'Doing a Rooney'- How hair transplants have become the norm for Irish men
'Doing a Rooney' and getting a hair transplant has become the norm for Irish men thinning on top
At first glance, there was little remarkable about the June 2011 selfie Wayne Rooney shared with his 12.5 million Twitter followers. In the grainy snap, the off-duty soccer star, head dipped several degrees, glared at the camera with his usual bulldog insouciance. Only when you read the accompanying text did the significance of the picture become clear. "Just to confirm… I have had a hair transplant," Rooney had typed. "I was going bald at 25 - why not?"
"Wayne Rooney was a watershed moment for hair transplants. It broke the stigma," says Michael Collins of Hair Restoration Blackrock (HRBR), one of several hair transplant clinics operating in Ireland. "There were lots of men who had never spoken about hair loss - not to their partner, not to their doctor. But it was something that had affected them."
Others celebrities soon followed Rooney's example. On the Graham Norton Show, Robbie Williams proudly "outed" himself as having had hair restoration, in which healthy follicles from the back of the head are relocated to thinning sections at the front. Louis Walsh and James Nesbitt underwent similar procedures at HRBR's south Dublin clinic. Prior to appearing on Celebrity Big Brother in 2015, Calum Best received his third hair-transplant. "There is no doubt this has changed my life," he said.
"The technology has advanced a lot," explains Dr Andre Nel, a surgeon at Thérapie Hair Restoration Clinic Malahide, Dublin. "The numbers undergoing hair restoration are increasing exponentially. People consider it because of celebrities who have done it and talked about it publicly."
"Men are more conscious of their appearance nowadays," says Michael. "Traditionally, women were more aware of how they looked. That is no longer true. We will have men come into us and say, 'I literally didn't get a promotion because my confidence wasn't there. I didn't look the part'. We all know tall, attractive people tend to do rather well in life. It's a confidence issue - and also a fact of human nature."
Hair transplants have been around 30 years or so. What has changed is the quality of the restoration. When Elton John submitted to the procedure in the late '80s, the results were widely regarded as laughable. "All that money, and he still got hair like a dinner lady," said Boy George.
"The technology was not good and the results were not good," says Michael. "Today, with the new techniques, it is almost impossible to detect if somebody has had a hair transplant. If it is done properly nobody is going to see it - not even your barber is going to be aware."
"The boom in the procedure is, in my opinion, due to the social stigma being broken down due to many more people talking about it openly," adds hair-restoration consultant Spencer Stevenson, who blogs about new developments in the field at Spexhair.com.
He knows what he is talking about - his battle against baldness involved five hair transplants, costing circa €50,000.
"Hair loss is a hidden epidemic. People discussing it openly enables others to realise they are not alone and isolated."
Clinics typically offer two distinct procedures: follicular unit extraction (FUE) and follicular unit transplantation (FUT). In each, healthy hair follicles are moved from the back of the head (where hair continues to grow, even among otherwise completely bald men) to the front. In the case of FUE, individual follicles are painstakingly relocated to a balding area; in FUT an entire strip of tissue is transferred (this method accounts for about 70pc of transplants).
Depending on the pattern of hair loss, a surgeon may recommend either or both techniques, with the intervention usually taking 10 hours or so and costing between €8,000 to €14,000 (Wayne Rooney's is said to have set him back closer to €40,000).
Yet as one problem is solved, another question presents itself. Balding men may be at last able to "fix" their receding hairline, but is it justifiable to spend 10 grand and change, simply to more closely approximate society's idea of male beauty?
Having experienced what could politely be described as "thinning" on top from my mid-20s, it's a dilemma that might once have been close to my heart. Were I younger and a lot flusher, is hair restoration something I might theoretically consider?
Hand on heart, no. Not simply because of the expense or my terror of individuals in surgical scrubs wielding pointy implements.
Hair restoration would, I feel, be an admission that my sense of worth depended on what others thought of me. And to arrive at such an acknowledgement would damage my self-esteem more than any bald patch. "Only about a third of people who come to us for a consultation end up having a transplant," says Michael. "A lot of them will shave their head and be happy with it - it doesn't bother them."
"It's a mental and emotional decision," agrees Dr Nels, a South African based in Ireland for nine years. "You are bothered by hair loss to the point where you are going to do something about it.
"You've got to get over that mental hurdle - the worry of, 'Oh what are other people going to say...'. It's a vanity issue."
