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Leonard Lewis: a cut above

From Twiggy to Reggie Kray, Kubrick, the Stones and Jack Nicholson, if Leonard Lewis cut your hair, you were headed for the top

Javier Bardem may have come away from The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men drenched in praise and clutching an Oscar in one hand and Penelope Cruz in the other, but he still couldn’t shake that sociopathic haircut out of his mind – “You see yourself, you see the haircut. You don’t realise that it’s affecting you in a very delicate way – through your own psyche... It’s the worst haircut I’ve ever had.” It’s a sentiment anyone whose mother gave them a bowl cut will sympathise with, but few people understand the psychological impact of hair on an individual’s sense of themselves quite so well as Leonard Lewis.

As London’s barber of choice for three decades, Lewis changed the way we perceive hair forever. Trained in the 50s – when hair was permed, primped and tonged into stiff waves or dressed up into an oversized Marie Antoinette-style bouffant for special occasions – Lewis came into his own in the 60s, when he offered hair that was free to move and free to shock, hair that could be coloured every shade of the rainbow and was personally tailored to the individual.

“What would you like done to your hair, for instance?” demands Lewis, when I first meet him and ask him how he persuaded an unknown, whippet-thin 15-year-old named Lesley Hornby to allow him to cut off all her long blond hair in favour of the Eton Crop that made her Twiggy. “We’d discuss it. We’d discuss how you felt, what you wanted to be. Then we would achieve it, together. The only way hair works is between two people.

"It was a radical step for Twiggs, because, like most girls, she was fond of her long hair, and at one point she seemed close to tears. But I knew it would show off her boyish looks – and no boy had eyes or a neck quite like hers. Later she said, ‘Looking in the mirror at the back, I saw all these faces staring at me, in a way that no one had ever done before.’”

Just as the haircut helped to create the psychopath that was Bardem, the haircut helped to create the star that was Twiggy. Barry Lategan took Twiggy’s photograph and Lewis mounted it on the wall of his salon, which caught the attention of a regular customer, the fashion editor Deirdre McSharry, who hunted down and interviewed the ingénue, running a feature in the Daily Express entitled “I Name This Girl The Face of ‘66.”

Bam! The Swinging Sixties had arrived. Lewis’s Mayfair salon became a magnet, and not just for the high society ladies who could afford him and the hundred or so top models of the day. His customers included John F. Kennedy, film stars from Grace Kelly to Liza Minelli, notorious East End gangsters – including Reggie Kray, whose bride Lewis styled on their wedding day – and, of course, rock royalty such as Mick and Bianca Jagger, who played out their huge marital rows across the salon floor.

There is no underestimating just how radical Lewis’s approach was to hair. One of his most important contributions to the cult of the hairdresser was his crossover into shoots, fashion shows and film – in many senses he helped to define a generation.

“I devoted my life to the public – and the filmmakers, actresses and models.” Most hairdressers had neither the time nor the inclination to do all this and hairdressing – often focusing on their franchise at the expense of wild experimentation. Lewis, however, as he freely admits, “never had a head for the business side” – he was far too busy shocking the fashion world by shaving the singer Marsha Hunt’s head.

“This was the world I wanted to join. I was always determined to do something different. To get out” – Leonard Lewis

Perhaps his most creative collaboration was to the world of film, where he was recruited by infamous auteur Stanley Kubrick to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Leonard offered to make the ape suits with the help of his wig-maker. “But I got into it all through the most peculiar route,” he explains. “It was through Hammer Horror. The Carerra family had been clients, and I just loved the theatricality, all the lights...”

He went on to collaborate with Kubrick on the seminal A Clockwork Orange – a forerunner, if you like, to Bardem’s “hair = psycho” equation. Kubrick “didn’t want wigs” – he wanted the cut. “An intense, painful haircut for Malcolm...” Next, he created all the lavish period wigs for Barry Lyndon – a project so precious, Leonard found himself flying to the set in a jet booked solely for him and the wigs, all of which had been allocated one seat each.

