Ever since I started losing my hair, women have told me it makes no difference to them whether a man is bald or not. "It's not what's on your head that matters," one of my girlfriends told me, "it's what's in it that counts." Needless to say, this didn't do much to allay my anxiety. What else could she have said? "I'd prefer it if you had hair, but I just didn't think I could do any better?" If I was dating a flat-chested woman and she asked me whether breast size mattered, I'd lie too. It didn't help when the girlfriend in question dumped me for a Fabio look-a-like. My only consolation was that he had bigger tits than her.
For many men, myself included, going bald is a traumatic experience. An estimated 35 million American men suffer from some degree of hair loss - mainly caused by genetically-inhereted male pattern baldness - and hair replacement is a multi-million dollar industry. Si Sperling, the President and CEO of Hair Club For Men, has made so much money his oceanside mansion in Boca Raton, F.L., was featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
"I think it goes back to Samson and Delilah," says Joseph Paris, the owner of two successful hair replacement salons and, more importantly, the man who made Frank Sinatra's hairpieces. "It's a man thing, okay? The crowning glory. Once you lose your confidence in your appearance, that's it. If you look lousy, you feel lousy. Outside Telly Savalas and Yul Brynner, I haven't seen too many people who look good with no hair."
But what if men are wrong about this? What if bald men really are sexy? Sean Connery has often been voted the sexiest man alive, even if he did wear a rug in Never Say Never Again, and Fabien Barthez, the balding French soccer goalkeeper, is rumored to be the father of Princess Stephanie's love child. Could it be that men's anxiety about hair loss is misplaced? In the words of the R.E.M. song, could shiny people really become happy people?
In the interests of science, I decided to conduct a little experiment. I would get hold of a copy of the classic seduction manual How To Pick Up Girls, select the 10 best pick-up lines in the book, then go to 10 different bars in New York and try them out on 10 different women. The following week, I would go back to the same bars and use the same lines on 10 different women, only this time with one crucial difference: I'd be wearing a wig. If I did better on the second night than the first, that would prove that women really do prefer men with hair.
Of course, a rug wasn't my only option. There are as many folk remedies for baldness as there are for impotence, from artichoke juice to mouse droppings. Unfortunately, none of them work. The two FDA-approved drugs, Rogaine and Propecia, don't work particularly well, either. Rogaine produces what's known in the hair replacement industry as 'peach fuzz' but does little to restore the hairline. Propecia is a little more effective, but it can cause impotence, which is a little like an appetite suppressant which has the side effect of making you fat. Why roll the dice?
Alternatively, I could have gone for a weave. This involves attaching real human hair to what little hair you have by, literally, weaving the strands together. Si Sperling, the founder of Hair Club For Men, claims to have invented the weave. "What I did was invent crowns on your teeth as opposed to dentures. It was a real, real watershed event in the field of hair replacement," he says. The drawback is that while your existing hair grows, the weave doesn't, so you have to return to Hair Club every four to eight weeks for an adjustment. These days, Hair Club is offering the initial procedure for free, but each adjustment costs upwards of $65. That's how Si Sperling got rich.
Finally, I could have taken the surgical route. The most common form this takes is transplanting small clusters of hair--hair plugs--from the back of the head to the front. However, unless you're prepared to spend tens of thousands of dollars, it doesn't do much to alter your appearance - and even then it's not guaranteed. Rebuilding a hairline alone can cost upwards of $10,000. "Mr Sinatra spent $75,000 on his transplants," says Joseph Paris, "and he wore a piece from 1971 to the day he died. Getting hair plugs is like scattering leaves on a parking lot."
It looked like a rug was the safest bet. To that end, I got in touch with Daisy Curbeon, a wig-maker who has a list of celebrity clients as long as her own blonde hair which, not surprisingly (considering Daisy is black), turns out to be a wig. "The stuff I'm doing for celebrities, I can't tell you because they'd kill me," she says. "I'm like the hospital."
