By John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 5, 2007
For four decades, Joseph Torrenueva has cut the hair of Hollywood celebrities, from Marlon Brando to Bob Barker, so when a friend told him in 2003 that a presidential candidate needed grooming advice, he agreed to help.
The Beverly Hills hairstylist, a Democrat, said he hit it off with then-Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina at a meeting in Los Angeles that brought several fashion experts together to advise the candidate on his appearance. Since then, Torrenueva has cut Edwards's hair at least 16 times.
At first, the haircuts were free. But because Torrenueva often had to fly somewhere on the campaign trail to meet his client, he began charging $300 to $500 for each cut, plus the cost of airfare and hotels when he had to travel outside California.
Torrenueva said one haircut during the 2004 presidential race cost $1,250 because he traveled to Atlanta and lost two days of work.
"He has nice hair," the stylist said of Edwards in an interview. "I try to make the man handsome, strong, more mature and these are the things, as an expert, that's what we do."
It is some kind of commentary on the state of American politics that as Edwards has campaigned for president, vice president and now president again, his hair seems to have attracted as much attention as, say, his position on health care. But when his campaign reported in April that it had paid for two of his haircuts at $400 each, the political damage was immediate. With each punch line on late night TV his image as a self-styled populist making poverty his signature issue was further eroded.
Edwards said that he was embarrassed by the cost and that he "didn't know it would be that expensive," suggesting the haircuts were some kind of aberration given by "that guy" his staff had arranged. His wife, Elizabeth, made lots of jokes at her husband's expense and the campaign wished the whole issue would go away.
But Torrenueva's account of his long relationship with Edwards -- the first he's given -- probably guarantees that won't happen quite yet. And if $400 seemed a lot for a haircut, how about one for three times that?
Asked for a comment, the Edwards campaign said this week that Edwards had arranged for the stylist to give him numerous cuts over the past four years. But it said that a personal assistant handled paying for the haircuts and that Edwards didn't realize how much they cost.
"Breaking news -- John Edwards got some expensive haircuts and probably didn't pay enough attention to the bills," said spokeswoman Colleen Murray. "He didn't lie about weapons of mass destruction or spring Scooter Libby; he just got some expensive haircuts."
In the days after the $400 haircut first caused a stir, Torrenueva did not give many details about his client to reporters who called or came by his Beverly Hills salon. But Torrenueva says he was hurt by Edwards's response to all the flap.
"I'm disappointed and I do feel bad. If I know someone, I'm not going to say I don't know them," he said. "When he called me 'that guy,' that hit my ears. It hurt." He paused and then added, "I still like him. . . . I don't want to hurt him."
Torrenueva said he normally charges men $175 when they come to his salon for a haircut. But the cost for Edwards went up because the stylist had to leave his shop and go on the road to do his haircuts.
Edwards is certainly not the first politician to face ridicule when his or her grooming habits caught the public's eye. It took a long time for President Bill Clinton to live down the haircut he received from the stylist Christophe of Beverly Hills while Air Force One was parked on an airport runway in Los Angeles. And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) had her own minor version of the Edwards treatment after her Senate campaign spent nearly $3,000 in fees and travel for two sessions with stylist Isabelle Goetz.
While Democrats seem to get the most attention, Republicans have not been completely immune. Campaign aides to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the best-coiffed Republican candidate in the presidential race and the wealthiest of all the hopefuls, fretted in an internal document that his well-tended locks may be considered a negative. He has assured Massachusetts reporters that he spends no more than $50 for a trim.
Edwards, however, has been unusually susceptible to mockery. Before the $400 haircut, his campaign had to deal with the YouTube video in which he was captured primping for the camera while the song "I Feel Pretty" from "West Side Story" played.
And despite the best efforts of Edwards, his wife and their campaign aides, there's been an obvious political impact.
In Iowa, for example, an early caucus state where Edwards is staking much of his fortune, the Quad-City Times newspaper quoted barbers calling the cost of Edwards's haircuts "preposterous" and "impossible" and suggesting that they would be chased by guys in "white coats" if they charged Iowans that much.
According to Torrenueva, the last time he cut Edwards's hair was March 23, the day after Elizabeth Edwards announced that her cancer had returned and a month before the cost of the haircuts became public.
"I knew what they were going through, the cancer," Torrenueva said, referring to the session at the Sheraton Delfina hotel in Santa Monica, Calif. "My son had had cancer, so we talked."
Unlike two prior haircuts in January and February, which were paid for by the campaign, Edwards personally paid the $400 for the March cut, the stylist said.
Torrenueva provided his first five haircuts for Edwards in late 2003 and early 2004 free of charge. "I was just doing it because I'm a Democrat," he said.
After Edwards became Sen. John F. Kerry's vice presidential running mate in summer 2004, Torrenueva started charging. There was one cut for $300 in mid-July in Los Angeles, shortly before the Democratic National Convention, the one for $1,250 in August in Atlanta, another in Washington in early October before a debate with Vice President Cheney, and the last was in Ohio shortly before the election.
After the 2004 election, Torrenueva said he cut Edwards's hair three times in 2005 and 2006 during business trips to California. As Edwards began gearing up for his 2008 presidential campaign, Torrenueva said, the pace picked up. One haircut was in late November, another Jan. 9 and a third on Valentine's Day, and each cost $400.
The stylist said he has a vivid memory of the first time he met Edwards, in 2003.
"My friend called me and said, 'Do you know who John Edwards is?' and I said yes, I had heard of him. My friend said he is going to be running for president, but his hair doesn't look right. I don't know what it is and I think you will know what to do."
Torrenueva agreed to meet Edwards at the Century Plaza hotel in Los Angeles along with several fashion experts.
"There was a woman, an award-winning clothes designer -- I think she works in film and onstage, too. She was there with her swatches with materials for colors of suits, ties and what we were doing there was discussing his look. I was there for hair.
"What I did was, there was too much hair on top, always falling down, and it made him look too youthful. I took the top down and balanced everything out. He couldn't see it. But then we went into the bathroom. He looked in the mirror and said, 'I love this,' and that was it."