Vidal Sassoon: The Man
Editors’ Note: This story originally appeared in a 2011 issue of behindthechair.com On Paper.
by Mary Rector-Gable
Some may say that meeting Vidal was just dumb luck. I say it was divine intervention. I often wonder what my life would be like, and where behindthechair.com would be, if I hadn’t been asked by Paula Kent-Meehan to be a judge for the Global Salon Business Awards, if Vidal hadn’t been available for dinner that night and if Hurricane Katrina had never ripped through the Gulf Coast. Looking back, I believe with all my heart that the earth, moon and stars lined up to bring us together—not just to help Katrina victims—but to also help hairdressers. So this is my tribute to one of the most important people in my life. This is my story of Vidal Sassoon—the man.
Mary, Paula and Vidal.
Before we were seated together for dinner at Paula Meehan’s house in 2006, Vidal and I had already met. Well, sort of. About six months earlier, I was sitting in the Alternative Hair Show press box at Royal Albert Hall in London, typing an email on my BlackBerry with one hand and enjoying a glass of red wine with the other. That’s when it happened. This incredible voice from the stage absolutely captivated me. Slow, proper English, perfect inflection and silence at times for effect. When Vidal speaks, you listen, and he immediately had my attention. It’s difficult to explain, but anyone who hears Vidal speak knows they’ve experienced something extraordinary.
Royal Albert Hall was our first encounter. And at that time, I never imagined that less than a year later, I would begin a two-year journey, side-by-side with Vidal, as co-founders of Hairdressers Unlocking Hope. This initiative became one of the beauty industry’s largest charitable efforts, raising over $2 million for Katrina victims, and building 22 homes for those in need.
Vidal left the daily business of the hair industry 12 years ago. Frustrated by what had transpired after the sale of Vidal Sassoon haircare products, he decided to enjoy his life in a different way—quietly in the beauty of southern California. With his wife Ronnie (pictured between him and Mary at right) and their two inseparable Shih Tzus, they live in an iconic 1959 Richard Neutra house in the hills of Bel Air with a breathtaking view. Vidal has shared the last twenty years with Ronnie. We often measure a person by who they share their life with, and Ronnie will never be measured by anyone else’s ruler. She is smart, beautiful and tough.
She’s Vidal’s rock, his sounding board, and because she loves him enough, she’s also his leveler. Six years ago, Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast. Vidal and Ronnie were so moved by the victims’ plights that they decided to build two houses in the devastated area. His desire to help was motivated by his own history. After his mother was evicted from their home she was forced to send him and his brother to live in an orphanage for seven years. He was only five at the time, and I often tried to imagine how sad he must have been to lose his home and be separated from his mother. But try to get Vidal to shed a tear or complain about his experience and you get this: “Oh no! It wasn’t so bad. How many other kids can say they had enough kids in their family to field a football (soccer) team?”
After that dinner at Paula’s house, a few months passed, until one fall day in 2006 my assistant notified me that Vidal Sassoon was on the phone. (I’m not sure I ever got used to hearing those words ring across our office!) He was calling to invite me to join him in New Orleans for the dedication of the two houses he built and donated to Habitat for Humanity. With only two other industry leaders in attendance, it was a very special honor. The experience was extraordinary. We observed a touching ceremony that built up to the moment when the house keys were presented to the families. As Vidal placed the keys into their hands, he kept his composure—but barely. He was clearly moved. Earlier in the day, the children from one of the families raced Vidal from room to room, excitedly pointing out their new bedrooms. I’m sure watching them run merrily through their new home must have brought back so many memories. I know that when he was their age, Vidal, his mother and brother all slept in one room in their aunt’s flat in London.
I will never forget this next moment. Vidal and I were driving back to the airport together and as we traveled over the 23-mile Lake Pontchartrain Bridge toward New Orleans, he stared quietly at the water. Suddenly he turned and looked at me and said with fierce intensity: “We could do this, Mary. We can help these people. We can bring the entire industry together and build houses for Katrina victims. Will you do it with me? Will you be my partner?” A year had gone by since Katrina and to many people, it was already yesterday’s tragedy. How would we ever get an entire industry—with its own agenda and individual charitable causes—to come together for a cause that was already old news? Every bone in my body, every instinct I had was to say “no.” But after seeing those children happily running from room to room, my heart took over. Almost as quickly as he’d asked, I said “yes.”
The next day, I woke up in a cold sweat. And when I arrived at my office that morning, the most beautiful orchids were sitting on my desk. (Did I mention that Vidal does all the right things at just the right times?) There was no turning back. Not now. And if you know Vidal, there never is.
As part of Hairdressers Unlocking Hope, Vidal and Mary built 22 homes and raised more than $2 million for Katrina victims.
