An essential element of Leonardo DiCaprio’s teenybopper stardom was the hair: side-parted and rising in a wave that fell at his brow. Back in the ’90s, whether gazing through a fish tank in Romeo + Juliet or freezing to death upon a wooden door in Titanic, there were those blonde locks delicately draped over one eye, just begging to be tucked behind an ear. This vulnerable, mussed look conveyed its own Oscar-worthy drama and directors especially loved getting it wet such that it would delicately drip upon those high cheekbones. That hair worked hard, but when Leo clocked out, so did his coiffure. In paparazzi pic after paparazzi pic of this period, he was shown with his hair swept off his face by a thin metal accessory. It was his heartthrob era—and, not incidentally, his off-screen headband era.
I know this because circa 1997, I ran a Leo newsletter and fan website, which involved spending hours scanning and uploading images from various teen mags and tabloids. There were the images I loved: studio shoots in which his mussed hair sensually framed those baby blues. Those were designed for girls like me. Then there were the images that boldly broke the teen heartthrob contract: hair slicked back by a headband, which invariably caused the ends to poof out in a manner that was decidedly not sensual. Worse, it was deeply uncool. Often, these images were captured on the street, outside of the highly-managed machinery of celebrity. He’d be hitting the town with friends, running errands, or inexplicably performing a roundhouse kick over a car, all with his hair loudly announcing the fact of being off-duty. That headband reflected functional practicality wholly unconcerned with (maybe even slightly resentful of) all those moony little girls.
Of course, the teen heartthrob is famously constructed as an embodiment of non-threatening heterosexual masculinity, sometimes androgyny. The role demands a certain softness and sensuality, the kind embodied by that loose swath of Leo’s hair curtaining the intensity of his gaze. But this is a delicate tightrope to walk, as evidenced by frequent gossipy interrogation of teen heartthrobs’ sexuality. In 1998, a Vanity Fair profile noted that Leo “avoids the Hugh Grant habit of tossing a forelock by securing it with a tiny wire headband.” He even commented to his interviewer on this fashion fixture: “I’ve been wearing this for many years, since I was 18. It’s the most masculine one I could find, the most discreet.” Let me underscore: Leo was avoiding the tossing of a lock, a traditionally feminine gesture, by securing his heartthrob hair with a masculine, discrete accessory. (Please, somebody stop me from applying to grad school just so that I might write a gender studies dissertation on that single quote.)
The hair, and the cautious management of it, speaks to both the burden and vigilance of this marketed male hetero sensuality. As a longtime haver of bangs, I can say with authority that it is often uncomfortable and inconvenient to have hair falling across your eyes and face. It’s the kind of aesthetic typically reserved for girls and women, who are expected to suffer for beauty. What Leo’s ’90s-era headband told me, a pubescent fangirl with a thick mat of bangs hiding a perennial crop of forehead zits was that he suffered, too. At this, I felt a sympathy toward him that I most definitely did not feel for myself, which speaks to one of the key purposes of the teen heartthrob: allowing girls to, via men, vicariously feel the feelings they’re not supposed to feel for themselves.
Sympathy aside, the headbands revealed Leo’s hair-in-the-eyes look as highly stylized as opposed to the carelessly mussed fantasy of my projection. The sensitive, poet-y guy perpetually dripping bang-water on his high cheekbone was pure fiction. Dang it. Whenever I saw one of those pulled-back photos, I felt similarly to when I read a quote from Kate Winslet in that same Vanity Fair article: “[T]o me, he’s just smelly, farty Leo.” Mostly, I tried to ignore those damn headband pics, and the Kate Winslet quotes. Occasionally, though, those headbands even ended up in professional photo shoots, often as a sort of L.A. bohemian nineties kewl.
At the turn of the century, after the global event that was the movie Titanic, both Leo and his hair left behind teenybopper-dom. First, he cut it into a short spike, then he grew it out while fully slicking it back. Eventually, he went for the man-bun. Mostly, though, he has abandoned those sensual ’90s locks and the accompanying accessories. (Today’s sensually-locked heartthrobs have taken up the tradition of the off-the-clock headband, with some reworking it as an intentional fashion statement.) Now, Leo is a serious ac-tor and he doesn’t need his hair as a supporting character. Granted, he does occasionally break out the headband, even with a shorter cut. Let me state this emphatically and for the record: Leonardo DiCaprio does not like having hair in his face.