Twenty-five years ago, Felicity Porter unwittingly made the most important decision of her life. In the 1998 series premiere of Felicity, the titular character (played by Keri Russell) follows her high school crush Ben Covington (Scott Speedman) from Palo Alto to New York City, ditching her plans to study medicine at Stanford University to attend his school of choice, the University of New York. Felicity’s decision to blow up her college plans after reading a surprisingly moving yearbook message from a boy she barely knew is certainly impulsive. But it’s also a powerful act of defiance by a sheltered young woman who, as she admits, “never made a substantial choice in my life” without her mom and dad’s permission. With her cross-country move, Felicity didn’t just chase a guy, she finally followed her heart. She took a risk, the first of many that she would take in the show’s four seasons, and it paid off in a big way.
Unfortunately, not all of Felicity’s choices were as well-received—like a certain season 2 haircut that came to exemplify what was right and wrong about the show. In honor of the show’s 25th anniversary, it’s time to take a closer look at Felicity’s choice to chop off her hair, and how it became the most infamous—and misunderstood—hairstyle in pop culture history.
The first season of the much-hyped WB series ended on a cliffhanger: Would Felicity spend the summer with her teenage crush Ben or with her freshman year fling Noel (Scott Foley)? In the season 2 premiere, it’s revealed that she had unsurprisingly chosen Ben, and after spending the summer on the road together, they had become (kind of) an item. But by the second episode of the new season, Felicity realizes she is compromising herself too much in order to please a guy who is not emotionally mature enough to deal with her big feelings.
“I mean, I’m an emotional person. I feel things and I need to be able to get upset and to talk about how I’m feeling,” she tells Ben in the Platonic ideal of a breakup speech. “I mean, that’s who I am. I can’t change it. I don’t want to.” But Felicity walks away from that brief romance realizing that there are some changes she would like to make. In the final moments of episode 2, she goes to a salon and gets the kind of dramatic haircut one gets after a big breakup. “But I wasn’t doing it for a guy,” Felicity explains. “I was doing it for me.”
At the 2018 ATX TV Festival, Russell recalled filming the episode’s pivotal final scene at 4 a.m. on a Friday. The on-set hairstylist snipped a few strands in order for the episode’s director, Lawrence Trilling, to get the dramatic shot of her long curly locks hitting the floor. “Then a few hours later,” she said. “I went to a hair salon and someone cut the rest of it off.”
Russell made it all sound so normal, but the response to it would be anything but. Felicity’s new hairdo, which was finally revealed in the opening moments of episode 3, was almost immediately regarded as a hair don’t. “We got a lot of emails and letters and feedback from our friends in the industry who were fans of the show,” Brad Turell, the WB’s then spokesman, told the New York Times in December 2000, more than a year after the episode originally aired. “People were disappointed and angry at us and at Keri for cutting off her hair. ‘Who made that decision?’ they asked.”
The show’s co-creators, a pre-Alias J. J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, the future director of The Batman, made the choice, with the network’s full knowledge. But Russell became the scapegoat. (She would later reveal that she received death threats over the haircut.) Not to mention a punchline: Felicity’s pixie cut became the butt of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Gilmore Girls jokes. A decade later her hair would continue to be comedy gold for 30 Rock, Family Guy, and Happy Endings.
Funnily enough, it was Russell who inadvertently inspired Felicity’s haircut. “When we were wrapping up season one and putting everything in boxes, there was a wig that was like a little boy’s wig,” she explained during a 2019 episode of the Armchair Expert podcast. “I put it on as a joke and [hair & make-up] took a picture of me. They said, ‘You know what would be really funny? Send this to J. J. and Matt over the break and [as a joke] just say, ‘Isn’t this so cute?’ to give them a panic attack.” She did, but instead of freaking out, Abrams called her looking to see if she would be willing to cut her hair for real. “I said, ‘Yeah of course,’” she told W Magazine in 2017. “My hair was curly and it was an awkward haircut, but even so I didn’t care, like I loved it. I thought it was so true [to the character] and great. I did not expect all the hysteria.”
The frenzy was made worse by the WB’s claims that Felicity’s post-breakup chop resulted in fans splitting up with the show. “Women kind of identified with her,” Turell told the Times. “When she cut her hair, they basically said, ‘I don't want to be that person; it ruins the illusion for me.’ We heard that over and over again.”
