There is no sign outside, but three flights up, through the blue-gray door on New York’s Madison Avenue, pass some of the most celebrated women in the world—all dyeing for Robert Renn. In fact, not one would touch a follicle without Renn, who 10 years ago perfected a new method of hair tinting called “dimensional coloring.” Instead of using one shade throughout, Renn applies graduated tones—”highlights and lowlights”—with surgical precision. “Did you ever look at a child’s hair?” he asks. “There are gold, red and blond strands—not just one color. A lot of people think that to be blond, you have to dye your hair all over. But with highlighting, only a minimum is done. Then the natural hair supports the lightened hair.”
With dimensional coloring, Renn says, hair grows out more softly and less noticeably. “I don’t know how any liberated woman can walk around as a platinum blonde with dark roots showing,” huffs Renn, 41. “I call that terminal hair.”
Faye Dunaway is such a believer that she has had Renn written into all her contracts since 1978’s The Eyes of Laura Mars. “Her hair changes with her roles,” he explains. “Whatever new character she takes on, she has to become this new personality head to toe.” That meant lightening up Faye for the title role in NBC’s miniseries, Evita Perón, last February and engineering her fade to auburn for the part of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.
Jill Clayburgh also takes Renn on location, as do Jessica Lange and Candice Bergen. Polly Bergen and financial columnist Sylvia Porter visit his salon to get rid of telltale gray. Although most of his clients are women, Renn recently darkened Jason Robard’s locks for a movie role. “He looked 15 years younger when he left,” Renn reports, “and he told me for once his hair didn’t look like shoe polish.”
Ironically, the woman who virtually discovered Renn is no longer a client. “He’s the master of hair coloring,” declares the Ford model agency founder Eileen Ford. “But I found it impossible to wait weeks and weeks for an appointment. I could wait, but my roots couldn’t.” Nevertheless, she still sends her models.
Born in Henderson, N.C., the son of an auto mechanic, Renn was 12 when the family relocated to Fort Lauderdale. After high school and one semester as a theater major at Florida State, he enrolled in the local Broward Beauty School, and at 21 went to work at a friend’s salon. In 1964 Renn won the International Hair Styling competition in New York; a year later he moved there and took a $100-a-week job setting hair at Kenneth’s. After he was axed for moonlighting, Renn moved to another salon, where Ford became his client. Soon he was a colorist for Clairol’s TV commercials. Next came a stint traveling across the country for a chain of salons called Crimpers (“The young girls came with long straight hair, their mothers with bouffant bubbles”). Then last November Renn struck out on his own. “I couldn’t stand the rock music blasting one more minute,” he says of his last job, at the trendy Pierre Michel salon. “I’m tops in my field, and there I was working in a discotheque!”
Renn charges from $35 up to several hundred, depending on the time he must spend on the job. Keeping a very tight schedule (“If someone is late, I just don’t take them”), bachelor Renn is now bicoastal, hopping a plane at least once a month to do such L.A.-based clients as Priscilla Presley, Maude Adams and Mary Ann Mobley (they or their studios foot the bill for his air fare and expenses). In Manhattan Renn keeps a penthouse, and he also owns a summer home on Fire Island.
His hobbies include breeding and showing Dandie Dinmont terriers and singing—Renn had a short gig at a New York cabaret two years ago. He’ll never get rich performing, however, except with color and comb. “When he does hair,” exults Carlotta Karlson, beauty editor of Harper’s Bazaar, “you don’t even know it’s been colored. That’s the highest compliment.”