His ride to the top began in a New York subway station. He was selling tokens. Now John Atchison is better known as the hair stylist to the stars of "The Cosby Show."
No, he didn't transform Lisa Bonet, who plays one of Cosby's daughters on the show, from an all-American girl to a steamy seductress for her first film role in "Angel Heart."
But yes, he is in charge of her look for the Cosby-show spinoff now in the works, where Bonet's character goes off to college.
"Her hair won't look much different from the way it does now," he says of the clean-cut style she wears for her role on the Cosby show.
But his Hollywood clients seem to be a small part of Atchison's interest. Visit him in his West Hollywood salon, and you would never suspect he is something of a star himself.
He opened the shop about a year ago and still spends every other month in New York at his West 55th Street shop. But he recognizes his L.A. customers by name when he sees them.
If Joyce Pierce--once a regular with the Fifth Dimension and who now occasionally sings with the group--stops in to say hello, or if Atchison's assistant stops him to say a TV segment about black beauty will be taped at his salon, it doesn't appear to faze him. He just keeps cutting hair, as if it was the most compelling thing in life.
"I came to Los Angeles because there wasn't any good cutting going on," he says. "I saw fantastic hair styling, but good haircuts were missing."
Vidal Sassoon taught him the craft, he says. And later, Atchison managed Sassoon's artistic team in New York.
He left, he adds, because: "I wanted to take the same technique and apply it to black women's hair.
"Lisa Bonet became the role model. She set a trend with her short haircuts that she'd wear a little different every week on the show. We've never had someone like her for black teen-agers to look to."
Bonet served another purpose for Atchison. She proved to black women that their hair will grow again if they cut it, he says. It's not cutting hair that keeps it from growing, he tells women. Hair grows, then breaks, because of the strong chemical treatments that so many black women use to straighten it.
"If women protect their hair against chemical straighteners by putting conditioner on the ends, and if they have regular trims to encourage their hair to grow, it will," he says.
He has developed a milder hair-straightening technique, in which he relaxes curls by degrees instead of all at once. That helps prevent damage too, he says.
Some of Atchison's customers ask him for celebrity hair styles. He starts by considering their height.
"How you wear your hair is based on your body size, not the latest trend," he says. "What works on the stage might not work in your own life. If you're small, you'll be overpowered by a lot of hair."
Because his reference points tend to be black celebrities, he might discourage a woman from wearing a big hairdo by telling her about Anita Baker, the Grammy-winning pop singer. "Anita Baker wouldn't look right with long, volumes of hair; she's too little." It's his way of implying the point.
Atchison treats his salon like a school as much as anything else. He says he also learned that from Sassoon, who always trained his staff by offering people free haircuts in the salon after hours.
One night a month, he leads a free seminar and performs makeovers on the women in the audience.
"Teaching is my way of being on stage," he says. "I used to want to be a singer." He did some backup crooning for a while before he had his own business and still plays jazz on the radio in the shop.
In his teaching seminars that are free to the public, he concentrates on practical advice.
He tells women looking for a new hair stylist or a new hair style: "Decide who you are in your own mind, to yourself." Then, he says, "go watch a hair stylist at work, and ask yourself if you like the way women look after they've had their hair done.
"How you wear your hair doesn't depend on your age or whether you're black or white. It depends on the texture of your hair. Be realistic; not everything works on every woman."
To reserve a place in Atchison's next evening seminar on Wednesday, phone the salon at (213) 655-2887. It is located at 8232 West 3rd St.