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Giuseppe Franco Loves Hair and Harleys and One Other Thing

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Hairdresser Giuseppe Franco insists he was never inspired by the movie Shampoo. “I was more of a Clint Eastwood fan than a Warren Beatty fan,” says Franco, Beverly Hills’s newest king of coifs. Perhaps, but like Beatty in the film, Franco not only does the heads of his clients, he turns them as well.

Born in Italy, he speaks in the blunt back-street accents of urban New Jersey, where he grew up. He drives a Harley chopper to work, sports enough jewelry to sink a rowboat and owns a mane of hair that should make his customers salivate. At 32, Franco has also built a clientele to make rival stylists squirm. Those who regard his $75 cuts as a sportive indulgence or a professional necessity include rockers Frank Zappa and Belinda Carlisle and actors Sally Kirkland and Lou (The Incredible Hulk) Ferrigno. Still, Franco is true to his roots. “If you’ve got hair on your head, I’ll do it,” he says. “We’re in Beverly Hills, but we don’t act Beverly Hills.”

Indeed not. Four-letter words are a staple of Franco’s conversation, which he regularly punctuates with “yo” and “you know what I mean?” Says actor Robert Downey: “He’s got that real Italian kind of effervescence. His personality brings ’em in.”

Sex too may have something to do with it. Inside the two adjoining salons bearing Giuseppe Franco’s name, the stereo blasts rock and roll tunes like the Doors’s “Light My Fire,” and beautiful bods abound. Franco hires only lookers for his staff and insists that his 17 stylists and seven assistants dress to show it. The men are in shorts and muscle shirts, the women in minis and fishnets. “Would you like to have a girl who weighs 500 lbs. cutting your hair?” Franco asks. “Look, a guy who sits down in this chair knows he’s going to get a great haircut, but it’s more important that something sexual happens to him. He’s going to be dying to get into the salon again.”

An understandable approach, considering Franco’s own motivation for getting into the business. One of three children born to an Italian shoemaker and a seamstress, he came to the U.S. with his family when he was 7. After graduating from high school in Union City, N.J., he immediately enrolled in beauty school, figuring that “it was a good way to hang with women.” To his surprise, he found that the work agreed with him too. “I was there every morning to evening,” he says. “I just loved the feel of hair.”

Soon the budding do-master was working at Henri Bendel’s, the chic Manhattan salon, where he caught the attention of co-owner Jean-Louis David. David took him to Paris for training, then made him Bendel’s manager. Only 19 at the time, Franco had a hard time winning respect from his staff until one day they saw him calm a client who was furious about a haircut she had gotten. “I sat her down and touched her shoulders,” he says. “There was lots of contact. I said nice things to her and snipped the scissors behind her head. But I never cut any hair. After a few minutes, I told her to shake her head. She looked into the mirror and said, ‘Oh, much better.’ ”

Franco’s next break came through actress Kristy McNichol, whose hair he had styled for a magazine shoot in 1977. On location in Georgia more than a year later, she called Franco to fix a bad perm, then asked him to stay until filming was finished. “I did my work, and I didn’t treat her like an actress,” he says. “I didn’t put up with any s—. I guess she liked that.” David wouldn’t give him a temporary leave, so Franco quit to become McNichol’s full-time movie stylist and eventually her L.A. roommate. “It was strictly platonic,” he says. “If I ever did have something sexual with her, and it didn’t work out, I wouldn’t have a job. My job was more important to me.” Kristy, 25, recalls their time together fondly. “We were like these two people who were never without each other. Wherever we went, there was always this good chaos.” As for Franco’s success, she says that she is not surprised. “He’s very sexy,” she notes, “and he loves people.”

After four years with McNichol, Franco decided he had had enough of the movie industry. With no money to set up his own shop, he went to a loan shark to get $13,000 in start-up cash, using an Alfa Romeo and a Rolex watch—birthday presents from Kristy—as collateral. To pay back $33,000 in return, as he had promised, he gave free haircuts to clients who would talk up his shop and drummed up publicity by doing a show on a local public-access channel.

He also got celebrity referrals from his best pal, actor Mickey Rourke, whom he had met nine years earlier when Rourke was a bouncer at a New York go-go club. With financial backing from Rourke in exchange for a small percentage of profits, Franco opened his second shop two years ago in Beverly Hills. Soon Rourke plans to direct an MTV-style commercial for Franco, starring some of their hip biker buddies.

A motorcycle fanatic, Franco has spent $21,000 on his monster 1987 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail, refurbishing it into a ’50s replica. (“Is that a piece of art or what?” he crows.) He also had it fixed to seat only one, restricting his passengers to featherweight females. “They sit on the fender, real close to me,” he explains.

Hair aside, bikes and babes are Giuseppe’s life. “If a beautiful girl comes into the shop, you know damned well I’m going to do her hair,” he says. “Out of 17 women I’m doing, maybe three or four are absolutely stunning, and out of those I’m taking one home with me. I’m probably making some rubber-company owner a zillionaire. I buy ’em by the case.”

That’s not to say that he doesn’t want to get semi-monogamous someday. “I’d like to have four little Giuseppes running around with long hair,” muses Franco, who points out that he’ll soon be moving into his first real home, a three-story triplex in West Hollywood that has “a fireplace that actually burns wood.”

Professionally, Franco is about to open a third Beverly Hills salon and is looking forward to selling his own hair products nationally. Both moves should add body to his six-figure income, part of which goes to support his parents, who now operate a Union City ice cream shop. Someday, he says, “maybe I’ll be the McDonald’s of hair. But nobody’s going to be on the top forever. I want to get where I’m going even though I might have to step on people’s toes. But I want to do it lightly.” Oh, and one thing more. “I wouldn’t mind making Shampoo II,” he says, “but it would have to be X-rated.”

—By Robin Micheli, with Michael Alexander in Los Angeles