Friday, September 2, 2011


By Stephen SPAZ Schnee

     Although he’s never had a hit single, a blockbuster motion picture or a hit television sitcom, Vidal Sassoon is more than just a name on a shampoo bottle. In fact, Vidal is just as important to pop culture as any musician, actor, fashion designer or director. From the beginning of his hairstyling days in the ‘50s to the peak of his popularity in the ‘70s, Vidal not only changed the way we look at hair, he changed the way we look at each other…and feel about ourselves. He gave us the freedom to express who we were… and all it took was a pair of scissors!
     While his endless creativity and boundless energy made him a media superstar, Vidal Sassoon, the man, revolutionized the hairstyling industry. He became the face of a new generation of hairstylists, yet he never lost his passion for his craft, always searching for ways to create something new and exciting. In the process, Vidal shared his knowledge, his ideas and his passions with those around him, building the Sassoon empire one snip at a time.
     From his humble beginnings in a British orphanage to fortune, fame and countless appearances on television, Vidal managed to stay humble, gracious and grounded. He worked hard, but had fun along the way. Even when he became tabloid fodder, he used his celebrity to promote a positive and healthy lifestyle (of which he still practices to this day at the age of 83). He has lived through thousands of fads and trends yet he still remains as iconic and as relevant as ever.
     Four years ago, his friend and former stylist Michael Gordon approached him about putting together a documentary on his life. Along with director Craig Teper, Gordon created Vidal Sassoon: The Movie, an inspiring look at Vidal’s amazing life. Both as a film and as a tribute to Vidal, it is a brilliant piece of work. It not only mixes modern interviews with Sassoon, his friends and co-workers, it also features vintage footage dating back 50 years and more. The visuals are striking and lovely, the music is fantastic and Sassoon himself will charm even the most hardened (and bald) viewer. This is what a documentary is all about.
     Stephen SPAZ Schnee managed to sit down for a chat with Vidal himself. They joined by longtime Sassoon fans and industry vets, Lauren Watt and Veronica F. Nino. During the conversation, Vidal was gracious and spoke with pride about this new film that is certain to introduce the magic of Sassoon to a whole new generation…

SPAZ: You’ve got Vidal Sassoon: The Movie being released. How are you feeling about the film and everything leading up to it?
VIDAL SASSON: It was fascinating. I can be very objective about this because I didn’t do it! I was writing my autobiography, writing it myself, and that took all my time. But a great friend, Michael Gordon, who actually created Bumble & Bumble and brought it to New York and made a big company out of it (and eventually sold it to Este Lauder)… Michael is a perfectionist. He came to me about four years ago and said “I want to give you a birthday present for your 80th birthday.” I said “Hmmm… I don’t need anything,” and he said “No, I want to make a documentary!” And it became more and more interesting… and the reason it became more and more interesting is because Michael actually took over. His director, Craig Teper, was absolutely superb. I say this because I had nothing to do with it! Had I been the guy who directed it, I couldn’t say all this. But of course, I’m in it and anytime they asked me, I was there, but the direction and the elegance that they put into this has made me feel incredibly proud. I just think it’s something very, very special.

SPAZ: Was this the first time you were approached about making a true comprehensive documentary on your life? I’m surprised that something like this didn’t happen a lot sooner…
VIDAL: It was the first time. I trusted Michael and Craig so much, there was no afterthought. I knew they would a good job and, when I saw it, I thought “Wow, you haven’t let me down. You’ve done a very good job!” Without them, it would not have come out anywhere near as well as it did, so I owe them a lot.

SPAZ: I was really inspired by the fact that, throughout the film as you reflect on your life and accomplishments, there is a great amount of pride in your words and absolutely no arrogance.
VIDAL: Arrogance usually brings what you’re doing to another place… and it’s usually a lesser place. It’s much better to have a sense of “Is this gonna work out? Is it going to happen?” Have doubt… but know what you are doing.

SPAZ: Some may not view hair and/or hair dressing in the same light as fashion, music, art or filmmaking, yet people connect with it in exactly the same way. Was it difficult to break down these barriers… or did it all seem to fall into place naturally (no pun intended)?
VIDAL: At the very beginning, it was very difficult. Hairdressers weren’t strong in any area, certainly not the art area, and we had to work for that. We had to work very hard to develop in a way that our work would be appreciated as art.

