Cutting edge

Is the Israeli stylist depicted in 'You Don't Mess with the Zohan' really a spoof?

Zohan hair 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Zohan hair 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'The movie doesn't give a realistic picture of Israeli hairstylists. Definitely not. Maybe they were like that in the '80s up to about the early '90s, but not today," says Michel Mercier, a soft-spoken but extremely confident ex-Frenchman who is one of the country's top two or three. He's discussing the new hit movie, You Don't Mess With the Zohan, a deliberately garish, over-the-top comedy starring Adam Sandler as Zohan Dvir, an Israeli commando who decides to live his dream as a disco-dancing hairstylist in Manhattan. He makes it big by banging all his old lady clients, and even makes peace with a band of Arab terrorists by joining forces with them to defeat the local neo-Nazis. "First you see him f--ing all his clients, then when he finds a girlfriend, he doesn't touch any of them," Mercier goes on. "Either way it's exaggerated, it's not the way it is." Mercier is being interviewed in the basement office of his flagship salon on North Tel Aviv's Sderot Ben-Yehuda near Rehov Dizengoff, which, like Michel Mercier College in Dizengoff Center and the Michel Mercier line of hair-care products, is dominated by the color lime-green. He's just finished with a client - "a very high-quality lady from a famous Israeli family" - who doesn't seem pleased with the golden-brown hair color the stylist has given her. "It's beautiful, but it's not me. My husband won't recognize me," says the woman, wearing a black shift and gold sandals. Mercier, a tall, athletic 45-year-old who moves quickly and economically between two and three clients at a time, holds up the light meter to the woman's hair, checking the results with her on a computer screen. "By the time you come back, it'll feel natural to you," he assures her. Seemingly placated, she gathers up her things. "Bye, Michel," she waves. Soon he finishes with a younger woman whose hair has been dyed black, cut short and messed to perfection. "Bye, Michel," she grins. Female assistants are washing, blow-drying and spraying heads of hair while bringing the boss and the clientele espresso and Pepsi Max. Divorced with three children, living with his girlfriend - "and very happily" - Mercier is surrounded by women who seem to adore him. One of the ironies of Zohan is that for an American audience, the notion of an Israeli hairstylist is inherently comic, an anti-stereotype to the folkloric Israeli commando - yet in this country, the hairstylist is by now a folkloric character himself. (Not herself; the hairstylist has become an Israeli male type, but more about that later.) In the last generation, the country has become riddled with hair salons - not only in Tel Aviv (the famed hairstylist Shuki Zikri's college is around the corner from Mercier's), but in every town and city. "There are more hairstylists than there are clients," says Yoram Selouk, whose salon, with its big pictures of the Baba Sali behind the counter, leads the field in Kiryat Malachi. "A lot of hairstylists work out of their apartments," notes Gabi "Style" Yusupov - "My real name is Yusupov, but now I go by the name Gabi Style" - a relative newcomer in Kiryat Malachi. "I don't want to open a salon in Arad because there are too many in town already," says Tomer Shalom, who cuts hair out of his Arad apartment and commutes to Michel Mercier College to improve his skills, his goal being to get out of Arad one day. The cult of the hairstylist, like other things that come with consumer culture, arrived here late, around the early 1990s, but now, like consumer culture in general, it seems to fit in naturally with the surroundings. There's no surprise that men flock to the profession. The career of a hairstylist is for guys with big egos, for social animals, for ambitious types with a head for business. There is a common urban legend that all stylists are gay; another stereotype is that they're Mizrahim from the 'hood whose taste runs to the shiny and gaudy - and there may be something to that, too. "A lot of Moroccans are hairstylists," says Motti Chemo, a toy store owner who, at 34, is also chasing the dream and taking classes at the Michel Mercier College. "Yes, I'm Moroccan," he adds. This is a high-energy, fast-changing field in which success means stardom. In other words, it's made for Israelis. Well, maybe not entirely. I ask Mercier, who came here from France in his early 20s, what, in his view, makes him a better hairstylist than his competitors. "I know how to listen," he replies. As a group, he says, Israeli stylists stack up well against their foreign counterparts, because with the range of races and ethnic types in this country, they gain experience cutting so many different kinds of hair. He has only one criticism: "They could improve their manners." MERCIER'S NORTH Tel Aviv salon is the high end of the industry. Gabi Style, at the edge of the original, run-down, dusty "commercial square" of Kiryat Malachi, is the low end. Gabi Style is a little shop sponge-painted in gray with a few hair styling ads and a TV on the wall. The upholstery on the sofa is a well-worn zebra pattern. Nearly all of the clients are men, who invariably want buzz cuts, which Yusupov carries out in "five, seven, 10 minutes" with an electric shaver, going over the heads like a lawn mower. "I was a barber in the army," he notes. One of his few women clients, Batsheva, a neighbor from across the street who appears to be in her late 60s, drops in to give Yusupov a gift of cookies, fresh mint and a crystal glass. She kisses him and his girlfriend, Dalia, a very attractive 19-year-old who is reading a newspaper in one of the chairs. "I used to go to other hairstylists