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.
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.
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.
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