Documentary was an 80th present for hair legend Vidal

SIMON YAFFE speaks to the most famous hairdresser in the world

IT is apt that the title of a film about Vidal Sassoon should state that he changed the world with a pair of scissors.

Sometimes such platitudes can be merely sycophantic, but in the case of Vidal, nothing could be truer.

He's the man who transformed women's fashion and introduced iconic looks, such as Mary Quant's designer bob.

His is now an established brand, with salons around the world and numerous hairdressing schools.

But in the late 1940s, his hands didn't hold scissors. He was more likely to be holding a gun as he fought for Israel in its first few months of creation.

He also established an antisemitism research centre at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

Sometimes there is a tendency from world-famous names when being interviewed to be coy and closed on subjects broached.

But Vidal is the complete opposite. Open and affable, he is also incredibly articulate and fiercely intelligent.

He's certainly come a long way from a life of abjection in Hammersmith, London, where he was handed over to the Spanish and Portuguese Orphanage by his mother Betty.

Part of the sixties revolution that swept Britain and liberated most of the country's younger women, he told the Jewish Telegraph: "An orphanage could either weaken or strengthen you and with me it was definitely the latter.

"I was there with my brother Ivan and missed being cuddled by mum.

"There was a goyishe school within a hundred yards of the orphanage and I had to endure stuff walking past it.

"Those kinds of experiences definitely make you stronger."

Born to Jack, a Greek-Jewish immigrant from Salonika, and Betty, there's no doubting that a tough childhood shaped him.

Vidal's formative years were spent in poverty, latterly in a tenement in the East End.

His father had walked out on the family - he never saw him again - causing no end of financial and emotional difficulties for his wife and two children.

Vidal's career in hairdressing happened because, he said, his mother had a premonition that he would become a hairdresser.

It all began for him when he was 14 and was taken by her to Adolph Cohen's salon in Whitechapel.

Vidal, now 83, recalled: "In those days hairdressers were the people who could not get jobs anywhere else.

"We had to build respect and by the time the sixties arrived and everything that developed during them, people were crawling out of the woodwork to praise us."

As well as washing hair, Vidal joined the 43 Group with many other Jewish males, determined to fight the hateful antisemitism of Oswald Mosley and his fascist Blackshirts, who began to spread their influence over a heavily Jewish populated East End.

Vidal said: "I have always had a sense of worth in feeling Jewish and have a sense of pride seeing all the great people throughout history that we have produced.

"Something had to be done about Mosley and his followers."

But the catalyst that encouraged Vidal in the Jewish fight was the Holocaust and subsequent creation of Israel in 1948.

He explained: "The Jews had to fight for a piece of land and make it work out of the ashes of the Holocaust.

"I was determined to go and mum didn't mind because she was an ardent Zionist."

Joining the Palmach months after the formation of Israel in May 1948, he saw his pals become casualties while fighting the Arabs.

"It was hard to take," he explained. "We had to endure snipers and shells from them and it was tough.

"There were four 'Anglos', as they called us, me, Shimmy Goldberg, Colin Fisher and a Jewish boy called Jack from Australia and we lived on a kibbutz."

But Vidal decided to return to Britain and make a real go of a hairdressing career, and, in the mid-1950s opened his first salon on Bond Street, central London.

"Without wanting to sound presumptuous, I was determined that myself and my hairdressers were not going to give our clients what I considered to be old-fashioned styles," Vidal said.

"We'd had years of backcombing and lacquering and I wanted to change that - I had to take command."

The hairstyles created by him relied on dark, straight and shiny hair cut into geometric - yet organic - shapes.

And 1963 was pivotal because that was when he created the angular, short hairstyle cut on a horizontal plane that was to become the bob cut.

He said: "I knew this was what I wanted and I knew that if I wanted to make changes then it had to be done a certain way.

"I had so much passion in me and I remember going crazy once and throwing my scissors up to the ceiling - they stuck.

"I went off to Paris for two weeks to get my head together and to decide whether I wanted to continue. I did."

Back then, there were a number of Jews involved in hairdressing.

Vidal recalled: "There was Harold Leighton and Joshua Galvin, both good Jewish boys, and, later on, Michael Gordon."

In fact, it was Gordon who produced the film on Vidal, How One Man Changed the World with a Pair of Scissors.

"I'd just celebrated my 80th birthday and Michael said he wanted to give me a present: a documentary of my life," recalled Vidal, who divides his time between London and Los Angeles.

"I didn't think he was being serious, but knowing Michael I knew he would do a first-class job.

"Him and the crew truly went to town on it."

The film took three years to make and features candid interviews with Vidal, as well as with former staff, family members, and historians, exploring his life and legacy.

Israel remains one of his passions and it was there that he helped to create the Vidal Sassoon International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University.

It came about thanks to his friendship with lecturer Yehuda Bauer.

Vidal said: "Yehuda approached me about it and I thought it was a marvellous idea.

"Israel is criticised so much, yet its Arabs live well and there are many Arab students at the university."

And his involvement with Israel's cause led him to recruiting the actress Elizabeth Taylor as a would-be peace envoy.

"I ended up putting her in touch with Simcha Dinitz, a friend of mine, who was an Israeli politician," Vidal continued.

"She went to Israel and Simcha picked her up from Lod Airport, which later became Ben-Gurion.

"Elizabeth was there to discuss political issues with cabinet ministers, but everyone wanted to meet her - she was Elizabeth Taylor, after all.

"I did give her a 10 out of 10 for trying, though."

Vidal Sassoon: How One Man Changed the World with a Pair of Scissors is released in cinemas today. Vidal: The Autobiography is published by Macmillian.

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph