AP National Writer, New York
"Hair is really funny stuff," John Frieda is saying as he tosses my locks around in his hands, contemplating their state. "Most people don’t like their hair."
I hadn’t thought of it that way, but right now, sitting with one of the more influential figures in hair care history and wearing the same boring center part I’ve had since Jimmy Carter was president, I couldn’t agree more.
But at least I don’t have frizzy hair, I’m thinking, as Frieda examines my tresses. I’m thinking about frizz because this trim, fiftyish man with chiseled good looks and a full head of salt-and-pepper hair—think Ralph Lauren, only British and a decade younger—is famous for being the man who tamed that pesky plague.
A celebrity hairdresser in 1980s London, once married to the Scottish singer Lulu, he coifed clients like Princess Diana (including for her Vogue engagement portrait), Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Raquel Welch, Diana Ross, Farrah Fawcett, one Rolling Stone and three out of four Beatles (John didn’t do much with his hair).
But it was a tiny bottle of caramel-colored goop with the decidedly inelegant name of Frizz-Ease, launched in U.S. drugstore chains in 1991, that brought Frieda fame and fortune, and made life a lot easier for thousands of women.
"It sounds ridiculous to say Frizz-Ease changed women’s lives, but it did," says Linda Wells, editor in chief of Allure magazine. "It really changed the way women approached their hair. A lot of women have frizzy hair, and I knew women who wouldn’t swim, who panicked when it rained. This gave them a solution."
It also spawned hundreds of imitators. From one product, Frieda’s, in 1991, there are now close to 1,000 anti-frizz products, Wells says. It’s a problem that Frieda notes ruefully. "We get copied all the time," he says. "We really need to keep showing consumers what we do. It’s as simple as that."
Which is one reason we find Frieda, who sold his company to Japan’s Kao Corporation in 2002 but remains heavily involved on the creative side, sitting on this recent summer day in a mobile Frieda hair salon, fashioned from an 18-wheel truck. Fitted with everything from sinks to leather couches, it’s parked for a couple of days at Manhattan’s South Street Seaport before promotional stops in cities across the country, ending in Los Angeles in August.
The customers, some walk-ins and others who’ve booked online, are getting free consultations, shampoos and blow-outs from Frieda stylists–and of course samples of the latest line of Frieda products.
Some of these women have frizzy hair. But that’s not my problem, I smile to myself, as Frieda’s quick analysis continues.
"There’s some frizz down here," he says briskly. Darn! Really?
"Nothing a little serum won’t fix, though," he adds. He also says I should create "a little more width" at the top of my face, to counterbalance the width at the bottom. Before I have time to contemplate what "width at the bottom" might mean, we’re interrupted.
"Are you John Frieda?" a young woman calls from a distance as we chat. "You’re inspirational!" She asks that her name not be used because her employer doesn’t know she’s playing hooky. An older woman calls out to him, too: "I use all your products back home in Canada," she says.
Three community college students from Long Island find the time to duck in during a school trip to the seaport. "We made out good," exults Ashley Murphy, 20, her hands full of samples. "He took out some frizz," she says of her stylist. "I’m gonna use the serum. My mom uses it too."
Frieda isn’t doing the actual styling—he hasn’t touched a head of hair since the early ’90s, he says, metaphorically speaking. Before sending me off with the other clients to chief stylist Harry Josh, he reminisces about his start in the business.
The grandson of a London barber and the son of a salon owner, he went to work in his teens with a prominent stylist, Leonard, where he began developing his high-profile clientele.
By the late ’80s, he saw room for growth—not in expanding his namesake salons (he still owns salons in New York, Los Angeles and London) but in hair care products, a business he ran from his salon basement.
With no ad budget, he went on a British TV show to demonstrate a thickening lotion, applying it to a model’s roots and then blow-drying. The results had viewers flooding the phone lines. "The presenter had to ask people to please stop calling," he says. "Boots (the drugstore chain) asked for 1.2 million bottles. And I was running the company from my basement."
On shelves, the lotion cost the equivalent of six or seven dollars, at least twice what other hair products were selling for. What Frieda learned was that women were willing to pay more money for their hair care, especially when it came to frizz.
Another Frieda theory: Treat hair care like skin care, with different products for different types. Until he launched Frizz-Ease in 1991, "there was nothing for frizzy hair, no one even said ‘frizz,’" Frieda says. "We created the category."
Frieda launched other products later, some successful, some not. The 1998 launch of Sheer Blonde was his next big winner. "We had questionnaires, and all the blondes were answering differently from the brunettes," he says. "They were saying, ‘I don’t want to put anything on that will dull my hair.’"
Frizz-Ease remains widely popular and the top seller of the John Frieda line.
"Almost every brand has a product that competes with Frizz-Ease," says Monica Tang, a retail strategist with Kurt Salmon Associates. "Straight hair is still all the rage these days." And frizz remains the No. 1 complaint among women, according to a study Allure did a couple of years ago.
That would surprise no one less than Frieda, who scoffs at the notion that women might ever be ready to embrace the inner wildness of their hair shafts. "Tell me a time," he challenges the questioner, "when women DIDN’T want to control their frizz."
And so I leave, like the others, with a sample of serum, newly aware of my latent frizz. "Hair is really difficult to control," Frieda tells me. "But it’s not rocket science. At the end of the day, it’s just techniques—and a good product."
All images courtesy of the Fashion Spot forums.