Skip to main content

The Politics of Hair

by Alexander Brebner|26 October, 2020|Blog / Community / 

Looks matter in politics – whether we like it or not – and that includes good-looking hair. For men, it’s a concern, but for women, it’s a minefield, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – who was recently caught, sans mask, getting a root touch-up and blow-out in San Francisco – discovered. 

Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton would agree when every change of length or texture was debated while Dianne Feinstein and Janet Reno sidestepped the minefield by wearing their trademark styles for decades.

Appearing to care too much about hair can signal vanity, entitlement, or at worst, self-indulgence. We want our politicians to look good, without looking as if they try too hard to look good. The pandemic has only made it even trickier to maintain an image in the public eye when looking as good as ever is harder than ever.

In a Class Day speech at Yale in 2001, Hillary Clinton quipped, “The most important thing I have to say to you today is that hair matters. This is a life lesson my family did not teach me, Wellesley and Yale Law School failed to instill: Your hair will send significant messages to those around you. Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.” She estimated she’d spent 600 hours in a salon chair, and In 2014, she joked that the subtitle of her memoir about her service as Secretary of State, Hard Choices, should be “The Scrunchie Chronicles: 112 Countries and It’s Still All About My Hair.”

Getty Images
Getty Images
Mario Testino / Vogue

Male politicians can’t afford to be caught dyeing their hair, yet women can’t afford not to. While Ronald Reagan always took pains to deny that he augmented his auburn, and President Obama visibly grayed with every passing crisis, you’d struggle to name one woman in office without a colorist’s maintenance. Graying ladies are apparently viewed as dissolute rather than distinguished, a judgement the late Ruth Bader Gibsburg managed to avoid; appointees may be exempt.

Gossip and accusations abound: Did Joe Biden allegedly undergo a hair transplant procedure to stem his balding? Was Sarah Palin’s highrise crown bump really a wig? Was Carly Fiorina’s jab at rival Barbara Boxer’s “so yesterday” hairstyle out of line? Was Bob Dole’s crack that Jack Kemp “wants a business deduction for hairspray” really necessary? Is it a coincidence that no United States President has been bald since Dwight D. Eisenhower left office in 1961?

More to the point, does the way one cuts or styles hair say anything about the way one leads a nation?

According to Slate, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that blond women are far more likely to end up as chief executives or U.S. senators than women with any other color. 35 percent of female U.S. senators and 48 percent of female CEOs at S&P 500 companies are blond.

As University of Chicago professor Jaclyn Wong reports to CNN, “Once women get into positions of leadership and power, beauty becomes a liability because our stereotypes around beauty are that they’re incompatible with capability. So if you’re too beautiful, maybe you’re not that competent. That’s a lot more true for women than it is for men.”

We spoke to Rebecca Haenle, Co-creator of Parlour Salon in Washington, D.C. – a city with one of the highest number of salons per capita in the country – to help cut through the clutter and tease out the truth about hair in the political arena:

Washington has always been known to be conservative, and politicians a bit more so. Early in my career the Clintons were in office, and Janet Reno was a client of my boss who we would ask, “Are you going to do something different?” And he’d say, "Oh, I am trying!” How far do you push? Women realize that they can be controversial, but they can also inspire other women.

The recent focus on Nancy Pelosi’s hair faux pas was because she wasn’t working within the COVID guidelines, nor was her stylist. In Washington, we are in a stage-two area for operating, whereas other states are in stage-three and can have as many clients in their spaces as possible.

While D.C. hairdressers adhere to what our government says we should do, a major politician is getting her hair done in a way that could have meant having business licenses revoked. On the heels of everything that we’ve been dealing with, that’s a big deal!

Chronicle File
Chronicle File
Bonnie Cash Pool / Reuters

The Price of Beauty

The Washington Times published a story saying that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had spent $80 on a haircut and $180 on color and called her hypocritical given her complaints about the rich and the cost of living in D.C.
Taxpayers scrutinize how much public servants spend. Some men go right down to the bottom of the Capitol for a haircut and it’s 25 bucks. Others have established stylists that they’ve been working with for some time and have paid more for services before they became what they’ve become.

Bill Clinton was skewered for weeks for a $200 haircut from Beverly Hills stylist Cristophe aboard Air Force One on the LAX tarmac. The New York Times reported: “Questions about Mr. Clinton’s runway razor cut dominated the White House news briefing today, with the communications director, George Stephanopoulos, scrambling to explain why the populist President tied up one of the country’s busiest airports to have his hair trimmed.”

John Edwards’ presidential ambitions during the 2007 campaign were partially cut short when two haircuts totaling approximately $800 were revealed while selling himself as a champion for working class Americans. A video of Edwards being fluffed and primped was leaked by rival campaign strategist David Plouffe. In 2012, Edwards was spotted at the bargain chain SuperCuts for a more suitably $12.95 trim.

Sarah Palin, John McCain’s presidential running mate in 2008 received a $165,000 makeover during her first two months on the trail. Her traveling hairdresser alone was paid $42,615 over a nine-week period.

Hair controversies aren’t only American. In 2016, François Hollande, during his tenure as a socialist president of France, was lambasted for a reported $11,000 a month barbering budget, which was seen as excessive for a socialist and inspired the hashtag #Coiffuregate.

