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Beauty in the Eye of Katrina

Times Staff Writer

Sandy Marie’s cellphone won’t stop ringing these days, and everyone who gets through has two questions.

First: Are you OK?

And then: When can I come in to get my color done?

Marie understands; she’s been styling hair in the South for 28 years. It doesn’t surprise her that after women made sure their loved ones were safe, after they secured food and shelter, some of them longed above all for a cut and blow-dry.

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“Some people may call it vanity,” Marie said. “But here, it’s just a way of life.”

Though they acknowledged that it seemed trivial in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, women browsed cosmetic counters at newly reopened stores, washed lingerie with their first load of laundry and scrambled to borrow appropriate shoes for church. They felt a deep need to look their best, they said, even while walking through devastated neighborhoods.

“It’s embarrassing to admit that I’m worried about how I look when so many people have died. But it’s not vanity. It’s our weapon against all this,” said Mary Jane Crosby, 45, who was happy to find her shade of mascara at a CVS Pharmacy in Pascagoula. “I just need to feel normal, and this helps, silly as it might seem.”

The few beauty salons that were open were booked solid. Among the shelves of shampoo and conditioner, women could talk and even laugh, and forget Katrina’s toll amid reassuring rituals of lathering and rinsing.

All around them, the familiar had become the surreal. A yacht rested upside down in a yard. Church pews were strewn across the beach. A whole neighborhood of roofs was stacked in a tottering pile. Amid such chaos, smoothing on a coat of lipstick -- or adding honey highlights -- didn’t feel like primping.

“It’s a way to reclaim a sense of normalcy in an environment where absolutely nothing is normal,” said Amy Haulsee, 45, an obstetrics nurse. “It’s the little luxuries that make you feel human again, and give you the confidence to think, somehow we’ll all get past this,” she said.

The women who packed Natalie & Friends Hair Studio last week were nearly all white, middle-class, middle-age professionals. But the impulse to look good transcends boundaries of race, class and age.

At a black church in Biloxi the first Sunday after the hurricane, Bernadette Warick, 54, lamented that she hadn’t found a hat to wear to Mass. The storm had nearly ripped the roof off Our Mother of Sorrows. The priest was using a lawn chair as an altar. Warick herself had lost everything she owned.

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Still, she felt embarrassed that her head was bare.

“I want things to be proper,” she said.

“This is a society that puts a great stress on etiquette, manners and performing roles. Even in the midst of a terrible disaster, it’s still expected that you perform your role,” said Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

When residents from New Orleans were evacuated to the Houston Astrodome last week, they lined up until 4 a.m. to get their hair cut, colored and curled by volunteer stylists.

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“It must be something deep in our DNA,” Wilson said. “Even though the South has changed so much, it’s still passed on from one generation to the next.”

That was evident at Natalie & Friends.

Though this coastal town of 17,000 about 75 miles east of New Orleans took a heavy blow from Katrina, Natalie Schmidt’s strip-mall salon escaped with minimal damage. She still had her black leather chairs, her zebra-print capes, the celebrity magazines dishing on Britney’s upcoming baby.

Most important, she had hot, filtered water, stacks of fresh towels and vanilla-scented candles to mask the smell of rotting garbage that pervades the coast. As soon as power was restored Wednesday, Schmidt scribbled “OPEN” on a neon-orange poster board and propped it against the marquee outside.

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When Marie, a longtime friend, called to say that her salon had been destroyed -- but that she had salvaged her scissors and a favorite curling iron -- Schmidt asked her to come over and start working.

“Please come,” she said. “I think we’re going to be busy.”

Within the hour, the place was buzzing.

“They kept coming in, sort of dazed, all these women asking me: ‘Are you really open? I heard you were open. Please, are you open? I need to get in now,’ ” Schmidt recalled.

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Her first day open, she and two other stylists handled 16 clients. The second day, they had already done 16 cuts by 10 a.m. All day, every day since, they’ve been booked solid, too busy even to take their customary Monday off.

