Olivia French, a former member of the D.C. Barber and Cosmetology Board, at her Southwest Washington apartment. (Paul Schwartzman/The Washington Post)
14 min

Olivia French says she was impressed when David Brunson told her he had worked as a drummer with Michael Jackson and knew his brothers, Tito and Jermaine. She was flattered when she says he would bring her flowers and candy.

Brunson was impressed by the famous clients French had tended to as a beautician — Sugar Ray Leonard and the wife of Marion Barry, among others — and that she was a mayoral appointee to D.C.’s Barber and Cosmetology Board.

French and Brunson met in 2020 when she says she spotted his junk-hauling ad on Craigslist and called him. As an unlikely friendship blossomed — she is 78 and he is 52 — French says she fell in love with Brunson. He says he thought of her as a maternal figure, someone he wanted to help.

She needed it. Her beauty school, the French Institute, had lost its license and was in financial trouble. In the ensuing months, they agreed on a plan in which Brunson would invest tens of thousands of dollars in the school and give its bedraggled Northwest Washington headquarters a makeover.

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But their alliance fractured when they disagreed over who would control the school and French says she learned that Brunson was married. As their rift deepened, Brunson accused French of scheming with a D.C. government official to sell bogus cosmetology licenses — an allegation that has prompted an investigation and the threat of a lawsuit, and roiled the city’s beauty industry.

“It’s like ‘Peyton Place,’” said Anwar Saleem, chair of the Barber and Cosmetology Board, referring to the 1960s soap opera. “It has everything — a little love, a little drama and a little craziness. I’m still trying to figure out what the hell is going on.”

In a television interview and in a letter to D.C. officials, Brunson has alleged that French “devised a fraudulent scheme” to obtain cosmetology licenses for unqualified students, including himself. His attorney, Raymond Jones, in a May 30 letter to D.C.’s Office of Risk Management, threatened to sue the D.C. government for fraud unless it paid Brunson an $800,000 settlement.

During an hour-long telephone interview with The Washington Post, Brunson declined repeated requests to provide evidence of French’s wrongdoing. “I want D.C. to do their investigation,” Brunson said. “They’ll figure this out for themselves.” His attorney, who was listening to the interview, said: “I don’t want to litigate this in the press.”

Yet, it was Brunson who approached WJLA’s 7 News I-Team, according to an account the station posted on its website Feb. 6, to allege that French sold bogus licenses. When the 7 News I-Team confronted French outside her home, she delivered what appeared to be an on-air confession about a scheme that reaped her “thousands” of dollars. “It’s a sad commentary that this is what happens in the government — if you can pay, you can play,” she said in the interview.

“I’m guilty,” French told the station. “And I’m ready to pay the price.”

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In a subsequent interview with The Post, French acknowledged that she got bogus licenses, but said the scope was far smaller than what she appeared to admit to in the television interview. She attributed the difference in her accounts to having taken “heavy” medication and having drunk wine before the unexpected television interview. She said she was “confused” and in “shock” when the news crew approached her and that she told them what she thought they wanted to hear “to get rid of them.”

“I just wanted to get it over with,” she said. “I just damaged myself.”

In the interview with The Post, French said that with help from the D.C. official, she improperly procured three provisional licenses for Brunson even though he hadn’t taken the required hours of classroom training. She said she also helped a couple of his associates. It is unclear whether Brunson or his associates knew beforehand that French was getting them licenses for which they were not qualified. Neither Brunson nor his attorney responded to a question about his awareness of what French was doing. French says that Brunson knew.

As her relationship with Brunson unraveled, French stepped down from the cosmetology board, citing “medical problems” in her Feb. 26, 2022, resignation letter.

“I’m going to jail, I know I’m going to jail,” she told The Post during the tearful interview at her Southwest apartment. “I got his licenses for him because I thought we were going to be partners and he was going to invest in my school.”