It took three lengthy sessions in her New York salon to create my wig but I ended up with a scorcher. It was a nine-ounce, ash-blonde mane which made me look like an Australian surf punk. It wasn't so much the Rolls-Royce of rugs as the Shaguar. I'm 34 but with this baby on my head I looked 10 years younger. I'd be able to hit on co-eds.
Now for the ammunition. How To Pick Up Girls was first published in 1970 and since then it's sold over three million copies worldwide. Its author, Eric Weber, was the Dale Carnegie of the disco era, a self-help guru for men who'd missed out on the sexual revolution. "There's more than one little magic technique for picking up girls," he writes in the 'Introduction.' "There are literally thousands of them. And you'll find just about every one of them right here in this book."
Of course, by today's standards How To Pick Up Girls is laughably unsophisticated. Many of the 125 'Great Opening Lines' are the kinds of thing Austin Powers might say to impress Alotta Fagina. For instance, I can't see many 1990s women responding favourably to the question: "Would you like some help parking that?" It would be easy to get a few cheap laughs by trying out some of the more sexist lines on contemporary career women and recording their responses. In fact, that's exactly what The New York Times did on the 25th anniversary of the book's original publication.
However, for the purposes of my experiment, I had to give myself the best possible odds. Consequently, I decided to road-test the 125 lines by running them past Lorna Donohoe. In addition to being a stunning, 26-year-old blonde, Lorna works for Playboy Enterprises, where her duties includes chaperoning visiting Playmates around New York. She's heard every pick-up line so often - either directed at her or one of her charges - she has a stock response worked out for virtually every one.
"If a guy comes up to me and says, 'Don't tell me a beautiful girl like you doesn't have a date tonight?' I tell him I'm a lesbian," she laughed. "If he asks me to dance, I tell him I've got a wooden leg."
After picking Lorna's brains, I can't say I was equipped with 10 opening lines that were guaranteed to work, but I did manage to identify 10 that weren't instantly greeted with hoots of derisive laughter. They would have to do.
To prepare for my first night on the prowl, I shaved my head so that what hair I had was no more than an eighth-of-an-inch long. My first port of call was 147, a restuarant with a lively bar scene in New York's Chelsea district. It was a Friday night so it was "a target-rich environment" to quote Tom Cruise in Top Gun. I approached a beautiful Asian girl in her early 20s sitting at the bar.
"Excuse me," I ventured, "would you help me celebrate my birthday by having a drink with me?"
Lorna had identified this as the single best opening line in the book so I was fairly optimistic. I smiled at the girl, trying to appear as unthreatening as possible.
"Is it really your birthday?" she asked.
"Yes," I replied confidently.
"Prove it," she said.
This wasn't going according to plan. "I'm sorry?"
"Prove it," she repeated. "Show me some I.D."
"I'm afraid I didn't bring any with me," I said, doing my best to recover. "Today's my 34th birthday. I wasn't expecting to be carded."
She gave me an appraising glance. "I don't believe you," she concluded. "It sounds like a line to me."
Next stop was Clementine, a trendy, downtown bar. By now it was about 10.30pm and there were plenty of single girls in groups of twos and threes at the bar. I approached a pretty brunette and hit her with a line Lorna had identified as a humdinger: "You have one of the nicest smiles I've ever seen."
(Flattery will get you everywhere, according to Lorna.)
"How do you know?" she shot back.
"I couldn't help noticing it from the other side of the room," I replied, flashing her what I hoped was my sexiest grin.
"Well you don't," she said and turned her back on me.
My third attempt took place at Moomba, a hot bar-restaurant in Greenwich Village that attracts a high-profile fashion crowd. I managed to weasel my way into the VIP section on the top floor which, without question, contained the best-looking girls I'd seen so far. I approached a truly outstanding blonde who was dancing by herself and decided on a line which Lorna said was worth a try, though she wasn't particularly enthusiastic since she'd heard it so many times.
"Are you a model?" I asked. (According to How To Pick Up Girls, "Any girl will be thrilled to have you mistake her for a model.")
"Yes," she replied contemptuously and went on dancing.
