CHICAGO - Ben Mollin doesn’t look like a man who would know about hair.
First of all, he barely has any - he keeps his dark brown hair cut down in a low fade and often shaves himself bald or rocks a short Mohawk. His arms are covered with tattoos. And he prefers discussing his aspirations as a saxophone player to talking about asymmetrical cuts, shags and bobs.
But from the day he French-braided a classmate’s hair at T.F. North High School, he’s known his path. “She was all super happy,” he recalled. “I thought, `I should do this for the rest of my life.’”
Mollin, 32, developed a cult of customers who followed him from salons to basements to his Calumet City, Ill., house, where he did hair for a while, and finally his new place: a small, hip-looking room in the back of a music instrument store.
He has gained a broader following now on the Bravo network reality show “Shear Genius,” which pits charismatic and sometimes melodramatic hairstylists against each other in weekly challenges. The winner of the competition has his or her work showcased in commercials and magazines and takes home $100,000 cash.
Mollin has been keeping his fans who watch the Wednesday-night episodes at the edge of their seats. Sometimes he’s among the top three stylists, but he’s also come close to being told “this is your last cut” and to pack his clippers and go home.
In the hair salon, Mollin enthralls clients with sagas of a free-spirited life. One moment, he’s playing a gig at a nightclub, the next he’s shooting a music video for a song with hard-core beats that’s simply about people needing haircuts. He raps:
Yeah I understand this is the biggest day in your life
You wanna bring in a picture ...
You wanna look like the girl on TV
But I ain’t no witch doctor
I ain’t no magician
I’m a beautician, you know what I’m sayin’
“When I get home, it’s like telling the adventures of Ben,” said client Mary Lou Frederick, 57. “I’ve always got a story about what he’s up to. He’s always doing something, always evolving.”
Mollin likes to tell people he “represents Cal City to the fullest.”
In many ways, he’s like his gritty hometown. With his stretched-out earlobes and piercings, he can’t help but be noticed. He says the unpolished, dark style is by design. “The less people expect, the happier they are.”
But he’s also the son of Jewish educators - his mom is a retired principal and his dad a synagogue choir director and head of a band that specializes in traditional music. Mollin once wanted to be a humanities teacher but dropped the idea to pursue music.
For fun, he experimented in his youth on his mother’s and grandmother’s hair, he said. He’d practice perming and coloring and styling. Any mistakes were fixed with a cut.
After high school, just as today, Mollin played with a ska band and sometimes sang vocals. He likes to say that, on the side, he went to Cameo Beauty Academy to get a career to fall back on. “It’s like an old-school trade, beauty school,” he said.
Even at cosmetology school he stood out, if only for being one of the few men in classes.
“He is just an easy-going kind of guy who can put you at ease right away,” said Herman Harrison, co-owner of the Oak Lawn, Ill.-based school. “He was just like any other student: when they come here they don’t know a heck of a lot about hair. He was very artistic and he could draw. Hair was just another medium for him, like sculpting.”
Mollin was 18 when he got his first full-time job, working at an Orland Park Super Cuts franchise. There he learned to cut fast, conservative looks and juggle tasks, he said.
It wasn’t until he adopted a simple philosophy that he started to build a following. Anyone rebellious enough to request a Mohawk would get their cut for free, he decided.
“You can’t charge for a Mohawk,” he says. “You just can’t.”
Word of Mollin’s generosity spread among high school students, musicians and punk rockers, he said. They were thrilled about the free cuts, but more impressed to have a hairstylist who understood what they represented.
Over time, their mothers, sisters and relatives became clients, too. He became known for designing creative, customized looks for chic clients.
On one man, he used clippers to carve a spider web on the side of his head and then dyed it light brown. Grabbing the center patch of the man’s Mohawk, Mollin tells him when it grows a bit longer, he’d like to shape it into short dreadlocks.
He clips another client’s hair short in the back, stacking curls on top of each other to show off her long neck. He sweeps the fluffy front asymmetrically off her face so it looks almost as if she just got out of bed.
“He was always up to date and stylish,” said Kristy Gilman, a client for 12 years. “It was hard to find someone who knew the latest styles. Now I don’t trust anybody else.”
Mollin was taping an instructional hair video when he heard about “Shear Genius” by coincidence. He sent in a music video he had filmed along with footage introducing himself, and got selected as a contestant.
When taping wrapped up, instead of staying in Hollywood and trying to woo celebrity clients and finagle his TV appearance into larger fame, Mollin had a different idea.
He would open a posh salon and serve wine to his clients - in Griffith, Ind.
And he did, except for the posh part.
Behind rows of violins and electric guitars, past the rack of colorful vintage clothes, Mollin works in a small room with red and blue walls. His girlfriend and another musician work with him.
Dynamite Music has been in the town for 13 years, selling instruments to musicians. Mollin’s salon, actually a partnership with another musician-slash-stylist, is a room that his friends painted, where he uses tool boxes as work stations.
The salon may be low-budget, but Mollin as a stylist has been praised by some of the most high-end and in-demand beauticians in the industry.
On the show, Meg Ryan’s hairstylist, Sally Hershberger, said his shag was close to one she charges $650 for. Host Jaclyn Smith openly admired one of his creations. Mollin made actress Vanessa Williams laugh out loud, even though his stylings on that show were a disaster.
While he’s brushed with greatness, Mollin says of his long-time customers, “They’ve supported me through the years ... through my highs and lows and have been paying my bills since I was 18. I don’t want to start charging them a tourist tax.”
The new salon is all part of his hair philosophy, he said.
“I want people to get that kind of quality, but not have to pay $200 to $300,” he says. “Why can’t normal people afford to look high end?
“I like to consider this an upscale salon, just on the d.l.”