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FASHION : You can go from absolute zero to millions, says hair-care mogul John Paul Jones De Joria. He’s got the business and the toys to prove it. : Top of the Line

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Paul Jones De Joria and Michelle Gilliam--better known as Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and “Knot’s Landing"--first joined forces in their junior year at Marshall High.

Phillips recalls that neither of them was part of the “social-climbing set” and at least one of their teachers predicted they would flunk adulthood.

In fact, says De Joria, their business teacher intercepted notes they passed in class, read them aloud and declared, “These two people will never, ever succeed at anything in life.”

In De Joria’s case, the prophesy almost came true.

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He admits that he’s been fired from several jobs. That he has three ex-wives. That he’s been homeless more than a few times--most recently in 1980--and once slept in his car with his 3-year-old son.

As he munches a croissant behind a mammoth cherry wood desk in a slickly appointed office, De Joria clearly revels in recalling what he sometimes did just to make it through the day.

And why not?

He’s now the chief executive officer of John Paul Mitchell Systems, the Santa Clarita-based hair-care products company that he co-founded with the late hairdresser Paul Mitchell. When they started the firm in 1980, the two had $700 between them; today, De Joria says, the company does “way more than $100 million” in sales worldwide. What’s more, thanks to starring roles in the company’s print and TV ads, he has become a celebrity of sorts.

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The firm’s successes--particularly its “awapuhi” (ah-vah-poo-ee) shampoo, concocted with a wild Hawaiian ginger root--have enabled De Joria to count restaurant maestro Wolfgang Puck and actress Mariel Hemingway among his many business partners. He owns a piece of Puck’s Eureka restaurant in West Los Angeles, part of Hemingway’s two restaurants in New York City and has a stake in 14 other ventures, including a solar energy company, a Mexican tequila firm and a group that expects to market microwaveable organic food early next year. De Joria, 47, owns six luxurious homes, six fancy cars (plus a solar-powered race car he drove across Australia in the 1987 Pentax World Solar Challenge), a private jet and a tightly guarded art collection that includes works by Rembrandt, Dali and Erte.

He loves being “the token longhair” of the Republican Eagles, the invitation-only club of fund-raisers whose dues are $15,000 a year. And he’s eager to discuss his do-gooder accomplishments: donating about $50,000 to help save Oregon’s Elk River rain forest, funding and helping dish out thousands of pre-Thanksgiving meals for the homeless in downtown Los Angeles, and underwriting solar-power projects such as a car developed at Western Washington University.

And that’s only a small part of the story.

Indeed, De Joria moves with such energy and purpose that sparks seem to fly from the long black ponytail that is his trademark. Charismatic, friendly and perpetually on the go, he looks right at home in the star-studded skiing and croquet tournaments in which he participates.

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No wonder his recent spot on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” took up nearly half of the show.

So, how did this guy come from nowhere to occupy a ringside seat next to Robin Leach?

De Joria, who was born to immigrant parents and grew up in Echo Park, says he learned about basic survival after his parents were divorced and, at 6, he joined a gang in East Los Angeles. His father disappeared; his mom worked and couldn’t afford child care during the week. De Joria and his older brother lived with a foster family in East Los Angeles for a few years, spending weekends with their mother. The hustling instinct surfaced early. At 9, he sold Christmas cards, then delivered newspapers and worked odd jobs. After high school and a stint in the Navy, he returned to Los Angeles, married and peddled encyclopedias.

Then De Joria’s wife of four years took off, leaving him with sole custody of their 3-year-old son. He was broke and between paychecks when the rent was due, and rather than impose on friends or family, he chose homelessness.

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“It’s amazing what you do when you’re destitute,” he says. “I could have asked my mom to loan me some money, but I was too proud.

“I borrowed a car that had a broken water pump. I’d put my son in the car, drive from gas station to gas station at night, put water in the car--it could only get about as far as the next gas station--and collect the empty Coke bottles they had around back. Then I’d go to the supermarket and cash ‘em in. You could get two cents each, a nickel for the big ones, back then.”

This small-change lifestyle was soon interrupted soon with the help of Lee Meyers, a biker friend from junior high school who now runs the John Paul Mitchell Systems warehouse. The two met by chance and Meyers offered De Joria and his son a place to stay.

They lived with Meyers in North Hollywood for two years, and De Joria resumed his sales career: photocopy machines and life insurance, dictating equipment and magazines. Eventually, he became Time Inc’s. circulation manager for the Southwest, and later, a top sales executive at Redken, a pioneering hair-products firm that is now a competitor. Although De Joria had finally found his niche, he says he was fired from Redken “because I didn’t fit in. They said you want to do things differently than we do things.”

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Redken founder and CEO Paula Kent Meehan says--through a spokesperson--that De Joria “was and is an outstanding and creative salesperson.”

De Joria took jobs as a consultant to hair-products companies. In 1980, he found himself in Hawaii, talking with Paul Mitchell, whom he’d met at a hair show in 1971, about creating a hair-care line that would bear Mitchell’s name--which was well known among hair aficionados. (Mitchell had given up his high-profile status to live in a beach shack and practice yoga and mediation.) Geraldine Stutz, former president and managing partner of Henri Bendel in New York, had brought Mitchell to national prominence in the late ‘60s. She says he was a major innovator--almost as influential as Vidal Sassoon. She hired the Scottish-born Mitchell away from the Sassoon organization to run the famed Crimpers salon at Bendel.

