If you talk to elite hairdressers long enough, you’ll hear unkind words about all their competitors. Except John Sahag. So I decide to give him a try. At Sahag’s Madison Avenue salon, the mirrors are all flanked by anemic stalks of bamboo. The cement floors and walls are covered by lumpen, gray, papier-mâché “rocks,” through which dribbles the occasional “stream.” Sahag comes out to greet me in skinny leather trousers and a shiny rayon shirt unbuttoned to the belly button. A heavy silver medallion is tangled in his chest hair. On his head is a long brown mullet—he’s since shaved it off—blurred by static electricity. He circles me for a while, reaching out occasionally to run a finger or two through my hair.
“Darling,” he says, smiling encouragingly, “how about some wine?”
When you’re cutting, Sahag tells me, “you’ve just got to go . . . there.” Where? “There.” He puts his hand in the air and waves it vaguely, squinting in the distance, before balling his hand into a fist and bringing it to his heart and smiling. See?
“In ten to fifteen years, everyone in the world will be doing the John Sahag,” he says. What he means is that everyone will cut hair dry, like he does. “When hair is dry, it’s a very visual event. Wet, you’re cutting all the magic away. And there’s nothing like a cut with magic to it. See, when you go there, you create new shapes. And it’s in carving new shapes that you find the unique shape that matches the soul—the cheekiness, the naughtiness.”
He smoothes my hair with a blow-dryer and gets to work. Fifteen minutes later, he’s done. He bows and walks off. A short assistant, who’s been hovering with extra scissors and a deeply concerned expression, whisks me to another chair. He washes my hair, fills it with gel, diffuses it. I spend the ride to the West Village desperately smoothing matters down with the palms of my hand. I call my chic friend Anne. “I think I have a mullet,” I tell her. “Has John Sahag ever cut your hair?”
Anne laughs. “Yeah,” she says. “In the eighties!”
Janet Carlson Freed, the beauty director of Town & Country, is terribly devoted to Sahag. “I knew with an artist like John I would be cheating myself if I told him what to do,” she tells me. So, was she happy with the result? Not right away. “At first, I didn’t understand it. But he has a vision.”
“Here’s the thing about hairdressers in New York, darling,” says Plum Sykes. “There’s a very big difference between who you say you go to publicly and who actually cuts your hair. Some of them are so terrifying, you just have to say you go there.”
Look, Sykes loves John Barrett enough to go there for a “really fabulous blowout” and various grooming etcetera (“The most fun I’ve ever had with my boyfriend was taking him for a pedicure at John Barrett”), but when it comes to a cut, she wouldn’t dream of letting anyone but Paul Podlucky near her with a pair of shears. “He cuts Aerin Lauder’s hair, too,” Sykes points out. “And I die for her hair.” He also does Victoria and Vanessa Traina (Danielle Steel’s daughters) and several Middle Eastern princesses who came with complicated confidentiality agreements.
“It’s true,” Podlucky says. I found him in the small one-bedroom apartment on East 67th Street where he lives and works. I’ve just told him what Sykes said. “Always the bridesmaid. It’s like everyone goes to Frédéric.” He rolls his eyes and puts his fingers in the air in exhausted little quotations over the name. “But I’m the one who does the cuts. I am. John Barrett gets so mad.” He brings me a perfect cup of green tea on a saucer. “It’s funny, ’cause I’m a Leo,” he says, gazing out the window at a sliver of Central Park, “and Leos need lots of acclaim for what they do. I guess I’m just not that kind of Leo.”
Podlucky’s clients like him for the total privacy he offers, even if it means they get changed in his tiny bedroom, lean back for shampoos in his bathroom sink, and have to put up with his three flatulent dogs.
He does fourteen heads a day—$200 for a cut, $165 for color—starting at 7 a.m., and there’s a six- to eight-week wait for new clients. He does color himself. He also does makeup, and he’s available (for $750) to come over before a night out to get his girls perfect. “I’m just diseased to please,” he says. Podlucky’s cuts are simple, classic, and polished. “No one understands that it actually takes forever to have hair like this,” Sykes says. “You just thought my hair was gorgeous and easy, didn’t you? But if I didn’t go to Paul, I’d have triangle-head.”
Podlucky definitely makes his clients feel good. Sipping my green tea in a quiet patch of yellow sunlight, I’m loath to leave, but his next appointment has arrived. He gives me a giant hug, offers me cab fare. “Can we cut your hair?” he asks. He runs his fingers gently across my scalp. “It would be great because you are like the perfect combination of Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor.”
Oh, Paul! Really?