Known for transforming First Lady Michelle Obama’s tresses into memorable, iconic, and often mimicked silhouettes, hairstylist Johnny Wright opens up exclusively to The Lady Loves Couture about his unique philosophies on haircare, products, and trailblazing trends.
The Lady Loves Couture: Michelle Obama is perhaps our most trendsetting First Lady in history. As her trusted hairstylist, what is your philosophy behind so many of her iconic looks?
Johnny Wright: Hair is a language. If it’s not moving and telling a story then it has no voice. Moving is not just about body and bounce. Hairstylists are storytellers. We help to tell people’s stories. A woman’s hair is the first thing you hear before she ever opens her mouth to speak! You can tell a lot about her personality from her hair. If she wants to be conservative, sexy, confident, flirty, fun girly, all those things can be portrayed by a great stylist.
TLLC: Let’s talk age defying hair. First Lady Obama appears to be aging backwards. What are some of the best cuts for women in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, and beyond to make us ladies look as youthful as possible?
JW: These are questions I get asked all the time and I feel like I have to be honest about it: I don’t think it’s about the hair cut. What I’ve learned, especially from working with First Lady (Obama,) is that it’s a combination of things: It’s her diet, exercise, her love life, her career, her children, etc. And all those things lead to some level of happiness that I think is youthful. It’s really the woman’s spirit that carries it all; there’s no particular cut. It’s whatever will make her feel good! Technically though, when women get older, they choose to go lighter; for example blonde. So, in my mind, I think the very opposite tends to be more youthful. A deep, rich, brown, lush, dark color is more young and vibrant. I would say that color plays a bigger role in defying age than a cut does.
TLLC: Sticking with the technical, you and First Lady Obama sent shock waves through the hair industry when she rocked her signature bang cut. From your perspective what has been the motivating force behind the evolution of bangs as a go-to for adult women of all ages? Are we ever too old for bangs?
JW: No. Never. The evolution of bangs is rooted in the fact that it is an automatic way to give women a dramatic look without being a traumatic cut. It still gives women the versatility of a ponytail or bun. It also is a small enough area that most women are patient enough to wait for that portion of hair to grow back. Bangs can also help tell that story I mentioned earlier (sexy, edgy, conservative). The story around the First Lady’s bangs is that it was just time for a shift. We had just ended a very intense campaign year and, with textured hair, putting heat on it everyday makes it break. We had put so much heat on her hair over time, her bangs were a protective style as well.
TLLC: What’s an easy go-to style that is universally flattering?
JW: The ponytail. I like it when it’s nice and smooth as well as when it’s tousled. That’s something you see around the world. And that style can fit into a lot of different aspects of a woman’s life: Work, dinner, the gym, the club. She can wear it anywhere. In terms of easy cuts, I love the bob. There are lobs (long bobs), short bobs, shoulder length bobs. If they are cut well, bobs are very easy to maintain.
TLLC: One might conclude First Laday Michelle Obama isn’t afraid to change her hair style frequently. What’s your process like creating her iconic looks on a regular basis?
JW: She is an everyday woman. Just like your girlfriends, or you. She’s no different than you! We are often on the same accord when it’s time for a change, but there are times when it can be challenging getting her to open up to a new style. So, I treat her like I treat all of my clients. I take a really professional approach and create a storyboard of looks I want to create. I’m very strategic about picking specific pictures and pitching a particular look because, again, I have to make sure that the feeling I’m striving for is conveyed in these pictures. I walk her through the story I’m trying to achieve. I will say, her instincts are spot on. She always chooses well. She gets it right away!
TLLC: What is it like working with one of the most influential women in the world?
JW: Well, we had a connection right away. We are both from Chicago. Over the years, we’ve become friends. I’ve probably become like a little brother to her. These are my words, of course, but I’ve learned so much from her. She’s been one of the biggest gifts of my life. I tell people all the time, my hands are literally touching history. She is a joy to be around. She’s hilarious.
TLLC: How did the relationship begin?
JW: Initially, my agent booked me for an Essence photoshoot during the campaign, shortly after they made their announcement on Oprah. We pretty much hit it off right away. Then, I got called by her staff to style her hair again about two months later for O Magazine. I remember telling her I was moving to the west coast, but it didn’t really feel like a goodbye at the time. Indeed it wasn’t a goodbye, because whenever she came out to LA, her staff would call me to keep her camera-ready for events and appearances…Ellen Degeneres, Jay Leno, etc. Things totally shifted for us after the Obama’s first Democratic National Convention was held in Denver. I got a call from her Chief of Staff asking if I would come and spend the week with her. The night of her speech was the first time I did her hair from start to finish. So really we began with short editorial shoots. Now they are all covers but that’s the story. The rest is history, as they say.
TLLC: Tell us your philosophy regarding hair products: Do you have favorites? If so, which ones and why?
JW: I’ve had a relationship with Soft Sheen Carson for about 14 years now. They’ve been one of the leading brands in ethnic haircare around the world. They have conducted tons of research and essentially, taken a lot of the guess work out of caring for/styling natural hair as well as chemically treated hair. They have very reliable products. To me, for women to get salon quality results at home is very important.
TLLC: What hair trend is a fashionable “do” for spring?
JW: I recently did a trend release at a showcase called When Beauty Meets Technology. That had a lot to do with an app called Easy Beauty. I’m the co-founder of this app where you can go on your phone and purchase all of your beauty products, and they will be shipped to your door in no time. It was initially designed for professionals, but I wanted everybody to have the chance to have the Easy Beauty experience. So when I think of trends, I think more in a non-traditional sense. I think about tools that offer some kind of technology. There are also products that have cutting edge ingredients. I also work with a company called Jonathan Product. I love them because I am a texture specialist at the core of my craft and have had a wide variety of clients in terms of ethnicity. They have this product called Beauty Water which is an apparatus that can be attached to your shower head or shampoo bowl faucet. This tool filters water in the same way that filters are used to purify tap water. So, in terms of both products and trends for me, it all starts with products, tools, and ingredients that condition and strengthen the hair.
TLLC: Any final thoughts on First Lady Michelle Obama?
JW: The First Lady has been really instrumental in redefining beauty. If you think about it, the new trends that have come to play, like natural hair and voluptuous bodies making it to mainstream popularity, like Nicki Minaj and Kim Kardashian, these have become more acceptable forms of beauty over the past seven years or so. You see more dark women on runways and on TV now than ever, and that can be attributed to the influence of the First Lady in America and around the world.