The majority of clients seeking perms at Mai Hoa Beauty Salon in Minneapolis are not older Asian aunties. They are men in their 20s and 30s who care about personal style and grooming, who know their way around coconut oil, sea salt spray and an effortless center part.
Some enter the salon armed with pictures on their phones of telegenic K-pop singers or K-drama stars.
"They show us a picture, and we say, 'You'll need a perm to achieve this look,' " said stylist Trang Nguyen, adding that the alternative would be for her clients to use a curling or flat iron to style their tresses every day. "Now about 80% of our perm clients are men."
Fueled by TikTok videos and Korean boy bands and soap operas, the "soft perm" trend among young males has officially migrated to Minnesota. Today's perm is wavier and beachier, far from the spiral ringlets that dominated women's heads in the 1980s. Some men wear a mop of curls on top of their head, with the sides and back trimmed short. With other styles, the waves are so subtle — just an extra oomph of volume — you'd assume maybe he was born with it.
One of those trendsetters is Josh Bonde, 23, of St. Louis Park. Today he's wearing ripped jeans, camel-colored work boots and a shoulder bag. The recent Bethel University graduate set aside three hours of his day to have multiple stylists at Mai Hoa wash, cut and chemically treat his dark russet locks into curls that would complete his Midwest-chic aesthetic.
Bonde's mother is Malaysian, and his father is white. His hair is naturally straight, common among many east Asians, and had trouble staying in place.
"I never really loved my hair," he said, adding that he spent most of his life wearing it short and combed over, just like his father. "My dad would always give me haircuts, and he's a white dude from South Dakota."
When Bonde got his first perm in February 2022, he recalled, it was a "leap of faith." But he was intrigued after a male friend gotten one at Mai Hoa, which specializes in Asian hair and attracts a global clientele that also includes Somalis and Latinos.
Bonde went for it. He liked the results, but still covered his new curls with a hat, unsure how friends would react. After a few days, his perm settled into loose waves. At that point, "I thought it looked fantastic," he said. "I had no shame."
He discovered his perm made all sorts of hairstyles possible, including a man bun on some days and a middle part on others. A college baseball player, he embraced the carefree style of his updated mane.
"A perm gave me a sense of comfort and ease of mind," Bonde said. "I didn't have to worry how it looked all the time, because it was just so manageable."
Another perm convert is Minneapolis-based sports journalist Do-Hyoung Park, 26, who covers the Twins for MLB.com. He's also a two-time "Jeopardy" contestant. The first time he saw himself on TV for his game show appearance, in late 2021, he realized he wanted to change his fine, thinning hair. While visiting his parents in South Korea, he found himself staring at all of the men with perms and questioning whether he should get one.
"It was completely unlike anything I ever done in the past, but I was weirdly curious as to know how it would turn out," he said. "It was so prevalent, riding the Korean subways in Seoul and going out to eat. I figured, if all these people are doing it, what's the worst that can happen?"
He got his first perm in Korea and sported his new waves for his second appearance on "Jeopardy" last year. Now he gets his hair re-permed every two to three months at Tram's Hair Styling, just a couple blocks from Mai Hoa on the Eat Street corridor of Nicollet Avenue.
"It does feel like a glow-up in a way — that's what my girlfriend tells me," he said with a laugh. "I think it fundamentally changed my outward-presenting vibe. It looks more relaxed and casual, less buttoned-up and more modern."
The process is not unlike the perms of yesteryear. It requires rolling locks of hair into tiny rods, treating it with chemical solutions and drying it under the helmet-shaped machines that your grandma used to plant herself beneath at the beauty salon. The whole process of washing, cutting, treating, drying, re-cutting and trimming can consume half the day. And yet Mai Hoa charges men just $70-80 for the service.
Bonde's tousled look was so compelling that two of his male buddies, who are white, decided to get their own perms. He credits social media for removing the mystique around male style, especially among Gen Z of all races. (Just search TikTok for #boyperm.)
"I feel a little bit lucky to be in this generation because I'm able to try out new things without it being a culture shock to people," he said. "It's becoming more normalized."
Perms are, of course, nothing new in the West, even among men. Hair bands like Def Leppard and Whitesnake inspired frizzy copycats among young males in the '80s.
But as the mom of two sons, I couldn't help but think that today's youth are pushing back against rigid stereotypes of masculinity. The resurgence of the perm means it's OK for boys to expand their notion of male beauty and search for a style that suits themselves. A perm signals adventure and an openness to new experiences.
And although they do require a leap of faith, men can rest assured that if anything goes terribly wrong, hair grows. Take it from me, a child of the '80s: Even a perm is never permanent.