Interviews

Published on June 21st, 2020 | by Percy Crawford

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The Remarkable Career of Celebrity Hairdresser Rudy Ruffo!

Jackie Onassis Kennedy, Joan Rivers, Sigourney Weaver and many other stars, have all sat in Rudy Ruffo’s chair to have their hair done!

Rudy Ruffo found his calling early in life. Inspired by the joy on his mother’s face when she returned home from the salon, Ruffo knew early on that he wanted to recreate that feeling for others and therefore chose to become a hairdresser. What Ruffo didn’t anticipate, is where that profession would take him and the amount of celebrities who he would later have the opportunity to work with. An endless list of A-listers fulfill his resume, from, Jackie Kennedy, Joan Rivers, Sigourney Weaver, Billie Jean King, Elvis Costello and many-many more. Ruffo considers these opportunities, “luck,” but that’s him being modest. Ruffo’s personality takes center stage as soon as you engage in any form of conversation with him. His work as a stylist speaks for itself and he consistently answered the call when opportunity knocked.

During a recent conversation with the legendary hairdresser, he opens up about his journey to the top, talks about his encounter with “The Greatest of All-Time,” as well as his green room interaction with Louis Armstrong.

You have had an interesting career in an interesting profession and met and worked for a lot of interesting people. That’s a lot of interesting. What made you want to become a hairdresser?

Rudy Ruffo: I was about 12-years old and wanted to be a hairdresser. I used to see my mother come home from the beauty parlor. We were up on the block where they filmed, “Westside Story,” in Manhattan. We were very poor. When my mother went to the beauty parlor, she had to save up for months to get there. She would always come back feeling so good. I said, “I want to do that for people one day.” I got into it because of my mother. I used to look into the salon windows with all of the ladies in there having fun, and I said, “That’s for me.”

Now, did you ever guess in a million years that you would have a star-studded clientele?

Rudy Ruffo: Never! But it happened. I was thrown into it and it happened. I was lucky.

You ever recall being nervous because of the enormity of the client or situation?

Rudy Ruffo: I was not really nervous. I’m sure you must have seen I was, Joan Rivers hairdresser. I was as loose as a goose. I traveled with her, lunches, dinners and breakfast. We were friends. I didn’t have to be nervous at all. Even the biggest celebrities. You’re backstage doing the, “Tony’s [Awards],” and they’re more nervous than you. They’re all on edge and it didn’t phase me at all. I never really got nervous around celebrities, but Jackie Onassis (laughing). Jackie Kennedy got me a little nervous here and there. She was one of a kind, Jackie was.

Was she difficult or just really particular? What was it about her that made you a little uneasy?

Rudy Ruffo: She was just Jackie Onassis and the President’s wife. I don’t know. She was such a lady and I was just a little on edge with her. I always had fun with her, but she was the only person that kept me on my toes, I think.

I recently watched a documentary on Joan Rivers, and she wasn’t too fond of her looks. She never felt pretty, so I’m sure your job was really important to make her feel like at least her hair was up to par.

Rudy Ruffo: Let me tell you how I met her. I was working at a salon called, ‘Kenneth’ in New York. It was on 54th and Madison. And that’s where everyone came. It was the home of the rich and famous. And I was this street kid growing up so poor and here I am sitting with Jackie Onassis Kennedy. I used to pinch myself. The first week I was there, I was low man on the totem pole. We worked Monday-Friday. We were closed Saturday and Sunday. It was a Friday night and the receptionist came to me and she said, “Rudy, would you be able to do Joan Rivers hair?” The salon was a five-story carriage house. I said, ‘Sure!” It was just the two of us left. Everybody had gone home, and the cleaning people were cleaning up and everything. She comes in and she says, “Listen, I’m going to be on the Johnny Carson Show. Would you do my hair?” This is the first night I met her. She says, “What do you charge?” I said, “I don’t know, give me whatever you want.” She says, “How about $20 bucks?” I did her hair for years and years for $20 a pop. I think I did 110 Johnny Carson Shows with her. I met everybody. It was worth the $20 bucks because I was cutting Hugh Hefner and whoever was on the show. Louis Armstrong was on and he gave me a kiss on my cheek in the green room. I’ll never forget it.

Wow! You have lived a life, my man.

