So I Got a Spiral Perm. What’s Your Hair Horror Story?

When I was 16 I got a spiral perm. A big, Twisted Sister, spiral perm that screeched out of my head like a car wreck.  What hair calamity have you had?

17-year-old Karen Bertelsen lying in bed with swollen cheeks after having her wisdom teeth removed. Her recently permed hair covers her white pillow. Wallpaper featuring a small floral pattern can be seen in the background.


How do I know you’ve had a hairtastrophy? Because even if you only have one hair, you’ve had a hairtastrophy.  Either it curled, or fell out or kept pointing at someone sitting beside you on the subway. I’ve have several hair disasters, but for today I’ll focus on this one. The spiral perm.

I was 17 years old and in high school.  My room was still in the decorating style of Holly Hobby that my mother surprised me with when I came home from school one day in grade 6.  I wanted a white and green room with spider plants. I had told her this. We discussed it. She screwed it up.

She decided a mini floral (not even a big, cool Laura Ashley one) in dusty rose and grey was a very similar look to the contemporary white and green theme my 12-year-old self had envisioned. I lived with that Holly Hobby chintz until I started University. I hated it. But not as much as the spiral perm.

I’m thinking back trying to imagine who I was trying to emulate with this spiral perm. I mean, I know it wasn’t Dee Snider. Madonna? Julia Roberts? Molly Ringwald? I have no idea. All I know is I got a spiral perm, I did in fact look like Dee Snider, I attempted to straighten my hair with a drug store hair relaxer meant for not only people of colour, but also people who knew what they were doing.

And then I got my wisdom teeth taken out.  Then I barfed.  Here’s how that went down.

A few days after the perm and the debacle of trying to wash it out and then applying a straightener (which turned my hair into candy floss) I had all 4 of my wisdom teeth removed.  I barfed the moment I got home from the surgery, went to bed and woke up a day later with an abscess.

So now, not only did I have a spiral perm exploding out of my head, my face had swollen up like a watermelon going into renal failure. From this swollen head I had a mass of straight/curly/fuzzy hair not unlike Animal from the Muppets. I was winning.

I could have had all my hair cut off. It would have been less of an assault on the eyes to be bald, but I kept my hair.  Because a) I, like most 17-year-old girls, spent more time with my hair than any of my other friends, b) I deluded myself into thinking it wasn’t that noticeable and c) maybe it really did give me just an “essence” of Julia Roberts. Slightly disheveled Julia Roberts. Julia Roberts who’d been into the whiskey cabinet.

Years went by before my hair texture was normal from top to bottom. Let this act as a warning to you since perms have made a resurgence. No. Just no.

My sister Pink Tool Belt had a similar perm in the 80’s. Her 5-year-old son looked at her newly twirling hair, burst into tears and told her it looked like a bunch of swear words on her head.

My family doctor – proving being school smart doesn’t mean that you’re hair smart – also opted for a perm when she was a young mother. Immediately realizing her mistake, she also figured she was smart enough to straighten her own hair. What she ended up with was (and these are her exact words) “A head full of pubic hair that stuck straight out from my scalp.”  She sheepishly went back to the stylist who gave her the perm and said she thought she’d like it cut. She said this while staring at her feet.

I imagine poor Dr. Woods standing in her hairstylists shop, with a halo of cotton candy surrounding her face, a small child constantly asking her to spin around while he sticks a paper cone into it. 

I never tried to perm my hair again. I don’t think that should come as a surprise to you. In fact, I didn’t try to curl it again until a few months ago when I, again, inspired by one of the world’s most beautiful women, Charlize Theron, thought with the twist of a lock, I could look exactly like her.

A photo of Karen, who is wearing a purple and gray checked shirt, after curling her short, blonde hair to emulate Charlize Theron.

As I’ve mentioned, I ended up looking like Barbara Bush on crack at a hoe down.

What about you?  What is YOUR hair disaster story?  I know you have one. Don’t be embarrassed.  We’ve all been there. In fact, I’ve been there a few times. 

Have a good weekend!