A few men have stopped by -- some dragged in by their wives, who insisted that a warm shampoo would make them less grumpy. Most asked for buzz cuts, short and quick.

The women were different. Relaxing as they lay back for their first good shampoo in 10 or 12 days, they asked for eyebrow waxes and perms, highlights and layer trims, while gossiping about whose house had been damaged, whose generator had been stolen, who had stayed up all night guarding a tank of gas.

When the conversation threatened to get too gloomy, they switched quickly to the homecoming dance, or told exaggerated tales of their struggles to get by without hairspray.

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They laughed at their longing for blow dryers and mascara.

But they took it seriously too. It was proof that they, at least, had moved past the fear and misery of the first days after Katrina.

“When we went to Home Depot the other day, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go put on makeup. Oh, my clothes are wrinkled. I’ve got to put on my face, even if it’s just a little powder and lipstick,’ ” Deanna “Dee Dee” Dartez, 41, said as she settled in for an eyebrow wax and a chestnut rinse.

“My husband looked at me as if I was crazy and said, ‘Who cares?’ ”

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She cared, she told him -- and has ever since she was 7, when she began accompanying her mother to the beauty salon every Saturday.

“It was part of the process of learning to be a woman,” she said. “It’s just built into us.”

That may be why a flier advertising “Cynthia’s Manicure and Beauty Supplies” was tacked to a tree in Waveland, about 15 miles west of here, in the early days of recovery.

And it explained why the women over at Gulfport City Hall, a few miles to the east, gazed with undisguised envy at Bonnie Irby.

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Frazzled and flushed, the women raced about the noisy lobby wearing cotton pants they had hacked off at the knees, their T-shirts baggy and their hair bound up in kerchiefs. As they struggled to help a crush of contractors get business licenses, they couldn’t help but stare at Irby.

The 38-year-old mother sat demurely in a high-backed chair, waiting for her boyfriend to get a permit. Her clothes did not stink, which was impressive in itself. But what really set her apart was her face.

Where everyone else was sweaty, Irby’s peaches-and-cream complexion could only be described as dewy. Her eyebrows were perfectly drawn with an auburn pencil. Her tawny hair, straight and clean, brushed her shoulders.

Unable to contain herself, one woman leaned in and whispered covetously: “Do you have power?”

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Irby shook her head. “No,” she said. “I just took a few extra things with me before I left.”

In fact, Irby had packed carefully before fleeing Katrina. Her philosophy: “If you have your makeup, your cleanser, a razor and a gallon of water, everything will be OK.” As for the pale-lipped, greasy-haired women bustling about City Hall -- her heart went out to them.

“We just don’t have the tools to maintain our dignity,” she said.

Back at the salon, Schmidt was doing her best to restore that dignity to the women who walked in, wilted and unkempt. Their T-shirts were still wrinkled when they left, their futures still unclear. But their hair smelled good. Under the circumstances, that was a triumph.

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“The more normal I look, the more normal people around me act,” said Donna Whitfield, 49.

Katrina had knocked the conventions of Southern life upside down, Whitfield said as she waited her turn for a trim.

With most businesses shattered or shuttered, men can’t work. “And the women can’t cook and they can’t be beautiful and they can’t wash the clothes. They can’t keep the house neat and tidy when there is no house,” Whitfield said.

“Which is why something as simple as lipstick can take on an enormous emotional role,” she added. “It makes it easier to cope with all the losses.”

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As her clients philosophized, Schmidt snipped and styled and squeezed dye from a plastic bottle. Her phone rang incessantly -- always customers, always wanting to come in at once.

One caller in particular rattled on for long minutes, relating her hurricane woes. Schmidt listened sympathetically.

“Well, OK, hon,” she said at last. “I’m here if you need me.”

Times staff writer Stephanie Simon contributed to this report.

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