Revisiting a conversation with Vidal Sassoon
When the news arrived that Vidal Sasson died today at his Mulholland Drive estate, at 84, after battling a long illness some media outlets have reported as leukemia, I thought back to my interview last year with the loquacious hairdressing pioneer, who went so far as to admit that even he had bad hair days. The charming fashion icon—the inventor of the geometric bob —blessedly didn’t say a word about my own casual ponytail. Instead, we talked about his gritty Sephardic roots and his meteoric professional journey, as well as his work as a Jewish philanthropist who established the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Here’s revisiting my Q & A with Sassoon:
The occasion was the release of “Vidal Sasson The Movie” on Feb. 18, 2011 in Los Angeles—a documentary that served as a birthday present for Sassoon from his friend Michael Gordon, a giant of the hair product industry.
The film—and the conversation—recounts Sassoon’s seven years in a Sephardic orphanage; how he fought in the British anti-fascist Brigade, served in Israel’s War of Independence; and returned to London to start a career that would make him the most recognized hairdresser on the planet.
An ode to Sassoon, the film lauds the stylist for virtually transforming the hair and fashion industry with his revolutionary, geometric haircuts; his celebrity clients and his refusal to pander to old-fashioned tastes. Here’s how he handles less-than-stellar hair days: “I simply run my hand through it and let it [be],” he said.
NPM: Did you request any kind of supervision over the final edit of the documentary?
VS: I didn’t want to. First of all, at the time I was writing my memoir (“Vidal: The Autobiography”) which took sometimes five or six hours a day, and after that you’re brain dead. So had I tried to be involved in editing the film, I might have done all the wrong things. I probably would have been more of a hindrance than a help.
NPM: What has it been like to revisit your childhood for these projects?
VS: The film has caused a lot of people to say, “Do you mean to say you were in an orphanage for seven years, and that you lived in a tenement in the East End?” And all these things are true.
My mother had it very hard. My father wasn’t very good for anything except for the ladies. He spoke seven languages and I think he had sex in all seven. If he had a day’s winnings, he might leave a couple of pounds on the table from the horses or the dog (races).
When I was 2-and-a-half and my brother was just under 1 year old, we were being evicted because our father had left us. My mother was so embarrassed that in the middle of the night she packed us all up and we went to the East End, White Chapel, which was really the Jewish ghetto, and my Auntie Kate, a lovely lady, took us in. It was just two rooms in a tenement, in the middle of winter, so if you wanted to go to the [bathroom] you rushed to the end of the corridor where the toilet was, hoping that someone had just sat there so the seat was warm.
NPM: How was it that you went to live in an orphanage?
VS: My aunt’s daughters were growing up, and they needed more privacy. So the orphanage, which was run by the Sephardic community, was the best thing to do. At one point, I ran away. Unfortunately, I didn’t know my mother’s new address, so I ran to my father, who took me straight back to the orphanage. It was quite obvious that he had no love or care for me; I could tell as he was turning away he had something else on his mind, probably a girl. And that was the last time I saw him.
NPM: In the documentary, you mention that you enjoyed singing in the choir in the synagogue next door to the orphanage.
VS: Yes. And of course, when you’re in the orphanage, you miss your mum, because you were only allowed to see her once a month. But she would come to the synagogue on Saturday mornings and wave to me from the balcony.
NPM: She was the one who had the “premonition” that you should become a hairdresser.
VS: I said, “A hairdresser? What will my friends think?” Because in those days, that profession had no status at all. But you never said “no” to my mother – if you did, you’d get a very good talking to. And she was very convincing: “learn a craft, learn a trade.” And she took me down to Adolf Cohen’s [salon, for an appreticeship] at 101 White Chapel Road.
NPM: He was very strict with you.
VS: He taught me discipline. He said, “I know you sleep in the bomb shelters [this was during the Blitz], but I want your trousers perfectly creased every morning.” That means you had to put them under a blanket or a sheet and sleep on them every night to get the crease back. And your shoes had to be perfectly clean, and of course your nails had to be impeccable, but that happened after two shampoos anyway.
NPM: How was it that you went to Israel as a young man?
VS: My mother was the strongest Zionist; she used to have Zionistic meetings in the house. I had to stand on the corner to make sure only two people went in at a time, in case we caused a ruckus because it was before Britain left Palestine. An Israeli Palmach officer came to London to talk to us; he said as soon as Britain moved out of Palestine, which was expected in May, there would be a war. By July many of us were there already, and I was in the Israeli army, two months training, the toughest training I’ve ever had in my life. And then we walked one night through the Arab lines to the northern Kibbutzim, and the action started. It was probably the best thing I’ve ever done in my life; I felt so good that after 2,000 years of butchery and barbaric behavior against the Jews, “Never again” had become the slogan.
NPM: So why did you return to Britain?
VS: I got a telegram: “Your stepfather’s had a heart attack, come back and earn a living.” So I was on the next plane to London.
NPM: It took you almost a decade to perfect the Vidal Sassoon look, and your iconic five-point haircut eschewed convention. What did you say to clients who hated it?
VS: “It’ll grow darling, come back as our guest.” Actually I [angered] my very best friend, Georgia Brown, who was a wonderful singer and actress, she originated the role of Nancy in Lionel Bart’s “Oliver.” I cut her hair for an opening night and she said, “You’ve ruined my career,” and left the salon screaming and crying. But I knew it looked good [laughs]. She called me back the following morning and said, “I’m sorry, Vidal, everybody loved it.”
But there were clients who didn’t want what we wanted to do with them, and we made up our minds that we changed the craft and we wouldn’t do the old- fashioned stuff; even though it was terribly pretty, we just wouldn’t do it. They’d come and think they could have their own way and we’d just say (whispers) “Look, we can find you a taxi, and we know just the people who will do your hair beautifully.”
NPM: Who do you think has good hair today?
VS: Victoria Beckham wears a great, really first class [cut], and her friend Katie Holmes. They’re the two best cuts around now. There’s just too much long, hanging hair that hides the bone structure, and hides a beautiful neck and doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.
NPM: Will you be watching the Oscars to see the latest styles?
VS: The latest styles never come out of the Oscars or the awards shows. They come out of fashion shows in Milan, Paris, London or New York. But when I look at the Oscars, the hair you see is a mess, most of it.. The hairdressers are very good, but they don’t have enough time, and also if they had their way they’d cut the hair into a different shape. But with stars, their managers and the idea of “For the next picture I’m going to wear it this way” and blah blah blah, you don’t see the best of hair unfortunately.