Russell didn’t agree with the network’s assessment, telling Entertainment Weekly in 2000, “I think that’s a pretty lame excuse. I think a lot more than a haircut was deciding the ratings [last year].” And she wasn’t wrong. Felicity’s ratings did dip in season 2, but there were other factors at play beyond the show’s lack of Pre-Raphaelite curls. The WB had moved the show from Tuesdays at 9 p.m. to Sundays at 8 p.m. in its second season, which led the show to lose a third of its viewers. In its new time slot, Felicity was going up against major network juggernauts like The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, and Touched by an Angel. The latter averaged more than 11 million viewers per week in the 1999-2000 TV season while Felicity averaged a modest 3.4 million. (Felicity would move again in season 3, to Wednesdays at 9 p.m., in hopes of improving the ratings; it did, but only marginally.) That same TV season, the WB saw their overall viewership dip. By the time the season 2 finale of Felicity aired in May 2000, the WB had dropped to last place in ratings among the six major broadcast networks.
Despite a myriad of possible explanations for Felicity’s sophomore slump, including darker storylines and Ben and Felicity’s breakup, the network used the hair fiasco to put an unofficial “no haircut” policy in place for its fresh faced young stars. Moving forward, if any of their actors wanted to cut their hair, it would “be given more thought at the network than it previously would have,” Susanne Daniels, the then-president of WB Entertainment, told reporters at the 2000 Winter TCA Press Tour. (“It will grow back, Susanne,” was reportedly Russell’s response to Daniels when the exec broached the topic of her hair.)
Reading the quotes from that time, it’s hard not to sympathize with the then 23-year-old Russell, who spent two years having her appearance picked apart by network execs. Even Abrams ended up apologizing for the haircut storyline he initially championed. “She's so gorgeous, we thought, ‘Who cares how long her hair is?’ The answer came back pretty quickly,” he told the New York Times in 2000 while promoting season 3. “Frankly, we thought of extensions and all sorts of things. Finally it's growing back.”
Amid a sea of misogynistic discussion, Russell’s support for the haircut never wavered. She was the only one, in interview after interview, who stood up for the chop and what it symbolized. “For the character, I think it was a brave, crazy, sudden, extreme thing to do,” she told Deseret News in 2000. “But those are things a girl in college might do. I think it was quite appropriate.” After girls started coming up to her on the street to compliment her new look, she wanted to own the haircut even more. “I had a mom who came up to me at a mall at that time and said, ‘You were so pretty until you cut your hair.’ And I was like, ‘Oh thanks?’” she recalled on Armchair Expert. “But being a kid in that storm, I was already rebelling in my own mind and pushing it all away, so in a way I was like, ‘F–k you. I don’t f—ing care. I cut my hair!’”
The truth is, the WB didn’t know what to do with Felicity with or without her hair. They wanted Russell to be their sexy ingénue, someone their preferred target demographic, men between the ages of 18 and 34, would lust after. That was very clear from a quote Daniels gave at the 2000 Winter TCA Press Tour: “I think it turned some audiences away. In particular, men and some women.” Though women were the only audience that seemed to stick around no matter how long Felicity’s hair was, the show aired in an era when Hollywood saw no reason to cater to them, especially those age 18 to 34. (Barbie aside, they still don’t, despite every sign that they really, really should.) The network didn’t understand that what made Felicity, and therefore Russell, so relatable to female viewers was her vulnerability, not just her beauty. She was willing to take big leaps knowing she might fall, and did so without apology or doubt. Felicity never once questioned her decision to cut her hair, even when others around her did. (“Guys are gonna hate it,” Felicity’s roommate Meghan (Amanda Foreman) bluntly tells her in the cold open of episode 3, as if the writers predicted what was to come.) The fact that Felicity was so willing to explore the world of a young, hyper emotional, introspective woman on the brink of adulthood at a time when so many other series weren’t is what has made it one of the best TV shows of all-time.
The funniest and most infuriating part of all of the haircut hullabaloo is that it wasn’t even the most rash decision Felicity would make in her sophomore year. Early in episode 3, she tells her trusted confidant Sally (voiced by Janeane Garofalo), via the audio recordings the two would exchange throughout the series, that she has done something drastic. She’s not referring to her hair, but to her decision to switch majors from medicine to art. The haircut inspired her to let go of everyone else’s preconceived ideas of how she should live and once again follow her heart.
With that haircut Felicity wasn’t looking to please anyone but herself, an empowering concept that went right over the heads of the network and so many others. Russell, however, understood the importance of establishing Felicity’s independence. In many ways, cutting her hair allowed her to establish her own independence as well — and like Felicity, she has never apologized for that. “I looked like a Chia Pet for a good few years and then it was fine,” she told W Magazine 18 years after the episode aired. “I have nice shoulders.”
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