From the moment Michelle Robinson Obama hit the national scene during her husband’s first presidential campaign in 2008, experts have weighed in on every clothing decision she has made—marveling at how effortlessly she transitioned from the overly conservative business suits she once donned to the elegant runway styles of designers Alexander McQueen and Tracy Reese. But while clothes have their place in every first lady’s public life, it can easily be argued that Michelle Obama’s hair is the true star of her ever-evolving role as a fashion icon for the generations.
“Everyone always talks about her clothes and what designer she’s wearing,” says Alexia Allen, a 30-year-old mother of two from Atlanta and a diehard Michelle Obama fan. “I look at her hair first, because it’s always pure perfection.”
Plenty of others, it seems, feel the same way: when Obama revealed a new hairdo last week on Twitter, it immediately set the social-media world abuzz. Her signature sleek bob with a side part had been replaced with a more structured cut complete with blunt, eye-framing bangs. As soon as the pictures of Obama’s new hairstyle surfaced, magazines and beauty blogs such as Essence.com, HelloBeautiful.com, and Clutch.com posted polls asking their readers to rate the first lady’s new do.
Michael “Rahni” Flowers, who served as Obama’s hairstylist in Chicago for more than 20 years, knows full well the importance great hair plays in a woman’s life—and so does Michelle, he says. “She’s always taken very good care of her hair,” Flowers explains. “Having beautiful hair is such a sign of health and attractiveness, particularly for black women, because their hair tends to be very fragile, and it needs extra care. Having it look good at all times is an amazing feat in itself.”
Lengthy, flowing hair has routinely been considered the gold standard by which women of color are judged. Long hair and skin of a lighter complexion have traditionally been seen as landmarks of a more mainstream and, therefore, more acceptable beauty. That notion can cause high levels of anxiety for many women of color, given that black hair often has a softer texture and tighter curl pattern than other groups’ hair, causing it to experience damage more frequently with heat styling and chemical procedures. Both present significant roadblocks for sustainable hair growth.
No stranger to the politics of hair, Michelle Obama sought professional assistance for her thick, shoulder-length mane while still in high school and kept a weekly, standing appointment with Flowers to maintain the style and health of her tresses right until she left for her new address in Washington. She was so committed to a healthy hairdo that she even called Flowers for hair tips while away at college and law school on the East Coast.
Flowers says his longtime client usually preferred a simple style that fit her professional, pre–White House life as a lawyer. “She’s never been the kind of woman that obsessed over hair and makeup too much,” says Flowers. “In Chicago, she liked simple lines and sleek styles that had body and movement. Nothing too fancy or over-the-top. Once she found a style she liked, she stuck with it.”
Larry Sims, a celebrity hairstylist for The Voice and the likes of Gabrielle Union and Queen Latifah, says no matter how resistant she may have been to becoming a fashion icon at one point, the first lady now comfortably embraces her role as trendsetter for all things beauty and style.
“She knows how much women look to her as a role model on everything, including hair,” says Sims. “She is the most iconic first lady since Jackie Onassis, and her hair is always modern, stylish, and full of body. There is a flirty sexiness about her new bangs that’s very appropriate. It’s a great new look for a new year.”
While Flowers declined Obama’s invitation to move to Washington and serve as her personal hairstylist in 2008 (Johnny Wright was subsequently brought on to do the job), he says he still relishes his memories of styling the hair of all the Obama women for the 2009 inauguration.
“I spent 23 hours that day and the day before doing all the Obama women, from Sasha to grandma,” says Flowers. “I was spritzing, spraying, and curling hair nonstop just in case of rain, sleet, or snow. We didn’t know what was going to happen that day. You don’t want a frizzy hairdo or hair out of place when millions of people are watching. It was really grueling and really amazing. I won’t forget it.”
Flowers says he’ll be watching the entire inauguration celebration closely and expects Obama to look as well coiffed and well dressed as she did four years ago during her husband’s first inauguration. “She’s evolved in every way over the last four years, and I just love seeing what she does with her hair at different official events. For Monday, I envision her hair being very sleek and polished for the swearing-in ceremony and then possibly a nice updo for the ball. I’d love to see her in a style that emphasizes her slim, toned features and graceful long neck and height that night. That would be incredible.”