French said she did not make any money off the licenses and that her landlord is seeking to evict her, a fact confirmed by the owner of her apartment, Chuck Goldston, who told The Post she owes nearly $13,000 in back rent. French also owes more than $25,000 to the Tenleytown office building where her school leased three units, according to the property manager there.

“I am flat, cold broke,” French said. She portrayed herself as Brunson’s victim, saying he had “wined and dined” her as he moved in to take over her business. “I fell in love with him,” she said. “That’s what I did wrong.”

In July, the D.C. Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection opened an investigation into Brunson’s allegations, according to an email from an agency spokesman, Charles Basham III. He said DLCP had referred the matter “to the appropriate agencies” but declined to be more specific because it’s “a part of an active investigation.”

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As of mid-February, a total of 5,600 cosmetology-related licenses have been issued citywide, according to the agency. Since January 2020, the agency has received four complaints “related to operating without a cosmetology and/or barber license,” Basham wrote. “One investigation resulted in enforcement activity.”

The D.C. official whom Brunson and French identified as French’s accomplice has left the government, Basham said. He declined to provide the reason, saying it was a personnel matter. He did not disclose when the official departed.

Saleem, the chair of the Barber and Cosmetology Board, said agency officials are reviewing thousands of cosmetology licenses to verify their validity and have found “only a handful that are questionable.”

Saleem, who owns a hair salon on H Street NE and is the executive director of H Street Main Street, a community advocacy organization, says he first met Brunson after French texted him in August 2021, saying she wanted him to meet with her and a potential investor in her school.

At the meeting at Ben’s Chili Bowl on H Street, Saleem said Brunson showed him a curriculum plan. “He said he was going to train kids to work with celebrities. It sounded good,” Saleem said. “He was going to get a bus and travel around to different places to do hair. He was selling his dream.”

At the meeting, Saleem said, Brunson also talked of his experience in the music business, saying he had worked as “Michael Jackson’s drummer.” At one point, Brunson texted Saleem several short videos of Tito and Jermaine Jackson talking about him in what appeared to be, at least in one case, the digital version of a character reference.

“David Brunson is a very good human being, David Brunson is very devoted, very much on time and he takes his work very seriously,” Jermaine Jackson says in the 46-second video that Brunson sent to Saleem, who shared it and two others with The Post.

“Whoever employs David Brunson is going to have a very good worker,” Jackson says in the video, adding that he had worked for the Jacksons for “about six years.”

Jermaine Jackson’s entertainment company did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Brunson, a licensed pilot who grew up in D.C., attended the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where he earned a master’s degree in career and technical education in 2010, according to the university. Asked about his association with the Jacksons, Brunson said only that he has worked with “hundreds” of groups and has experience in music production and as a musician. “I’m not going to give my work information,” he said.

He said he met French at the end of 2020 when she, while cleaning out her apartment, hired him to haul away trash. As they became acquainted, Brunson said she told him about her failing school, a subject that interested him because he had taken cosmetology classes years before.

“She said, ‘I’m tired of this, I wish you could take over,’ that she was too old to be doing this anymore,” he said. At one point, he said, she told him she would be willing to work for him.

As they became closer, Brunson said he helped her manage her affairs. Goldston, her landlord, recalled that Brunson identified himself as French’s son when he called to make a repair request on her behalf.

“I looked at her as a mom,” Brunson said. His interest in investing in the school, he said, was driven partly by the idea that “if I can make this successful, I will take care of her.”

In the early 1990s, French’s salon — then known as Olivia’s Institute of Beauty on Pennsylvania Avenue NW — was featured in magazines alongside Lord & Taylor and Elizabeth Arden as places in Washington to get facials and massages.

“The Great Face Saver,” read the headline of a brief 1990 Washington Post Magazine article about French. “She does wonders,” Sugar Ray Leonard told the magazine. Effi Barry, the second wife of Marion Barry, also praised French in the article: “She’s a line item in my budget.”

In 2014, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) nominated French to the cosmetology board. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) reappointed her in 2021.

