Roman Pietrs always had a kinship with curly hair. He grew up watching reruns of the Brady Bunch, the popular 70s sitcom, and admired the tight curls of the father figure on the show.
"It kind of stuck with me," says the New York-based graphic designer who treasures pop culture. "And I've seen how the image of the perfect man has evolved over the years."
Born with stick-straight locks, Pietrs often longed for a curly change. "I always thought it would be fun to get a perm," he says, "but every time I got long hair, I would chicken out."
That is, until he decided to go public with a challenge that he couldn't wiggle out of.
In January, a close friend from his hometown of St. Paul, Minn., was diagnosed chordomas, which are rare tumors that lie in bone and usually occur in the spine and base of the skull. The tumors in Jenny Haigh's spine ultimately damaged the vertebrae in her neck. Although doctors have since implanted a steel rod in her neck, her condition will require numerous, costly surgeries to remove the tumors. Beyond the enormous emotional and physical challenges thrust upon her and her family, the financial toll appears overwhelming.
"I felt kind of helpless being so far away," Pietrs says. "When I first found out I sent a care package but I wanted to do more. I wanted to do something that would make her laugh — and raise some money."
Then, the "aha" moment. Pietrs hatched a hair-raising fundraiser. He vowed to finally get a man-perm — and for every $1,000 in donations, he keeps the curly 'do for another week. To publicly showcase (and savor) the first moments of being a curly, Pietrs invited dozens of friends and strangers for a weekend brunch at his New York City loft on Feb. 15. It would be a big reveal.
"I'm happy we did it that way because it was kind of like being at a rock concert," he says, "except the featured band was my hair!"
A close friend — whose day job is an accountant, but she once worked at a salon in high school — volunteered to perform the home-perm service and become stylist for a day. Peitrs recalls the anticipation of the first curl. His head was upside-down during the rinse, and his eyes gleefully gazed upward to watch each ringlet spring from the perm rods.
"I was so excited," he says. "I was like, 'This is so great!'"
The newly curly Pietrs also designed and launched a website with the slogan: "Friends helping friends, one curl at a time." The fundraising tool accepts donations online and chronicles his curly journey, complete with photos and a video blog. Once and for all, Pietrs conquered his ambivalence about getting a perm — and for a good cause.
"Now that I have done it, I don't know what I was so scared of," he says. "I just have curly hair now."
And Pietrs is enjoying life as a curly. After all, he says: "Curly hair has more personality; it has a life of its own. It seems like there's a lot more you can do with it, a lot more options."
Since he's still trying to figure out the best way to rock his curls, Pietrs plans to see a professional stylist to get his spirals in shape for a big fundraising event in St. Paul, Minn., in April, when he'll present his friend with the money he raises from the man-perm challenge.
By the end of February, within just two weeks of the perm and subsequent website launch, he has raised more than $7,500. Along with donations to help his ailing friend, Pietrs is receiving a steady stream of e-mails, ranging from compassionate camaraderie to amusing curl commentary.
"I hope your fundraising goes well," wrote one well-wisher who signed his initials and described himself only as a man with long, curly hair. "But, why try to look ridiculous? A roller set would tame your hair, and make the curls look as good as your long straight hair."
Another curly man (who noted that his own textured tresses are natural) reached out with a style tip. "Get some VO5 or similar product," the helpful stranger suggested. "It will soften the bushiness and yet bring out the curls."
Then, there were the men with curl envy, who gushed excitedly about getting into the fray.
"I recently grew my hair out and saw your article and thought...I’m in!" wrote a man with (apparently) straight hair. "Tell me how I can join in the perm revolution and I will do it as well!"
Pietrs stops short of referring to his cause as a "revolution," but he's certainly comforted by the generosity of strangers as he embraces yet another week with his new curly coif.
"It's like I'm walking with a little more of a strut," he says with a bright-eyed, Cheshire grin. "There's definitely a spring to my step."