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Big Hair

Superchunk: Colorist Brad Johns gets ready to work.  

What Sally Hershberger is to the shag, Brad Johns is to chunks. Buttery chunks. If Martin Short were somehow to get his hair to the silky consistency and sun-kissed color of a 7-year-old Wasp after a summer on Cuttyhunk, dress in all black, and preside, like Leonard Bernstein conducting a symphony, over five foiled heads, the result would be Brad Johns. “I invented the child at the beach,” Johns tells me, by way of introduction. He chops his arms for emphasis but his smooth, creaseless, nutty-tan face remains expressionless. “No one was doing golden until I came along.”

He eyes me carefully. “I do do brown, too. I do.” Johns got his start at the late Cinandre salon in 1977, when the acting career he’d moved to New York to pursue didn’t pan out. “When people would ask for a frosting, I would just tell them I’d rather be poor than frost hair,” he says. “Look, some dermatologists specialize in Botox, some specialize in, like, rashes. I chunk.”

Johns has done many celebrity chunks—James King, Vanessa Redgrave—but it wasn’t until the buttery chunks that he really hit it big. As far as color is concerned, few heads were as envied as Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s. Long and flaxen, her hair was the ultimate embodiment of very expensive, totally high-maintenance, and completely laid-back. “C.B.K. had the best hair in the world,” says Plum Sykes, a dedicated student of glamorous hair. “The ultimate.”

Johns was so proud of his work that Kennedy’s lawyers eventually had to issue a cease-and-desist to get him to stop waxing about it, but in the end it didn’t really matter. The look he’d come up with—“it doesn’t have to look natural, it just has to look fabulous”—was just too famous.

Johns’s attempt at his own salon didn’t work out, so instead he went mass. Clairol signed him to a deal as the brand’s spokesperson. And a few years ago, Avon hired Johns to headline its salon in the Trump building on Fifth Avenue. Wandering its triple-wide hallways and gargantuan waiting area, I don’t feel like I’m in midtown Manhattan. I feel like I’m in an Orange County country club, the kind of place to freshen you up after a day on the links. There are no hard edges, there is nothing that’s not beige.

It’s not surprising, then, that Johns claims a lot of his clients come from elsewhere. He even goes on the talk-show makeover circuit to urge viewers to ask their communities to come on a “color tour” (he charges from $150 to $300—“it’s just so easy, I can’t charge more!”) to New York and into his chair.

“I would follow Brad anywhere,” says Nina Griscom, who’s been a Johns blonde for ten years. “Avon is a little bit, let’s see . . . democratic.” She offers a delicate pause. “But I’ve never had a bad experience there.”

“By the way,” Johns tells me, regarding my untreated hair like a fungus, “colorists are not people who do color. We’re artists. It’s like, I’m a Picasso, Sharon’s a Matisse. Someone else might be a Gauguin.

“People come to us not to get their hair done. People come to us to buy one of our paintings. Your head is my canvas.”

I ask Kenneth Battelle what he thinks of such grand proclamations. “Oh, come on,” he says. “And when he’s not being a great artist, he’s working on his face to get it to look like Lee Radziwill.”

But Johns understands that the collector of Abstract Expressionism, say, may not be in the market for an old master. “I don’t weave color,” Johns says. And to that end, he’s more than glad to turn clients away. “Sharon weaves color. If someone comes to me looking for woven, I send them to Sharon. If someone goes to Sharon and says, ‘Big! Bold! Gold!’ she sends them to me.”

By Sharon, Johns means Sharon Dorram-Krause. She’s every bit the success that he is—Renée Zellweger, Kate Hudson, Uma Thurman, Linda Evangelista are all devoted to her—but she’s far more mellow. Often considered the Sally Hershberger of color (both headline John Frieda salons and share many clients), she looks a lot like the women she keeps blonde: trim and clear-skinned, with a dazzling collection of diamonds. She wears Helmut Lang loafers, looks divine in a Narciso Rodriguez shift, and is married to a handsome German businessman who drives a vintage Mercedes when the couple are at their house in Water Mill.

“I was a little intimidated to go to Sharon Dorram-Krause,” says Carol Brodie. Brodie is the spokesperson for Harry Winston diamonds and a makeover television regular—she works on Extreme Makeover, and she’s a juror on E!’s Style Court. “It’s like a little club,” she continues. “The woman who goes to Sharon is very chic. You can’t go to Sharon if you only want good hair. You go to Sharon if everything about you is perfect. If you don’t have a good look, why would you go to Sharon?”

Much like Hershberger, Dorram-Krause has a background unusual to hairdressing. “I studied fine arts at Bennington,” she tells me, “and then I moved to Italy. I always figured I’d do textiles for Chanel or something like that.” But then a friend taught her how to color hair. It was so similar to the intricate weaving she already knew how to do. And then she started making a lot of money. “And I really just loved it.” She’s never looked back.

“She leads a lifestyle similar to that of a lot of her clients,” says Lisa Errico, formerly a senior publicist at Hermès who found Dorram-Krause ten years ago, after Brad Johns “turned me orange. Yeccch.”

The idea that choosing the right salon is like admission to the right club is not new. Ever since Vidal Sassoon did his famous “Five Point” cut on Grace Coddington in 1964, it became a truth widely acknowledged that certain haircutters were far bigger than just hair. To have a Vidal Sassoon cut was to be a modern kind of girl.

Kenneth Battelle, meanwhile, was bouffing hair in New York, fashioning fabulously immobile hairdos for Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. “I just think about what Halston told me a long time ago,” Battelle says of the cult of celebrity hairdressers. ‘You’re famous because of your clients, not because of you.’ Of course, you can be famous now, I guess, for giving a $600 haircut.” Battelle still cuts hair four days a week. His price is $155.