Detroit's Hair Wars: Part Art, Part Trade, All Attitude

An annual showcase of hairstylists in Detroit highlights the creative spirit of a city that might be down, but refuses to be out

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Peter Hapak for TIME

"Beautiful Butterfly" styled by Niecy Hayes, modeled by Taja Hill, prep time 10 hours

The audience in the Met Hotel's Grand Ballroom screams as the models take the stage. Their hair is perfectly — and outlandishly — teased and set. One woman's coiffure includes a birdcage made of woven-in braids. Another sports the legendary "hairy-copter" hairdo, which debuted in 1991, complete with a rotor that spins blades of flat-ironed hair.

This is not some eccentric reality show. This is Hair Wars, a 25-year-old Detroit tradition, this year featuring about 34 stylists and 300 models, that has become one of the premier hairstylist events in the U.S. The talent and exuberance on display takes the notion of an economically and psychologically depressed city, and turns it on its beautifully sculpted head. Hair salons are one of the few thriving businesses in Detroit, a hub of innovation in the $9 billion black-haircare industry, and Hair Wars can be a springboard to fame. One alum, "Weaven" Steven Noss, has styled such stars as Lady Gaga.

Noss understands why people spend days or even weeks working on fantasy designs for Hair Wars. "It gives stylists a break from being behind the chair and lets their creativity run wild," he says.

The show was started by promoter David Humphries, a.k.a. Hump the Grinder, as a way to get more people to clubs where he was deejaying. Back then, as now, men and women wanted to be sure they looked "fly" for nights on the town. That desire helped stylists make a living creating new — and ever wilder — hair designs.

"This is a city of aggressive people," says Humphries, taking a break from the show. "People here know how to hustle." Becoming a hairstylist is a good way to show their natural talent and, Humphries adds, to turn it into a six-figure salary.

"When I first saw the stage presentations, I knew I had to do something that would stand out," says Teddie "the Braid Artist" Nairobi, who began styling natural hair for military personnel while stationed with her husband in various parts of the world. She participated in her first Hair Wars in 1994 and over the years has showcased styles like 'the Oriental Goddess,' an ode to the Han Dynasty that included thigh-length locks and ribbons made of brightly colored hair, and 'the Future,' which featured a model wearing an outfit made of compact discs and a hairdo that consisted of braids piled high in an abstract sculpture. Her 'Spider Queen' design made it onto Ripley's Believe It or Not. "Now I'm considered a hair character."

Before long, Hair Wars outgrew night clubs and became so big it started booking space in hotels. For 13 years, the show also had a traveling component, and Humphries says he is waiting for the right TV deal to come along.

Other cities like Baltimore and Atlanta host hair trade events too, but nobody can touch Detroit's hair entertainment. "Detroit will set the trend," says Humphries. "Our stylists know they are original, and people follow them for years, saying 'What you got next?'"