Vidal and I met at his home to lay out our strategy. To gauge interest (and potential dollars) for our effort, we decided to arrange VIP events to announce our plans. We scheduled a dinner at Spago in Beverly Hills and a cocktail party at Milk Studios in New York City. Both events were put together with very little time to RSVP, but everyone came. Everyone wanted a moment, a picture, a word with Vidal. They knew they would be in the presence of a living legend. In fact, being in Vidal’s presence left many of the industry’s most powerful hairdressers almost unable to speak—at least in complete sentences. When they met him, they were so overwhelmed and focused on the legend, they often overlooked the man. I believe that one of the main reasons I was able to work so well with Vidal is because I’m not a hairdresser. Vidal expected me to be his partner and friend, which meant making tough decisions, disagreeing at times (can you imagine?) and engaging in pure honesty (which has always been my greatest strength— and my greatest weakness). I had the very rare opportunity to spend nearly two years with Vidal post-hair dynasty, so it would be impossible for me to recount the legend that is Vidal, but I can share a few special moments about the man.
Over the next several weeks, manufacturers, salon chains and independent salons—22 companies in all—each committed to building a house—a $75,000 commitment. As we traveled the country, Vidal and I tag-teamed, raising $2 million in just over a year. Photo shoots in Los Angeles, New York City and London included more than 70 hairdressers who committed an entire day to shoot for our campaign. In the end, we built 22 houses—an entire community—in Louisiana. More than 300 hairdressers traveled to New Orleans to be a part of history.
Vidal is extraordinarily polite and charming. He’s a great conversationalist who focuses all his attention on you. When you get a chance to chat with him for a few minutes, he makes you feel wonderful about yourself. At first, I was concerned about how to get him through a room. Would we need security? Vidal never felt it was needed, and he was right. He is a master of moving through the crowd. When Vidal needs to move on from a conversation, he has a magical way of giving you a few minutes of his undivided attention, then he ends the chat, but you believe you ended it. It’s an incredible gift, one I have yet to master. But if someone asks Vidal for a picture, even in the middle of a dinner, he never refuses. He’s humble and gracious and honored to have been asked.
Here’s another example of his grace and humility. Early in our fundraising, I was acting as a consulting producer for Shear Genius. BTC worked closely with the executive producer and was responsible for organizing the casting calls in six cities. While I’m not a fan of reality TV shows, I felt it was a great way to get national attention for our charity and I recommended Vidal as the guest judge for the finale episode. The shoot day was long. It was the first season, and when they announced the finale “guest” judge, Vidal walked onto the set. The hairdressers were stunned. Daisy Duchens could barely choke back her tears. Ben Mollin couldn’t speak at all; he was in shock. Anthony Morrison glued on a nervous but excited smile. Vidal greeted them and was shocked by their reactions. He actually looked around the room to see if someone more important had walked through the door. (There were many times over the years when Vidal was genuinely surprised by the reactions he caused.)
After the filming broke for lunch, Vidal and I were invited—well, expected—to have lunch with the executive producers and other celebrity talent for the show, while the hairdresser contestants went back to their small trailer to eat by themselves. Vidal had other plans and kindly turned down the lunch invitation. Instead we lined up at the buffet and Vidal filled two plates with food and we began to walk toward the trailer. First, we took a detour and walked over to the driver of the town car who had picked us up earlier and been waiting all day. Vidal handed him a plate full of food and a soda telling him ‘he must be starving by now’ and asked him if there was anything else he could get him. Then, we proceeded to the small trailer. Vidal knocked on the open door and asked if ‘it wouldn’t be too much of an intrusion, could we join them for lunch.’ Dazed, they tidied up and we sat for more than an hour just laughing and sharing stories. They had confessed that in all the weeks of filming, not a single cast member or guest judge had made an effort to get to know them off camera. I’m sure it’s a moment none of them will ever forget and it became very clear to me who and what Vidal really cared about.
You may have heard that Vidal is very disciplined. You may not have heard that I am not. I’m always running late. I’m a bit disorganized and I can always put off working out for another day! Alternatively, Vidal is NEVER, ever late. He’s always well prepared, well organized, well dressed (and pressed) and well fit. While Vidal was never high maintenance, every hotel we stayed in had to have one important amenity—a swimming pool! Each morning, like clockwork, no matter how early our meetings, you could see Vidal out the window swimming lengths in the pool. At 81, he was swimming laps! Vidal was always lecturing me about healthy eating and exercising, and clearly I didn’t pay close enough attention, but he was always an excellent role model. I’m not sure I ever saw Vidal eat anything unhealthy—except once. After dinner one night in New Orleans, hot chocolate with whipped cream (the real kind!) was served in our hotel lobby. He was so disciplined, but after a few glasses of wine, we begged Vidal to take a little sip of the chocolate. We loaded up a cup with whipped cream and as he took a sip, we snapped a picture. Vidal was a real sport. I know he must have felt like a priest eating meat on Fridays (OK, probably not…he’s Jewish), but he acquiesced. I fear he’s still repenting.
Hands down, though, my fondest memory of Vidal’s commitment to discipline happened in the bathroom of his suite while we were reviewing notes for our Stylist Choice Awards presentation in Orlando. I noticed five toothbrushes standing up in a glass cup in the bathroom. My curiosity got the best of me and I asked him about it. He looked at me with complete seriousness and said, “Don’t you use five toothbrushes to brush your teeth?” “Vidal, as a matter of fact,” I told him, “I don’t know anyone who uses two!” I swear he was serious. He patiently guided me through an entire lesson on how each toothbrush was meant to be used and on which teeth and why it’s such a necessary part of his daily ritual. “After all,” he said, “I still have all my own teeth!” Good point.
