Going for the look of the head of state

I called Arnold Schwarzenegger's Beverly Hills hairdresser the other day to book an appointment for a make-over.

"When can you come in?" asked the receptionist.

I was a little surprised the maestro was so available, but two hours later I parked on Canon Drive and walked to the Giuseppe Franco Salon. Schwarzenegger and I have had our differences, but there's one thing I can't deny as we close in on Tuesday's election:

He's got the look of a winner.

The man has survived monumental flip-flops, blatant contradictions and scandalous accusations. Every time you think he's finally been knocked off the horse, he flashes that golden smile and comes back more invincible, high in the saddle and looking good.

I wanted some of that magic that comes with knowing you look your best, and I had reason to believe Mr. Franco could handle the job.

"For more than two decades," says the salon's website, "only one man's scissors have touched the hair of the most powerful man in the state of California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and those scissors belong to Giuseppe Franco."

Franco's shop has a big Schwarzenegger poster in the window -- Arnold on the cover of Vanity Fair. There's another Vanity Fair cover of him inside, larger than life. Right off the bat, I began to suspect that a salon is very different from a barbershop. A receptionist named Anita, a blond Hungarian in a leopard-pattern cowboy hat, told me Mr. Franco was in a meeting and would be with me shortly. A meeting?

While waiting, I wondered if I really wanted to go through with this. Glancing in the mirror, though, I had to admit the S. Lo look was in need of some attention. The hair on top was going Joe Biden and the rest was way down the road from gray to white. Before I could decide, I heard someone calling my name.

"Steve Lopez," said the skinny, rock star-looking guy who came my way with his jet black hair sticking straight up. "Stevie!"

That's Giuseppe Franco?

I was expecting someone from Italy. Franco is from Hoboken.

He's got the accent and attitude to prove it too. Al Pacino is a mummy compared to this guy.

I told Franco I wanted to leave the shop looking as good as the governor, to the extent possible, even if it meant Arnold-style red highlights.

"I'm gonna make you look BETTER than the governor!" he guaranteed.

Franco recommended that we start with a major trim job on my goatee.

"You never, EVER, let your beard go ZZ Top on you," he said, referring to the blues-rock band whose members look like they've got beehives hanging off their chins.

He also recommended some color. I've always prided myself on going natural, but hey, it wasn't subtlety that made Arnold a winner.

Red wouldn't work on me, said Franco. I'd look like a redhead in a black and white film. But he doesn't do the color himself. He called out to Bryan Howe, one of his color guys, and Howe, with a tie he borrowed from Yogi Bear and tattoos quilted over his arms, looked me over, along with his boss.

"You walked in here salt and pepper, and you're going to walk out with a little more pepper," Franco said after their confab. "You're gonna look like a sex pistol when I'm done with you, Steve-O."

I was beginning to see why the governor likes Franco, who stepped outside into a breezeway and pried the hard-pack of Marlboro Lights out of his front pocket and lighted up while contemplating the project ahead. Inside, a stunning young blond was having her hair done and the place was a parade of eye candy and young guys in torn jeans, T-shirts and tattoos, who turned out to be hairdressers on break. Actor Gary Busey lolled about smoking a big cigar. "La Bamba" played on the sound system.

This was Arnold's World, with Caffe Roma in the same cluster of breezeway shops, along with Nazareth's Fine Cigars, where the governor has his nameplate on a humidor in the smoking lounge. I'd already been transformed from S. Lo to Steve-O, man about Beverly Hills, and Franco hadn't even reached for his scissors yet.

When he returned, though, he'd had some second thoughts. If my intention was to make him or the governor look bad, he said, the deal was off. He and the governor are such pals, Franco is planning to spend election day with Schwarzenegger, knocking on doors, touching him up, whatever the governor needs.

Nothing to worry about, I told him. I was there because I wanted be more like Arnold. I wanted to be able to have a bad day now and then, but still keep up appearances.

His wife called and I could hear Franco's conversation with her.

"He's the one that called Arnold Woody Woodpecker," he said to her. That's the trouble with writing a column: People have long memories. "OK, I love you, pumpkin."

