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. “
Soon Glendy Company, a wig wholesaler, came a-sniffin’, with the promise of a Thunderbird and fancy hotels.
“I would go around teaching people who would open up franchises and wanted to know how to cut and style wigs; I would educate them. I then finally said, ‘Why am I educating them?’”
He opened his own salon on Queens Boulevard, and soon expanded into Newark and surrounding areas. After several years, he ceased with the women’s wigs, opening a salon across from Bloomingdale’s in 1972.
At that time, he was also breaking into the motion picture union. “I was doing Naked City. There was only one woman on the set. So I would do her in like a half-hour, and meanwhile I would do nothing all day long. So I would get these young actors coming in wearing hairpieces and I’d say, ‘My God. You’ve got enough hair in there for three people. Let me cut it down.’”
In the late ’70s, he was working for the House of Revlon and doing Perry Como specials. “Once I got into the union, Mr. Sinatra asked me to do his last movie, which was called The First Deadly Sin. So I get there and I’m doing Faye Dunaway’s hair, and he walks in with an entourage and says, ‘What are you doing with her, Joe? You’re with me. Hire somebody else to take care of her.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ The first day of the movie, he said, ‘Joe, I’m tired of spraying my head with the powder. I had the hair transplants. I want you to make me a hairpiece.’
Frank Sinatra had blessed Mr. Paris’ life for a long time. “I was always a fan of his growing up,” he said. “I had his albums all over my basement.”
They became friends after meeting at a party thrown by Mr. Sinatra’s bodyguard, Jilly Rizzo.
“They’ve got Tito Puente wailing away. Our table is right next to the band. Life magazine is there. The astronauts are sitting at the table. I’m sitting there with my 18-year-old wife.” Mr. Paris was 20, maybe 22. “Jilly says, ‘Grab my wife and follow me in five minutes,’ because the band was so loud. I didn’t know that they had a code. Sinatra says, ‘I think it’s going to rain,’ and they both get up. That was the cue for them to leave, everybody at the table. He said, ‘Joe, follow me in five minutes.’” They went up to some rich guy’s apartment with a pool table and a Jacuzzi in his bedroom. “I’ve never seen things like that. Now it’s like 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. My wife, her head was hitting the table. She was falling asleep. I said, ‘Jilly, I have to go.’ He said, ‘Take my wife with you,’ in a full-length Chinchilla coat. A diamond the size of a flashlight. He says, ‘Keep an eye on my wife downstairs with your wife and I’ll be down in a minute,’ So I’m running my keys through the thing and the girls are talking and all of a sudden the doors open and I see the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen, my idol, face to face. No voice came out. I just went, ‘Frank Sinatra,’ in total awe. He said, ‘This is the best Sicilian you’re ever going to meet, Frank. Say hello to Joey Paris.’ ‘Hiya, Joey.’ We got in a cab, went home. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow, Joey.’ I was like, ‘What time, where?’ I would’ve been anywhere he wanted me to be. I went to London with him. I went to Sweden. I went to Ireland with him.”
IT WAS IN the steam room at the Sands hotel that he discovered he’d made it into Sinatra’s inner circle. Frank was staying at the hotel and randomly decided, as was his way, that he would own the place for the next two weeks. “No strangers!’”
“Jilly said to me, ‘Come on down. We shave. We have chicken soup down there until Frank is ready to go on.’ So it was just a jam session, chit chat. But when Sinatra looks at the owner and says, ‘I thought that I told you I want this place for the next two weeks. Who are those two guys under the sheets?’ ‘Oh, Mr. Sinatra, those are the Righteous Brothers.’ ‘Rights brothers, wrong brothers, get them the fuck out of here.’ I turned to Jilly and I said, ‘Hey, I’ll see you later,’ and I’m ready to leave. He said, ‘Where you going, Joey?’”
After First Deadly Sin, he started working with Mr. Sinatra privately. It would be: “‘Joe, I’m having dinner with the Rockefellers tonight.’ So after the set he would go home, take a shower and then I would put the piece [back] on for him.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. The ’80s were the gilded decade of the toupee trade.
The boom years were followed by a tremendous bust, says Andrew Wright, CEO of one the country’s biggest wholesalers of prefabricated … “hair grafts, please, not hairpiece.” He spoke on the condition that I not mention the name of his company, which is based out of Fort Lauderdale. Gone are the days of brand-name recognition, let alone acknowledging the wig’s legitimate right to exist. The hairpiece took a bath in the early ’90s. It was the dawn of a new absolutism: Two options: Own it à la Bruce Willis in Die Hard, or shave it. Anything in between is the province of pathetic freaks, sexual deviants and—perish the thought!—extremely vain men. The catalyst was the advent of the shave-it option. “The Michael Jordan moment or whatever you want to call it,” Mr. Wright said.
What about transplants? Mr. Paris has tried them, but doesn’t recommend.
“They went too deep and they hit a nerve. It’s a little bee sting. The bee that stung me was the size of Cleveland. I went”—he moaned—“from the pain. If my girlfriend hadn’t been standing by there, I would’ve screamed, but I just pressed my head against the table and bit the bullet. It’s a band-aid on a hemorrhage.”
His is a finer art.
“When you raise your eyebrows and frown, that actually tells you where your hairline used to be. That’s what we trace, and we put two small laced pieces, made out of angora. It’s very simple. You don’t have to shave your whole head to get the look that you want.”
He has nothing but scorn for the ready-made rugs. “Like, ‘Give me one 7 by 9, one 7 by 10.’ They pull it out of a box and tell the guy ‘ready in three weeks.’ That’s what they’re getting away with. There was actually a Web site, hairclubsucks.com. Just horrible how they’re ripping people off. But a word to the wise is that if they took a measurement of your head, when you go to pick up your hairpiece, place the measurement, the custom measurement that they took, and put it into the hairpiece. It better be like a fingerprint. If not, you know that they’re selling you a stock item.”
Mr. Paris understands that his trade has a certain … stigma. “Let’s put it to you this way: If I said to you ‘toupee,’ what kind of image do you conjure up? Heil Hitler, right? Something that you can spot right away.”
He did not do Hitler’s toupee. He did do King Hassan II of Morocco and Chris Meloni of Law and Order.
Mr. Paris plunked his own soft and flimsy unit into my hand.
“If you want to, I think a little eyebrow in each corner would work well on,” he said, leaning in for a closer look. Why not, no one will notice, just look at his own seamless situation. “Does it look like a hairpiece? If it does you should tell me. … There isn’t a guy who literally doesn’t want a full head of hair. He’s not looking to be a George Clooney. Not at all. He just wants to be himself.”