EXCLUSIVE

Michelle Obama and Her Hair: Celebrating Eight Years of Bangs, Curls and That Famous Bob Cut

In an exclusive interview, Johnny Wright, the man behind the First Lady’s hairstyle, looks back on eight years of working with the most glamorous First Lady since Jacqueline Kennedy and eight years of fabulous hair.


First Lady Michelle Obama and Johnny Wright in 2016 during a photoshoot with Annie Leibovitz for Vogue on the Blue Room Balcony of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

The relationship between a woman and her hairstylist is to be treasured and cultivated, especially within the African American community. Someone who understands the importance of healthy hair and the spectrum of possibilities in its texture, length, and color is essential to the maintenance and manageability of black hair, all while keeping the option of changing styles as you choose. First Lady Michelle Obama is justifiably praised for her many accomplishments while in office, but she deserves credit, too, for a more superficial though nonetheless noteworthy effort, and that is acting as a role model for what black women can do with their hair.

The man tasked with the upkeep of Obama’s perennially elegant hairdo is Johnny Wright, who first got the opportunity to work with the future first lady for a photoshoot with Essence magazine in 2007, just two weeks after Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president. Naturally, the two hit it off, Wright moved from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. and the rest, as they say, is history (hairstory, perhaps?). He has been the First Lady’s go-to stylist for eight years.

Wright, who like Obama is originally from Chicago, followed in the footsteps of his grandmother, who cut and styled her until she was 91, and started in the trade when he was 12, he says, by recreating the complicated hairstyles he saw in magazines, television and the streets of Chicago. “I remember seeing a French roll on a woman and I just knew that I knew how to do it,” Wright recalled. “I bought all the materials and tried it on my mom. She wore a French roll to church and everyone wanted to know who did her hair and how they could get their hair done like that.”

With Obama, Wright’s main concern has been giving the First Lady an incredible range of hairstyles, which he credits to a mutual trust forged over years of collaboration. He approaches the execution of every hairstyle with the question, “What does Michelle’s hair say about her?” And so, her hair must communicate “her confidence, resilience and boldness–it says that she lives her life out loud,” Wright said. Obama’s fashion was a reflection of her style and personality, and Wright’s mission was that it translated to her beauty routine as well. But to women of color like myself, their successful collaboration also telegraphed a subtly political message: “Having a First Lady with her complexion and texture of hair has done so much for so many girls around the globe,” Wright told me.

As the Obama administration comes to an end, Wright looks back on eight years of working with the most glamorous First Lady since Jacqueline Kennedy and eight years of hair.

How did you get you start working with Michelle Obama? My agent, Ken Barboza, called me in 2007 two weeks after the president announced he was running with an opportunity to do her hair for an Essence photoshoot. I was working in a salon at the time and also owned my own business, a traveling salon, where I served professional women at home or their place of business–but I happened to have the day off, so I agreed to it. Since doing Mrs. Obama’s hair for that first photoshoot, I had moved to L.A. and when she came for television appearances, I would get a call to do her hair. After I came out to the Democratic National Convention in 2008 to do her, that’s when things changed. I was invited back for her photoshoot with Vogue in 2009 and asked me if I would move to DC to be her hairstylist. I couldn’t believe it, but of course I said yes. And I’ve never looked back! The role of First Lady is demanding and being a part of her world and living my life by her schedule, all the while still trying to service my other clients is tough, but incredibly rewarding.

Can you recall your fondest memory of working together? When she appeared on Black Girls Rock. Having a First Lady with her complexion and texture of hair has done so much for so many girls around the globe. To be at an event like this not only reflected the meaning of her presence in the White House but also to the effect she has had and will continue to have for women of color around the world.

Michelle Obama’s Hair Evolution: Elegant, Presidential and Always Inimitably Fabulous

Michelle Obama arriving at the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America

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Michelle Obama making the opening remarks as she and U.S. President Barack Obama host an evening of celebration in honor of musician Stevie Wonder’s receipt of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song

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Michelle Obama speaking as she and President Barack Obama host An Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word at the White House

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Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama attending a celebration of country music at the White House

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U.S. President Barack Obama has a word with first lady Michelle Obama after they arrive to make a presentation in support of Chicago as the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Copenhagen, Denmark

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Michelle Obama speaks during the ServiceNation launch of ‘MISSION SERVE: Forging A Continuum Of Service’ at George Washington University

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Michelle Obama speaking during the media preview of the White House holiday decoration

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Michelle Obama and husband U.S President Barack Obama waiting for Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his wife Margarita Zavala to arrive for a State Dinner at the White House

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US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arriving at the 2010 welcome ceremony of the G20 Summit in Toronto

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Michelle Obama attending an event about the Affordable Care Act at George Washington University Hospital

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Michelle Obama attending an event about the Affordable Care Act at George Washington University Hospital

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Michelle Obama speaking during dedication ceremonies of the new Fisher Houses on the campus of Naval Support Activity in Maryland

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Michelle Obama appears on NBC News’ “Today” show

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Michelle Obama listening during the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner

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Michelle Obama doing a dance after President Obama joked with her during a Cinco de Mayo reception in the White House

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US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama waiting to greet Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, for a reciprocal dinner at the Winfield House in London

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Michelle Obama greeting volunteer workers during the Heroes at Home program’s 1,000th home renovation project in Washington, DC

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President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama speaking to one another during the NCAA men’s college basketball Carrier Classic between the Michigan State Spartans and the North Carolina Tar Heels

