The soft halo of hair sported by Bob Ross was so perfectly in tune with his gentle persona that it almost seemed too good to be true—because, in fact, it was.
The story behind the hair isn’t one of a style choice or contrivance dreamed up by TV execs. That was not the Bob Ross way. It has to do with two things we all know something about: saving money and personal branding.
Back in the early ‘80s, Ross was embarking on his new career as a painter and instructor after serving in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years. His mentor, Bill Alexander, was preparing to retire and asked Ross to take over his classes. Ross agreed, and set out to tour the country on his own in a motor home, traveling and teaching people the Alexander “wet-on-wet” technique. He told his wife Jane that he’d try it out for one year, and if he didn’t make enough money, he would return to Alaska.
Success didn’t come easy—or at all—during his time on the road. As a way of penny-pinching, Ross decided to save money on haircuts by getting his locks permed. That clever, if unorthodox, method of saving probably wouldn’t have stood the test of time if it weren’t for an emerging brand in need of some merchandise.
“When we got a line of paints and brushes, we put his picture on,” Bob Ross Company co-founder Annette Kowalski told me. “The logo is a picture of Bob with that hair, so he could never get it cut. He wasn’t always happy about that.”
Still, Ross was no fool and kept the ‘fro around because he too knew that it was good for business. He would go on to maintain his trademark bushy hairdo for the rest of his life. Today, it's hard to imagine Ross straying at all from his signature simple button-up and well-maintained curls, but a look back on episodes of The Joy of Painting does reveal some small, amusing deviations.
Even more amusing: A look at the man before all the hair, via Uproxx: