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Dreadlocks can indicate social, religious or fashion choices
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Michelle Robinson, owner of Naturally Yours Hair Care, “re-twists” in a client’s new hair growth in Oakland, Calif. - photo by Lane Hartwell

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Crystal Bowersox rocks, it’s plain to see. The folksy guitar slinger from rural Ohio has thus far dominated this lackluster season of “American Idol” with her vocal prowess and easygoing stage presence.

So why, then, are so many people hung up on her hair?

Via blogs and messages boards, fans have issued proclamations on the long, blonde, ropelike dreadlocks that Bowersox, 24, sports. Some love them, but some deride them with a passion.

Venomous adjectives such as “dirty, filthy and trashy” have been used to describe them. “(They’re) ugly and make her look cheap,” insisted one poster. She’s a “fake sister,” claimed another, referring to the fact that dreadlocks are mostly associated with black hair.

All this vitriol underscores the many stigmas and stereotypes attached to a hairstyle that dates back to ancient Egypt and, more recently, is often associated with reggae artist Bob Marley, a member of the Rastafari movement.

But even though such mainstream celebrities as Whoopi Goldberg, singers Lenny Kravitz and Adam Duritz, baseball star Manny Ramirez and author Alice Walker, have sprouted dreadlocks through the years, it’s a hairstyle that remains highly misunderstood.

“I can’t tell you how many people have approached me trying to buy, sell or give me pot,” said Ludovic Blain, a Berkeley resident who has worn dreadlocks for 14 years. “And I don’t smoke anything.”

Although he believes his thick tresses have gained more acceptance in recent years, Blain, who has a Cornell University education and an administrative position, has seen them provoke false perceptions in job interviews and some social circles.

“People struggle to fit me in a box, especially when I leave a major metropolitan area,” he said. “Am I a radical? Am I homeless? Lazy? ... At this point, I just chuckle.”

Loretta Green-Williams, 56, and Jordan Aiken, 23, have their own tales of dreadlocks woe. Green-Williams, a Pittsburg, Calif., resident, notices how people “talk down” to her and question her intellect — never mind that she holds a master’s degree from University of San Francisco. Aiken, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, recalled how sororities and certain clubs shunned her.

“Before I had dreadlocks, I remember being approached by lots of campus (recruiters),” she said. “Afterward, they would just smile and let me walk on by without handing me their fliers. ... They probably didn’t think I fit into their demographic.”

Indeed, Michelle Robinson, who specializes in “locking” (or knitting) hair in her Oakland salon, Naturally Yours, insisted the hairstyle actually can be very high maintenance, with some dreadheads spending several hours a week on grooming and upkeep.

“There’s a lot of ignorance out there. What we’re basically talking about is just a larger strand of hair,” said Robinson, who prefers to drop the word “dread” from the term.

“It’s not dreadful. It’s clean and beautiful,” she stresses.

Robinson estimates that 70 percent of her clientele have locks. Her customers include “attorneys, doctors, teachers, preachers and business owners” who undergo a process in which the hair is separated into strands that are tightly twisted into coils. It generally takes six months to a year for the locks to set.

What some don’t realize, Robinson said, is that many black women choose locks not to take an easy way out, but to “save” their hair.

“As time goes on, all the (hair-relaxing) chemicals they’ve used can lead to hair breakage,” she pointed out. “This is a way to go more natural. For some, this is the final destiny.”

For the record, Bowersox, who has had her locks for four-plus years, has said in various interviews that she has no intention of snipping them off just to please the “Idol” voters.

That sentiment draws a hearty cheer from Aiken, who has sported her blonde locks for a similar amount of time.

“It’s a singing competition. They should probably focus on her voice,” she says. “If she loves her locks, I think she should just rock them and ignore what the people are saying. They’re probably just jealous anyway.”

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