Sy Sperling, the founder of Hair Club for Men who became a pop culture icon thanks to his company’s ubiquitous, charmingly awkward ads, died Wednesday following a long illness. He was 78.
Sperling was a frequent face on late night and weekend television beginning in the 1980s, with his impact on popular culture felt well into the first decade of the current century. For almost 20 years, he starred in his company’s commercials, pitching services and information for balding men with an authenticity — and awkwardness — that could never be mistaken for acting.
The ads, referenced on countless comedy and talk shows — and even inspiring a 2007 episode of “South Park” and a classic Notorious B.I.G. lyric — always concluded with the catch phrase Sperling made immortal: “And remember, I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client.” And, as the accompanying photo proved, he wasn’t lying.
Born in 1942 in New York, Sperling served in the Air Force during his college years and went on to work in sales. He started losing his hair at 25 and, frustrated with the poor quality of options available for men with thinning hair, began looking for an improvement. Eventually, along with his then-girlfriend, a hairdresser, he invested $5,000 in a Manhattan salon where the two developed a nylon mesh weave with real hair woven into a customer’s own hair.
The result was a toupee that looked real and proved more durable and functional than options previously available to most men. Sperling founded Hair Club for Men in 1976, at first offering his invention. The company went on to offer consultations for options ranging from transplants to emerging treatments like minoxidil.
Hair Club for Men began running TV ads in 1982, propelling the company to incredible success. By the 1990s it earned more than $100 million a year. In the process, Sperling helped normalize an often-mocked fact of life for many men and de-stigmatized efforts to fix or conceal baldness, paving the way for other trends in men’s grooming that continue to the present day.
The company eventually changed its name to just Hair Club, began offering services to women and even established a charitable wing, Hair Club for Kids, which provides services to children experiencing hair loss due to illnesses like cancer. Sperling sold the company in 2000; it is now known as HairClub, and owned by a Japanese company called Aderans.
“It is with great sadness that we can confirm the passing of Sy Sperling, the iconic founder of HairClub in 1976 and a pioneer in hair restoration. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Sperling family,” Hair Club said in a statement posted to the company’s website. “Colleagues, friends, and family recall Mr. Sperling as a visionary with an immense passion for business, innovation and helping others. We continue to live by his words ‘Live life to the fullest, take chances and risks, and believe in yourself.'”
HairClub still operates 120 centers in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.