What do you see when you look at Marilyn Monroe gazing down at the corner of Connecticut and Calvert streets NW? A beautiful woman? A movie star? An icon?
Roi Barnard sees himself.
“When I saw Marilyn for the first time on screen, I just went, ‘Whoa, you’re not happy either,’ ” said Roi, the District hairdresser who helped commission the famed mural in 1981. “And I saw it in her eyes.”
I chatted with Roi as he cut my hair at the salon that bears his name: Salon Roi. The luscious-lipped mural is on an exterior wall of the salon.
“My love affair with Marilyn started when I was 12,” said Roi as he gently, but firmly, tilted my head to the left. “Her star was just beginning to rise. I forget which movie I saw first, but I saw her, and I saw in her eyes, my eyes. We had sad eyes. No matter how happy she was, I knew she was sad. And I related to that.”
Roi doesn’t seem sad now, at age 81. It wasn’t always that way.
“I was a sissy little boy,” Roi said. That was not an easy thing to be where he grew up: in tiny Poplar Branch, N.C., a place of dirt roads and outhouses. Roi got on well with his mother, Tillie, but his father, Willie, didn’t know quite what to make of his son, who one day came home from high school excited to say he’d made the team.
“What position?” his father asked.
No position, Roi said. “I made the cheerleading team.”
“What the hell is wrong with you, boy?” Willie asked.
Roi left Poplar Branch after high school and came to Washington to work as a clerk at the FBI. He once shook J. Edgar Hoover’s hand. (Moist, he remembers.) Roi got a congratulatory letter from Hoover when he married a girl from Poplar Branch. (She needed a father for her son. Roi needed a beard.)
The marriage didn’t last, though the couple remained friends.
Roi came out of the closet in the 1960s, determined to be honest about his sexuality. He became a model, changing his name from “Roy” to the more memorable “Roi.” He learned to cut hair and worked as a hairdresser at the Washington Hilton.
In 1969, he and Charles Stinson — his business partner and onetime romantic partner — opened a salon together, then called Charles the First. Friends couldn’t understand why they’d chosen Woodley Park and not the more fashionable Georgetown.
“I didn’t want to become part of the roller derby,” Roi said.
The roller derby?
Roi explained that there were so many salons in Georgetown then that any stylist who got mad at his or her boss could just quit, grab their cart and roll it down the street to the next beauty shop.
“Here, we moved into a quiet neighborhood filled with retired government ladies living in these wonderful old apartment buildings,” Roi said.
In 1981, Charles commissioned artist John Bailey to paint the Marilyn mural. It’s become a landmark, even if most passersby don’t know how personal the image is to Roi.
“She carried me through a very troubling part of my life,” Roi said. “I would just go see her movies or read about her. I connected with her.”
Putting Marilyn on the wall wasn’t advertising, Roi said. It was homage.
After Roi’s relationship with Charles deteriorated in the early ’80s, Roi took over the salon and renamed it. I always thought “Salon Roi” was a regal reference: the salon of the king. No, it’s named for Roi.
A photo on the wall next to Roi’s chair depicts the staff in the ’80s. They’re posed on the three-story salon’s staircase holding champagne flutes and blow dryers as if caught mid-soiree.
Roi pointed at the photo and ticked off the beautiful, talented men who died when AIDS cut through the salon community like a scythe in the 1980s.
This is all in Roi’s new self-published memoir. He wrote it while sipping Manhattans in the Marquee Lounge at the Shoreham Hotel. The title is taken from a question a boy asked Roi after spotting him at the supermarket: “Mister, Are You a Lady?” (You can order a copy at Lulu.com.)
Roi sold the shop 10 years ago, but it still bears his name. And at 81, he still cuts hair at Salon Roi, Thursday through Saturday. He takes Amtrak in from Delaware, where he lives, and stays with friends not far from the salon.
This year marks 38 years since the Marilyn mural was painted, 50 years since the salon opened, 56 years since Roi became a hairdresser.
“You can learn how to do hair, but you can’t learn how to do people,” he said. “It has to be in here.”
Roi pointed to his heart.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.