Rudy Ruffo: I used to sing with a group called, ‘The Concepts.’ You can see it on YouTube. And it was called, “Blue Sea.” And we had Nelson Riddle as orchestra. We made that record and we made, Best Bets in “CashBox Magazine.” It was only 10 artists a month that would get into that column. And Louis Armstrong was in that column with, “Hello, Dolly!” He had just come out with that. So, I’m sitting in the green room with him and Joan is on the air, and I’m just sitting there. And I said, “Mr. Armstrong, I have to tell you that it was an honor to be in the same column as you in CashBox Magazine.” He said, “Which one did you do?” I said, “I was with, The Concepts,” it was only 10 of us in that column. It’s an honor to be in that column with you.” And he turned and he gave me a kiss on my cheek. I will never forget that. to meet, Louis Armstrong was fabulous.

And Muhammad Ali. I didn’t do his hair, but my wife did his makeup. He grabbed my camera and asked my wife, “Take our picture.” I could barely get my arm around him. That’s how big he was. The reason why he said that to me, I’m sitting there watching him get powdered down for the show. It was Sports Salute to Liberty. It was all the Gold Medalist. I did the hair and makeup for the whole show. I’m sitting there and I look at him… and I joke around. I like to joke around and he’s a joker. Muhammad Ali was really a funny guy. So, I looked at him and I said, “How ya doing, champ?” And he said, “Did you call me, chump?” I said, “No, you know I called you, champ. Don’t start with me.” And he laughed. My wife was standing behind him holding her head like, ‘Stop it,” because my mouth rattles on. I joke. I loved the guy. I told him, “When you first came into the ring when I was a kid, I wanted to see you get whooped.” And he said, “Why?” I said, “Because of your mouth. But as years went by, I grew to love you.” And he got up off of the table, he took his cape off and he said to my wife, “Take our picture.”

What an amazing man he was.

Rudy Ruffo: He changed our world and I wish he were still here. We would have a better world right now. The world fucking sucks… excuse my language. It sucks in a way. I just can’t stand some of the stuff that goes on.

Absolutely! Another celebrity that you worked with, Sigourney Weaver. How did you link with her?

Rudy Ruffo: She was at the salon also when I worked at, ‘Kenneth,’ as a client. I met her and I did her hair and I did her mother’s hair. And I think her father was President of NBC, so that’s why she really got pushed. I did her hair and she said to me, “Rudy, I’m going to be making a movie. It’s going to be called, “Alien,” and I said, “Really?” She said, “Yes, you gotta give me my haircuts for the movie.” I said, “I would love to.” That’s how I did the movie, “Alien,” with Sigourney Weaver. I was thrown into things. It’s not that I’m the greatest hairdresser in the world. I was thrown into things. I was just so lucky.

I think it’s beyond being lucky. I think sometimes your work and your personality proceeds you and people tend to gravitate to that. I think who you are plays more of a role than luck.

Rudy Ruffo: Well, thank you very much.

You were also the hairdresser for, ‘The Apprentice.’ Did you ever imagine, Donald Trump would become President of the United States?

Rudy Ruffo: No! I didn’t do his hair, but I met him. I’ll tell you that story. They wrote a full-page story on me in the New York Post. That’s somewhere out there. You can read it. I knew the article was coming out, but I just thought it was going to be a little article. A client called me up that morning and she says, “Rudy, you’re in today’s paper. You have a full-page.” I said, “Wow!” So, I ran down to the newsstand and I picked up The Post and there I was. A whole full-page. You see me with Larry Storch, we talked about Joan Rivers. I was a traveling hairdresser. I went to people’s home’s and offices after I left, ‘Kenneth’ for a while. I just carried a backpack and I traveled all over the place, only Manhattan doing hair. You remember that show, ‘A Current Affair?’

Yes!

Rudy Ruffo: They saw the full-page when it came out that day. I took my wife out to have a bite to eat to celebrate. How often do you get a full-page in The New York Post? We’re eating and I get a call from, ‘A Current Affair,’ and they told me that they saw my article and it was very impressive and they wanted to do a 14-minute piece on me. I said, “Wow, this is terrific.” They said, “We see you have done quite a few celebrities, why don’t you pick one and get back to us.” I’m at the table with my wife and I had, Frank Langella, Stan Getz the sax player… we were all friends. I said, “I’m going to pick, Donald Trump.” And my wife says, “Are you crazy? Why are you going to pick, Donald Trump?” All of a sudden, I saw a production in my head. I saw the helicopter flying over New York in the movie, “Westside Story.” The helicopter flies over New York, and it lands, and you see the kids dancing on the street. On 68th Street between Amsterdam and West End. That’s where I was born and raised. And all I saw was me in a helicopter… Donald Trump was doing so much to rebuild the city at the time. I said, “What if I can get in his helicopter? If he don’t let me cut his hair, that’s fine.” I wanted to use that as my celebrity, Westside Story theme. I could just hear the music playing (laughing).

