In a five-story 1883 town house on Washington, D.C.’s K Street, Andre Chreky’s salon is masterfully set up to accommodate a town divided into red and blue. Two distinct cutting-room floors keep clients with opposing politics out of one another’s sights. “I try to keep them separated because they look at each other and you can see their stiffness,” says Chreky, citing former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and former Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov as two clients who have been escorted in different directions. Though there is also a private room for those with no patience for chitchat (oddly enough, John McLaughlin was a fan of those quarters), Chreky and his wife, Serena, insist that this is the sort of place where, despite being situated just two blocks from the White House, things are downright folksy—Callista Gingrich’s husband, Newt, walks her over regularly and reads a book while he waits for her to get her hair done. Recently, both White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Senior Adviser David Axelrod personally called the salon to make appointments. “There’s no entourage [for these two],” Serena Chreky says earnestly, adding that political figures often want to minimize the hoopla surrounding routine haircuts. “You need [to go] somewhere where you’re not going to read about it in the paper the next day. You need a salon that protects you.”
That’s because, unlike the White House beauty parlor, with its single shampoo station and chair reserved for the first family, the leading salons in Washington cater to a rotating cast of senators, congresspeople, ambassadors and journalists. And each establishment dances the delicate waltz of keeping political pit bulls with jam-packed schedules happy and relaxed while beautifying them discreetly in a town that loves to abhor vanity.
At the storied George Salon at the Four Seasons, station after station of strapping Turkish men—the D.C. salon scene is dominated by Turks, who, as one competitor says, give “the best blow-dries in the world and don’t talk much”—tend to some of the most watched heads on the Hill, including Judy Woodruff, Maureen Dowd, Madeleine Albright, Elizabeth Dole and Chris Matthews. The genial gray-bearded proprietor, George Ozturk, likes to say he presides over “the safest salon in Washington,” thanks to the rows of bulletproof Secret Service–packed SUVs waiting outside for clients as well as hotel guests such as King Abdullah II of Jordan. Inside, stylists get a few requests each day for “Pelosi hair.” Luckily, Omer Cevirme, who styles the House speaker’s sleek chestnut mane five days a week, works on-site.
Traditionally, the look in D.C.—ultraconservative and often outdated by fashionable standards—has been the subject of much ridicule. When she was first lady, Hillary Clinton even mocked her own ever changing hairstyles by hanging a poster of them in the private residence (her much improved ladylike shag is now tended by Isabelle Goetz of the Cristophe Salon). Yet a political figure who takes an overt interest in his or her appearance is often called out for it—especially when the cost of the primping comes into question. Remember the commotion around John Edwards’s $400 trims and Sarah Palin’s sassy RNC-funded updos?
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.
Gibson isn’t the only out-of-town act with a following. Jennifer Aniston’s colorist, Michael Canalé, has been traveling to D.C. from L.A. for five days every month since the Reagan administration. Three hundred devoted clients book with him a year in advance. As soon as Canalé arrives in town, he sets up at a big dining table at the Roche Salon, where he moves from foiled head to foiled head, doing up to 40 women a day, mostly blonds, with a few brunettes thrown in for good measure, at around $300 apiece. “It’s almost like a little ballet,” he says. What keeps the corps in line is the avoidance of controversial topics. “We never ask about politics,” he states bluntly. “The groups that I do keep it in the voting booth.”
It’s a sentiment echoed at many of the city’s top salons. Despite toeing party lines on the nightly news, Washingtonians are bipartisan when it comes to beauty parlors. Still, as the staff at George realized three years ago, it’s impossible to completely control the salon environment, or what leaks out of it. In 2006 it was reported that a scuffle occurred there between longtime frenemies Pelosi and California Representative Jane Harman over appointing Harman head of the House intelligence committee. Ozturk insists the incident never happened and that, even with Harman’s more recent scandal (she reportedly was heard on a wiretap trading favors in a case involving pro-Israel lobbyists, but the Justice Department says she is not under investigation), the two are still cordial, at least in the confines of his space. “Usually they have the same hairdresser and they sit next to each other, so when we read it we were shocked,” he says of the 2006 item before summing up with a practical assessment of his salon’s culture. “[All of our clients] see each other with wet hair. They have to be nice!”
Bush: AP Photo/Ron Edmonds; Obama: AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev