Goldie White is an Alexandria hairdresser who was inspired to create a portrait of Michelle Obama that includes real human hair, artificial eyelashes and the same type of nail polish the First Lady has been known to wear, in her salon in Alexandria on Monday. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Like many artistic breakthroughs, Goldie White’s came to her in a dream: She awoke knowing she would paint a portrait of Michelle Obama. And not just any portrait, but a portrait that employed Goldie’s special skills.

Goldie has been styling people’s hair since the day she was 11 and her mother’s regular hairdresser couldn’t make a house call. Goldie had watched her mother get her hair done so many times — had paid such close attention — that she figured she could do it herself. So she did.

She’s never looked back. She went to Dudley Beauty College on Rhode Island Avenue NE, earned her cosmetology license and started a mobile hairdressing business: Her motto: “No time for the salon? I’ll come to you.”

She called her business the Golden Touch, after what she hoped her fingers would provide and after her nickname: Goldie. She was born “Kanesia,” but too many people had a hard time pronouncing it. “Goldie” went with her hair, which she started coloring blond as a teen, and her eyes, which are butterscotch brown and flecked with gold and green.

In March, Goldie took the plunge and rented space in a building called Sola on Hooffs Run Drive in Alexandria. The building is a veritable souk of stylists, its hallways lined with multiple rooms offering all manner of beautification. And that’s where I am on a recent morning, watching Goldie do maintenance on the strikingly magenta-dyed hair of Carolyn Holmes, who’s been going to Goldie for nearly 10 years. Michelle Obama looks down from the wall.

Goldie White, left, an Alexandria hairdresser, and Carolyn Hughes, of Arlington, who has been going to Goldie for 10 years, are seen in her salon in Alexandria on Monday. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

“She always looks good,” Goldie says of the first lady. “It’s as if she’s getting better with time.”

It was Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention that infiltrated Goldie’s dreams. Goldie had always been artistic, but this called for something different, for if you look at the painting you’ll see that the first lady has hair, real hair. Goldie glued human hair to the canvas strand by strand, then used a curling iron and flat iron to put it into that familiar shape. She glued on individual eyelashes, too. And she scoured suppliers for the distinctive gel nail polish — Artistic Colour Gloss in a gray color known as “Vogue” — and applied it to Obama’s clasped hands.

“That day, everyone was excited about her dress and her fingernail polish,” Goldie says. “It was all over the Internet. Right after she did that speech, you couldn’t get that nail polish. It was sold out.”

We talk for a while about the special place that hairdressers have in our society: part magician, part engineer, part therapist.

“Some people think it’s a mindless job,” says Goldie as she makes her way through Carolyn’s vibrant hair, expertly twisting, one at a time, the dozens of narrow locks and smoothing them with aloe vera.

A good hairdresser, Goldie says, knows chemistry, knows how to cut, braid and sew. She must take into account a client’s complexion, facial shape, neck ratio (longer neck, shorter neck, thicker neck?) and even her personality.

Carolyn started coming to Goldie when she was transitioning from processed hair to natural hair. Her look has evolved since then. About three years ago Goldie turned up the color palette, and now Carolyn sports this eye-catching magenta. It works because it matches Carolyn’s vibrant personality.

“When my hair looks good, it changes my whole persona,” says Carolyn, who lives in Arlington and works with digital medical records. “I’m gonna stand up a little taller.”

Like a priest with a confessor, a good hairdresser spends a lot of time listening.

“Most of the time, it’s not about getting their hair done,” says Goldie, who lives in Anne Arundel County. “They’re there for that, but that’s not what they’re talking about. They’re talking to you and trying to get your opinion. Or sometimes they just like to vent. We know a lot of things, and we have to keep it to ourselves.”

Says Carolyn: “There’s definitely a level of trust there. It’s like that Vegas thing: What goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

I mention to Goldie that I know someone who was occasionally dispatched to the White House to do Laura Bush’s hair. Talk about a high-profile gig.

Goldie says she’s never met Michelle Obama or even seen her in person. “That’s my way of getting to do her hair,” Goldie says, nodding toward the portrait. “I was thinking of sending a picture of it to the White House. Not actually the picture, ’cause I’m not sure if I would get it back. Not that I would want it back, but I would want to know her reaction.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

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