I guess his wife advised him to go ahead, because Franco had me shampooed and then got out his scissors. The same man who, according to his brochure, cuts Sean Penn, Joe Pesci, Drew Barrymore, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Christopher Walken, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Sharon Stone, Charlie Sheen, Sylvester Stallone, Benicio Del Toro and "the cast of 'The Sopranos,' " was cutting Steve-O's hair.

"Tonight's gonna be your night, Stevie," said Franco, who told me he got into the business to meet girls. "You want espresso, pizza, anything? You sure? We have a relationship with our clients in here. It's full-service. They cancel therapy sessions after coming here. Look at you, what a sex machine. This is not Supercuts, Steve-O."

These are things my barber has never said.

They brought in a pepperoni pizza and passed it around. A double espresso landed in front of me and a shiatsu massage therapist named Anthony Salmon gave me a little tuneup.

What a life Arnold leads.

I asked Franco if he thought the governor's challenger, Phil Angelides, was in need of a makeover.

"He's got a lot of heart," Franco said, promising the Democrat a free cut after the election. The problem is the style, not the color, Franco said of Angelides' hair. And someone who loves him should tell him to ditch the glasses.

"He's 1971," Franco said. "Oklahoma weatherman. No, substitute teacher."

The color job took forever, with Howe using a brush to dab at my head. Lowlights, he explained. Pepper.

It was a leap of faith, to say the least, and I wasn't sure I was going to walk out looking my best. The color seemed a little closer to shoe polish than pepper, and I worried about the reaction from my wife, whose jaw drops at the sight of middle-aged guys who do mortifying things to their hair trying to look young.

Don't worry, Franco told me. It'd look fine once they rubbed some of the gray back in.

"You can't rush color."

He said I had virgin hair, meaning it had been untouched by color or product. Now that I was deflowered, was I stuck coming back every six weeks? Did I really want to start worrying about roots along with prostate enlargement?

Before I could get an answer, Richie Palmer, New York-born owner of Mulberry Street Pizzeria across the street, walked in to tell Franco he was a nobody without the governor. Palmer insisted he had more celebrities in his pizza joint than Franco had in his salon and the two of them wrestled and goofed like schoolboys playing hooky in Little Italy.

This is a Beverly Hills I never knew.

A cop named Reiner came by to pick up his daughter after a style job, and Franco asked if he could shoot the officer's gun real quick. Actor Seymour Cassel went by with a lighted cigar. Busey was still wandering around like he was lost.

Are all the talent agents in Beverly Hills blind?

Give Franco a TV show, with or without the governor.

What's Palmer's story? I asked the stylist to the stars.

Used to date actress Cathy Moriarty, he said. They started the pizza business together but split up. Then Palmer married Raquel Welch.

I looked at Palmer, who was grinning, as if he couldn't believe it, either.

Try going back to your high school reunion with that story, Palmer said.

Yo, what's new out West, Richie?

Not much. I opened a pizza parlor and married Raquel Welch.

"Steve-O, do you feel what's goin' on here?" Franco asked when he got his hands back in my hair.

He ran up behind the counter, where Anita the Hungarian cowgirl works, and got on the PA system.

"We are winners, Stevie boy. Winners!"

I didn't want to say anything, but I wasn't sure about the dye job. The side of my head looked a little like Anita's leopard-skin hat, but for all I knew, that may have been the look he was going for.

Franco used some gel to get the hair on top of my head standing up, and I wasn't sure about that either. Looked to me like a few charred stalks were still standing after a chaparral fire.

The whole thing took a little under three hours and cost $400, which is two years' worth of haircuts at my regular price.

Franco said I looked 23 years younger than when I walked in, which would make me my son's age. He was thrilled with my new do, but let me remind you this is a man who, with all due respect, looks like Keith Richards might look after sticking his finger in a light socket.

I have to admit that I had some swagger in my step when I left the salon.

I bought a fat stogie at the place where Arnold has his humidor and strutted out to the sidewalk, where I chatted up passing women, none of whom turned and ran. One of them even tossed me a compliment, and Franco called me a winner.

"You should've done this years ago," he said.

Yeah, look what the right stylist, and a winning smile, did for Schwarzenegger.

Gov. Steve-O.

I kind of like it.

Put me down for next month, Giuseppe. We layer, we touch up the roots. Keep an open mind and think about a dash of paprika with that salt and pepper.

Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at latimes.com/lopez.

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