*What would the 80s have looked like in black America without the existence of Comer Cottrell and his over-the-counter version of the Jheri Curl?
The creator of Pro-Line products and the historic Curly Kit died at home in Plano, Texas, on Oct. 3 of natural causes, the family said. He was 82.
In 1979, Cottrell created the infamous Curly Kit, a chemical treatment that created tight, wet-looking locks in the fashion of the Jheri Curl. But while the Jheri Curl cost about $200-$300 in salons, Curly Kits sold in stores for about 8 bucks.
Cottell’s version literally brought the Jheri Curl to the masses and spawned a parade of similar products from other hair-care companies. It also forced beauty salons to slash their price to roughly $35.
“We looked at the curl process,” Cottrell told the Dallas Observer in 1996, “and saw it really was a simple process and people could do it themselves. It was no secret.”
Cottrell “democratized the Jheri Curl,” said Lori L. Tharps, co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.
Cottrell rose from modest beginnings in Mobile, Ala. His father, Comer Sr., sold insurance, and his mother, Helen, worked menial jobs, including that of housekeeper at the Mobile Country Club, to put Cottrell and his brother through Catholic school.
Cottrell joined the Air Force at 17 and while running a base exchange in Okinawa, noticed a lack of hair care products for African Americans. After leaving the Air Force and while living in Los Angeles, he founded Pro-Line in 1970. He and his brother, James, ran the company together until James left in 1983.
Cottrell initially sold the Curly Kit at products at military bases in Southern California, and later expanded to barber and beauty shops and retail stores. Company sales rose to $10 million in the Curly Kit’s first six months, according to Black Business News.
The style became popular. Michael Jackson sported it and the coiffure, which required regular sprays of maintenance chemicals, drew attention when Jackson’s hair caught fire during the 1984 filming of a Pepsi commercial. Singer Lionel Richie also sported a curl, as did Samuel L. Jackson’s character in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction.
Flying high on success, Cottrell moved the company to Dallas in 1980. The African-American community initially shunned him, but the community at large appeared to embrace him, according to the Dallas Observer. Cottrell logged a list of firsts, including first African American to own an interest in the Texas Rangers, and first to serve on the board of a Dallas Bank. During one meeting of the prominent Dallas Citizens Council, another member used a racial epithet to refer to refer to two city council members as “those … gals.” Cottrell politely protested, prompting the council member to apologize profusely, the Observer reported.
“Black people don’t know what I did when I came to Dallas,” Cottrell told the Observer. “I came in and opened up so many doors that were closed to blacks, and they thought I was doing it and being used. In reality, when I went in–like in the Dallas Citizens Council–they’d never had a black there before. I told them, ‘Look, I am not unique. There are other black people here, and the only way you’ll ever develop relationships and build the community is you will have to invite them in.’ ”
As the years passed, the Jheri curl went from being viewed as stylish to being the butt of jokes. Comedian Keenan Ivory Wayans played a character in the 1987 movie “Hollywood Shuffle” who went through his day spraying his hair every few minutes. (Watch below.)
The public made fun of the fact that the chemicals often left stains on clothing or furniture. Sales took a drastic dive in the 1980s.
“All of that helped to destroy the curl,” Cottrell once said.
The businessman also was a philanthropist. In 1990, he bought Bishop College, renovated the campus and relocated Paul Quinn College there.
Alberto-Culver bought Pro-Line in 2000.
Cottrell is survived by his wife, Felisha Starks Cottrell; his brother, James; a daughter, Renee Cottrell-Brown; sons Comer, Aaron, Bryce and Lance; nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.