Why do we loathe mullets?

’80s hairstyle is now all-purpose insult, and banned in Iran

Former Red Sox pitcher Dennis Eckersley (left) and Full-House star John Stamos (right) were well known for their mullets. (John Blanden/Globe Staff and File) Former Red Sox pitcher Dennis Eckersley (left) and Full-House star John Stamos (right) were well known for their mullets.
By Beth Teitell
Globe Correspondent / July 15, 2010

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At this point, it’s fair to say that the mullet is as reviled as a hairstyle can possibly be. Any doubt was erased last week, when Iran’s move to ban the ’do earned the member of the axis of evil not its usual international condemnation but a PR boost.

As New York comedian Ophira Eisenberg observed: “I am not a fan of any government giving guidelines on how people can look, but when I read that Iran banned the mullet I thought, finally, they are doing something right.’’

The mullet and a number of other styles got snipped for being “decadent,’’ but with all due respect to Iran’s culture ministry, that’s not the hairstyle’s only problem. Why does the mullet elicit such loathing? Perhaps it’s the haircut’s creepy, suggestive slogan: Business in front, party in the back. Heh, heh, heh. Or the in-your-face attitude of its devotees.

Short on top, long in the back, the mullet has been worn by beloved pop culture figures from the Sphinx to Paul McCartney to Florence Henderson. A style staple throughout history, it exploded in popularity in the 1980s, sucking in everyone from Bono to Steve Perry of Journey to ninth grade boys across the US. The mullet is not without practical uses: It allows nice visibility under, say, a helmet, while shading the neck from the sun. Nevertheless, the mullet years ago turned into the red rubber nose of the coiffure world.

“It’s not a haircut,’’ Eisenberg quips, “it’s a lifestyle.’’

And not an appealing one, according to Tom Connolly, an English professor at Suffolk University and a pop culture commentator. “There is such an aggressive/humble arrogance that goes with it: ‘I’m just a country boy — do you want to go out with me?’ ’’

Like others asked to ponder the mullet’s infamy, he could have gone on forever: “There is kind of a shirt open to the waist, coiffed chest hair that goes with it,’’ he said, gleefully. “Even someone crawling out from under a double-wide is going to toss his head if he’s got a mullet and grin at you through gray teeth.’’

So bad is the mullet’s rap that the word has turned into an all-purpose insult that goes beyond hair. “Fear the Mullet,’’ read a recent New York Daily News headline about the horror of the asymmetrical dresses that are currently popular among red-carpet starlets.

But perhaps the mullet’s negatives have less to do with the style itself than who it hangs out with. Newbury Street stylist Patrice Vinci says the fault lies not with the mullet, but with the associations it conjures. “It just reminds people of the bad hair in the ’80s,’’ she said.

Whether or not the mullet deserves to be an object of ridicule, one thing is clear: Life is different for the mulleted and the regularly coiffed person.

Jake Nyberg, an artsy advertising guy from Minneapolis spent 10 months rocking a mullet that he grew essentially out of “total boredom,’’ and then turned into a sociology experiment (and, of course, a website, “I was ignored at a totally empty J. Crew with four employees,’’ he said. Business meetings, which he’d attend in a dress shirt, sport coat, and his auburn mullet, were also challenging. “The mullet was the elephant in the room.’’ When either he or his business partner would reveal that the mullet was a joke, Nyberg said, “there’d be three or four chuckles and this nervous relief of whatever tension there was.’’

Nyberg cut off the mullet for his 30th birthday, and in its place he’s got a more open frame of mind. “I used to work in a music store and we’d mock people’s hairstyles behind their backs,’’ he said, “but now I realize, you don’t know what that guy’s story is.’’

He also has a new appreciation for the mullet: “It’s bad, but at the same time it sort of makes you smile.’’

Emphasis on “sort of.’’ Pats QB Tom Brady has been wearing a carefully cultivated mullet in recent months. Its expertly tousled fringe makes him look like he spends his days on a surfboard rather than shopping for furniture for his sprawling new LA home with wife Gisele Bundchen.

But it’s still a mullet.

If there’s one person in America who loves the mullet in a non-ironic way, it’s Dean Mellen, stylist to the stars and local fashionistas. “I think it’s misunderstood,’’ his ode began. A nice mullet can flatter a short neck, create the illusion of high cheekbones, lift the eyes. “A mullet can save the day,’’ he cooed. “There’s a mullet for everyone.’’

Consider yourself warned.

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