SPAZ: Like Elvis, The Beatles, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and other artistic greats, your work is not only a part of our pop culture past, it is also part of our present and will definitely be our future as well. Back in the ‘50s, did you even think for a moment that you’d be sitting here, six decades later, as relevant as ever?
VIDAL: Well, I knew we had to change the craft and this was in the mid ‘50s. I knew we had to change it! And working our way through the ‘60s, we did change it. It was a tremendous change from what was happening a decade before. It’s very interesting because you are talking to me, but if you talk to hairdressers who got into it and are still with it and being creative around our cuts, our looks, the way we work… you’ll find we have an enormous fan base. At the moment, we have two academies in Shanghai, believe it or not, which is very exciting… very exciting!

SPAZ: Much is mentioned in regards to art and architecture as having an effect on you, but did music have any effect on your creativity?
VIDAL: Oh, very much so. I was very fortunate in knowing people that could help me in these areas. I went with Zubin Mehta to Berlin to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. Three days later, we were in Israel, where he was conducting the Israeli Philharmonic. I was very lucky, music-wise. For my 50th birthday party, the company got the Basie band when the Count was still alive. It was at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. It was absolutely mobbed with 800 people, 750 of them I never saw again! (laughs) Music was just so special. You know, if you get goose bumps, you’ve got it!

SPAZ: What was your main inspiration in creating those classic hairstyles you are best known for (the five-point, the bob, the pixie, etc)?
VIDAL: The main inspiration was architecture: there’s no question about that. Had I had an education, I would have definitely chosen architecture.

SPAZ: There was a point in your career when you felt that your celebrity had moved away from your hair styling beginnings. Are you content now that it has all come around full circle?
VIDAL: Oh, yes. A good haircut is a good haircut. So many of our top people are trained to give a very good haircut, so it’s nice to see it come full circle.

SPAZ: The film is emotional without being too sentimental and powerful without being preachy. Do you feel that it really does tell the world exactly who Vidal Sassoon was and is?
VIDAL: Yeah, that’s how I felt. When I was talking, that’s how I felt about the craft, what it gave to me in particular, what it’s done for other people. I’m so glad there are lots of other people who have their say. I love that guy that said “I couldn’t work with him… he was crazy!” (laughs)

LAUREN WATT: Just who was it that came up with the catchphrase “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good”? Did you bring in an advertising agency?
VIDAL: That would be Peter Rogers. He came to New Orleans, where I was doing a show. He walked over and was introduced to me and all he said was “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good!” And I went, “You got it!” (laughs), You know, he’s such a gentleman. He’s done so many things. He wrote me a beautiful note thanking me for thanking him. I said, “But Peter, you did it, not me!” You know, you have to give the credit. We did that with our work in the salons. If somebody brought out something new and it wasn’t me, THEY got the credit. I think that was part of our success. But Peter did an extraordinary job with that line.

SPAZ: The film is quite inspiring on so many levels. From overcoming your years spent in an orphanage to building and maintaining an empire based upon your passions, what would you want the viewer to walk away with?
VIDAL: The respect for the craft, no question about that. And a sense of the artistry that goes into the work. That’s very important.

LAUREN: Did you ever see the movie Shampoo?
VIDAL: Of course.
LAUREN: What did you think of it? I was wondering if that was based on you.
VIDAL: No, it was based on Gene Shacove, a dear friend who was the top hairstylist in Los Angeles. He was really terrific. Robert Towne (screenwriter) followed him around for a couple of weeks. Gene used to put the hairdryer in his back pocket and go from door to door. He was a wild man, but I loved him. He had such great style and he was excellent at what he did. First class. So, Shampoo was based on Gene. Of course, (Warren) Beatty put his own personality into it as well.

SPAZ: What’s next for Vidal Sassoon?
VIDAL: (Laughs) Well, I’ll be 84 next birthday (January). I don’t think I’ll be doing another book too soon. That was hard work! In London, they said to me “We’ll find you the best ghost (writer)” and I said “Uh-uh. I’m writing this myself.” And it was like learning a new craft, and that was very exciting. You can go on to the very end of your existence and you can be learning things. Writing the book myself without a ghost was like learning a new craft. Very exciting!

SPAZ: What is currently spinning in your CD and DVD players?
VIDAL: That is interesting. I’ve got, believe it or not, Sinatra with the Pied Pipers and Tommy Dorsey. It’s just a great disc. Billy Eckstine was one of my real favorites. And, of course, Ellington. Ellington brought the symphony to Jazz.

Thanks to Vidal Sassoon
Special thanks to John Raisola, Lauren Watt and Veronica F. Nino

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