When he died everyone started saying how difficult Kubrick was to work with. But he was lovely. He did tear out the pages of the beautiful books I had bought to research the hair – but that was just Stanley. He just said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll buy more.’ He let me cut his hair too, but then immediately made it scruffy again – that was just how he wanted to look. Sometimes people like their own look. Like Margaret Thatcher – who was brought in to me for a cut by her advisors... and wouldn’t let me touch a strand. She was perfectly nice but that was her hair, and that was how she would keep it.” 

Leonard Lewis cutting Liza Minelli's hair

Today Lewis’s circumstances are a far cry from the glory years, when such figures were daily acquaintances and he was the owner and star of Leonard of Mayfair – the opulent, three–tiered townhouse on Upper Grosvenor Street that catered to them all.

In 1988, trying to balance the constant demands of his creativity against a growing struggle with alcohol and the trauma of a divorce, everything came to a halt and he found himself hospitalised with a brain tumour. Unable to work, and then severely afflicted with epilepsy, Lewis’s debts mounted and he lost everything. Lewis, who had started at the bottom on a White City estate, went back to where he started, living for a time with his adored older sister, Rene, who had never moved from their parents’ council house. He had gone full circle.

“The last thing my mother wanted was another child when she fell pregnant with me,” explains Lewis in his autobiography. “Rene was nearly 20 years old and my family were not well off.” In fact, his mother was so eager to get rid of the foetus that she drank various poisons – which then made her go blind. For a working–class boy whose dad mixed with gangsters like Billy Hill and Jack Spot in the used car market, hairdressing was, at best, an irregular career choice. And it perhaps would not have occurred even to Lewis, had he not first been seduced from selling fruit and veg from a Roehampton barrow by the glamour of the West End’s Curzon Cinema.

“I devoted my life to the public – and the filmmakers, actresses and models” – Leonard Lewis

One night, sitting out a subtitled French film he’d elected to see, just so he could soak up the plush atmosphere, he had his epiphany – An Artist with Ladies starred an actor called Fernandel, and the images flickering on the film showed exactly the kind of life that the young Lewis wanted.

“This was the world I wanted to join. I was always determined to do something different. To get out.” Tutoring himself with pictures from Vogue, Lewis paid his way through an apprenticeship at Evansky’s and then through a cutting apprenticeship at Vidal Sassoon – where his talents for hairdressing were rapidly noticed. By his early 20s he was a superstar in his own right – cutting all day and partying all night.

Now confined to a wheelchair and living modestly in south London, his handsome dark eyes are still alive with charm and his talent for friendship is very much in evidence. Lewis’s salon days may be gone but he still cuts Jack Nicholson’s hair when he comes to London. When he was in hospital with the tumour, he explains, “I really found who my friends were. Stanley (Kubrick) came to visit me, and Jack (Nicholson).”

Andy Warhol

A brand new range of haircare products – based on those he developed to keep Liz Taylor’s hair luscious – was launched at Harrods. “It has sold out twice in Fenwicks already,” Lewis assures me as we rattle down the side streets on the way to Mimmo’s, another one of his old haunts, driven by his friend and cabby, Barry. “I’m determined to walk again,” he informs me as we later taxi back. “Yeah, the ladies had better watch out,” shouts Barry. “Cos you’ll be running after ’em!”

But while Lewis might not yet be running, his innovations still reign. Amongst those that worked at his Mayfair salon were all the names now ubiquitous in hairdressing. John Frieda and Michael John both started out under Leonard’s wing. Daniel Galvin, the famous colourist, was Leonard’s right hand man, and they developed an approach to women’s hair that was, at the time, revolutionary. Both were determined that all the clients in the salon would come in for colour as well as cut – as routine, which was then very rare.

During his 20 years of experimentation he helped make possible everything from Zandra Rhodes’s silk–painted, shock–pink helmet of hair to the invention of gels that would make punk’s mohican possible. “When kids first started to wear the spiky punk hairstyles, they used to make them stand up with sugared water,” Lewis explains. “It worked fine but when the sugar dried out it would attract flies and bees – we had to think of a better way to achieve the same effect.”

If there was a legend for hairdressing as there was for the blues, it might well focus on a young boy named Leonard Lewis, who met the devil at a crossroads somewhere around Roehampton and sold his soul for a pair of scissors, for his skill with the silver blades, was nothing short of magic.

This feature originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Dazed