“Sassoon is correctly the father of contemporary hairdressing, but it was Paul who took it into the realm of the fast, no-appointment, inexpensive cut. Vidal was very expensive by comparison. Paul was the first of the cut-rate kids. He was the ready-to-wear version of Vidal’s concept, which was couture,” says Stutz, now an editor with her own imprint at Random House.

“He was the perfect partner,” De Joria says. Mitchell was the creator; De Joria, the business brain. Despite a relentlessly tough first year, the two succeeded in getting their goods into salons, first in Hawaii and then throughout the United States. Their shampoos, hair sprays, conditioners, sculpting lotions are now sold in 19 countries.

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Despite Mitchell’s death in 1989 from pancreatic cancer, the company’s sales steadily increased; it recorded its highest sales ever last month. Even so, De Joria, who is now the majority stockholder, says the firm has only 51 employees worldwide.

He says he can get by with such a small staff because most people are “capable of doing 10 times more work if given the chance"--if they are also paid and treated well. As a result, the perks at John Paul Mitchell Systems are exceptional: Everyone gets a daily free lunch and an annual bonus. Warehouse manager Myers confirms that some warehouse workers earn more than $40,000 a year.

“Everybody wants to work here. That’s for sure,” Myers says.

“Of all the companies in this industry that I know of, John Paul Mitchell Systems seems to be universally beloved, certainly by hairdressers and the people who do business with them,” says Jackie Summers, executive editor of Modern Salon magazine, a leading industry publication.

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“I hear very little criticism of them,” adds Summers, who has known De Joria since 1980. “What I hear is mostly envy that this tiny company, with really a skeleton staff and not much overhead, makes so much money.”

Even De Joria’s competitors sing his praises.

“He’s an honorable man,” says John Sebastian, founder and chief executive officer of Sebastian International, another well-known hair-care products firm. Sebastian suspects De Joria may be correct when he says that his wares now outsell those of Nexxus and Redken in the United States. Along with Paul Mitchell products, Nexxus and Redken are considered the volume leaders in salons. The firms would neither confirm nor deny De Joria’s ranking.

“I don’t know who’s No. 1 or 2,” says Sebastian, pointing out that all three firms are private. “I don’t think anybody knows except the IRS.”

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In any case, De Joria relishes any chance to share his formulas for prosperity. They are familiar precepts, almost simplistic cliches, but he utters them with such reverence and enthusiasm that it seems as if lives by them:

* “Only handle a piece of paper one time. Either give it to somebody else to handle or do it yourself right then.”

* “The only difference between unsuccessful people and successful people is that successful people do all the things the unsuccessful people don’t want to do. If you go up to a door and it’s slammed on your face, you don’t give up. You go to another door or figure out a better way through the door.”

* “Whatever the human mind can conceive and believe it has a good chance of achieving.”

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This last, rather metaphysical notion, which De Joria claims is the most important in understanding his or anyone’s success, was picked up through his studies of religious texts, New Age leaders and business-oriented motivational coaches.

“I got involved at one time or another in some aspect of almost everything that’s out there, but not overly involved. I looked at Buddhism. That was very short-lived. The various peace movements. I lasted one day in est. I spent some time in Scientology, some time in everything that came along,” he says.

“Paul and I were involved with these things in such a way that the good things they offered became part of our lives. . . . We never preached to anybody to go with this organization or this belief. We found that there were some things we didn’t agree with in the various organizations.”

The unspoken tenet of his pilgrimage to prosperity is work, work and more work. But De Joria is tired of being a “business machine” and has taken steps to spend more time with his children.

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Although his primary residence is in Las Vegas, where he claims to go “to become a recluse,” every other week he’s back in Beverly Hills. His two daughters, 7-year-old Michaeline and 14-year-old Alexis, stay with him there, living alternate weeks with their mothers. His oldest child, John Paul Jr., is 24. According to De Joria, his son passed on a chance to work at John Paul Mitchell Systems. He operates a beauty school, which he established with a loan from his father, in Washington state.

To hear De Joria tell it, he is on good terms with all of his ex-wives. But the hesitation in his voice suggests it wasn’t always so. Pushed to elaborate, he describes costly court battles that stretched over years.

Not that they have impeded his social life. He dates 34-year-old Eloise Broady, an actress and model whose image has appeared around town on billboards advertising Kool cigarettes. And he’s fiercely dedicated to enjoying the good life he gave up when he focused almost exclusively on building his businesses.

“He invites his friends on the most wonderful trips you could imagine,” says Michelle Phillips, who resumed her friendship with De Joria five years ago. “He’s invited me and Geoff Tozer, my boyfriend, to Greece for the most glorious eight days you could imagine. . . . He spends a fortune to entertain his friends lavishly--and we appreciate it.”

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And it looks as though De Joria won’t be cutting back on such luxuries in the back-to-basics ‘90s.

“I’d like to inspire people and let people know that you can start with nothing and become successful. The American way still works,” De Joria insists. “And when you become successful, you can do good things for the planet, help others out along the way.

“Our company is continuing to grow during hard times. We don’t hold back. If everybody did that, there wouldn’t be hard times. People say, ‘Well, I’m going to hold back my advertising dollars.’ Then, all of a sudden people don’t have jobs or they don’t know about your product. I believe in keeping the flow going and it comes back. Believe me, if you start a flow, believe it’s the right thing to do and believe it will continue, it continues. If you stop a flow, everything backs up.”


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