Inside Hollywood's favorite baldness clinic
Dr. Baubac Hayatdavoudi
April 30 2011
Chris Ayres on the Wilshire Boulevard practice that’s a sanctuary for Tinseltown’s follically challenged stars Aside from the words “Alvi Armani” etched into a smoked-glass partition, the entry lounge of the tenth-floor suite at 8500 Wilshire Boulevard – located above a nondescript bank branch on the edge of Beverly Hills – gives no hint
as to what goes on beyond the unmanned reception desk. There’s just a sofa, a vase of purple orchids, a flat-screen TV and a coffee table with a glossy magazine placed on top at a perfect right angle.
Such meticulous anonymity – there are no product brochures on display, no informative posters, no slogans or randing of any kind – makes you wonder for a moment if you might have found yourself in a field office for some
unofficial branch of the CIA.
The real explanation, however, involves a matter of far greater delicacy. Here in this suite, an unspeakable taboo is confronted, often after years – decades, even – of private anguish. In many ways, it is a place of Ultimate Reckoning: where the impossibility of death in the mind of someone living – as Damien Hirst so memorably put it meets the unyielding reality of human decay. Yes, Alvi Armani is a clinic… for balding men. And not just any men, either – but some of the richest and most prominent individuals on the planet.
If the name “Alvi Armani” sounds familiar, it’s most likely because of the alleged patient who was recently caught by paparazzi climbing into a limousine in the facility’s underground garage – one Gordon Ramsay, of Kitchen
Nightmares fame. In the photograph, the Michelin-starred chef was fitted with a surgical cap and looked dazed and puffy-eyed. “Gordon Barnet!” sniggered The Sun.
In spite of such jeers, however, the Armani clinic – founded by the esteemed Italian surgeon Antonio Armani (unrelated to the clothing designer of the same name) – is at the follicle-tip of a revolution in so-called “hair restoration” technology that is already well on the way to eliminating baldness in notable males of a certain age. Its secret? The treatment is pre-emptive. Plus, the new hair grows in over 18 months, which is why, if not for the occasional enterprising photographer, the work goes mostly undetected.
Although it is impossible to know who has had the procedure, the statistical fact that two-thirds of males should by rights have lost their hair by the age of 60 doesn’t make it hard to guess. John Cleese, now 71, is one of the few who’ve come clean, explaining that he got a transplant because, “I’ve got a very strange-shaped skull, very pointy,
and I don’t like wearing wigs.” In fact, the shock these days is more when men don’t take action – hence the recent serious-minded reports on Prince William’s scalp by the Associated Press, and the incredulous whispers in Hollywood whenever Hugh Laurie gets his thinning crown touched up with a spray can on the set of House, M.D.
“I would say that more than 90 per cent of everyone you see out there has had it done,” says Dr Baubac Hayatdavoudi, the 35-year-old surgeon who took over the Armani clinic in Beverly Hills two years ago, when I ask him to guess how many suspiciously hirsute celebrities have undergone some kind of major scalpwork. “They just come here before it gets obvious. It used to be a taboo in this business to treat young people. It was always, y’know, ‘Let’s wait and see how your hair loss progresses…’” Well, not any more.
There are other advances, too, says Dr Hayatdavoudi – who is tall and of Iranian descent, with a disarmingly gentle manner, and a tendency to break into the kind of muffled, professorial giggles that bring to mind the more nerdish qualities of Barack Obama. Soon, he predicts, men will be able to clone their follicles, making the process of hair restoration even cheaper and easier. “As an option, I think it’s about five years out,” he says. “Patients could take out 100 grafts at the back of their head and simply replicate the DNA. In fact, Dr Armani is researching this now at his lab in Toronto. It’s his passion.”
It was Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, who made the first scientific observation on the subject of baldness when he reported that of all the Ancient Greek men in 400BC, only the eunuchs never receded or thinned. He didn’t know why, of course.
