Joining Vidal Sassoon’s Los Angeles-based empire as he metamorphosed from celebrity snipper into shampoo tycoon, self-styled health guru and TV personality, was an Alice-in Wonderland experience.
In those early days, it seemed to be a bunch of ex-hairdressers, a couple of money men, one research chemist and me.
I was no more qualified to shift high-priced toiletries than anyone else, hired to help run the international department on the dubious basis that I had a nice English accent and could speak other languages.
We flew by the seat of our pants. No focus groups to tell us those bold brown shampoo bottles were too masculine to succeed. Vidal loved them, so we pushed them hard and, against all the odds, they flew off the shelves.
Meanwhile, getting groomed to the nth degree was part of our job description in a company with the slogan: “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.” And we weren’t required to merely dress for success. It was an absolute requirement that we attend the Beverly Hills salon at least three times a week to ensure our hair and nails looked perfect at all times.
Instinct was more important than office experience in the cut-throat world of shampoo sales, believed Vidal, so he placed his trust in his former apprentice, Joseph Solomon, the CEO he was fond of describing in speeches as “the genius who came out from behind the shampoo basin”.
Vidal was generous to a fault — when he threw a dinner to celebrate his 50th birthday at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, he invited every member of staff with their “plus one”, and hired Count Basie to play for us. And he was so delighted with the surgery to remove his eye bags that he offered the same op to all his top executives as a Christmas bonus.
Throughout the mad two years I worked there, Vidal was a benign but distant presence. Caught up in presenting his own TV show as well as fronting glossy shampoo commercials, he seemed not to notice the Machiavellian goings-on in the office. Sunshine, fame and wealth appeared to go to his brain when he relocated to La-La Land.
It was a blast to work in such a glamorous office, but it was disconcerting to have a boss with little idea of who you were. I interviewed Vidal at least twice after my return to Britain, and I don’t think he had any idea that I had once been an executive on his payroll.