Despite remarkable similarities to Adam Sandler’s the Zohan, for Piny Benzaken, Israeli sportsman turned hairdresser to the stars, it’s all about the work.
Piny Benzaken was once an Israeli soccer player who improbably discovered that his true calling was in the hair extension and replacement industry.
He moved to Los Angeles in the US in 1975, found a job at a salon in Beverly Hills, branched out on his own six months later and soon had three celebrity clients on his roster – Farrah Fawcett, Liberace and Dolly Parton.
Today, Piny Benzaken is the hair extension, weave, wig maker and male hair replacement guru to the stars. Everybody who’s anybody comes to Piny’s Beverly Hills studio for their wigs and weaves.
Piny’s story sounds a lot like Adam Sandler’s in the movie, Don’t Mess with the Zohan, but Piny – who says he hears this comparison all the time – is quick to point out that he has been married for 33 years, has a wife, two children and a grandchild and his family always comes first.
“I’m good friends with [comedian] Kevin Nealon and he’s a good friend of Adam Sandler although I’ve never met him myself,” says Piny. “Kevin told me, ‘It looks like someone heard your story and made the movie.’”
Apparently, though, that’s not true. Still, Piny tells ISRAEL21c, “I do think it’s a cute movie, it reminds me of myself in some ways and of course I was also in the army.”
It’s all about the work
All joking and Adam Sandler movies aside, Piny is very serious about his work. It’s easy to think he’s a celebrity chaser when you first walk into his office. The walls are covered with signed movie posters and photographs of a slew of Hollywood stars including Quentin Tarantino, Dolly Parton, Charlie Sheen, John Travolta, and a plethora of Playboy playmates.
However, the small waiting room also has a stack of brochures on the coffee table about cancer treatments, because while Piny may make wigs for the likes of Shirley Maclaine and Cher, he also makes wigs for cancer patients, something he takes very seriously. For Piny, it’s all about the work.
So how did a young Israeli soccer player become a Hollywood legend?
“My father-in-law was in the hair replacement business and he took me out to dinner one time before I was married,” Piny recounts. “He said to me, ‘I know you’re a good soccer player but my daughter is pretty expensive to keep up with so I think you’d better learn another business.’ So he taught me the business and within nine months I was pretty professional and I loved the work.”
Piny moved from Hapoel Holon in Israel to LA with his wife and young daughter to play soccer with Maccabi Los Angeles. To earn extra money he worked as a mechanic at his brother’s Alfa Romeo business. But when he heard that a salon was looking for someone with his experience he grabbed the job. Within six months he had his own salon and had landed his first movie gig: He did Tom Cruise’s hair in Rain Man.
When Piny started out in 1977 he admits that his was a fledgling industry, but with his exacting standards and reputation for doing excellent work he garnered high profile clients fairly quickly.
His first client was Farrah Fawcett. “She was wearing extensions when she was doing Charlie’s Angels,” he shares somewhat conspiratorially. That’s because back then nobody wanted anyone to know they were wearing extensions, a wig or a weave, says Piny. “It was all very hush hush.”
No short cuts
Fast-forward 30 years and now everybody wears extensions. “The only business not selling extensions these days is McDonald’s,” he quips. And to this day, Piny is still number one on most celebrity hair lists.
The secret to his success? “I don’t take short cuts,” he states matter-of-factly. “I work on every aspect from A to Z. If I have to make a wig I will take 20 ponytails and separate the hair into different lengths and build the wig piece by piece. And no matter what, I promise to give you the best extensions, artistic arrangement and quality product.”
He buys his hair from Russia, saying its “top quality and very expensive. Other places will sell you junky hair, but not me.”
Indeed, Piny’s services are not for the financially challenged. Be prepared to shell out several thousand dollars for your great new do. “I’m the most expensive,” he states, unapologetically, “but if you want the best you will get it from me, if you want something not so good, you should go somewhere else.”
With his commitment to being the best, Piny is never short of clients. He is very much in demand and very much hands-on at his salon. He will work on the color of a client’s hair first and then hand the task over to one of his 12 assistants. And some of those assistants have been with him for more than 20 years.
Piny admits that he enjoys the celebrities he works with, and the perks that they bring. “I worked on the Melanie Griffith movie Shining Through and they shot in Germany. She wanted me but I couldn’t leave my business for the five week shoot, so she flew me in first class every Friday and flew me home every Tuesday for five weeks, just so I could do her hair,” he explains.
Travolta’s hairdo was his biggest coup
Apparently, it’s all in a day’s work for Piny. He says he recently flew to the Philippines “to do the hair of one of the guys who ran in the presidential elections there. He didn’t like the way his hair was in his official photo and flew me there for one day just to do his hair. But I do this kind of thing all the time,” he says with a shrug.
His biggest coup though was creating the look for John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Nobody can forget that hairstyle in what was Travolta’s comeback role. “I got together with [Quentin] Tarantino who asked me to read the script and tell him what I thought.” The rest, as they say, is (hair) history.
Piny’s business shows no sign of slowing down. With new clients discovering him all the time and loyal clients – some going back as far as 30 years – continuing to come to him, Piny is definitely living the American Dream. “I’m a workaholic,” he admits. “But I love working.”
Nonetheless, he still makes time to go back to Israel twice a year to hang out with his old soccer teammates. “We play soccer and reminisce about the old days. Of course when we play I realize that I’m not so young anymore and it’s not so easy these days! But we still have fun.”