August 29, 2005 12:00 PM

Rule No. 1: The customer is always right. Oscar Blandi’s one exception to the rule: The customer’s girlfriend is even more right. When the Manhattan stylist got a call from Tom Cruise, he jetted to L.A.—and took directions from the star’s fiancée. “Don’t do it too, too short,” instructed Katie Holmes, a Blandi client since her Dawson’s Creek days. “I like it a little bit longer.” Blandi, who gave Cruise the long, layered look you’ll see in Mission: Impossible 3, says, “I always listen to women.”

The philosophy has served him well. “He’s better than anyone at making a woman look like a fancy version of her best self,” says Jennifer Garner. Now, after working for eight years in the recently shuttered Plaza hotel, Blandi, 39, has opened a new salon on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Not that he’s been there much. He hit several cities to style Jessica Alba for her Sin City and Fantastic Four appearances. And he traveled for more than three weeks with Holmes as she promoted Batman Begins, getting an insider’s view of her new relationship: “We walked into a hotel room in Japan, and there were roses all over. She had a smile from ear to ear. It is the right way. They are in love.”

Despite getting this close to the stars—he did Sarah Michelle Gellar’s wedding-day do—Blandi says he never forgets “you’re there for the hair.”

He lives by the same mantra at home. The Oscar Blandi Salon hums with 23 stylists and colorists tending to 120 clients at peak hours. “It is a zoo, but good energy,” says the Italian-born Blandi, who charges $425 for a cut in his chair. “I am a naturalist,” he says. “I like the hair to move, to flow on the face.” He perfected the look on Natasha Richardson, who calls his work “sexy, casual, seemingly effortless.”

Blandi’s father, a Neapolitan hairdresser, groomed all five of his kids to follow in the business. For Blandi, who wanted to be a policeman, teenage summers spent working in salons were “a nightmare,” so he’d sneak out to go windsurfing. Eventually, hairdressing “grew on me,” he says. Plus, “to be around beautiful woman all the time was exciting.”

At 22, he moved to Manhattan and worked under famed stylists Frédéric Fekkai and Peter Coppola, learning English and to understand American hair preferences. (“Italian women want styles to last a week. Here, women are very practical.”) In 1997 he opened shop at the Plaza. By forging relationships with “the biggest publicists in New York,” Blandi soon attracted their famous clientele—whose plush lives he happily snipped into. Doing hair on press junkets, he says, “is the way to travel.” With Salma Hayek for 2002’s Frida, “I had someone to hold my bag,” he says. “I was like, ‘I can carry my bag! She is the movie star!'”

So it is a comedown when he returns to his comparatively pedestrian life. “When I have to stand in line at a restaurant,” he jokes, “I think, ‘Where are my celebrity friends?'” He revs up again by pursuing his passion for extreme sports, including motorcycle racing and sky diving (1,200 jumps so far). “I like the adrenaline of speed,” he says, unnecessarily. Back on earth, he spends time with girlfriend Gina Bertolotti, a stylist at his salon. Another high? “There is nothing more crazy than when you finish a haircut and see the client’s eyes start to smile,” says Blandi. “That is adrenaline.”

Rennie Dyball. Rebecca Paley in New York City

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