Tess Leavay’s friends always joked that she had mermaid hair.
“You’re off to serenade the humans on the beach!” quipped one pal on Facebook in response to a photo of Ms. Leavay taken in 2011, in which her wavy golden locks hung past her lower waist. It was a comparison the 21-year-old Southold native was familiar, even comfortable with.
“That’s kind of what I identified with,” she said.
Last year, Ms. Leavay, who is in her senior year as a music education major at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, cut her strands shoulder-length to accommodate a role in a North Fork Community Theatre production of “South Pacific.” But her hair, she said, remained a defining part of who she was.
“She always had long hair,” said her mother, Dale Leavay.
That changed abruptly on April 4 when, in what she described as a last-minute decision, Ms. Leavay opted to have her head shaved at a campus-sponsored event that helps raise money for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a California-based charity that raises money for childhood cancer research grants. On its website, the foundation reports raising almost $104,000 since 2005.
“It was really just on a whim,” Ms. Leavay said of her decision to go bald that day. “That morning, I hadn’t planned on doing it.”
That isn’t to say she wasn’t inspired by the volunteers she had witnessed doing so. Ms. Leavay, a mezzo soprano and one of the founding members of an on-campus a capella group called The Golden Notes, has been singing to volunteers having their heads shaved for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation for the past few years.
“Every year I’m so inspired by these people because it’s such an amazing thing, to cut off all your hair, “ Ms. Leavay said. “I always wanted to, but I was really nervous about it.”
But once she decided to shave her head, Ms. Leavay was resolute about sticking to it.
“She’s somebody who’s really passionate about whatever it is that she chooses to get involved in,” said Steven Musso, a fellow music education major at Saint Rose and a member of The Golden Notes.
Minutes after making the decision to cut her hair, Ms. Leavay began collecting donations for St. Baldrick’s Day.
“Two hours before my time slot I ran around campus collecting money,” she said. “People were just handing me 20s. I was almost crying because they were so generous.”
Ms. Leavay raised $240 in just 40 minutes.
A little more than an hour later, she was sitting in a barber’s chair, her hair sectioned off into braids. As they were cut off, Ms. Leavay and some of her friends from The Golden Notes received more money from donors. It was then that she began to process what was happening.
“After the first two braids were cut, my friends held them up in front of me,” she said. “I got really emotional.”
To help Ms. Leavay be brave, Mr. Musso, who attended the event but did not have his head shaved, came up with an idea.
“Steve said, ‘We should sing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ [from Les Miserables],” Ms. Leavay said. “Tess, are you OK to sing this right now?’”
“Let’s do it,” she told him. It’s one of their group’s favorite songs to sing.
The result was a breathtaking a capella rendition of the heart wrenching ballad, sung solely by Ms. Leavay. As a barber cut off her remaining hair and began to buzz the sides of her scalp, the young woman stared straight ahead, singing the song with conviction as tears began brimming in the corners of her blue eyes.
“I was kind of freaking out, just listening to the buzzers,” Ms. Leavay said. “I wasn’t looking in the mirror. I couldn’t even focus on what was happening to my head. I had to just not think about it and sing and focus on that.”
Soon, all of her hair was gone.
“My head all of a sudden felt a lot lighter,” Ms. Leavay said. “I put my hand up, touched my head, and was like, ‘I can’t even believe this.’”
A video of the experience was soon uploaded to YouTube.
“I cried when I watched it,” Dale Leavay said. “It was very inspirational.”
Before long, strangers began reaching out to Ms. Leavay by the dozen to express gratitude for her contribution to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. A couple in upstate New York whose son has leukemia contacted The Golden Notes. The group, whose next concert is May 5 at St. Rose, plans to dedicate the entire concert to the boy.
“They’re driving an hour and a half to see us, so that’s really exciting,” Ms. Leavay said.
“I want to make cancer patients feel comfortable with their baldness,” she continued. “They shouldn’t be embarrassed by it.”
It’s something Ms. Leavay is learning to become comfortable with herself.
Her mermaid hair is part of the past now; so too are the funny sea urchin comparisons. Now Ms. Leavay’s friends type a single word when commenting on Facebook photos of her shaved head: beautiful.