  1. Shelagh says:

    I was really, really busy in August and didn’t take time to read all your posts, Karen….my husband has just left on a business trip and I have been feeling a bit lonely. So, I decided to read some of your older posts.
    Oh. My. Goodness.
    I am sitting here literally laughing so hard at Barbara Bush on crack and all the other posts that the dogs are looking at me and I think they are worried!
    You have certainly brightened my evening! Thanks so much to you and all your readers for making light of what were painfull moments.
    I can’t say that I have an equally awful story to share. I did have a perm 1982… that was thankfully grown out enough to cut all of it off in time for my wedding in August that year…very short hair mind you…but all the better for dancing…no style to lose!

  2. susan swain says:

    This article made me laugh until I cried! I too have a spiral perm horror story. I have always had straight, fine hair and every magazine in the late ’80s touted the spiral perm as the miracle fix to produce a soft and abundant mass of curls. HA! My (excellent) hairstylist tried to talk me out of it, but I was adamant and got the perm. I can remember her spinning my chair around, putting her hands on the arms of my chair and getting right in my face. “Do NOT put a brush in this hair!” she said. ” Not. One. Brush-through! Do you understand me? You can wash and condition and finger comb twice a week with this special shampoo, but you CANNOT brush!” I lasted 2 weeks… my scalp was itching… how bad could it really be to brush?? I looked like Don-King in an electrical storm. I cried. A lot. A week later I got my first ever short cut. Ha!

  3. Gary Morrison says:

    I’m not sure, but I would bet I’m the only male to make a comment here… Maybe even the only male to read your article. What’s wrong with me?

    Anyhow…I feel your pain. I am 69 with thinning hair on top. Over time my hair has thinned, not only in numbers but also each indivifual strand is thinner. Immediately after a haircut it looks reasonably ok, but once it starts to grow out, even a little, watch out! Even if there is a mild breeze two towns away, my hair on top stands up and moves around like an underwater aquarium plant. I look like the freakin’ Gerber baby! I hate my hair on those days. I don’t like the alternatives either. Shave it bald? Paste wax it down? Get a fresh haircut every third day? I feel better now. Karen, I hope you do too! Love your blog!

    Please don’t tell my friends or family I wrote this! :)
    NE Gerber Baby

    • Karen says:

      Haaa! Well, Gerber Baby … at least if that’s the case you’re probably looking younger rather than older. Congratulations on having the courage to comment Gary! And I’m sure (in fact I’m positive) you’re not the only man reading this. ~ karen!

  4. Chrishina Hart says:

    Barbara Bush on crack at a hoedown! Bwahahahahaha! I have missed you! I moved to the sticks and lived without the internet for a whole year. How I survived, I don’t know, but here I sit, catching up on all I’ve missed and of course you hit me in the face with this gem.

  5. Janelle says:

    1992. Put red henna in my naturally blonde hair not realizing that it can’t sucessfully be coloured over. Then, remembered that I’d ordered my prom dress and it was pale pink. Tried to dye over the henna about 17 times and ended up with peach coloured hair and a pink dress for prom. Awesome. Except…y’know…not.

  6. Jennifer says:

    I feel helpless getting my hair cut by stylists. I have naturally wavy/curly hair and I tend to cut it myself. Usually I love it, but sometimes you get what you get. Predictably, I once took it way too far, going from shoulder length layers to shaggy pixie. I wasn’t happy after a few days, but instead of letting it go I tried to clean it up. Instead I cut an actual hole into the hair in the back of my head.

    I went in to a stylist and asked her for help. She offered to make the cut into a “pixie”. I thought there was a possibility she could disguise it and I would look like Ginnifer Goodwin in her pixie cut photos. Nope. I ended up with the boy cut with a small amount of hair on top and shaved sides. Shaved. For the record, I did not like this trend on the men in skinny jeans either. It did, however, teach me how men get ready so fast in the morning, and a lot of ways to cute up growing out haircuts. I wish I could tell you that I now never cut my own hair, but that would not be the truth. I have learned nothing.

  7. Deb says:

    Sadly there are many Hair Horror Stories in my past. The worst was leaving perm solution in far too long. Oh the joy of hair the texture and feel of melted polyester.