in town, but then I saw that he's right here, so I went in and I liked him right away," says Batsheva. "He's good, and he treats me very nicely. We're from different ethnic groups - I'm from Casablanca [Yusupov is from Uzbekistan] - but we talk about everything. I told him he found a girlfriend from a very fine family." Yusupov, 27, has been in the shop for three years, after working a succession of local factory jobs, then studying hair styling in Ashdod. "My uncles were barbers in Uzbekistan," he says. "I have a cousin who's a hairstylist in Queens. You could say it runs in the family." His girlfriend is about to begin studying hairstyling, and they plan to work alongside one another. "I want to expand," he says. "You can't make money if you're doing all the work yourself." Gabi Style is a homey operation. A rue herb plant given him by a customer sits on a counter "to ward off the evil eye," he says. A burly man gets out of the chair after his buzz cut is finished and Dalia takes him to her car to give him a lift home. This may not be North Tel Aviv, the haircuts may be fairly basic, but Yusupov is avid about his craft. "I'm always going through hair styling magazines and the Internet to get ideas. The fashions are always changing," he says. "I love this work." Like other hairstylists, he likens his role to that of a psychologist - listening sympathetically to his clients' troubles and complaints without saying much himself. "People feel at ease with me," he says. So what has he learned from three years of listening to the troubles and complaints of residents, mainly men, in Kiryat Malachi? "A lot of marriages are breaking up," he says. "People don't have money. It causes infidelity, all kinds of problems. The country's in bad shape." There's another hairstylist a couple of doors down and others opening up all the time. To hold on to his clients, Yusupov keeps his prices low - NIS 35 for men's haircuts, NIS 60-NIS 100 for women's - and relies on his skill and easy personality. "It's all word of mouth," he says. "I took out a couple of ads once, but I didn't see any results." His ambition is to expand the salon, but not to leave Kiryat Malachi for Tel Aviv or any other bigger city. "It's hard to get started here; it's hard to make it, but I don't know what's happening out there." Like the other hairstylists I interviewed, except Mercier, Yusupov hasn't heard of the Zohan movie. "Everybody tells me to go to America, I'll become a millionaire, a billionaire. Who says so?" he maintains. Turning back to his client in the chair, he asks: "You want it spiky?" ON THE GROUND floor of Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Center, lettered in English on one of the lime-green walls of Michel Mercier College, is the founder's creed: "I believe in the art of listening. That is the key to success: talking with the client, watching her face, examining her wants, her needs, her fears, how she manages her day-to-day life. These bits of information are crucial in obtaining a successful outcome, resulting in rejuvenation and, more importantly, complete satisfaction!... "In order to simplify the process I imagine the face to be a circle. Extending from the circle are hairs, like lines in various angles. By applying the technique we've decided to use in styling the hair, we can manipulate these different angles... "'Haircutting engineering' constitutes 80% of the final outcome. The remaining 20 percent is a result of our individual style. Our ability to see a woman as a whole allows us to give her that total look, complementing her aesthetically while meeting the needs of her day-to-day life." This long megilla isn't the only note of pretentiousness in the college-cum-salon. The words "MOTIVATION" and "INSPIRATION" and "STATE OF MIND" are also lettered in English on the walls. The little nook with the refrigerator, microwave, electric kettle and sink is the "COFFEE BAR." Everyone on the staff seems to have heard of Zohan; the college was even considering co-hosting the local premier. The movie's basic premise is familiar around here. "The dream of every Israeli hairstylist who's just starting out is to go New York and make it big," says student Rahel Aharonov, 21, drinking coffee by herself. Aharonov doesn't seem to fit in, and not only because she's the only girl in her class of a dozen students. She doesn't talk the talk, either. She's guileless. "My dream is to be a journalist. Hairstyling was just something to fall back on," she says. "I don't put it down, though. I have a knack for it; the clients like me. And when I tell people I'm a hairstylist, they go 'Wow.'" She first studied hairstyling in Moscow, then returned to Israel and now lives in Kiryat Ata, commuting to work in a Haifa salon and to classes in Tel Aviv. "There are two kinds of hairstylists - the illiterates who didn't do well in school, and the ones who've had it in their hands ever since they were kids. I'm the first kind," she shrugs. The class, made up mainly of guys in their early 20s, is somewhat unruly, with a lot of giggling and razzing. "You're breaking my concentration!" snaps the 60-year-old teacher, Shifra Garbash. "What's with all the joking?" "Who was joking? I wasn't joking." "Can I go out for a cigarette?" Garbash is teaching the students how to do highlights on a woman's hair. "If the woman has a large head, you have no choice but to divide her hair into six parts instead of the usual four," she says. "Why do we use aluminum foil? Because it keeps things hot, like a chicken in the oven." She offers a few tips of the trade. "If you're washing hair, if you're working with chemicals, you're going to get all these terrible little cuts on your hands. It's not nice for you, it's not nice for the clients to see. So keep a tube of hand cream with Vaseline around. Or you can use margarine. Once