There are eight gray toupees hovering like a fleet of saucers in a glass trophy case mounted to the wall of Joseph Paris’ corner office overlooking midtown Madison Avenue. The pelts belonged to Mr. Paris’ most loyal client: Frank Sinatra.
Mr. Paris, 72, knows his way around a piece.
“Toupee, hair piece, hair graft, whatever name they come up with next to call it,” he said from the confines of a beautiful leather chair behind a large, expensive-looking mahogany desk. “They’re all selling the same thing.”
Name a male public figure with a suspicious hairline, and chances are Mr. Paris has measured his scalp from all four sides: Burt Reynolds, Charlie Sheen (it was for a movie—before Mr. Sheen started wearing a toupee in real life). Not, however, Peter Orszag, the 41-year-old director of the Office of Management and Budget, whose surprising prowess with the female gender has brought attention to the furry suitcase balanced on the top of his head.
“He looks ridiculous!” Mr. Paris cried, when I pulled up the gotcha! photo gallery published on the Huffington Post. “If he ever gets stranded on an island, he better be careful. After awhile, eagles are gonna start circling that thing.”
Despite Rogaine, Propecia, Monasta and plugs, the rug trade is busier than ever, with the non-surgical hair-enhancement market clocking in at about $500 million a year. New York City, sometimes referred to within the biz as the Big Toupee, accounts for one-fifth of that pie. Mr. Paris said his shop has done over a million for two years running, with a client base of about 4,200—though that’s including his lady clients.
If you suspect a little something is going on, it probably is. Google it. Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey. Ding. Ding. What’s Ashton Kutcher hiding under that exquisitely tousled but eternally swept forward mop?
“John Travolta, my God, he looks like Bela Lugosi with that crown on his head,” Mr. Paris quipped.
How does the big show go down with that thing on?
“It’s the first question men ask when they come in here,” Mr. Paris said. “They say, ‘Can I sleep in it?’ What they mean is, ‘Can I fuck in it?’” Dammit, man, you can swim in it!
Mr. Orszag appears to be a fan of a certain bonding (“medical adhesive” is the preferred description) technique. “It’s just not right,” Mr. Paris said. “There isn’t a person living who doesn’t want to put something on and never take it off. But all I can say is that it’s like wearing the same underwear for a month. First of all, they bond it in a perimeter, and when you shower, because you can’t take it off and it’s bonded, the soap residue, the soap stuff goes through the lace and gets trapped by the bonding that’s all the way around.” Add perspiration to the mix: “You’ll smell like third base after the third week. Excuse the expression. It’s a sanitary situation.”
Mr. Paris prefers the clip. “Look how simple it would be to take on and take off just by doing this.” He unsnapped and set his own ever-so-delicate hair Frisbee on his desk. Amazing. “The secret to the most natural-looking hair system: If you can’t read a newspaper through it—that’s how thin it should be.
With mass-manufactured wigs, you wind up looking like the Fonz. “You’re like, ‘Whoa, what happened? That’s way too much hair.’ So you tell the guy to thin it out. He tells his barber, ‘Please thin it out.’ Now you’ve made long hairs and short hairs. You’re fine if you’re in a controlled atmosphere, but when you go out into the wind, the long ones blow up and you don’t feel it. The short ones come up. The short ones act like the support beams on a house. So you go into a restaurant with your wife and you say, ‘Order me a drink while I go to the toilet and see what the wind did to me.’ So now your whole world revolves around how much hair spray you’ve got to use the next day.” Also, nobody’s hair is one solid color, and so you need highlights, low lights to make it look natural. “Half of these idiots, it’s like trying to wear somebody else’s eyeglasses or dentures because they buy them ready-made and not custom-made.”
BEFORE HE OPENED up his own shop, Mr. Paris used to go around on behalf of the House of Revlon educating women on how to wear their wigs, what makeup to use, etc. Before that, he was an award-winning hairdresser. The other day, one of his secretaries found a Polaroid showing a 19-year-old Joey Paris holding a trophy: first prize out of all the barbers in Brooklyn.
“It was not a manly profession,” he said.
Mr. Paris grew up Joseph Guarnera in Bensonhurst. His mother worked in a coat factory. Dad was a butcher. Didn’t talk to his son for two years after his decision to take up the shears instead of the knife. “There were more gays who evolved to be hairdressers in those days than straight people. Now it’s whoever, whatever you want to be whether you’re gay or straight, shirt and tie, collars and cuffs. It doesn’t matter.”
Joey didn’t graduate high school. Nowadays, he listens to his surgeon clients whine when he’s carving out a mold: “‘I went to school for eight years and you’re cutting paper dolls and charging me $3,600 for a hairpiece.’”
Mr. Paris’ passion might have something to do with his suffering alopecia areata, which means spotted baldness—as opposed to totalis, which means you’re screwed—since age 14. The doctors told him it was stress.
At the International Beauty Show, an executive from Clairol offered him a job, on the condition that he change his name. He traveled around to various department stores across the country teaching the beauty technicians how to hide a wig. “Betty White. Marlo Thomas. Miss Sweden. They would get a celebrity to draw the women into the store. “