Mane Attraction

updated 09/13/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/13/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

His first celebrity encounter did not go as smoothly as planned. Hired as a hairstylist for a TV variety show in his native France, Serge Normant was asked to do a do for a guest actress he'll describe only as "very famous, very chic and blonde." He choked. "When I took the comb to tease her hair, I remember my whole body shaking. She looked at me like, 'I can't believe this is happening.' She took the comb out of my hand and finished her own hair."

Nowadays, though he is the premier stylist for such stars as Julia Roberts, Sarah Jessica Parker and Sharon Stone, Normant, 38, still gets a bit flustered when he works on a celebrity for the first time. "You're never completely over it—it's like stage fright," he says. The difference now? "When it comes to the craft of the hair, I'm fine. I might not deliver exactly, but I'm not shaking anymore."

Oh, he delivers. "Through the sheer force of his talent, he transforms you and the results are always beautiful," says Julianne Moore. She is one of the scores of actresses and models in his new book Metamorphosis, which features hairstyles from photo shoots over the past 13 years, from a bed-headed Gisele Bündchen to a curly-haired Beyoncé. "Each time I look through it, I'm amazed," says client and friend Julia Roberts, who graces the cover.

Normant first worked with Roberts for a Vanity Fair cover in 1993, when she was shooting The Pelican Brief. The actress, up late filming, fell asleep in his chair for the full hour he worked. Eleven years later she still calls on Normant before the Oscars and magazine shoots. When he does her hair, as he did for her 2002 wedding, she says, "it always makes me joyful. More for the time we spend together doing it, though the finished product is always nice too."

Leading ladies also turn to Normant when they're ready for a change. Sarah Jessica Parker wanted him to shear her locks for the fourth season of Sex and the City, and Sharon Stone gave him the go-ahead eight years ago for her pixie cut. And now noncelebs will be able to book Normant's chair as well when he begins doing cuts and training stylists this month at Manhattan's John Frieda salon.

Normant, who lives in a New York City penthouse and keeps a weekend home on Long Island, knew early on that his professional destiny was to wield a comb. "My father was a military man who would have loved me to be a doctor or whatever," says Normant, who grew up in suburban Paris with one younger brother. "Instead he had this cute little boy who just wanted to be a hairdresser." His secretary mother, Jeanine, who split from Normant's father in 1978, was his first model, transformed by her 13-year-old son with her sewing kit scissors. Grandmothers, aunts and cousins followed, and Normant, who describes his boyhood self as "shy, very introverted, and a little round," eventually landed a job at a local beauty shop. At 18, he began working at Paris's renowned Jacques Dessange salon. "The salon became my stage," he says. "As soon as I entered that door, I became someone else. It felt like I had wings when I was cutting hair."

Three years later he was sent to work at the salon's branch in New York, where he roomed for 10 years with a fellow French expat, celebrity make-up artist Laura Mercier, gradually building his high-profile clientele and eventually becoming the go-to stylist for photo shoots and red-carpet events. Normant's goal, says Mercier, isn't setting trends but simply making a client look beautiful: "He will always put his ego aside and look at what will make her feel confident."

"My philosophy is not about putting my mark," says Normant. "It's not important for me that when someone sees a picture, they know it's a Serge Normant hairdo. I am only there to please."

Jennifer Wulff. Rebecca Paley in New York City

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