my hands got so cut up, I put margarine on them at night, and after a week I had hands like a baby's." Before coming to Michel Mercier College, Garbash taught for 20 years at ORT trade schools in South Tel Aviv and Bat Yam. "The hairstyling classes would fill up right away, mainly with boys," she says. "Teaching there was some battle." But for all her scolding, she has a close rapport with the students at the college. In the middle of her lecture, she starts describing what it was like when she started out as a hairstylist in the early '60s, when she was 13. "Just about all the hairstylists in Israel were women. It's only in the last 15, 20 years that it's been taken over by men," she says. "Back then, Vidal Sassoon was our god. He was a genius. Everything about him, even the way he held the scissors, was sensational. He made his name when he did the hair of that model, what was her name... Twiggy. She was like a stick, but what a model! After Twiggy he did Mia Farrow. That was in the '60s. "In those days, only the rich Israeli women would get their hair styled. And brides. They wanted the 'bottle cut' [with the hair swept up]. But then in the 1970s there was Farrah Fawcett, who had a huge effect with all that hair, and in the '70s and the '80s the rich women here started to get their hair styled just to go out for the evening. And it wasn't just the brides who were getting their hair done for the wedding, it was the whole family. We were making good money then. But it was only the wealthy people getting their hair styled. "Today you'll see a woman who doesn't have food in the house but she'll come in here for a fen [fan, or blow-dry] once a week. And you have men getting facials every month, and manicures - which I'm all in favor of. It's very aesthetic." IN THE 60s, Vidal Sasson was the hairstylist's inspiration. For Zohan and his outdated disco taste, it was Paul Mitchell, a hairstyling mogul in the American '80s who pioneered the "silky and smooth" style that the comic protagonist moons over. Among Israeli stylists today, the name mentioned most often is "Toni and Guy," the London-based international hairstyling empire. "They set the trend," says Kfir Ben-Yosef, who owns one of the many salons on Rehov Ha'etzel, the main drag in Hatikva Quarter, which is the traditional heart of Mizrahi culture in Israel. With his clipped black beard - "I like sharp lines," he says - Ben-Yosef, 32, looks like a maestro at work as he fluffs, twirls and snips away at the straight black hair of a pretty woman client, who calls him "Kfiroush." "I've been attracted to hair since I was a child. I grew up doing my mother's hair and my sisters' hair," he says, telling a familiar story among professional hairstylists. After the army, he studied at Shuki Zikri's college, worked in one of Zikri's salons, then, six years ago, took over his uncle's storefront on Ha'etzel, painted the walls peach and opened his salon. "Sometimes I dream about hairstyles," he says, "and when I wake up I've got new ideas." Ben-Yosef says his clients, nearly all of them women, are becoming more and more adventurous. "They want more aggressive styles, with hotter colors, asymmetrical cuts. A balagan, a hodge-podge. Israelis always want something different, a new stimulation." He hasn't heard of the Zohan movie, but he can identify with the character, to a degree. "There are a lot of Israelis who've made it big in hairstyling in New York and Los Angeles," he says. "That's my dream - to work in LA." Waiting her turn, a pretty young woman named Ortal says she doesn't come to Kfir only for the hairdo. "He's like a friend. I tell him what's been going on in my life, what's upset me. The point is to feel good when you leave," she says. There's also a bit of a mating dance involved. I ask Ortal if she would go to a middle-aged or old hairstylist. "No," she says, "he has to be young." The men have a natural advantage with women clients, says teacher Garbash, offering a simple explanation: "Women like to gossip and men like to flirt." Like there's a stereotype about hairstylists, there's one about the women who go to hairstylists, too - that they're rich, spoiled and imperious. Is it accurate? "The are two kinds of rich clients - the really nice, respectful, quiet, elegant ones, and the opposite - the ones who tear you apart if God forbid you do something that isn't exactly the way they want it," says Aharonov, the class's only female student. Among the not-so-rich clients, she says, "a lot of them try to act rich." BEFORE MAKING his name here, Mercier worked at the highest levels of hairstyling in Paris and London. Comparing his clientele in the three countries, he says "the high-class women in Israel have big demands and expectations, very much like European women. They don't like surprises. The middle-class women in Israel are, shall I say, more compromising. They're not going to sit there until everything is just so." He estimates that 50 to 70 clients come into his salon a day, 80 percent of them women, and that they spend an average of NIS 1,000 for his various ministrations. Mercier's client list runs to about 3,500 names, many of whom are celebrities, but the bulk of his business is done with "upper-middle-class women - doctors, lawyers, journalists, serious people with serious jobs." Of course he hears juicy stories about scandal and infidelity, he says, "but not as many as you might think." Still, after attending to thousands of wealthy, successful clients in his chair, Mercier has taken a rare look at the lives and personalities of local high society, mainly the women but also the men. As someone who prides himself on his ability to listen, what does he make of all that he's heard? "That women are very loyal, much more so than men," he says. "That's for sure, 100 percent. I can personally guarantee it."