Seymour “Sy” Sperling, a businessman and philanthropist best known for founding and representing the Hair Club in its commercials, has died. He was 78.
Sperling, a native of the South Bronx who lived in Manhasset for some of his life, had served in the Air Force and graduated from C.W. Post College, now LIU Post, in Brookville, before losing most of his hair by the time he turned 25, according to a 1993 New York Times profile.
“I was really unhappy with my appearance,” Sperling told the Times. “And it was destroying my self-confidence. My father had gone bald at a very young age, but I didn’t think it would happen to me. All of a sudden there I was, trying to establish myself in sales, trying to date again. And I was quickly going bald at age 26. It was impossible.”
Sperling, then a pool salesman, sought ways to prevent his thinning hair from falling out before hitting upon a technique that worked.
“The process is a hair-fusion method,” the Times said. “A fine nylon mesh is fitted to the scalp. The mesh allows the scalp to breathe and existing hair to grow through it. Next, strands of hair from India are colored and textured to match the customer. They are attached to the mesh with a polymer that acts as an adhesive. The mesh is similarly fused to the existing side hair. Customers have to have some hair to anchor the system.”
Inspired, Sperling learned the technique himself and teamed up with his second wife, a hairdresser, to open the first Hair Club for Men. They opened their first salon in Manhattan, with one of the first outside of the five boroughs being placed in Garden City.
While successful at first, the business later stalled with the only publicity came from word of mouth and, according to Sperling, customers were loath to discuss their time at the salons.
He decided to create a commercial to air on late-night TV, but the first concept, which showed a product user running and doing strenuous activities, failed to generate any buzz.
An advertising agency suggested that the “painfully shy” Sperling himself speak to the camera, and the resulting commercial, which showed him hold up a “before” picture of his bald head, resulted in an instantly quotable catchphrase: “I’m not only the Hair Club president, I’m also a client.”
Yearly business boomed from the commercials, eventually reaching $100 million in 1993, and Sperling made appearances on mainstream TV like “Saturday Night Live” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
In time, “for men” would be dropped from the business’ name as they began catering to women who had lost their hair.
Sperling would also set up the Hair Club for Kids, which sought to provide similar treatment for children who had undergone chemotherapy at no charge, and which he worked on until his death.
The year 2000 saw Sperling sell the Hair Club to a private equity firm for $45 million, and he went into semi-retirement for the rest of his life.
Sperling, who the Times said resided in Hillsboro Beach, Fla. at the time of his death, is survived by his third wife, Susan Sperling; his daughter, Shari Sperling; his son, Andrew; and his sister, Rosalie Slute.