  8. Cherie says:

    I have, and always have had, baby fine hair, a lot of it, but baby fine not just normal fine. My hair never grew up! My mother used to curl it, and once I had it done with a curling iron that burned it when I was about 11, but was that the worst hair disaster ever? Not at all. I had got a very responsible and exciting job at Saskatoon Public Library (seriously, they do have exciting jobs in libraries) and was eager to put on a good face with good hair. A devil inhabited me, a ninja perhaps, and just before I moved from Kingston to Saskatoon, I told my always reliable hair dresser that I wanted a perm, not just any perm — bad for my baby fine hair in any case — but an Afro. Now, get this, I was and am still a small, blonde (well, whitish now) librarian, and I have hair that takes a curl in literally seconds, but nothing for it, I wanted an Afro — against my hair dresser’s advice. Oh my! And with that hair I turned up at my new job eager – not – to meet my staff. None of them had ever met me so my hair was not a shock to them, just to my (then) husband who had preceded me to Saskatoon, and to the woman who had interviewed a woman with hair more befitting a very Caucasian librarian. To say it looked awful would be an understatement; it was truly horrific and took forever to grow out, of course. Next cut? Pixie, short, very short.

  9. Kelli says:

    I have a widow’s peak that hindered a perfect center part when I had long hair. Therefore, as a kid, I hated it. So I shaved it off.

    Picture day came about 2 months later when, by then, I sported a nice little Hitler’s mustache worth of “bangs” (I use that term very loosely) at the top of my forehead, right at the base of my middle part. You’d have thought I might have oh, I don’t know, parted my hair on the side to hide the Hitler horror show? But no.

    When I look back on my school photos, I have come to realize I was not a very bright child.


  10. Heidi says:

    Ugh, I had a bad perm that came out like an afro on the sides, and I do not have the ancestry worthy of an afro. Junior year of high school. Luckily it had grown out by the time senior pictures were taken.

  11. Jeanette Smith says:

    You mean that not everyone walks out of the hairdresser 9 times out of ten, in tears?? I have been doing it since I was about 16, and am now 64. You do the math lol

    BTW, I didn’t read all the comments, saving them for a day when I need a good laugh.

  12. kelbird says:

    When I was maybe 7 years old, my mother told me I was going to the salon to get a ‘bob’ haircut for school pictures. I cried the entire way there, and Mum couldn’t get me to tell her why… fast forward to me sitting in the chair and the hairdresser asking why I was sobbing – I said “I don’t want *sob* to look like *sob* Bob”. Apparently I thought I was getting a shaved head, just like a family friend of ours called Bob…

    It was still awful, as I have fine curly hair that does not co-operate with a Bob shaped cut – my family continue to refer to that time period as my ‘helmet head’ phase. Sigh.

  13. Jani Wolfe says:

    Our family was taking a trip to Niagra Falls and my sister decided to surprise my Mom by giving me a perm.
    Well she didn’t have a clue and left it on too long so I had a hell of a mess on my head.
    So everyday that we were at the falls my hair would swell up into a massive hair ball. All the pictures that they took of me I definitely was not smiling. To this day my sister will not let me touch her hair because I told her I would get her back.

  14. Jane C. says:

    Decades ago a friend and I decided to buy a drugstore hair streaking kit and use it for both of us. (I know – what could possibly go wrong with this scenario, right?) She did my hair first. I should point out that alcohol was being consumed during this entire procedure. My friend was a teensy bit uneven when pulling hair through the cap and I ended up with a huge patch of white/blonde hair on one side of my hair and blobs of blonde elsewhere. I looked like a skunk for weeks. My friend wanted just a few narrow streaks, which I managed despite my adult beverage consumption. However, since the cap had already been used once, she ended up with streaks AND tiny blonde dots where the cap had been punctured previously. Thank heaven this occurred before the era of cell phones and photos of everything.

  15. Linda says:

    GAWD Karen, you have a book out of the avalanche of responses and all so damn funny. I just adore how we are able to look at ourselves with such humour and am eternally grateful that the human body was created to ensure that teenage years are never gone through more than once, bwahahaha. Very oddly I have never been an observer of my friends(you feel like a friend to all of I do not hesitate to say) physical appearance so it will make sense when I say you look damn gorgeous…a hot chick, hehehehe. Truly you do and it is because of your very lovely personality and all it’s pieces you have shared so easily with us over the years that makes this so. Picard would be proud of me, lol. Hair grows, people not so much. Never stop being you and I thank you for it. Regards, Linda

    • Karen says:

      I’m slowlyyyy reading the comments on this post because they are SO good I want to save them. I cannot say I agree with your hot chick comment, but thank you, lol! Thanks for the compliments! ~ karen

  16. judy says:

    Campbell says. (If you’re thinking of cultivating a chicken coop or attic bat colony, note that bed bugs also enjoy these two species as hosts and can hide in nests and roosts.

