'Slowing down not my style'
The thought of meeting legendary hairdresser Vidal Sassoon made me wish I'd had a good trim and my roots done beforehand.
But I shouldn't have worried. The world famous stylist who revolutionised women's hair with his short, sexy bobs, geometric styles and trademark 'five-point cut', is charming and gracious throughout our interview and I don't feel his eyes wandering towards my rather neglected locks once.
We meet in a comfortable private club a short walk from his flat in a trendy part of London, his base when he isn't at his main residence, a modernist house in Beverly Hills with 360-degree views, which he shares with his fourth wife, Ronnie, 23 years his junior.
The Sixties superstar hairdresser cut the hair of an endless stream of contemporary models and celebrities, including Mia Farrow, Mary Quant, Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton and Nancy Kwan. Today he's here to promote his memoir, Vidal: The Autobiography, a tome awash with amazing stories of the movers and shakers of the art and fashion worlds as well as the tale of his own supersonic rise to fame.
He partied with Steve McQueen, Michael Caine and Terence Stamp, had women clamouring for his attention and achieved virtual film star status.
"I loved that time. It was when the 'meritocracy' took over. It wasn't the demise of the aristocracy, but you had to strive to get to the top. There were so many young people giving Britain the kind of name it had never had before – it had been so stodgy."
Sassoon, 82, rarely picks up the scissors these days.
He has long since sold the salons and the brand rights to the hair products which bear his name, but still remains busy working on projects like his book, and a documentary about his life, due to be screened here in April.
This is despite his share of health scares, which include a quadruple bypass 10 years ago and more recently treatment for pneumonia following the removal of two cancerous sores. After weeks of radiotherapy, he still looks a little gaunt, although he plays his health problems down.
"I'm 82 and I've had the luckiest years," he shrugs. "They cut out the cancer sores and then gave me 30 treatments of radiation therapy and then I had diverticulitis and pneumonia. I guess I pushed myself so hard all those years, that the body was saying, 'Hang on a minute'."
He was in and out of hospital in Los Angeles for weeks, lost nearly two stone in weight and even now is working to regain all of the weight back with the help of a physiotherapist and Ronnie's amazing cooking.
But the health setbacks haven't quelled his zest for life.
"If you feel you've lived a positive life and what you are doing now is still positive, why would you change your whole style? You'd be miserable."
Born in Shepherd's Bush, London, to Jewish parents, his Greek father left his mother for another woman, leaving her destitute, when Vidal was three and his brother Ivor was one. The boys stayed at their aunt's initially but were then moved to a Jewish orphanage for nearly seven years, until their mother had remarried and could once again provide for them.
It was his mother who had a premonition that Vidal was going to be a hairdresser and dragged him to respected East End crimper and disciplinarian Adolf Cohen, asking him to take the young Vidal on. An apprenticeship was normally 100 guineas but Cohen thought Sassoon was particularly well mannered and took him on for nothing.
"We had to come in with pressed trousers, clean shoes and clean nails, which was kind of ridiculous as there was a war on (when his family were sleeping in the Underground), but we managed it."
Sassoon remembers how he'd put his trousers inside a folded blanket and slept on it to keep the creases sharp. When Sassoon opened his own salons in later years, the discipline stayed with him. His male stylists had to look immaculate in three-piece suits, his female employees were always sharp and fashionable.
The hairdresser built up a global empire, opening salons worldwide, launching academies and hair products, but admits his workaholic nature helped contribute to the breakdown of his first three marriages.
His first wife, Elaine, left him for the then British water ski champion David Nations, his second wife, actress Beverly Adams (with whom had three children and one adopted son), divorced him after 13 years and his third marriage to dressage champion Jeanette Hartford was shortlived.
Yet regrets are few, apart from the fact that he missed his children when Beverly divorced him. To cope with that, he says he just worked harder.
He met Ronnie, a former advertising executive, when she worked on a campaign with him. They've been married for 18 years.
"Ronnie's quite extraordinary. Falling in love is one thing. Staying in love is being fascinated by your partner. Otherwise, what is there? She surprises me constantly and she has a marvellous eye for art."
But they underwent five years of marriage counselling when his eldest daughter, actress Catya, who had a drugs problem, was at her most needy.
"She always used to find an excuse to be sick when we were on holiday," he recalls. "The counselling saved our marriage."
Catya died from a drugs overdose on New Year's Eve in 2001. She was 33 and left three children. How does he cope?
"You get Catya days. They are less and less now because it's many years ago," he reflects. "But, three months ago, Kirk Douglas did a show at a theatre where he showed clips of his movies and talked about his life and his children – he must be going through a rough time now because of his eldest son with cancer – and then he talked about his boy who overdosed and tears were streaming down my face. That was hard."
His adopted son David also hasn't spoken to him for 18 months, following a disagreement about which college he would attend.
"He decided one day just to take off and go to Canada. He's back now in LA and his life is up to him. Once he finds himself he'll contact us.
"He wants to come with some sense of himself and I understand that."
The bad times come and go, but Sassoon is optimistic that the good times will roll on. And slowing down is not on his agenda.
"I can't see myself with my feet in the sand for more than a month. It's not my style."