By Elizabeth Sporkin
September 16, 1991 12:00 PM

VENDELA WAS HAVING AN EMERGENCY. THE Swedish model known for her Grace Kelly looks was scheduled to appear on a morning talk show, and she couldn’t do a thing with her long blond hair. Relying on the program’s hairdresser was out of the question. “You never know who you’re going to get at those places,” she says. So she called in a specialist: the superman of hair, Oribe. “He came to my apartment at 5 in the morning!” cries Vendela. “He cut and set my hair. It looked great.”

Every Manhattan-based supermodel has a similar story about Oribe (pronounced OR-BAY). Ordinary people, on the other hand, have to take a number. At New York City’s Elizabeth Arden Salon, where he has just settled in as grand pooh-bah, more than a thousand names are on his waiting list. “He hasn’t even had time to cut my hair in six months,” says his agent, Susan Price. “I look like a sea hag.”

She will wait, though, along with everyone else, because Oribe, who charges $250 a head, has been anointed by key fashion designers and editors as the No. 1 hairdresser in the country—and perhaps the world. Gianni Versace regularly flies Oribe to Rome and Milan to provide the hairstyles for his fashion shows.

It is not only Oribe’s way with a scissors that makes Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Vendela put their heads in his hands. Explains Versace: “He’s very simpatico with them.” Oribe agrees that his personality gives him the cutting edge. “I grew up in the South, and people in the South are nicer than people in New York,” he says. “Plus, I’m Cuban. The whole combination makes me different.”

Born in 1956, Oribe Canales (he dropped his last name when he started cutting hair) fled Castro’s Havana with his family when he was 6. His parents, Gladys and Oribe Sr., settled in Charlotte, N.C., where they worked as a seamstress and a sign painter. His brother, Cisco, 35, a tractor-trailer driver, still lives there, while his sister. Grace, 24, is a secretary in Miami. But Oribe had wanderlust. After high school, he tended bar and waited tables, then followed friends to Ft. Lauderdale, Buffalo, San Francisco and Manhattan. For a while he wanted to be an actor, but gave that up for a payoff he thought would be quicker. “I started working at a hairdressing place that a friend owned in New York,” he says. “I saw that hairdressers made a lot of money, and it didn’t seem that hard.”

Eventually he got a job assisting Manhattan hotshot Garren, whose staff styled hair for several top magazines. Oribe broke in with GQ, coiffing both men and women. Then, as editors took notice, he started racking up credits in Vogue, Mademoiselle, Glamour, Elle and Self, developing a glamorous style that started the trend back to rollers.

As he transformed models into cover girls, Oribe befriended them—but the relationships have proved high maintenance. At an Azzedine Alaïa show in Paris, Oribe gave Linda Evangelista a Sophia Loren do, then made the mistake of repeating the style on a lesser model. “Five minutes before the show, they call me into the bathroom,” Oribe recalls. “There’s Linda, with her head under the spigot, having a fit. She says, ‘If you don’t change that girl’s hair, I’m putting my head underwater.’ ” The other model got a new look, and Oribe preserved his high-profile friendship.

Oribe knows, though, that in the fickle world of fashion, his star cannot shine forever. For stability, he signed on at Arden, where he supervised construction of the palatial, Venetian-style salon that features his name etched in brass on the terrazzo floor. By contrast, Oribe, whose own black hair is out by employee Joe Lovullo, is a jeans-and-tattoos guy. “Christy [Turlington] came with me to get this one,” he says, pointing to a mermaid on his left arm. “I tell all the blonds that it’s them.”

Offduty though, there arc no blonds to amuse him. Oribe lives alone in a Manhattan loft with four dogs, including two that belonged to his best buddy, interior designer Tony Santasiero, who died earlier this year. “I know a lot of people, but it’s tough finding really good friends,” Oribe says. “I just got a new black Range Rover, and I have a phone in it. I got in the car and I said, ‘Now, who do I call?’ Tony was dead, and the models were in Europe.”

The constant in his life is his family—even if, when it comes to haute couture and coiffure, they don’t always relate. “I tried to mold my sister into Christy or Linda, what I thought was the perfect woman,” Oribe says. “But she said, ‘Look, I’m happy the way I am.’ She has a closet full of outrageous clothes that I gave her and doesn’t wear them.”

Then there’s his mother, now living in Miami, who gets her hair cut for $10 at the Xeomara beauty salon. “I’m not her style,” Oribe says. “She likes an old-fashioned perm.”