Oddly, this is exactly what had happened to The New York Times's crash-test dummy when he'd asked a girl the same question at a Geffen Records party in Los Angeles. He'd been shot down even though he looked "vaguely like Keanu Reeves." I look vaguely like William Hague, the leader of the British Conservative Party, who's been compared to a fetus.
Rather embarrassingly, I have to confess that on all 10 occasions that night I crashed and burned. Part of the problem was that each line I used sounded exactly like what it was: a line. Women are so used to hearing lines like these they automatically blow off anyone unoriginal enough to use them.
The following Wednesday I painstakingly glued the wig on, using the matte adhesive Daisy had given me. Examining myself in the mirror, it wasn't particularly easy to tell I was wearing a rug, but to make sure I put a fisherman's hat on as well. Now it really was undetectable.
In the first five places I went to I got shot down immediately, just as I had before. However, instead of growing more despondent, my confidence increased with each humiliating experience. Something about wearing the wig had subtly altered my personality. It wasn't me they were rejecting, it was someone else. As this gradually sunk in I felt strangely liberated. I was now free to play a role, that of the the Australian surf punk who shags a different Sheila on Bondi Beach every night.
The sixth place I tried was the Elbow Room, a Greenwich Village dive. The previous Friday it had played host to an NYU crowd and by the time I had arrived the music was so loud I hadn't been able to make myself heard. But tonight, apparently, was karaoke night and the music had been switched off while they set up the machine.
I spotted a girl who I thought might be Australian, possibly because she was about to do a Tequila shot. She looked wild and sexy and I decided to try out a line that wasn't in How To Pick Up Girls but Lorna had supplied me with as a last resort.
"Are those space pants you're wearing," I enquired, "because your arse is out of this world."
She gave me a look of total horror and for a second I thought she might throw her Tequila in my face. Instead, she burst out laughing.
"That's the worst line I've ever heard," she said when she'd recovered. "I can't believe you've ever picked anyone up with that."
"You're right," I said. "I haven't." Then, just as I was about to walk away, my new, be-wigged personality took over. I fixed her with an unflinching stare: "Until now."
Within a few minutes we were joking and flirting with one another and, before long, we were up on stage belting out a duet of Wild Thing. I felt like Jim Carrey in The Mask: the wig had transformed me into the life of the party. She turned out to be a 28-year-old Polish-American called Krysia and, while she may not have been Cameron Diaz, she was far above my usual standard. After about an hour or so we started kissing, though I made a point of keeping her hands away from the wig. "Hey," I said every time her fingers wandered up my kneck, "don't touch the hair."
In the taxi on the way home I sobered up enough to remember that I was, after all, conducting an experiment. I decided to whisk the wig off there and then to see whether she would still come home with me once she realised I had very little hair. If she ran screaming from the cab, I would have conclusively proved that women do find hirsute men more attractive.
Her reaction was similar to her response to my opening line: a few seconds of horror followed by gales of laughter.
"You're absolutely fucking crazy, you know that?" she said.
"Okay baby," I replied. "Now you can touch my hair."
She did end up coming home with me so, from a purely scientific point of view, my experiment was inconclusive. I think I can say with some certainty that she wouldn't have left the club with me if I hadn't been wearing the wig, but that's probably because I was so much more confident with it on.
A few days later I spoke to Eric Weber, who was busy preparing an updated version of his book called How To Pick Up Women 2,000, and told him what had happened. "When a guy has a profoundly well-developed sense of self-esteem he does well with women no matter what he looks like," he told me. "Of that, I can guarantee you."
I haven't worn the rug again since. As far as I'm concerned, the wig and the fisherman's hat are now my 'result head-gear' and I don't want to jinx them by trying them out for a second time and not managing to score. Who knows, perhaps next time I'll be confident enough without the wig. The last word should go to Eric Weber, the Jedi Master of jelly roll. "My wife always says it makes no difference to her whether a man has hair or not," he assured me. "So let's not use this baldness as an excuse, Toby."