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10 July 2000

Why Zorba can’t keep his hair on

Today's Greek gods go late-night loitering in beauty parlours, reports Helena Smith

By Helena Smith

Few Greeks, beyond the corridors of power, have heard of Peter Mandelson. Even fewer will have read that the Northern Ireland Secretary shaves the back of his hands. Or that his follicle-free fingers have gone down a treat with the female of the species and may have earned the politician extra electoral appeal.

No. Greek men, in the main, wouldn’t talk about Mandy and his hairless hands, even if the chance arose. That is, even if the subject of “all Englishmen are gay” – a favourite Anglo-bashing cliche – came up and a bottle of ouzo had been downed.

Why? Because very New Hellenes are too busy doing away with their own hirsuteness; plucking, waxing and zapping the bits of Zorba they no longer want. And, I can reliably relay, unlike other nations they are doing it in secret. In macho land, you see, the embarrassment of revealing such painful habits would be, well, just too excruciating.

“The image of the fat, moustached Greek with a jungle of hair and lots of gold chains is really Seventies, really kitsch,” says Jenny Kalessi at Bodyline, the country’s oldest modern Athenian temple to physical obsession. It used to be that only gays, models and athletes, keen to combat wind and water resistance, went in for the hairless look.

“But now our clients are very normal guys,” she enthuses, apprising me of how even Hollywood’s most macho stars have secretly succumbed to the craze.

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Because, in the world of very manly musculature, everything is not what it seems. Across Europe, all the way down to the country where Shirley Valentine struck lucky, matted torsos are now perceived as the number one passion-killer. Gorillas, as the explosion of Greek grooming magazines never fail to point out, do not pull. Men may like blondes, but two out of three women (according to a survey of those who watch Baywatch) now associate the hirsute male with hot-blooded aggression and, worse still, unendearing old age.

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Perhaps even more than others, modern Mediterranean man has finally caught on that it is no longer cool to boast the kind of legs, back, buttocks and chest that would bring tears of ecstasy to a carpet-weaver’s eyes. They want to be clean-limbed. They want to have hairless ear lobes, necklines, cheekbones, toes, nipples, shoulders, thighs, torsos and hands. And they are paying through the nose for it, even if it means making secret forays to beauty parlours in the middle of the night.

Never mind that men clearly find all forms of hair removal painful. (Hear their agonised squeals at Bodyline.) “Last night,” says Kalessi, “we had a man who was in here from 9.30pm to 1.30am, having almost every part of his anatomy done.”

Bodyline is now almost as popular as that other venerable institution, the local kafeneion. As the Near East’s biggest up-and-coming shrine to vanity, the clinic specialises in turning bodies that resemble ancient Bacchic sites into smooth, hair-free temples. Men may go in looking like Dionysus but, I am assured, they come out looking like Adonis.

Waxing may be the favoured depilatory method among British males who, by the way, are still the vainest men in Europe when it comes to splashing out on grooming materials. Last year, they put Greeks to shame, spending a staggering £7.1m on stopping themselves going grey. But waxing, I’m told, is a stopgap solution for the faint-hearted and the poor. Greek men have gone one step further, opting for electrolysis, laser technology and, at Bodyline, the huge, follicle-burning, “pulse light” Danish contraption known as photolysis. This “magic” treatment allegedly brings permanent solutions at a price: from £970 for the six sessions required to exterminate a forested chest, to £1,500 for buttocks and £2,000 for legs and toes.

“Many of our clients are lawyers, doctors and diplomats, and it’s not the kind of thing that they like to scream about from the rooftops,” says Kalessi. “But often, if their wives and girlfriends are in the know, they’ll come in and de-hair together.” By taking out a loan? “By paying in instalments.”

Maybe they should take a trip to Britain. Even including the cost of the flight, they might find a better deal. The demand for hair-removing in Britain has led the dedicated chains to take a “supermarket approach”, keeping prices deliberately low to attract a stream of readily accessible clients from all walks of life. Bare Necessity, a nationwide firm, now offers laser sessions on the buttocks for £99, throwing in toes at £20 and legs at £199.

“Give us another ten years, the onward march of technology and the development of new methods, and just about everyone will be doing this,” crows Dr Chris Fawcett, an Australian dermatologist at the company. “It all boils down to sex, and has nothing to do with being effeminate.”

Whether straight or gay, aesthetically challenged men, I am told, simply feel “far more attractive” without their manes. And there is another reason why so many males want to tackle their foliage, which apparently has nothing to do with the perceived emasculation of the new man or any other gender-bender trend.

In Cyprus, where Bodyline has opened its newest branch, the latest fad is for schoolboys to clip their legs, arms and chests. After all, what’s the point of working up a sweat to acquire macho muscles if they are hidden behind a mat of body hair?

Get past male body follicles and raw materials can be flaunted more readily, as hands-on Mandy has reportedly so happily discovered.