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Suction a Little More Off the Top, Please

SALON.COM

Remember the Flowbee?

The hair clipper that grafts to your vacuum with a licorice-like tube of black plastic and a yellow, buzzing head? It once developed a cult following among the infomercial-loving late-night TV crowd and is now making something of a comeback, thanks to the Web.

The Flowbee site (https://www.flowbee.com) brings in only 10% of the San Diego company’s sales, about 9,000 units a year. But it also provides an anchor for a greater base of Flowbee fans than those who come home from the 7-Eleven at 3 a.m. and hit the couch, bean burrito and remote control in hand.

“We’re looking at setting up banner ads in the next year and our Web page is going to be revamped,” says Horse Enciso, director of sales for Flowbee International. He expects online sales to double in the next year.

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The Flowbee site has the same low-rent feel as the infomercial, complete with blurry photos of people getting Flowbee-d. You can buy the Flowbee there (for $69.95) and at more than a dozen other sites that feature eclectic “as seen on TV” products. EBay, too, often has close to a half-dozen Flowbees for auction, generally at near-full price.

The Flowbee was invented in the late 1980s by Rick Hunts, a San Diego carpenter, after he marveled at an industrial vacuum’s ability to suck sawdust from his hair. Hunts originally sold Flowbees from his garage in 1988, but business took off after he gave live demonstrations at a county fair. He took his demo to late-night TV. Since then, 2 million buyers have been enticed by the Flowbee’s low-budget appeal, or at least recognized its preposterous brilliance. Even Hollywood was watching and has cast the Flowbee in “Wayne’s World,” “Party of Five” and “Home Improvement.” And it has inspired at least one rival, the RoboCut.

There’s a reasonable cultural explanation for Flowbee fervor, says Robert Thompson, president of the Popular Culture Society of America and a professor of communications at Syracuse University. Because the product is so ridiculous, it sticks in our memories. As a result, he says, it comes to represent that uniquely American creation: the product that is too absurd to forget, the product that becomes a conversation starter rather than just a purchase.

“In a nation that’s shattered the idea of history, where people move constantly from place to place, a change is occurring,” said Thompson. “Consumer mandates are supplying the history that we’ve lost. Products are linking us to our past.”

All the excitement prompted me to take a Flowbee to my own lengthening locks. I had to overcome my fear of a head hickey, but once I did, I managed a cool Caesar cut. I attached the Flowbee’s black tube to my household vacuum and snapped in the 2-inch plastic sleeve that corresponded to my desired length.

Next, I tackled the sides with a slanted attachment. All in all, my novice effort took only 20 minutes. When I had finished, I asked several barbers and stylists what they thought.

“It looks good,” said several, eyes wide with surprise. Only Tonia Lear at Elizabeth Arden’s tony Red Door Salon in San Francisco was unconvinced. “It can’t look nice,” she said. “It’s a machine.” Yes it is, I thought--and it won’t ask inane questions about my love life or my mom.

Still, it makes its own noise. Between the vacuum and the Flowbee’s buzzing, my living room sounded like an airplane hangar. There were other glitches, too. For example, the Flowbee missed tufts around my ears. But my floor, clothes and neck stayed hair-free. I became a fan and found that, beyond the Web, there are like-minded souls in places you’d never dream of--like the barber shop.

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Bill Ventura has no qualms about the greatness of the Flowbee. The graying, short-haired barber at Louie’s, a San Francisco hair-cutting mecca since the 1930s, bought one two years ago and has been using it regularly--on himself, but not his clients--ever since.

Why would a barber from the old school embrace such a funky device? Simple, he said: “I thought it was a good idea.”


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