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Michelle Obama attending the 2011 Building a Healthier Future summit

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Michelle Obama speaking during the BET Honors 2012 at the Warner Theatre

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Michelle Obama awaiting the arrival of British Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife, Samantha Cameron, prior to a State Dinner as part of an official visit on the North Portico of the White House

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Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha walking from St John’s Episcopal Church after attending Easter Service

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Michelle Obama attending the 2012 White House Correspondents Association Dinner in Washington, DC

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Michelle Obama at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina

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Michelle Obama speaking during an awards ceremony for the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in the White House

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Michelle Obama attending the 2013 Inaugural Ball

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Michelle Obama speaking during the “Building a Healthier Future Summit” at the Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University in Washington, DC

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Michelle Obama laughing to a joke told by comedian Conan O’Brien during the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner

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Michelle Obama speaking during a veterans employment event in the East Room April 30, 2013 at the White House

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Michelle Obama speaking at an awards ceremony in the White House

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Does she ever suggest different hairstyles she would like to try? It’s always a constant collaboration. It’s about how she feels in the moment and how she feels about the occasion. It’s always a constant conversation about that. But she’s not picky, she trusts me, and we have fun.

What do you think the First Lady’s hair says about her? A woman’s hair is the first thing you see before she speaks. Her hair reflects her confidence, resilience and boldness–it says that she lives her life out loud. She’s open to change and she likes change.

What are some of your favorites styles that you’ve done together? I am always in love with the most recent look. The blunt bob she is wearing now? I think it’s so fabulous, versatile and fresh. Even curled like we styled it for her appearance on The Tonight Show, it looks so fresh. The China State Dinner, with her hair swept to one side is another favorite. Playing with bangs was a fun moment. I loved the very first Governor’s Ball–I gave her a style called the “uptuck.” It reminded me of how I felt when I did the French roll on my mother. It was a style that came to me and I knew I could do it well.

Does she have discussions about black haircare in particular? To me, haircare is haircare–I don’t like to separate it in my mind. Everyone’s hair–the texture, the color, the thickness–varies by person, regardless of color of their skin. And, so everything I do is tailored to the unique person, and that includes Mrs. Obama. My number one rule with any client is that their hair is healthy and we work from there.

What will you do after the administration ends? I’ll still be working with Mrs. Obama but I look forward to having more flexibility to say yes to more of my clients! I also want to have more of a television presence and do some writing. Maybe even start my own line!

On a personal note, has working with Michelle allowed for a friendship? Absolutely and it means the world to me. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Michelle Obama Might Be the Best Dressed First Lady Since Jackie O

Michelle Obama in Alexander McQueen at a state dinner in Washington, D.C., January 2011.

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Michelle Obama in Azzedine Alaïa in Baden-Baden, Germany, April 2009.

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Michelle Obama in Ralph Lauren in London, England, May 2011.

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Michelle Obama in Michael Kors on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, January 2012.

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Michelle Obama in Thom Browne at President Obama’s second inauguration in Washington, D.C., January 2013.

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Michelle Obama in Carolina Herrera at a state dinner in Berlin, Germany, June 2013.

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Michelle Obama in Marchesa at the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C., May 2014.

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Michelle Obama in Bibhu Mohabaptra at the Congressional Black Caucus dinner in Washington, D.C., September 2014.

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Michelle Obama in Zac Posen at the BET Black Girls Rock! special in Newark, New Jersey, March 2015.

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Michelle Obama in Mary Katrantzou in London, England, June 2015.

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Michelle Obama in Christopher Kane in London, England, June 2015.

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Michelle Obama in Carolina Herrera at the arrival of Pope Francis in Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, September 2015.

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Michelle Obama in Vera Wang at a state dinner in Washington, D.C., September 2015.

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Michelle Obama in Tanya Taylor in Washington, D.C., March 2016.

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Michelle Obama in Jason Wu at a state dinner in Washington, D.C., March 2016.

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Michelle Obama in Carolina Herrera arriving in Havana, Cuba, March 2016.

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Michelle Obama in BCBG at the opening ceremony for the Invictus Games in Orlando, Florida, May 2016.

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Michelle Obama in Naeem Khan at the Nordic state dinner in Washington, D.C., May 2016.

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Michelle Obama in Hugo Boss speaking with Oprah in Washington, D.C., June 2016.

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Michelle Obama in Marni in Monrovia, Liberia, June 2016.

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Michelle Obama in Proenza Schouler in Marrakech, Morroco, June 2016.

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Michelle Obama in Peter Pilotto in Marrakech, Morocco, June 2016.

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Michelle Obama in Proenza Schouler arriving in Madrid, Spain, June 2016.

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Michelle Obama in Preen in Madrid, Spain, July 2016.

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Michelle Obama in Christian Siriano arriving at a memorial for police officers killed in Dallas, Texas, July 2016.

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Michelle Obama in Christian Siriano at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 2016.

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Michelle Obama in Brandon Maxwell at a state dinner honoring the first family of Singapore in Washington, D.C., August 2016.

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WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 08: First lady Michelle Obama speaks during the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities poetry reading to honor student poets at the White House, September 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. The first lady honored five students with the nation’s highest honor for teen poets presenting original work. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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Michelle Obama in Naeem Khan at the Phoenix Awards dinner in Washington, D.C., September 2016.

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Michelle Obama in Self-Portrait at the Broadway Shine a Light event in New York, New York, September 2016.

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