By then, French’s troubles had deepened. Her school’s operating license expired in 2015 after she failed to renew, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Two years later, the Higher Education Licensure Commission ordered French to stop hosting classes after an agency official found that the school was operating without a license. French, who has two instructor licenses, said she kept teaching because she needed to earn money and expected that the school would renew its license.

Susana Castillo, a Bowser spokeswoman, said in a statement that French’s appointment was the result of a recommendation that “emanated from the agency in question, and the matter remains under review.” She did not respond to an email seeking additional clarity.

The school was in disrepair when Brunson began renovations. There was a hole in the ceiling, a broken mirror and equipment that had become discolored, according to the building’s property manager, a description that was confirmed by French.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s going to look like a real school,’” said the property manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of the dispute.

As he became more involved with her business and the renovation, Brunson said he encountered “red flags,” including French’s rent debt — thousands of dollars by that point — and unpaid phone bills. When she said she could get him cosmetology licenses, Brunson said, “Honestly, I didn’t believe her. I thought she was trying to impress me. The next thing, these came through. I was taken a little aback.”

French and Brunson both say she gave him $10,000 for the project, part of which he used to pay down the rent she owed. From August to December 2021, Brunson paid $1,000 a month, the property manager said. He got far enough into the renovation to stencil a design on a wall — an ornate “B” beneath a crown and over “The Brunson International Institute of Cosmetology Arts and Science, LLC.”

“I went in one day and it was there,” recalled French, saying she never consented to the change. She also said she was unaware that the school was registered with the city as a limited liability corporation under Brunson’s name. The filing listed Brunson, French and another woman as officers. “He did all of that without contracting with me,” she said.

French and Brunson disagreed over who would control the school and how it would be managed. Then, French said, she received an email from a woman whom she thought was Brunson’s friend. The woman, French said she now learned, was married to Brunson.

“This is Mel, David’s wife of 4.5 years, we’ve been in a relationship for over 8 years,” read the Jan. 18, 2022, email, which French provided The Post. The email was signed “Melanie” and was sent from Brunson’s account. “You are behaving like a spiteful, delusional old woman,” it said.

French had known Brunson for more than a year by then. She was crestfallen. In an email she sent later that night to Saleem — a message he shared with The Post — French wrote that “Brunson never told me that he was married” and that “I would never have dated him if I knew he was married.”

A few days later, Saleem said, Brunson contacted him to make his allegations against French. They met again at Ben’s Chili Bowl, only this time Brunson brought a woman whom he identified as his wife.

Saleem said the woman, whose name he cannot recall, was angry the school project was collapsing. “She said she had put up $50,000 for it‚” Saleem said. When Brunson told him that French was selling bogus licenses, Saleem said he asked him, “How do you know?”

“He said, ‘I was there, she was making a lot of money off of this, I saw the transactions,’” Saleem recalled. He said he told Brunson he needed evidence before notifying investigators. “‘If you have proof, I’ll take it up the ladder,’” Saleem said. “But he didn’t give me nothing to take. I’m not going to defame someone’s character.”

Brunson, who declined to identify his wife during the interview with The Post, did not specify what he told Saleem. “I wish everyone could take a polygraph and then you would get a full picture,” Brunson said. “Why would I ask for an investigation if I did something wrong?” He then stopped responding to emailed follow-up questions about the identity of his wife, the email that “Melanie” sent from his account, and the corporation set up under his name.

His attorney declined to comment on French’s suggestion that Brunson had misled her or answer follow-up questions related to their dispute or about the nature of their relationship. “Mr. Brunson has no further comment until The District has had enough time to complete their investigation,” Jones wrote in an email.

French, in the interview with The Post, insisted that she had been duped. “He bought me flowers. He bought me lots of candy,” she said. “I was angry because he used me.”

Once their partnership fractured, Brunson removed the new equipment and other improvements from the school, including flooring, he had installed. French’s office lease expired in April. At that point, the property manager said, the amount of overdue rent she owed was $26,891.

The property manager said she advised the landlord that it wasn’t worth what it would cost to pursue French for the back rent, since in all likelihood “she doesn’t have the money.”