By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Johnny Wright met Michelle Obama two years ago, not long after Barack Obama announced his quest for the White House. The hairstylist, then popular in Chicago's Wicker Park area, was called in for an Essence magazine photo shoot -- not that he had to do much with the candidate's wife's hair, he says. Wright and Obama quickly hit it off.
Fortunately for Wright, the Obamas may have moved from Chicago, but they believe in staying true to their roots.
Two months into the Obama administration, Wright has become the first lady's exclusive First Hairstylist, the White House confirmed this week.
"It's exciting, absolutely, doing the first lady's hair," Wright says carefully of the highly competitive gig, over lemon-drop martinis at a National Harbor restaurant. "She's a great lady and I feel privileged to do her hair."
Any juicy details, Mr. Wright? Is she natural or does she relax? Does she color? Is that really her hair? Wright stays mum, then turns to comment on the restaurant's wallpaper color.
As it turns out, being the First Hairstylist requires not only special talent with a blow dryer and flat-iron. One also must have a fierce commitment to discretion.
Dozens of hairdressers lobbied for the role. Seemingly anyone who ever had hands in Michelle Obama's hair gave media interviews about the position. There was speculation about this person who used to do her hair, or that person who is a local styling legend. One stylist even exploited the frenzy by peddling a product on the Internet that he claimed to have used on Obama.
Wright gave interviews when the Obamas were on the campaign trail, but since she became first lady, he has effectively taken a vow of secrecy.
During the campaign, Wright, 31, was called in periodically to style Obama for such important events as the Democratic National Convention in Denver, he says, including the day she gave her speech. And more recently, he says he was called in for her photo session for the much-noted March cover of Vogue magazine.
Since that Essence shoot two years ago, Wright had moved on to the Frederick Fekkai Salon on Melrose Place in West Hollywood. In January, he says, he was notified that Obama wanted him as her exclusive stylist. He says he had become her official stylist by the time he coiffed her for the official White House portrait, in which she smiles exquisitely from beneath a perfect modified bob wearing a designer "little black dress" and double strands of pearls.
"She did look beautiful, didn't she?" Wright says rhetorically. He speaks so warmly of her, a listener must ask: Are they friends?
He won't answer directly, but he offers that they've "done lunch."
As he sips his martini, Wright says that the topics open for discussion include his career and the clients who have given him the okay to talk about them. He says they include actresses Lauren London and Vivica A. Fox, Victoria's Secret model Selita Ebanks, WNBA star Candace Parker and "Sex and the City" writer Candace Bushnell.
Wright is also forthcoming about the challenges of relocating again. He wants time to get his footing in the chaos of the move -- a new city, a new house and a new salon at which to work. Two weeks ago, Wright chose Corte Salon on U Street, in the thick of hip Washington, as his work address -- at least, the one that's not 1600 Penn.
"There were several things I was looking for in a salon," Wright says. "I wanted someplace professional, but also warm. I wanted my clients to feel at home and comfortable. I didn't want someplace that was so formal that it seemed, well, stuffy."
Michelle Obama is not even Wright's first first lady.
Actress and designer LisaRaye McCoy-Misick, a Chicago native who in 2006 married the president of Turks and Caicos, says that Wright has done her hair for seven years.
"Look at him! He's doing two first ladies!" says McCoy-Misick, who goes by LisaRaye professionally.
McCoy-Misick says she values their friendship as much as how Wright does her hair. "I trust him totally when it comes to my hair and style," she says.
Wright is sorely missed at Frederick Fekkai, says front-desk manager Felicity Alston, adding that some of Wright's clients still call. They feel they've lost a friend.
"Of course, they loved him because he's amazing at doing hair, but there is also a sense about him that makes people open up to him," Alston says. "They not only love their hair -- they love to be around him."
Then as now, what sets him apart is his relationships with his clients, says Wright, who this week reportedly re-signed to promote an array of hair-care products by Softsheen-Carson, a subsidiary of L'Oreal. He says the closeness he shares with his clients is also what drives him to protect their privacy.
Wright hasn't entirely left Hollywood behind. He has signed a development deal to create a show with L.A.-based 44 Blue Productions, which has produced such modest reality shows as the Style network's "Split Ends" and MSNBC's "Lockup."
"People tell me everything -- they reveal their true secrets to me," Wright says. "It takes a lot of trust to have that kind of connection and I value that. I will not compromise the trust my clients put in me."
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Wright says doing hair is in his blood. He has two uncles who are hairdressers.
At age 3 he started scratching and oiling his grandmother Minnie Brown's scalp.
"She did hair until she was 91," Wright says of Brown. "She's where I got the desire to do hair."
By middle school, he was styling family and friends on the back porch of his parents' house on Edbrooke Avenue on Chicago's South Side.
"I washed hair in my mom's kitchen sink," he says. After a while, the family grew tired of all the hair in the sink, so his parents, Vernita and Edward, built a salon in the basement for the youngest of their four sons. Wright shampooed in the utility sink; his workstation was an old desk his father had fashioned with a mirror.
Business was swift, but in high school, he wanted to take it to another level. That's when he decided to use a classmate, DeKeila Farrell, for his first marketing campaign. "She was the most popular girl in school, so I did her hair for free," Wright says, laughing.
He showed off his best work on her: fancy French rolls and finger waves. Then the cash flowed as other girls crowded into his shop after school to get the same look. "People would ask: 'Oooh, girl! Who did your hair?' " says DeKeila Farrell-Gill, 32, who lives near Chicago.
It is not lost on her that she was Wright's first star client. She always expected that his confidence and work ethic would propel him to great things.
"He was very good back then, and its obvious that he still is," she says. "The first lady has good hands in her hair."