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From rags to rinses

John Paul Jones De Joria and Michelle Gilliam _ better known as Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and Knot's Landing _ first joined forces in their junior year at Los Angeles' Marshall High.

Phillips, who resumed her friendship with De Joria five years ago, recalls that neither of them was part of the "social-climbing set," and at least one of their teachers predicted they would flunk adulthood.

In fact, says De Joria, their business teacher intercepted notes they passed in class, read them aloud and declared: "These two people will never, ever succeed at anything in life."

In De Joria's case, the prophesy almost came true.

He admits that he has been fired from several jobs. That he has three former wives. That he has been homeless more than a few times _ most recently in 1980 _ and once slept in his car with his 3-year-old son.

As he munches a croissant behind a mammoth cherry wood desk in a slickly appointed office, De Joria clearly revels in recalling what he sometimes did just to make it through the day.

And why not?

He is now the chief executive officer of John Paul Mitchell Systems, the hair-care products company that he co-founded with the late hairdresser Paul Mitchell. When they started the company in 1980, the two had $700 between them; today, De Joria says, the company does "way more than $100-million" in sales worldwide. What's more, thanks to starring roles in the company's print and TV ads, he has become a celebrity of sorts.

The company's successes _ particularly its "awapuhi" (ah-vah-poo-ee) shampoo, concocted with a wild Hawaiian ginger root _ have enabled De Joria to count restaurant maestro Wolfgang Puck and actress Mariel Hemingway among his many business partners. He owns a piece of Puck's Eureka restaurant in West Los Angeles, part of Hemingway's two restaurants in New York City and has a stake in 14 other ventures, including a solar energy company, a Mexican tequila company and a group that expects to market microwaveable organic food early next year.

De Joria, 47, owns six luxurious homes, six fancy cars (plus a solar-powered race car he drove across Australia in the 1987 Pentax World Solar Challenge), a private jet and a tightly guarded art collection that includes works by Rembrandt, Dali and Erte.

He loves being "the token longhair" of the Republican Eagles, the invitation-only club of fund-raisers whose dues are $15,000 a year. And he is eager to discuss his do-gooder accomplishments: donating about $50,000 to help save Oregon's Elk River rain forest, financing and helping dish out thousands of pre-Thanksgiving meals for the homeless in downtown Los Angeles and underwriting solar-power projects such as a car developed at Western Washington University.

And that's only a small part of the story.

Indeed, De Joria moves with such energy and purpose that sparks seem to fly from the long black ponytail that is his trademark. Charismatic, friendly and perpetually on the go, he looks right at home in the star-studded skiing and croquet tournaments in which he participates.

No wonder his recent spot on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous took up nearly half of the show.

So, how did this guy come from nowhere to occupy a ringside seat next to Robin Leach?

De Joria, who was born to immigrant parents and grew up in Los Angeles, says he learned about basic survival after his parents were divorced and, at 6, he joined a gang in East Los Angeles. His father disappeared; his mother worked and could not afford child care during the week. De Joria and his older brother lived with a foster family in East Los Angeles for a few years, spending weekends with their mother.

The hustling instinct surfaced early. At 9, he sold Christmas cards, then delivered newspapers and worked odd jobs. After high school and a stint in the Navy, he returned to Los Angeles, married and peddled encyclopedias.

Then De Joria's wife of four years took off, leaving him with sole custody of their 3-year-old son. He was broke and between paychecks when the rent was due, and rather than impose on friends or family, he chose homelessness.

"It's amazing what you do when you're destitute," he says. "I could have asked my mom to loan me some money, but I was too proud.

"I borrowed a car that had a broken water pump. I'd put my son in the car, drive from gas station to gas station at night, put water in the car _ it could only get about as far as the next gas station _ and collect the empty Coke bottles they had around back. Then I'd go to the supermarket and cash 'em in. You could get 2 cents each, a nickel for the big ones, back then."

This small-change lifestyle was soon interrupted with the help of Lee Meyers, a biker friend from junior high school who now runs the John Paul Mitchell Systems warehouse. The two met by chance and Meyers offered De Joria and his son a place to stay.

They lived with Meyers in North Hollywood for two years, and De Joria resumed his sales career: photocopy machines and life insurance, dictating equipment and magazines. Eventually, he became Time Inc's. circulation manager for the Southwest, and later, a top sales executive at Redken, a pioneering hair-products company that is now a competitor.

Although De Joria had finally found his niche, he says he was fired from Redken "because I didn't fit in. They said you want to do things differently than we do things."

Redken founder and CEO Paula Kent Meehan says _ through a spokesperson _ that De Joria "was and is an outstanding and creative salesperson."

De Joria took jobs as a consultant to hair-products companies. In 1980, he found himself in Hawaii, talking with Paul Mitchell, whom he had met at a hair show in 1971, about creating a hair-care line that would bear Mitchell's name _ which was well known among hair aficionados. (Mitchell had given up his high-profile status to live in a beach shack and practice yoga and mediation.)

Mitchell, who was receptive to De Joria's overtures, was the creator; De Joria, the business brain. Despite a relentlessly tough first year, the two succeeded in getting their goods into salons, first in Hawaii and then throughout the remainder of the United States. Their shampoos, hair sprays, conditioners, sculpting lotions are now sold in 19 countries.

Despite Mitchell's death in 1989 from pancreatic cancer, the company's sales steadily increased; it recorded its highest sales ever last month.

Even so, De Joria, who is now the majority stockholder, says the company has only 51 employees worldwide.

He says he can get by with such a small staff because most people are "capable of doing 10 times more work if given the chance" _ if they are also paid and treated well. As a result, the perks at John Paul Mitchell Systems are exceptional: Everyone gets a daily free lunch and an annual bonus. Warehouse manager Myers confirms that some warehouse workers earn more than $40,000 a year.

Myers says: "Everybody wants to work here. That's for sure."

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