Book Excerpt: 'Hair! Mankind's Historic Quest To End Baldness'

MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. - It was just the way John Capps likes it. It was Saturday night, the climactic finale of his 27th annual Bald-Headed Men of America convention in Morehead City, North Carolina. All the top honors-including the coveted "Ben Franklin Lookalike" award, the "Most Kissable Bald Head" award and the "Most Distinguished Bald Head" award-had been handed out and now 80 bald men and their spouses were on their feet, singing along with a gospel band called The Believers in a slightly altered version of the hymnal "Let It Shine."

"This li'l head of mine, I'm gonna let it shine," the bald men sang, the fluorescent light bouncing off their dynamic domes. "Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!"

This is not the way bald headed men are "supposed" to behave. Bald men are not supposed to be proud of their shiny pates. They are not supposed to lead well-adjusted lives with satisfied wives and happy kids.

Bald men are not supposed to have a good time.

That's, at least, what those of us with hair seem to think. At the quaint New Bern, N.C., for example, when I told the clerk at the Budget car rental desk that I was going to the Bald-Headed Men of America convention, she just laughed. The very notion was foreign to her; that bald men would be getting together - and in public, no less.

You can't blame her, what with the bald industrial complex in academia and on Madison Avenue portraying bald men as depressed loners who pathetically spend nearly $2 billion a year on toupees (rugs), hair transplants (plugs) and hair medications (drugs).

In study after study, baldies are typically rated as uglier, less friendly and less "good" than men with hair. One study - my favorite, for personal reasons - showed that hairier men are believed to have longer penises. Another study even showed that bald men are far less likely to get elected (although the study unfortunately said nothing about the penis sizes of our highest elected officials).

No matter where you look - in the Bible, the history books, or even to the TV Guide - bald men are being run down and ridiculed. Whether it was Samson becoming weak after losing his hair, Caesar shamefully covering up his naked scalp or the Visigoths scalping their defeated foes as a final humiliation, hair loss and low self-esteem have been linked for a very long time. Now, it's so much a part of American culture that nobody questions it when a bald man's low self-image forms the subtext of virtually every episode of "Seinfeld."

So it was in such an anti-bald context that John Capps founded The Bald-Headed Men of America in 1972. Since 1979, the group has had its annual gathering every year in Morehead City (because more head equals less hair - get it?).

Capps, now 59, is the fourth generation of men in his family to go bald, but, unlike most men, Capps was always proud of his visible vertex. At college, he even got elected to the student council on the slogan "Vote for Bald John!" But after college, Capps didn't get a salesman job because he was considered too old.

"It was the first time I had ever been denied an opportunity based on how I looked," he said. "I said to myself, 'Hey, there is nothing wrong with being bald, so we need to say 'Skin is in!' "

Now, this was back in 1973 and skin was definitely not in. This was the era of hair, hair and more hair, not the age when Michael Jordan turned his own hair loss into the biggest thing since double-sided toupee tape. This was the 1970s! The Sexual Revolution was on - and men without hair were definitely on the enemy side.

"I went bald in the late '60s when I was 21," said Walker McWee, attending his seventh-straight convention. "If you were balding, you were considered too old to date."

Back then, McWee did something that shames him today: He actually bought a hairpiece, his concession to the brutal capitalism of the dating market. But he threw it away after only two weeks.

"I decided, if they didn't like me for me, I didn't want to know them," he said with pride.

To create the Bald-Headed Men, Capps sought out people like McWee. Networking like the Chamber of Commerce director he once was, Capps cajoled businessowners to let him put brochures into racks at rest stops, hotels and restaurants up and down the so-called "Crystal Coast."

When a reporter came to a neighboring town to cover the national hollering contest, he heard about Capps and returned a few months later to write up a story about the Bald-Headed Men. That started the media bandwagon rolling and Capps increasingly found himself called upon to fill the hungry maw of the Donahue-Geraldo-Morton Downey Jr. circuit.

"Next thing I knew, the producer of 'Real People' called me up and asked where the next bald convention would be. Now, I didn't have a convention planned, so I said, 'Right here in Morehead City,' and I even made the 'more head/less hair' joke. Of course, I was just winging it. So he said, 'Great. We're going to put you on our show.' Well, at that point, we had to have a convention."

Capps said his group now "boasts more than 30,000 members" - although such numbers seem to be just that, a boast, when you're sitting in two adjacent conference rooms at the Morehead City Hampton Inn with a mere 35 bald guys. But the Bald-Headed Men of America make up for their questionable numbers with enthusiasm, puns and willing interviews.

The media is as big a part of Capps's annual gathering as the 25 or so regulars and 10 newcomers who show up. Thirty-five bald men and their families do not a revolution make - but when their shiny pates are broadcast across the country, it feels like a movement.

Capps is more showman than crusader, more Barnum than Buchanan. His goal is not to establish a bald pride movement or foment a revolution. Capps just wants to have a good time with his friends and remind them that they're just as good, just as manly as other men.

Here it comes, the sex thing. With so much bald pride on display, there's naturally plenty of boasting about the long-proclaimed side benefits to bald men.

"See this?" McWee said, burnishing his head with a piece of chamois. "This is a solar panel for a sex machine."

The evidence is only anecdotal.

"I've never dated a bald man before and now I'll never go back," said Linda Jacobs, who accompanied her baldie boyfriend David Stevenson. "Look at that head! Touch it, kiss it, caress it."

