Even without campaign dollars at stake, grooming is still a loaded issue in the nation’s capital. Public figures are loath to make any major changes in style, and what’s in fashion depends on who is living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “When my mom [Mabel “Muffie” Cabot, former White House social secretary] worked for Nancy Reagan, she had Nancy Reagan hair,” remembers Ali Wentworth, the actress, comedian and Georgetown resident married to ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, who reports that she has already seen more relaxed and even “saucy” hair around town since January.
That may have something to do with the arrival of Johnny Wright. When the Chicago-born hairstylist is not “skedaddling to the White House” or flying abroad to work on his star client, Michelle Obama, he hangs his flat iron at the tiny Corté Salon on D.C.’s gritty-cool U Street. The chatty, charismatic 32-year-old, whose recent relocation from Los Angeles to Washington is being documented for a reality series tentatively titled Mr. Wright Goes to Washington: Capital Style, says that Obama is “so laid-back, it’s ridiculous,” leaving him to decide if a look should be flirty, strong or respectfully “submissive.” (He used the latter term as a guiding principle when styling a girlish half updo for Obama’s audience with the Queen of England.) Obama, according to a White House spokesperson, pays for Wright’s services personally, and Wright also tends to White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, Social Secretary Desiree Rogers and, on this balmy June morning, the “first grandmother,” Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, who leaves the salon casually dressed, expertly coiffed and to a chorus of “Bye, Mrs. Robinson, see you tomorrow!”
While Wright says he’s not at Obama’s “beck and call,” round-the-clock availability is the norm, with many hairdressers keeping schedules that rival those of cabinet members. Erwin Gomez, the go-to makeup artist for visiting A-listers like Jennifer Garner and Maria Shriver, boasts that he was open for 24 hours before the inauguration. Jimmy Cehreli, co-owner of the newish Georgetown salon Violet, starts every day at 5:30 a.m. blowing out the ’do of Nancy G. Brinker, former White House chief of protocol. He and his partner, Mesut Ozaydin, also tend to top dermatologist Tina Alster (whose aggressively highlighted platinum and auburn locks stand out in a sea of ashy beige blonds), lobbyist Linda Daschle and the BBC’s Katty Kay.
Nearly all the stylists interviewed for this story admit that, true to stereotype, Democrats tend to favor more adventurous shapes (“adventurous” meaning long layers, not mohawks), while Republicans veer toward reserved, classic looks. There is one style, though—the one most responsible for D.C.’s dowdy reputation—that is practically a dirty word in this town: the Helmet. Hairdressers here claim either that it doesn’t exist or that they’re the ones who are ushering it out. “We don’t see that here,” insists Serena Chreky, whose husband tended to former First Lady Laura Bush’s, uh, layered crop during W.’s first term. “We’re changing it,” says celebrity stylist Ted Gibson, who recently opened a salon in luxe suburb Chevy Chase, Maryland, and has flown from New York or L.A. several times to administer his signature $950 cuts to area socialites.