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RELUCTANT NOVICE

No Cut Above the Rest : A fortified Flowbee lets you trim your own hair. But the gadget isn't likely to threaten your hairdresser's business.

July 22, 1994|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Popeil Pocket Fisherman. The Vegematic. The Chia Pet.

Such absurdities flit across our television screens, rarae aves in the midnight air of the high-num bered channels. They are like quirky relatives, exacting a smile or perhaps a shrug of disbelief.

I had always reserved a warm spot in my heart for these freaks of free enterprise. But never had I considered dialing the toll-free number, not once had I felt the urge to place an order.

Not until I saw the Flowbee.

A whirring vision in yellow and black, a preposterous conglomeration of tubes and hoses, the Flowbee hit the market several years ago but had escaped my attention until recently.

It was love at first sight.

"The Precision Home Haircutting System," this contraption dared to call itself. More like the idiot king of tele-consumerism. The man in the commercial smiled confidently as he passed the handheld vacuum over his head, allowing his hair to be sucked into a clear-plastic tube and chopped by scissoring blades.

Technology this ludicrous earned both my admiration and my $79.95.

"I'm going to Flowbee," I told Suzanne, the woman who cuts my hair. It was both a bold declaration and a means of putting her on emergency alert.

"You're going to what?"

"You know, that suck-cut thing."

"Oh my god."

Indeed, when it finally arrived in the privacy of my home, the Flowbee proved more than a little daunting. I peered into the blue-and-yellow boxful of parts and found myself staring into the abyss of mankind's enduring fear: the truly bad haircut.

"Relax and enjoy," the owner's manual urged me.

I pressed on, reading the directions twice and assembling the various parts. Only then did it become apparent that my upright vacuum did not provide enough suction, especially for someone whose hair hangs long and curly. Such inadequacy forced me to bring the Flowbee to work and attach it to a similarly curious and frightening machine that I borrowed from the janitor. It was called the Wap Turbo industrial vacuum and it shrieked like a Boeing 747 on approach.

So it was that I embarked on my "precision haircutting" experience amid a cacophony, with a gaggle of co-workers huddled at safe distance. The Flowbee trembled in my hand. Taking a deep breath, employing the recommended up-and-down motion, I coaxed the first strands of my hair into its gnashing blades.

*

My co-workers winced, all of them save for a woman named Susan who yelled: "Cut more."

Cool air swirled across my scalp. My hand grew steadier. My fears gave way to the contraption's gentle vibration.

Then, as great shards of hair fell to the blade, sucked directly into the Wap Turbo by means of immaculate process, I found myself carried away by an unexpected surge of puissance. After years of visits to the hair salon, I had broken free from the grip of hair-care professionals. I was no longer a prisoner to the monthly $20 visit. I was taking responsibility for my own styling.

"More," Susan called out, as if sensing my triumph.

But if I had cut more, I would have left myself with a flattop. All too quickly, my Flowbee liberation had come to an end. My audience inched closer, offering a chorus of reviews.

"It looks better than I thought it would."

"Looks like you took a pair of scissors to yourself."

"Looks like you went to Supercuts."

Susan shrugged. "Too short."

Of course, these people were journalists and, by craft, cynical. The truth was, I looked well-kempt with a layered, bullet-shaped style reminiscent of "The Osmond Family Show." Or perhaps "The Hardy Boys Mysteries," either Shaun Cassidy or Parker Stevenson, take your pick.

Suzanne, my hairdresser, expressed a reserved bemusement.

"Actually," she said the next day, "it's not bad."

*

I had missed a few spots, but I do that when I'm vacuuming the house, too. And the Flowbee's predisposition for layering had created another minor problem.

"Wispy around the edges," Suzanne said, employing professional terminology for hair that looks, well, wispy around the edges.

She cautiously asked if I planned to Flowbee again.

Perhaps if I wore one of those straight and clean-cut styles, I might be better suited to the Flowbee system. Perhaps, even with my hair, practice would make perfect. But it seemed unreasonable to endure months, even years, of looking like a throwback to 197Os prime-time television.

"So what are you going to do with it?" a co-worker asked as I coiled the machine back into its box. "Are you going to put it in the garage and never touch it again?"

Another one mused: "Maybe if you get a long-haired dog."

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