rate of half an inch a month,” she says. “There are millions of people who don’t know that! It’s knowledge that they all need to know, yet they don’t.”