Spotlight On: Alfred Pagano, Hairdresser to the Stars

As a human living in the 21st century, I tend to fall into the “YouTube black hole” far too often. The process goes something like this: you visit YouTube for something specific and before you know it, hours upon hours have passed, you’re twenty videos deep, and you begin to question your sanity. Today, I did a quick search for Old Hollywood makeup tutorials. This then morphed into “Jean Harlow makeup tutorials,” then into “Jean Harlow,” which led me to this episode from an E! program entitled “Mysteries and Scandals.” By all means, this show is completely terrible. The host is demeaning, sarcastic, speaks with a fake mobster-type New York accent, and just really looks like he hates doing this job. The show looks like it was filmed using the worst 90s camcorder available on the market and overall it smacks of yellow journalism and sensationalism. However, I did manage to learn something new from this train-wreck. There is an extremely tiny portion of the program in which a man named Alfred Pagano was interviewed…a man who, oh, happened to JEAN HARLOW’S ACTUAL HAIRSTYLIST.

Pagano was the man behind every famous Hollywood mane, from Jean Harlow to Lucille Ball. I am pretty ashamed to say that this is the first time I’ve heard of Pagano; all those years of obsessing over classic Hollywood and this is the first time I’ve stumbled across his name! Anyway, after doing a search, here are a few cool things I learned about him:

He Basically Created the Platinum Blonde Hair Color

Jean-Harlow-jean-harlow-30895858-478-620As I said earlier, Pagano was Jean Harlow’s hairstylist, and it’s pretty safe to say that Jean Harlow was the first platinum blonde, possibly ever. In history. That would make Pagano the inventor of a hair color that graced the heads of women from Marilyn Monroe to Miley Cyrus. Hair lighteners and blonde hair dyes were of course easily available in the 1930s, but there was absolutely nothing like the shocking silvery brilliance of Harlow’s locks. Apparently, Howard Hughes said he would give $10,000 to the first hairstylist who could recreate Harlow’s coveted hair color. Let’s just say he never shelled out that money. Because this color simply never existed before, Pagano had to come up with his own…interesting…concoction to give Harlow the platinum blonde shade she wanted. According to the man himself. he used peroxide, ammonia, and Lux soap flakes to dye Harlow’s naturally ashy-blonde hair. Her hair was bleached because Pagano was quite literally using bleach on her head. That’s like using Clorox to dye your hair. Needless to say, the process was extremely painful and it literally burned Harlow’s scalp. In a few years, Harlow’s hair began falling out in huge chunks, forcing her to wear wigs (around 1935 or so). By 1936, her hair was dyed a strawberry blonde/reddish color because the process was less taxing. But by 1937, Harlow’s illness had taken a toll on her and her head had to be completely shaved, presumably for a surgery that never took place (you can see that she wears wigs once again in “Saratoga,” her last film). She passed away that year at age 26, due to nephritis. According to Pagano, Harlow would undergo the hellish dye job WEEKLY. Some people posit that the fumes from the hair dye, in combination with Harlow’s long, sad record of poor health, may have helped to end her life so soon. Of course, we will never know if this was in fact true. I, for one, am surprised her hair did not start falling out earlier. Even today, going platinum blonde is a long and difficult process that is still considered very damaging to the hair. As someone with naturally black hair, I would have to first go platinum in order to dye my hair ANY color, and knowing how unhealthy my hair is, it will most definitely fall out from one try!

He Gave Lucy Her Signature Fiery Locks

976704d204bdfe6bf31a43a759302387By now, we should be seeing a pattern here: Pagano’s way with hair helped turn talented Hollywood actresses into legends. When they wanted to stand out from the rest of the pack, he was the man that helped them. The same magic that Pagano worked with Harlow, he worked on Lucille Ball. Naturally a brunette, Pagano gave Ball her trademark unforgettable bright red hair that, along with her comedic chops, helped propel her to fame. However, he used a much safer product with Ball: Hopkin’s Egyptian Henna. If you’re an avid watcher of “I Love Lucy,” you might know that henna was Lucy’s preferred hair dye of choice. However, I don’t think the name of the brand she used was revealed until Pagano’s 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Daily News. Henna is an all-natural, plant-based hair dye that gives hair a deep red, dark brown, or black color, depending on the type of henna you choose. It’s the reason why my 92 year-old grandmother has hair the exact color of Lucille Ball’s in the above photo. Unfortunately, it looks like Hopkins Egyptian Henna is no longer on the market, but you can buy red henna from natural beauty stores or Indian or Middle Eastern grocery stores in order to mimic Ball’s locks. If you’re a vintage makeup collector, you can get an authentic tin of Hopkin’s Egyptian Henna on Ebay. According to the seller, there is still some powder left in the tin. However, it’s probably not a good idea to use it now.

Pagano’s Clientele List Will Make Your Jaw Drop

As if working with Jean Harlow and Lucille Ball wasn’t incredible enough already, Pagano also worked on Mae West, Judy Garland, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, and Marilyn Monroe (which probably wasn’t a coincidence; Monroe idolized Harlow and modelled herself after her). At the height of his popularity (1930s-1960s), Pagano and his brothers operated a hair salon at Wilshire Boulevard and Doheny Drive, which had a coffee shop and a jewelry shop inside. He also operated another salon at the top floor of the Sheraton on Rodeo Drive. According to Pagano’s loyal clientele, he continued to work using the same techniques he used during the Golden Age until he left the salons in 2007 in order to take care of his brother. Pagano created all of the beautiful finger waves and curls on Hollywood actresses using just his hands (no heat styling tools!) which is simply amazing.

So there you have it! I hope you all found this information interesting and got to learn about an extremely underrated Old Hollywood figure. I, for one, am very happy that hair dyes and relaxants are much safer today, but I do wish they can bring back the old styling techniques. Today’s hairdressers just aren’t trained the same way anymore.


5 thoughts on “Spotlight On: Alfred Pagano, Hairdresser to the Stars

    1. Thank you 🙂 Hahaha yes it really was horrible! The other episodes keep popping up on my “recommended videos” on YouTube…kinda tempted to watch them even though I know they will be awful!


  1. I do hair one day a week at a senior home,
    “To give back” One day I was cutting a gentlemans hair and he starts telling me he use to be a hair stylist to the stares when he told me is name, I thought to myself that I had heard that name before, so I looked him up and sure enough he’s the same gentlemen you are speaking about,Alfred Pagnano ! He is the greatest guy and want to share all his storys .This Man in my mind is a Legend. And I feel lucky to spend a little time with him.
    He is 90 years old and going strong .


      1. Sarah,
        I know Mr. Pagano well, and he would be delighted to meet with you and discuss the Golden Age of Hollywood. Feel free to email me. Mr. Pagano enjoyed your writeup very much.


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