So, I wrote a beautiful letter to Donald Trump, telling him how my father came from Italy in 1906, and he landed on 68th Street. He was a little boy. And I grew up there and I told him that he had done so much to rebuild the city, that I would take the liberty in choosing him as my celebrity for this piece for, ‘A Current Affair.’ I wrote him a nice letter. I hand delivered it to his office at Trump Towers on 5th Avenue. I gave it to his secretary on a Thursday. Well, Tuesday comes, and I get a letter in the mail from Donald Trump, thanking me for considering him. ‘A Current Affair’ had made him come down from his office and made him shake hands with the President of Russia, Gorbachev. He was an impostor. A lookalike. And he shook hands with this guy in a limousine and they humiliated him on, ‘A Current Affair.’ So, he said if it wasn’t for, ‘A Current Affair,’ he might entertain doing the story. He said, “I see you’ve done other people, so please choose one of them. But thank you again for considering me.”

And then I ended up doing hair for, ‘The Apprentice.’ And that’s where I met him, but I never brought up that time because we were backstage, and you just don’t do certain things. You don’t take pictures and you don’t talk about certain things. You just be a professional and do your job. But I met him on, ‘The Apprentice.’ That’s how I met him.

I must ask you this, you have made mention of your wife on several occasions. Did you ever fear the stereotype that surrounded male hairdressers of being…

Rudy Ruffo: (Cutting in…) Being gay?

Yes!

Rudy Ruffo: (Laughing). I’m not gay. I had a wonderful career. There were more women in my life than the average guy can get. I would come back from doing a photo shoot with models from Glamour Magazine and I had this little penthouse apartment on 58th Street. It was not glamorous, but I had the whole top floor of a building, right across from the Essex House. That was my hair cutting place for 10-years and if those walls could talk… ya know. I remember going to a party once at my friend’s house. And they had a beautiful bar in the house. They invited me because I was doing 8 to 10 of the people who were at that party. The women that were there, so they invited me. I’m sitting at the bar with my friend and he’s making me this drink and this big fat man, smoking a cigar, looks at me and he says, “Oh, you’re the little hairdresser that everybody’s talking about (feminine voice). And I was standing there with my wife. He was calling me gay. So, I looked at him and I said, “You know, what don’t you leave me alone with your wife for about an hour and see how gay I am.” He went to get up. And I’m a little guy, but I got my ass kicked all over the streets in New York. I would’ve cracked him with a bottle in a split second. My friend was a cop who owned the house. He says, “You just better sit down.” And I said, “Yeah, you just better sit down.” I got stereotyped a lot, but I gotta laugh at it because, I’m not gay and I don’t care. What do I care? I was having fun in the business. I don’t like nasty people doing and saying stuff like that.

I’m with you 100%. You wrote a book as well. What was it like being an author?

Rudy Ruffo: I wrote this book and it is the only book I’ve ever read. I hate to read. The only book I read was the one I wrote. I never sat down and read a book from cover to cover in my life. To this day, I’m 76-years old, I can’t read books like that. It would make me fall asleep. I just hate reading. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. So, the only book I actually sat down and read, was the one I wrote. Go figure that out. I don’t think about being an author. I just wrote a book. It was small book. It wasn’t anything to talk about. It was a glorified business card. I used to carry them with me backstage at the, Tony’s. I gave Oprah my book. I was standing there talking to her, “Hey Oprah, would you like my book?” I handed it to everybody. It was like a business card to me.

What about your invention, “The Brush?” How did that come about?

Rudy Ruffo: When I was working at, ‘Kenneth’s,’ I had the worst case of dandruff that you could ever have. We had to wear dark suits to work every day. It was a very elegant place. And I had snow on my shoulders every day and my scalp would itch. I went to doctors and everything. I had scabs on my scalp, it would bleed. It was the most disgusting thing. And one day I brainstormed to go to the 5 and 10 cents store and pick up a brush of some sort, so I can scrub my scalp in the shower. So, I went and bought some Selsun Blue, I think it was. I picked up this little hand brush from the 5 and 10 cents store and the next morning, I get up and scrub my scalp. It felt so good in the shower, I rinsed it out and I did it again, and I dried my hair and I went to work. I was cutting someone’s hair, it must have been 10:00 in the morning, and I looked at my shoulder and it was nothing there. And I said, “Wow! My scalps not itching.” So, when I finished my haircut, I went down into the locker room and I scrubbed my scalp, and nothing came out. Day one, my dandruff went away from scrubbing my scalp with a brush. I did that every single day and still do it today. I could never wash my hair without, “The Brush,” and so many people who bought it, says the same thing. They become hooked.


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