When I declined (much to Stevenson's relief), Jacobs said there's nothing better than lathering up her man's head and shaving it down. "It's fun and sensual," she said.

There's your slogan for next year's convention: Bald Men: Changing America's Women, One Head at a Time.

Friday was media day, and a contingent of baldies hit the studios of 107.3 FM ("the voice of Carteret County!") to wave the flag. Host Ben Ball claimed that his own baldness didn't bother him, but he resisted several invitations to come to the convention. He has a great scalp for radio, that guy.

Like any media personality not quite ready for prime time, Ball didn't know what to ask the bald men, so he merely lobbed a softball about how baldness wasn't cool until Michael Jordan.

McWee hit it out: "Michael Jordan couldn't have made it cool until we made it cool. We were waiting 15 years for the rest of the world to catch up with us."

McWee is an interesting character. Overweight, bald, asthmatic, he is hardly the stereotypical vision of an activist. But when he's not celebrating the bald, he's also a champion of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. McWee's flag waving (and we're talking the Confederate flag here) can get intentionally overbearing, but whether he's talking about being proud of his baldness or being proud of his ancestors who fought in the Confederate army, all he's really saying is this is who he is.

Back at the hotel, Capps was doing interviews of his own. He's been interviewed so many times - by the BBC, PBS, the Discovery Channel, "20/20," "Nightline," etc - that he barely even waits for interviewers to finish asking their questions before he launches into his made-for-TV patter.

"When we started 27 years ago, if you were bald, they wouldn't hire you," he told a local reporter. "There are a lot of people who don't want us to go bald because it's a billion-dollar industry selling us combs, shampoos, hair pieces, hair transplants and hair medication."

Anything else, the reporter asked nervously.

"You know, I don't have anything against a bald man who feels he needs to wear a toupee or get a hair transplant, I really don't. But we're offering those guys an alternative that's much cheaper: acceptance. Those toupee ads say, 'We'll make you look younger.' Who wants to look younger? The only people who think we need to look younger are the people who are trying to sell us products to make us look younger."

Later, he conducted what is shamelessly billed as "The Bald Man Photo-Op" at his eponymous printing shop on Bald Drive. To help make everything quick and easy, Capps has installed a three-level riser at the perfect angle under the "Bald Drive" sign so photographers can capture the bald heads, the sign and the "Morehead City" water tower all in the same frame.

"OK, let's moon 'em," Capps said, instructing his fellow baldies to lean forwards, so that their naked heads are the dominant feature of every photo. When I aimlessly flipped through Capps's old photo albums, I saw that he has staged the same photos every year.

The Bald-Headed Men of America is billed as a self-help group, but no one attending this three-day Baldstock needs any help dealing with their natural condition.

"I'm a man of science, so I realize it's futile to try to cure something that is natural," said Bruce Wartham, the Ben Franklin lookalike, an environmental chemist. Awkward by disposition, Wartham needs his fellow baldies, if only because the sitting around and talking this weekend provide the most affectionate conversations he'll have all year.

"This kind of thing is very important for a guy like Bruce," Capps said. "It's the only place he can be himself without anyone judging him - because we've all been there in one way or another."

The Bald-Headed Men of America "convention hall" is actually two Hampton Inn conference rooms. In advance, Capps has strung up plastic flags of the world, like you'd see at the opening of an ice cream parlor, to lend an international feel.

It's telling in this Internet age that the Bald Poobah of the Bald-Headed Men doesn't even maintain a website. While more and more Americans seek out like-minded souls on the World Wide Web - and, indeed, there are bald pride Websites such as balditude.com and powerbalding.com - Capps is striking a blow against digital America, preferring the glare bouncing off his conventioneers' heads to virtual reality. His "chat room" is Morehead City's Hampton Inn, not some digitized home page with photos of other people having fun.

The convention has no set agenda except that everyone gets up on stage at some point, if only to be kissed on the head, receive a proclamation or accept an award like "Best Bald Headed Smile" or "Best Fringes." Like a classic roast, the microphone is open and Capps is a generous toastmaster who doesn't care who gets credit for the joke as long as everyone is laughing.

Subsequently, many of the jokes are of the inside variety, such as when longtime member Frank Baumet offers the "Room 101 Report," a reference to the room where one member and his wife conceived their first child. Now, any time someone wants to mention sex, all he has to do is say, "Room 101."

Capps then called upon Jim Dyer of Wake Forest, N.C. to reiterate the group's mission. "We do have an important purpose," Dyer said, pausing long enough to indicate that for the life of him, he doesn't know or care what that "important" purpose is.

Finally, he turned around to read the text off one of Capps's posters. "Oh yeah, we are a 'self-help, service club founded in 1972 dedicated to "Bald is Beautiful." ' "

But later, Dyer, a minister, led his slicktopped congregation in a prayer of thanks to God for "making us in Your image" - an interesting concept in a world where the Lord and his Son are unfailingly depicted as possessors of a truly heavenly head of hair.

And the climax of the convention was, of course, the judging. That's when "head" judge Wessel got to do her thing, loading up her lips with bright red lipstick and kissing every scalp in sight.

Everyone feigned annoyance - but none of the men removed the residue of the kiss for hours, preferring to wear them as badges of honor.

Book Excerpt: 'Hair! Mankind's Historic Quest To End Baldness' | News