In Canada during the 2015 election, Justin Trudeau’s lush curls earned their own Twitter account – @TrudeausHair, and the Economist referred to him as the “hair apparent” in reference to his father, a former Prime Minister.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife Cherie was ridiculed after she reportedly spent more than $2,668 on a hair stylist Andre Suard at a G7 meeting in Denver 1997.

In 2010, Microsoft founder Bill Gates lashed out at Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for putting reported hair transplant before foreign aid by telling the press, “Rich people spend a lot more money on their own problems, like baldness, than they do to fight malaria.”

Haenle sets us straight:

People who aren’t the president of the United States might pay $400 for a haircut. People will both buy couture and shop at H&M. There’s value to artistry, to the things that make you feel good, and if you value a custom cut by an artist who has been doing it for many, many years, who has trained hundreds of people, and who owns multiple businesses, and you’re willing to pay for that hour you spend with them, there’s something beautiful in that.

Hairdressers work so hard to get to a certain place. All they want is for people to value their time and who they are. I don't care if the haircut is $65 or $200; you’re paying for that person’s time. Think about it: You might have to take time off of work and not do clients. You might have to spend two, maybe three hours getting there and back. You might have to go through security. This half-hour haircut, I tell you right now, is probably an all-day ordeal.

[Hairdresser Joseph Torrenueva who cut John Edwards hair that day defended the expense by saying that he had to fly to Atlanta and miss two days of work.]

The White House
Getty Images
Ida Mae Astute / Getty Images
Monica Schipper / Filmmagic
Erica Goldring / Getty Images

A friend of mine who used to do Michelle Obama’s hair also worked in a salon, but he traveled with her and could only be in the salon two days a week or so. He had to make a living. It was obviously a stepping-stone as he has a TV show now, but if he had to wake up at 3:30 in the morning to go do hair, he woke up at 3:30 in the morning to go do hair! There’s so much that goes into designing a look and being available 24 hours a day. That costs a lot.

Nobody should apologize for doing what makes them look good and feel good. Maybe the general public doesn’t understand that.

The Parlor and the Barber

In the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building sits a wood-paneled, leather-upholstered space called the House barbershop by patrons. The shop’s actual name, House Cuts, is privately owned, open to the public, and unsubsidized. Its native Italian owner, Joe Quattrone (Joe Q to regulars), has been giving congressional cuts for over 50 years to a mainly male clientele. But while times are changing quickly, government institutions have been slow to keep up with an increasing number of female officeholders and staff who have fought for equal access to Capitol Hill. The House gym was closed to women until 1985. The first women’s restrooms adjacent to the House floor were not installed until 2011.
There are many barbershops in D.C. and a strong presence for men’s grooming here. A lot of men are up to paying top dollar to look their best every few weeks. But I think that women are more apt to travel somewhere else – their home districts – to have relaxing moments with their stylists, whereas men are fine just walking downstairs to that barbershop in the Capitol building.

Women of Color

Politics have entered the fray in defending our right to wear hair any way we wish. The Crown Act – Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair – sponsored by Representative Cedric L. Richmond in 2019 – prohibits discrimination, “based on a person’s hair texture or hairstyle if that style or texture is commonly associated with a particular race or national origin. The bill stipulates that a person shall have equal rights and shall not be subjected to prohibited practices based on their hair texture or style.”

Women of color in the public eye have endured a particular degree of scrutiny. It wasn’t until Michelle Obama put the White House well into the rear view mirror when we finally saw her reveal her natural, curly texture. Still, chemical straightening and punishing blow-dries are the norm for many women in politics and the media.

The lack of progress in this area has Haenle fuming:

This is something that I’ve talked about with women for years now. It’s a tragedy that people discriminate against a texture or a look. Why is this still an issue? Women of color have been dealing with it for decades, have lost their jobs, have lost their confidence just because of the texture of their hair and how they choose to wear it. I think in 2000-almost-21, the fact that we are still talking about this issue is just absurd.

I primarily work with women with texture and curl, and I have a few clients who work on air for major news outlets. In their daily life, they wear their hair natural, fun, free, and curly – but on air, the recommendation is to wear it straight. A producer – or even the makeup and hair department – says, ‘Hey, you need to smooth it out.’ It doesn’t just come from the top; it comes from the beauty industry too.

Women in Washington working in law or consulting firms still feel like they need a perfect blowout and adhere to the antiquated rule that smoothness is better. They’re 10 years behind where most of us are today in terms of embracing looks that may not be traditionally professional.

My friend Johnny who used to do Michelle Obama’s hair when they were still in Chicago talked about how stylish she was – her shoes, her bag, her dress, her coat – but just as important was her hair. She would get a lot of flak, and he would too if somebody didn’t like it, but she always loved how she looked, smooth, straight, wavy, or curly.

When asked about vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris’ hair choice, she offers this:

I think she looks beautiful, really polished and amazing. I don’t know what her natural texture is but I’m assuming from her heritage it’s probably a soft curl. I doubt she chemically straightens it; I think she just gets a blowout. I imagine she’s of a generation that does one thing in her spare time and something else in her professional life. I would love to see her embrace her curls and her texture, but maybe it’s something that she herself has to embrace. I think Kamala will get there. I would like to see her change up her looks for sure.”

* * *

1 Los Angeles Times URL | Visited October 23, 2020
2 Washington Post URL |Visited October 23, 2020
3 AP News URL |Visited October 23, 2020
4 Washington Post URL|Visited October 23, 2020
5 The New York Times URL |Visited October 23, 2020

Related Articles