As we moved from city to city, I always briefed Vidal on the audience, so that his message would be relevant and on target. Vidal is a staunch Democrat. President Bush was in office at the time, and it’s fair to say that Vidal was a not a fan. Vidal would stand onstage and criticize the government’s handling of Katrina. He’d passionately proclaim, “If the government won’t lead the people, the people must lead the government!” Every time he said it, he’d get standing ovations from hairdressers and independent salon owners. But one audience was different. We were in Florida for a chain salon conference and it was a strong Republican audience, full of wealthy salon owners who tended to lean to the right politically. I advised Vidal to tread lightly. At first he did, but then the gloves came off and Vidal went full throttle, speaking about his belief that the government failed in New Orleans. When he hit his crescendo: “If the government won’t lead the people…” the room went silent. No cheers. No standing ovation. The silence was deafening and I held my breath, wondering what Vidal would do next. He said, “Honesty is hard. We may not all have the same beliefs, but we can all believe these people need a place to live. We will show the world how caring hairdressers truly are and that an entire industry can put aside its differences and come together for a common cause.” Vidal taught me an important lesson that day. Honesty is sacred and should never be sacrificed. By the time we left, we had raised more money in that location than almost all other locations combined.
One of the final appearances we made before our first build was at Intercoiffure in October 2007, at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Since we were working with Habitat for Humanity, Vidal had been closely studying Brad Pitt’s efforts to build green housing in New Orleans. While Vidal and I were having breakfast in the hotel, he read in the paper that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were staying in the same hotel! He was excited over our luck; imagine the good fortune! I knew what was coming next. Vidal asked me to schedule lunch with both of them the following day. Do you remember that moment in “The Devil Wears Prada” when Miranda asks her assistant very matter-of-factly to get the new “Harry Potter” manuscript for her twins before it was published? Remember the terror on her assistant’s face? Like Miranda, Vidal was serious. Unfortunately, unlike the movie, the earth, moon and stars did not align on that day for me, and I was unsuccessful.
Vidal and Mary with a family in New Orleans.
Yes, Vidal had very high expectations of me, but I only saw it as a sign of his belief in what I was capable of. Anyone who’s worked with him will tell you the same thing. I believe it’s because Vidal’s expectations of any of us pales in comparison to those he places on himself. Once Vidal makes a commitment, his personal responsibility to living up to that commitment is unwavering—no matter what the cost physically, emotionally or otherwise. It’s why Vidal is so full of praise and support for those close to him. He knows the sacrifice that is required when striving for excellence.
Late in our fundraising, we were flying from city to city, country to country, jumping on and off stages, attending dinners—it was a lot. At one point, I had just arrived home from one of our trips, totally exhausted and drained from trying to manage behindthechair.com and our full-blown charitable efforts. One hour later, Vidal called and said he needed me in Boston that night. I jumped on a plane three hours later and arrived in Boston just in time to open the event. It was not a good choice for me to come. It wasn’t one of my better presentations and I felt I had disappointed Vidal and Ronnie. I was emotionally spent from months of travel. I didn’t show up for dinner that night and I wiped out an entire Kleenex box in my room. I wasn’t answering my hotel or cell phone. Thirty minutes later, there was a knock at my door. It was Vidal. While I’m sure the dinner group was disappointed to lose their guest of honor, his presence meant the world to me—especially when I needed his support the most.
In all the years I’ve known Vidal, he never let adversity get in his way. In fact, the harder anything appeared to be, the more dedicated Vidal was to conquer it. In the movie “Invictus,” Nelson Mandela asked a very profound question: “How do we inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing less will do?” Vidal would simply say, “you just get on with it.”
“Just getting on with it” for Vidal has meant defying the odds in every part of his life. Vidal took yesterday’s tragedy with Hurricane Katrina and raised over $2 million to support those in need. He defied the odds after growing up an orphan, yet single-handedly changed the hair business. It’s not just the hair legacy Vidal Sassoon leaves behind, but it’s also the lessons on how he’s lived his life we can all learn from. I believe that a part of Vidal’s passion and commitment flows through the veins of every hairdresser alive. In some way, he has touched us all. Life is a series of events. When you’re on the right path in life, the world conspires to help you. I was Vidal’s partner in his dream to help Katrina victims in need. But he was also my partner in my crusade to help hairdressers live a better life. With Vidal as my partner, doors opened to a world of hairdressers I may never have known. Vidal’s confidence in me gave each of them the faith to believe in behindthechair. com and our commitment to hairdressers worldwide.
Vidal, we made a great team.
Love Letter to My Team: Thank you for believing you could do the impossible! Because of commitment and hard work, 22 families now have their own house to call home. Vidal and I could not have done it without you! -Mary xo