A hair-raising scheme

Luring fans to "go with the Flowbee," the vacuum-powered star of late-night infomercials caters to its online community.

Published January 6, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Remember the Flowbee? That hair clipper that grafts to your vacuum with a licorice-like tube of black plastic and a yellow, buzzing head? It once developed a cult following among the infomercial-loving late-night TV crowd and is now making something of a splash thanks to the Web.

The Flowbee site, built in 1997, brings in only 10 percent of the San Diego company's sales -- around 9,000 units a year are sold. But it also provides an anchor for a greater base of Flowbee fans than those who come home from the 7-Eleven at 3 a.m. and hit the couch, bean burrito and remote control in hand.

"We're looking at setting up banner ads in the next year and our Web page is going to be revamped," says Horse Enciso, director of sales for Flowbee International, showing a clear zeal for the ways of the Web. He expects online sales to double in the next year, as the site adds an interactive community area. "The [designers] are currently in the process, and it will be implemented by the end of January," says Enciso, who would give no further details.

The current Flowbee site has the same low-rent feel as the infomercial, complete with blurry, amateur photos of people getting Flowbee-ed. You can buy the Flowbee there (for $69.95) and at more than a dozen other sites that feature the eclectic products often touted in low-budget TV ads.

At Netmaximizer.com the Flowbee is discounted -- from $102.95 to $81.95! And on AsOnTV.com the Flowbee (priced at $69.95) shares virtual shelf space with a Flowbee Pet Grooming System (prompting the question: What could possibly distinguish a pet Flowbee from a human Flowbee?), the Hairdini
hairstyle-helper, the GS-27 Scratch Kit, which promises to "wipe out surface scratches on any color paint!" and dozens of other infomercial favorites. Ebay, too, often has close to a half-dozen Flowbees up for auction, generally at near full price.

Clearly, the Flowbee is an inspired creation. Rick Hunt, a San Diego carpenter, invented the Flowbee in the late 1980s after marveling at an industrial vacuum's ability to suck sawdust from his hair. Hunt originally tried selling Flowbees from his garage in 1988, but business really took off after he gave live demonstrations at a county fair and sold all that he had on hand -- nearly 100.

He then took his demo to late-night TV. Since then, 2 million buyers have been enticed by the Flowbee's low-budget appeal, or at least recognized its preposterous brilliance. Even Hollywood was watching -- and cast the Flowbee in "Wayne's World," "Party of Five" and "Home Improvement." And the Flowbee has inspired at least one rival, the RoboCut, which sells for about the same price, has several online vendors and promises to be "even better than the Flowbee."

Now the Web is helping Hunt extend the audience for the Flowbee's particular brand of personal grooming entertainment -- and Flowbee fans are helping to spread the gospel.

At Washington University, a group of computer science graduate students posted a six-photo spread of one curly-headed man's run-in with a Flowbee.

"A group of us were discussing Flowbees," says Ted Romer, now a software engineer at Appliant. "Dylan claimed that the Flowbee wouldn't work on his hair -- he has 'Sideshow Bob' hair. Someone asked, 'If we bought a Flowbee, would you let us try?' Dylan said yes. At which point funds were collected, a Flowbee purchased, a
ShopVac borrowed and a haircutting party scheduled." The results are chronicled online.

"Dylan McNamee is now a professor in the Computer Science department at OGI," says Romer. "Occasionally his students come across the Flowbee Web page," undoubtedly provoking a good chuckle.

And a morning DJ at an Austin, Texas, radio station introduced the Flowbee to at least one listener and posted a tribute to hair-shearing fantasies.

All the excitement prompted me to take a Flowbee to my own lengthening locks. I had to overcome my fear of a head hickey, but once I did, I managed a cool Caesar cut. I attached the Flowbee's black tube to my household vacuum and snapped in the 2-inch plastic sleeve that corresponded to my desired length. Next, I tackled the sides with a slanted attachment. All in all, my novice effort took only 20 minutes.

When I had finished, I asked several barbers and stylists what they thought. "It looks good," several said, eyes wide with surprise. Only Tonia Lear at Elizabeth Arden's toney Red Door Salon was unconvinced. "I think it's crazy," she said. "It can't look nice. It's a machine." Damn right it is, I thought -- which means it won't ask inane questions about my career, my love life or my mom.

Still, it makes its own noise, plenty of it. Between the vacuum and the Flowbee's buzzing head, my living room sounded like an airplane hangar. There were other glitches, too. For example, the Flowbee missed tufts around my ears. With time, they would have grown to Hasidic proportions. But my floor stayed hair-free, and I had none of those annoying bits of hair that stick to your clothes and make your neck itchy.

I became a fan and found that, beyond the Web, there are more like me to be found in places you'd never dream of -- like the barber shop. Bill Ventura has no qualms about the greatness of the Flowbee. The graying, short-haired barber at Louie's, a San Francisco hair-cutting mecca since the 1930s, bought one two years ago and has been using it regularly -- on himself, but not his clients -- ever since. "I thought it was a good idea," he said. In fact, when I asked him if he thought the Flowbee was a funny product, he got mad at me.

"It has a kitsch appeal," says Gilbert Bustamente, a fellow Louie's barber, who was contemplating buying a Flowbee when he chatted with me between clients. "The whole idea of it sounds great to me. Anything that people think will save money is great, plus it keeps the mess down."

But Flowbee fervor isn't just about pragmatism or style, says Robert Thompson, president of the Popular Culture Society of America and a professor of communications at Syracuse University. Because the product is so ridiculous, it sticks in our memories. As a result, he says, it comes to represent that uniquely American creation: the product that is too absurd to forget, the product that becomes a conversation starter rather than just a purchase.

"In a nation that's shattered the idea of history, where people move constantly from place to place, from job to job, a change is occurring," said Thompson. "Consumer mandates are supplying the history that we've lost. Products are linking us to our past."

I never thought I'd be nostalgic about those years when my face was pimply and rebellion was as simple as watching TV till sunrise, but, hey, the Flowbee is fun. I don't know if it qualifies as history in my book, but it does remind me of learning to drive -- all over my head.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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