    Karen-did you know this? Scary!

  17. Darlene says:

    OMG Karen I am roaring, my greatest fear in life is hairdressers.
    Last week I purchased a perm and curlers, hoping to have curls in the near future. My hairtastrophy is the reason why I’m doing it myself.
    I would rather go to the dentist any day of the week than a hairdresser.
    It all started when I was around 8 years old. My Mom took me to get a trim on my beautiful shiny long dark brown hair down to my waist. When the gal was finished chopping, it was just below my shoulders. My little heart was broken, along with my trust in hairdressers. The experience was life altering. I toId her just 1 inch! (Years later to find out my Mom was behind me telling her to cut if off).
    Well that fear “slightly” supsided at age 20 so, I went to a highly recommenced hair dresser in Halifax for a curly perm on my “long hair”. Instantly, and very seriously, I shared my life long fear with this hairdresser so she would take extra care and do her best. Reassurance and reassurance came and she tried calming my terrors. She understood completely apparently. Telling me over and over again, I “could have the best of both worlds; blow dry my hair straight or let the curls flow”. Utopia! I envisioned shiny curly locks. I curled it every day so this was going to be great!
    Sitting while the perm did its magic, it seems rather long, but what did I know, perhaps an hour and 15 minutes is normal. I tried to get the hairdressers attention as she fought screaming and yelling and cursing at her boyfriend over the phone for that entire hour +. How would I know a perm was not suppose to be on that long! She got off the phone, did her thing…curling iron etc. She didn’t ask how do you like it…hum… I volunteered; ” it looks fuzzy”, but she assured me it would relax in a couple of days and be curly. (Miracles that big don’t happen).
    If only it looked as good as yours as you lie on that bed Karen, at least you got curls :-).
    Good morning burnt afro. My hair was a huge fuzz bomb, completely fried, I could break it with my bare hands. Curls, what curls? My dark brown shiny hair was dull, burnt, and blonde. I called her panicked and went to see her. The first words out of her sarcastic mouth were; “Well what do you want, the best of both worlds?”. WHAT THE H***!!!!! Yes, that is exactly what you said I would have! You can imagine the rest of the conversation. I was mortified, there was nothing I could do. There was nothing she could or would do, the damage was done.
    Then came the humiliation. All my life people told me I had beautiful hair, even strangers.
    The looks on my co-workers faces when I walked into work the following day sporting a fuzz bomb under a bandana. How does one shrink an afro in 1980? Utter shock and disbelief. Needless to say I had to cut all my hair off, the only time in my 61 years that I had short short hair, then came more shocking looks from co-workers.
    Just after that nightmare I took a hair cutting course and have been cutting my own hair for 40 years.
    Honorable mention to 2 wonderful exceptions 20 years ago; a hair cut in Hobart Austrailia, and 6 months after, one from an “very very very talented” stylist; Teresa, now working at Dime Hair Salons in Halifax, N.S.. Both cuts were perfection.
    Karen, that’s my hairtastrophy.

  18. Louise Knighgt says:

    I have quite curly/wavy hair but when I was 19 I had it permed because everyone else did too. I ended up with a Medusalike ‘fro…huge….a halo of coils and ringlets…quite terrifying, first and last time I battle constantly to straighten it.I even succumbed to a Keratin treatment which was marvellous in the heat of the Spanish summer.

  19. Tracy says:

    Add me to the Permanent Disaster Club. In high school, I let my friend’s Mom give me a perm because my bestie’s hair was “so cute”. Wrapped my hair those pencil thick rods, applied the cotton rope-in-a-box around my neck, face and forehead. Squeezed the toxic perm solution all over my dome and the fumes literally made me gag. Skin was burning but she said it was normal. My hair ended up like corkscrew pasta and I was obviously allergic to the solution because I had a massive ring of raw skin that encompassed my head/face. Turned into an ugly 1-1/2” scab that took months to heal. My perm lasted over 16 months. Thanks for giving me nightmares tonight 😉

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