Primping for President: A Little Dab'll Do Ya

John Edwards
A cut above? John Edwards's $400 stylings aren't for the average Joe. (Seth Wenig - AP)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

Amid the nearly $3.3 million in travel costs, equipment rental fees and salaries listed on presidential candidate John Edwards's most recent campaign finance filing, a few expenses stand out. They are the ones incurred at Designworks Salon in Dubuque, Iowa, Torrenueva Hair Designs in Beverly Hills, Calif., and the Pink Sapphire salon and spa in Manchester, N.H.

The campaign paid $800 for two haircuts from the Torrenueva salon. Designworks provided $248 worth of camera-ready makeup. And Pink Sapphire was called on two occasions for Edwards's makeup needs at $150 and $75 a visit. Together they account for $1,273 worth of professional grooming, from trims to foundation.

According to the campaign, the haircuts should have been on Edwards's personal account and so he will make good on the $800. The makeup applications will remain on the campaign's tab.

While vanity is as common to the human condition as failing to learn from past missteps, one would think that a candidate who was lambasted in 2003 by a Bush loyalist as a "Breck girl" would exercise greater caution on matters related to his appearance. The anonymous critic, quoted in the New York Times, used the admiring attention paid to Edwards's thick mop of chocolate brown hair as a symbol of a candidate some painted as slick, shallow and lightweight.

The cost of Edwards' s grooming is high -- $400 for a haircut, in part because the stylist came to him, according to the Associated Press. But to be fair, in the world of fancy haircuts, that's not even close to the record. Celebrity stylist Sally Hershberger started a follicle war in Manhattan a couple years ago when she introduced the $600 haircut. And the clients have to come to her salon.

But expensive haircuts by celebrated stylists have a way of riling people up, especially when politicians indulge in them. President Bill Clinton, for instance, had folks in a snit over his $200 Cristophe haircut aboard Air Force One in 1993. No one balks at some policymaker whacking away during a $200 round of golf. Or wearing a $200 shirt. But haircuts are another matter.

A pricey trim -- and in the demographics of Supercuts and neighborhood barbershops, that would be anything over $50 -- ceases to be a form of grooming and moves into the realm of primping. The culture assumes that women will primp. It has begun to encourage men to do it. But politicians -- especially male ones -- should never, ever primp. Or at least shouldn't get caught at it.

Edwards was videotaped checking his appearance in a small compact and combing his hair before an interview and ended up on YouTube to the tune of "I Feel Pretty."

The problem is not with making himself presentable for the public, but rather the perception that it was being done with a little too much loving attention. In that YouTube video, Edwards is not merely combing his hair, he's fluffing it. Later, a woman comes in to spray it, stroke it and spray it a bit more.

Edwards considers triple-digit grooming expenses a part of campaigning. He listed his salon and spa bills under "consulting/events," after all. And the truth is that audiences expect politicians to look polished on television. They don't want to see some washed-out guy with a shiny nose waxing on about his call to public service. And politicians are only human. They want to make the best impression.

But there is a line between grooming and primping. Brushing your teeth is grooming. Giving yourself a big Chiclet smile with veneers is primping. Having an adept barber come around to the hotel to give a busy candidate a trim is grooming. Getting the owner of an expensive Beverly Hills salon to come over, knowing full well that the cost is going to be 10 times what the average Joe is likely to pay for a haircut . . . that's a Breck girl move.

Political candidates of all stripes want to show off their big ideas, superior intellect, uncommon leadership skills. But they also spend a lot of time making clear their ability to relate to the average man. That's what all the diner visits, rolled-up sleeves and folksy talk are meant to do. A $400 haircut isn't folksy. And it doesn't matter who's paying for it.

There is nothing that says someone can't display wealth and privilege and still be considered a friend to hoi polloi. Oprah Winfrey does it all the time. She is like a benevolent monarch, happily trotting out her personal hairstylist, makeup artist, trainer and chef and touting their work to her populist audience. She mentions her private plane and her middle-class fan base loves her all the more. She does her charity work and her high-minded social engineering and devotees launch a campaign to nominate her for a Nobel Prize.

The rules are different in politics. Campaigns are filled with an endless series of symbols and metaphors all meant to evoke common ground. Politicians: They're just like us! Even though they are not. A $400 haircut shatters the illusion they work so hard to create.

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