The new black

If football is the universal language of men, then hair is the universal language of black women. Melanie Brown (Mel B) is sitting opposite me, and we are talking hair. It's a conversation every black woman will recognise: "The biggest problem," says Brown "is finding somebody who knows exactly what to do with your hair, but without damaging it. For years, I wouldn't go to the hairdressers. Even right at the beginning of the Spice Girls, I'd always do my own hair, never let anyone touch it - ever. I now have one person [Anne-Marie Avory, who owns the Toni & Guy franchise in Guildford] who comes to my house and colours, cuts and styles my hair, and another [Sherman Hawthorne] who styles it on shoots. That's it. I'm not going anywhere else - it's taken too long to find them, and I've had too many disasters." Brown tells a horror story of one video shoot when clumps of her hair started falling out in her hands after a stylist had used bleach on it.

"The most important thing for my kind of hair is to keep it in good condition, keep the texture, because that's the first thing that goes, especially when you get it dyed," she says. "Your hair is your friend: if it doesn't look good, then you don't look good; if your hair doesn't feel good, then you don't feel good."

The problems, it seems, are magnified for those of mixed parentage. Some hairdressers treat their hair as if it's Afro hair, others treat it as if it's curly European hair. At best, they assume that all mixed race hair is the same - yet Brown's hair is, for example, nothing like that of Angela Griffin, who appeared in BBC1's fantastic Cutting It.

Brown describes her hair as her mask: "I hide behind it. That's why I very rarely wear it back. Black women have a more personal relationship with their hair, and are far more aware of it than white people. Every one of my black friends has got a thing about their hair - my mum's white, and she gets it dyed now and again, gets it trimmed now and again, but it's not a big deal."

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