But we do now: men castrated before puberty don’t produce testosterone, and therefore neither its evil mutant offspring, dihydrotestosterone, or DHT. It is DHT that acts like Kryptonite on men’s follicles, but only if those follicles have been equipped with so-called “DHT receptors”, a factor decided without consultation or appeal by the cruel lottery of genetics.
“Everyone’s hair has growth phases, which vary between two and six years,” explains Dr Hayatdavoudi. “If you have a longer phase, it means you can grow your hair to the ground. And if you have DHT receptors, the growth phase becomes shorter and shorter… until you end up with ‘peach fuzz’. You lose your hair because it’s taking the DHT on board.”
Before such things were known, “baldness cures” were nothing of the sort, really. Hippocrates treated his own dying rug with everything from sheep’s urine to horseradish, cumin, pigeon droppings and nettles. It took a couple of millennia for the first big advance in follicular treatments to arrive – the 1804 experiment by an Italian doctor, Giuseppe Baronio, that involved cutting a strip of skin from a living sheep, then grafting it back on to the unfortunate creature 80 minutes later. To everyone’s surprise, the skin survived – thus proving that “autografts” (removing skin from one part of the body and moving it to another) were viable. From here the action moved to
Germany, where in 1914 a doctor named Franz Krusius used the same principle for a successful eyelash transplantation, and then to Japan, where Shoji Okuda announced in 1939 that he had performed some 30 hair transplants using various jerry-rigged circular punches of between 1.5mm and 5mm (they were driven into patients’
scalps using nothing but “force and rotation”). Because his work was published in Japanese just before the Second World War, it took decades to reach the West. In the meantime, however, a New York dermatologist, Norman Orentreich – now 89 years old – discovered in the Fifties that hairs on the back and sides of the male head were
immune to the influence of DHT, and that if sections of scalp were removed from these areas and grafted on to a balding pate, they continued to grow healthily. “Donor dominance” was the term he came up with, and it has been
the founding principle of hair-loss surgery ever since.
There was a big problem with all of this, however. When clumps of 30 to 50 hairs were cut out of a patient’s scalp and relocated – sometimes with the punch attached to an electric drill, to speed things up and increase profitability – they created scarring at the donor site, not to mention those unnatural-looking “plugs” of hair in the area being
repopulated. As a result, various work-arounds were attempted, mostly with disastrous consequences: “scalp reductions” (the scars resembled axe marks); “hair flaps” (there was risk of oddly angled hair and, in some awful cases, “flap death”, or tissue necrosis) and “micrografts” (splitting grafts into smaller pieces).
Some of these procedures were still being offered in the Nineties. Then finally came the “strip method”, whereby all the donor hairs were “harvested” in one go by cutting out a long, rectangular section of scalp from the back of the head and sewing the gap shut. The donor strip was then split into micrografts and planted into holes on the top of
the head made by a scalpel nick. It was a relatively clean technique with half-decent results, but still left a “happy
faced” scar on the back of the patient’s head, ruling out short haircuts.
“I had the strip method done when I was 20 years old,” recalls one patient, Ben Jacobs, a businessman from Long Beach, California, who started balding as if he were a middle-aged man at the age of just 17. “The results were OK, but I honestly expected better. Also, any time you get cut open like that, you’re gonna have pain.” Still, he was
willing to take any measures necessary. “Losing your hair is a pretty traumatic experience at that age,” he explains. “It affects your whole life. The only things I should have been thinking about at that time were college and girls. Instead I was thinking about my hair and how it made me look a decade older. I lost my confidence; I was depressed.”
This is where Dr Armani comes in. Basically, he founded his business in 1999 with the aim of harvesting only individual “follicular units” – made up of one to four hairs plus the surrounding oil glands, muscles, and connecting tissue – using tiny, needle-like pricks in the donor area. Each follicular unit, also known as an ultra-micrograft, is
then transplanted to the top of the head using a tool like jeweller’s forceps. Scarring is barely detectable, even with very short hair. Also, fewer hairs are lost during harvesting, and therefore “transplant density” is improved. Most importantly, the pluggy look doesn’t happen – or at least not in theory. “In this clinic, plugs are a dirty word,” says Dr Hayatdavoudi.