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Vidal Sassoon, Untangled

The most famous hairdresser of all time, now 83 and celebrated in a new documentary, opens up about Farrow, O’Toole, Warhol and his impact on Hollywood.
Joe Pugliese

Before Vidal Sassoon came along during the swinging ‘60s, women’s hair was caught in a Mad Men world. “Women were going to the salon three or four times a week. They had big hair. They were sleeping in rollers,” says Craig Teper, director of the new biodoc Vidal Sassoon: The Movie, which opens Feb. 11 in New York and Feb. 18 in Los Angeles.

The London-born hairdresser upended all of that. As the movie stylishly demonstrates, Sassoon can rightly be called a design revolutionary. The short, geometric hairstyles he invented were so low-maintenance as to be genuinely liberating. “He actually helped create the social revolution of the ‘60s,” Teper says. “Women no longer had to spend hours and hours a week on their hair, which allowed them to be more competitive with men.”

Inspired by the clean lines of midcentury architecture, Sassoon took hair into the modern era. In 1967, he made headlines when he chopped off Mia Farrow’s flowing Peyton Place locks to create the iconic, astoundingly cropped pixie cut she wore in Rosemary’s Baby. His most famous design was the five-point cut, which was first modeled by Vogue fashion editor Grace Coddington, the scene-stealer of another recent fashion-world documentary, The September Issue.

Today, the charming, spry Sassoon -- who also has a book, Vidal: The Autobiography, coming out in April -- lives in a glass-box Neutra house in Bel-Air with his wife of 19 years, Ronnie. THR spoke with him about the Hollywood highlights of a career that took him from a tiny third-floor London salon to an empire (since sold) of salons, haircutting schools and products -- marketed, of course, under the slogan, “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.”

How did you end up doing Mia Farrow’s famous haircut?

Roman Polanski was a friend, and he called me and said, “Would you like to come to Hollywood and cut Mia Farrow’s hair for Rosemary’s Baby?” I said, “Roman, I did it about six weeks ago.” He said, “Yes, but there’s always something to take off.” And of course I went to Hollywood. She was Mrs. Sinatra at the time, and suddenly all this press showed up.

Just to document the haircut?

It was on television. It was in all the newspapers. It was at Paramount, Studio 13, I think, and it was in a boxing ring they had on set. The press was supposed to stay out of the ring and photograph from there. Well, that lasted about two minutes. There was one guy under the chair photographing upwards. It was a total madhouse.

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Were people shocked by your innovations?

Yeah, Barbara Walters. I did the morning show, and she was really shocked by the work. She said I was making beautiful women look like boys. She gave me an award for making women look ugly on the show. And I gave her the award for retrogressive thinking. It was very playful.

Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner were your clients. Why didn’t they ever go short?

They were known for a certain look. It wouldn’t have worked. That would have been like giving the queen of England a great geometric cut -- which, by the way, I would have loved to do.

Was there anyone else who got away?

Princess Radziwill was my client, and she’d always tease me, ‘I’m bringing in my sister.’ Well, the president’s wife [Jacqueline Kennedy] never came.

Did being a celebrity hairstylist ever go to your head?

There was no room for thinking I was special. I was always thinking of what I was going to do next and would it be successful and would I make a mess of it. I was reading Montaigne one day, and he said something rather beautiful: “However high you think you sit on the throne, you are still sitting on your own behind.”

Did you ever get starstruck?

My second wife, Beverly, made movies where she had second and third billing with Dean Martin. We were invited to all kinds of wonderful parties in Hollywood. But to be honest with you, my heroes were the great architects of my time. If I had gone to college, I would have studied architecture.  

HOLLYWOOD STYLE: A look at some of Sassoon’s more famous cuts.

Mia Farrow
Roman Polanski, director of 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, invited reporters to Paramount to witness Sassoon cut the actress’ hair for her role in the film. The stylist was paid $5,000 for his work, but Frank Sinatra -- Farrow’s soon-to-be ex-husband -- was rumored to be furious with how short her hair was. “I think he found the haircut boyish,” says Craig Teper, director of Vidal Sassoon: The Movie.

Grace Coddington
Long before she became a Vogue fashion editor, Coddington was known as the model who first sported Sassoon’s landmark five-point cut. The style tapered to two points in front of the ears, two right behind them and one in the back. “Ater I gave her the cut, she went to Paris for the collections,” Sassoon recalls. “There were hundreds of models from all over the world, and they were coming over and touching her hair, saying ‘Where can I get this haircut?’ And she said, ‘You’ll have to fly to London.’ ”

Aandy Warhol
Legendary ad man Peter Rogers, who came up with Sassoon’s famous tagline, recruited Warhol to pitch Vidal Sassoon hairspray in a print ad in the mid-’80s. “I couldn’t believe it,” Sassoon says. “I’d never met him before, and suddenly I’m having dinner with Andy Warhol.” For better or worse, the hairdresser can’t take credit for the artist’s trademark shock of white hair; Warhol wasn’t a client. “I never cut his hair,” Sassoon says. “I’d honestly tell you if I did.”

Peter O’Toole
Sassoon cut the actor’s hair for his Oscar-nominated role in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia. Columbia Pictures, which sent O’Toole to Sassoon’s salon, wanted his hair lightened. “We did his color and, boy, did those blue eyes shine,” Sassoon recalls. “His wife, Sian Phillips, a Welsh actress, picked him up, and they went for dinner. When they walked in, every head turned, and they were led to a table where John Gielgud was waiting. Just as they were sitting down, Gielgud said, ‘Any prettier and they’d have to call it Florence of Arabia.’ “

Nancy Kwan
Three years after the actress became a star in The World of Suzie Wong, Sassoon was hired to cut Kwan’s hair for 1963’s The Wild Affair. She arrived at his salon with four feet of hair. “She could almost sit on it,” says Sassoon, who gave her an architectural style that would become world famous. “As I started to cut, Nancy began playing chess with her manager, and she wouldn’t look up.”

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