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Mandela, who lives with her husband and son in Atlanta, stopped cutting her hair in her 20s. "I started growing my hair 25 years ago, when I started having certain dreams and visions," she said. Growing dreadlocks was part of a spiritual journey to completely remake her life. Now, Mandela says, she has countless fans who call her a "living legend" and the "ninth wonder of the world." She has to carry her hair, which weighs in at 39 pounds, in a cloth baby sling when she goes out.
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At first, her family, who originally came from Trinidad, didn't approve. "My mom told me to remove the mop from my head before I am welcomed in her home again," she recounted in a 2013 interview. "She said to me, 'Imagine, I put nice Vaseline and lard in your hair and groom it so nicely ... now look what you did to it.'"
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Mandela handles her dreadlocks carefully, washing them once a week and conditioning them with natural oils. After washing, her hair can take a whopping two full days to completely dry.
Though she underwent a bilateral mastectomy followed by chemotherapy in the late 1990s, miraculously, her hair didn't fall out. According to a 2010 interview, Mandela tied her dreadlocks up into knots in order to preserve them.
In 2009, with the help of a hair-care expert who specialized in dreadlocks, the real-life Rapunzel began to untie her hair. After 12 hours of painstaking work, she discovered it had grown to unbelievable lengths over the years. In 2008, she was the first person to obtain the Guinness World Record for longest dreadlocks, and a year later, she broke her own record with a strand measuring 19 feet, 6 inches. In 2010, Guinness decided to retire the category, since dreadlocks can be lengthened by twisting in extensions, making Mandela the first and only record holder.
But 19-and-a-half feet of hair is nothing. Last week, one of Mandela's strands was measured at 55 feet, 7 inches — almost three times the length of her official record.
While Mandela refers to her hair as "her baby," there are physicians who call it a health hazard. "The doctors seem to think I have a curvature of my spine and that it's the length and the weight of my hair that's making me curve," she said. "Some have said my neck has collapsed at the back and that I need to be careful because I could start having spasms in my spine and probably be paralyzed." But it doesn't sound as if she is too alarmed by their advice, adding: "My hair has become part of me. It is my life. I will never cut it."
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