Moreover, the war on baldness does not end when you leave the clinic. The underlying factors that cause hair loss in the first place will continue to create mischief. Thus patients must take care of their new growth with follow-up medication and a "hair-friendly" lifestyle that includes taking supplements containing zinc, folic acid, vitamin A and E.
"It is important that they buy into it," says Dr Nels. "I don't see the point in doing a hair transplant if, five or six years later, it is basically the same as before."
The bad news is that society really does appear to hold a bald man's follicular flaws against them. "It is historically associated with an ageing body," says psychologist Susannah Healy. "There was a study in the 1990s that found balding men were considered a lot less attractive. People also saw them as less assertive, less likeable, less capable - things that have nothing at all to do with baldness. We create a whole package out of this one small thing."
There is a caveat. Men who are visibly indifferent to their baldness are regarded rather highly, according to research. While those resorting to comb-overs or toupees are seen as pathetically trying to hold onto their fading virility.
"Guys shaving it off are perceived as more masculine and dominant," says Healy. "They are taking control of their situation. People look at them and think, 'Oh look, he's in charge'."
Interestingly, baldness does not rank especially highly on the laundry list of male insecurities.
"A recent American study found that men worried more about weight, height and muscularity - more about the body frame - than about hair," says Healy. "That is what affected their self-esteem. That might have to do with changing fashions."
Do men feel more confident after hair restoration surgery? Yes, according to the data. But again, this comes with a health warning.
"There was definitely an increase in self-esteem," says Healy. "You have to remember, though, that this was a self-selecting group. These are the men for whom hair loss was an important issue. The bald men who don't care don't go for the procedure in the first place. Nonetheless, it must be born in mind that they are not representative of all bald men."
"Self -esteem is how you think of yourself, how you see yourself. It affects every aspect of your life," says life coach Eileen Keane. "If you are a strong, confident person to begin with, you may cope with hair loss in a more positive way. Everyone is very different."
"Looks are a key issue when working on TV. You can become paranoid and be conscious of thinning hair all the time"
Alan Hughes realised he needed to do something about his hair the day a make-up woman asked if he wanted a comb-over. "We'd moved to our new high definition studios," says the popular TV3 presenter and sometime pantomime star. "The thing about HD is that you can see everything. It is quite unforgiving. I would notice myself in the camera and think, 'God, the hair looks really thin there.'"
That we are all judged by our looks is something a television veteran such as Hughes understands innately. Aged 43 and at the peak of his career, a crisis about his appearance was the last thing he needed. So in late 2014 he resolved to deal with the problem, quickly and without fuss.
"You can become paranoid and be conscious of it all the time," he says. "It doesn't help if you are interviewing someone and find yourself worrying whether the camera may catch you from an unflattering angle. I knew I needed to do take care of it."
Going for a hair transplant was a "no brainer" he says. He required assistance. What was there to be embarrassed about?
"Afterwards you feel that you look better - it's as simple as that," he says. "You are more confident. It was something I went and had done. I have no problem talking about it." He likens the procedure to a routine visit to the dentist. "They took 2,500 follicles from the back of my head and relocated them to the front of the scalp. You are lying in a chair, watching movies. I may have fallen asleep at one point. I was delighted. The hair grew back really quickly and people were very complimentary."
He suspects Irish males have an evolving attitude about their looks. The old bashfulness is gone. With more than 60pc of men likely to experience hair loss from their 30s onwards, treatments such as the Combination Technique (including FUE and FUT) procedure he underwent at Thérapie Hair Restoration Clinic Malahide, Dublin, are increasingly regarded as a practical solution to a straight-forward problem.
"I have friends in their 20s and 30s with receding hair. A few are asking themselves 'Is this it - is this me done?' If it's an issue, I advise they at least go for a consultation. When I came out after my treatment, I couldn't believe the difference. I knew I was thinning. Seeing the before and after pictures, it was hard to credit how much I was losing. It came as a shock."
Some will wonder whether he wasn't suffering a mid-life crisis? "Well, you have to be middle-aged to have a mid-life crisis," he laughs. "In all seriousness, I'm the sort who, if they need something, just goes and has it done. It's not complicated."
One thing that definitely wasn't a factor was Hughes' upcoming nuptials. Having entered a civil partnership with then-boyfriend Karl Broderick in 2011, Hughes got down on one knee and popped the question to his significant other the week the Marriage Equality referendum passed. Yet his personal life at no point influenced his decision to have a hair transplant.
"Looks are a key issue when working on television - that's the long and the short of it," he says. "It was important to me to have an aesthetically pleasing appearance on TV. I think it is important for people watching at home also."