September 08, 1997 12:00 PM

IT WAS THE THIRD WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 1996, and Manhattan hair colorist Brad Johns couldn’t figure out why Carolyn Bessette, normally one of his most relaxed clients, was so skittish. “She’d stand up and she’d sit down,” recalls Johns, who first rinsed away Bessette’s naturally light brown tones two years earlier, when she was a publicist at Calvin Klein. “I said, ‘Carolyn, what’s wrong?’ She said, ‘Nothing—but maybe we should change my color.’ I said, ‘No, no. It’s beautiful.’ She said, ‘Oh, okay. I trust you.’ ”

Smart decision. By keeping her head and her hue for her surprise (even to Johns) marriage that weekend to John F. Kennedy Jr., her boyfriend of two years, Bessette became the personification of blonde patrician elegance. Now, when Bessette Kennedy stops in for her monthly visits, says Johns, 41, “I laugh and tell her, ‘I thank God every day that I followed my instincts, which never have left me in the cold.’ ”

In fact, Johns could hardly be hotter. Ensconced since January in his own Fifth Avenue salon, he has a celebrity clientele of every shade and hue. There’s light brunette Kate Moss and her on-again, off-again boyfriend Johnny Depp (Johns darkened his brown hair when he played a Mob infiltrator in Dannie Brasco), redhead Carol Burnett and honey-brown supermodel Christy Turlington. But it’s his genius for blonding that has made Johns famous. “Nobody else has made my hair look this way,” says a very blonde but once sandy-haired Tatum O’Neal.

Johns’s signature is “chunking,” a blonde-on-blonde technique he perfected in ’90: He lightens all the hair, then applies broad highlights, or chunks, around face and crown. The result he calls “child-on-the-beach” hair. “A lot of times I’ll do women and their mothers will say, ‘That’s just how it was when you were little,’ ” he says.

Although his catchphrase is, “Natural is not the point, fabulous is the point,” Johns says that blonde isn’t right for everyone (he wouldn’t recommend it for a woman who has gone all gray). That hasn’t kept the dark-haired Johns from becoming blindingly blond himself. “It’s theatrical,” says Johns, who heightens the effect by dressing in black and white, working in a black-and-white salon and living in a black-and-white Greenwich Village loft. “I always wanted to be a walking art piece,” he says.

Not exactly the aspiration you’d expect from a boy growing up in a low-income project outside Pittsburgh. “I always felt so bad for the women there—they wanted to look good, but they didn’t have the money,” says Johns, the oldest of three kids of Phil, now 74, a retired appliance-repair instructor, and Thelma, 69, a home-maker. At age 6, he began dyeing his sister’s troll dolls’ hair with food coloring, and by 15 he was giving perms in the neighborhood. “He just had a knack for doing hair,” says Thelma.

In 1973, after graduating 12th in his public high school class of 400, Johns studied drama at New York University. But he quit after a year when he decided that acting hampered his style. “If you were doing a role,” he says, “you couldn’t have long hair and platform shoes.” A friend suggested beauty school. “The first day I walked in and smelled the perm solution,” says Johns, “I knew that was it.” He established himself at top New York City salons, spending five years with Oribe before going solo this year.

Now overseeing a staff of 50 and charging from $125 for a single-process (i.e., one-color) dye job to $300 for a chunking, he tends to the heads of male model Marcus Schenkenberg, Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece and Wonderbra model Eva Herzigova. But the boy from the projects doesn’t put on airs. “I don’t treat Carol Burnett any better than I treat a secretary,” says Johns. Burnett concurs: “There’s no snootiness. His sink-side manner is terrific.”

In his spare time the unmarried Johns paints and writes poetry, but his mind rarely strays from what he reverently calls “my mission—to help people look their best.” Beyond the line of hair products and jewelry that he already sells at the salon, Johns envisions an at-home chunking kit, a second salon in L.A. and, of course, continuing to please his most celebrated customer. “She never has a bad hair day,” he says of Bessette Kennedy. “My hair should be that gorgeous.”


MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City

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