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It’s Not Just About the Hair

It’s Not Just About the Hair


Michelle Obama's flips and bobs pay tribute to the classic looks of Jacqueline Kennedy, but this would-be first lady will make her own history.

Aside from her husband and her brother, Craig, the man who's seen Michelle Obama most consistently over the past few decades is her hairdresser, Michael "Rahni" Flowers, who has cut Obama's hair since she was 18. When she first came into Van Cleef Hair Studio in Chicago's Gold Coast, "she was ending her senior year in high school and was about to head off to college," says Flowers, who owns and operates the salon with Daryl Wells, his partner of eight years. "She had a very broad view of the world around us, and she came across with a very humanitarian attitude as well."

Although impressed by his young client, who was attending Princeton University that fall, Flowers couldn't have guessed that she would someday be married to a serious contender for president of the United States -- that she might be first lady someday. Still, he says, "I knew that she was bound to do a lot in terms of giving back to the world." And in the 27 years and hundreds of hair appointments since that first visit, he's watched Obama do just that--everything from developing mentorship programs for inner-city kids to championing women's causes.

Since Barack Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee in June, Flowers has been flooded with interview requests. And that makes sense: The 53-year-old, who exudes an easygoing vibe straight out of the 1970s, knows Michelle Obama in a way that only he -- a man who works on her hair for two hours every week -- could. He styled her hair for the Obamas' 1992 wedding, he celebrated birthdays with Michelle's mother, and he's frequented Obama fund-raisers. He clearly loves Michelle Obama. But the only interview request Flowers has accepted so far is from The Advocate, because he hopes gay people will give Michelle Obama an "open look" and discover what he has adored about her for nearly three decades.

Asked when Michelle first knew he was gay, Flowers says, "As soon as we met!" Not so much because of his appearance, he adds, but because he immediately felt comfortable talking about himself with her. "She used to always give me that feeling of openness and a very sensible curiosity. She's more concerned with me being a good, kind, giving human being. The goodness that I have, the kindness I do in deeds -- those are the things that really matter to her."

What impresses Flowers most about his client? That, despite the whirl of cameras and the security detail constantly surrounding her, she's still the same grounded woman he met in 1981. "She's been the same way -- that same way," he says, nodding his head up and down in rhythmic unison with the last three syllables. "I think I probably appreciate her even more now because she still is the same -- so unpretentious and warm and earthy, just real easy."

And although Obama's classic hair flip has prompted some people to compare her to another famous wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, the man who is at least partly responsible for that look says the folks making that comparison aren't seeing the whole Michelle Obama. Sure, she might resemble Kennedy on the outside, he says, "but on the inside, in terms of her manners and her worldview, she's more like Eleanor Roosevelt. [Obama] is a hands-on kind of person; it's important for her to get out there among the masses. And that was very much an Eleanor Roosevelt approach to being first lady."

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born in 1964 and grew up in a one-bedroom apartment with her brother, mother, and father. During her early years, she went to a public school, but her launching pad to Princeton (where she ultimately graduated with a degree in sociology and African-American studies) was Whitney Young High School -- a magnet school for gifted kids.

Stampp Corbin, who graduated from Whitney Young three years before Michelle, met the future Mrs. Obama through Nathalia Payne, a French teacher who was fond of introducing standout students to each other. "I want to make sure everybody who's about something knows each other," Corbin recalls Payne saying at the time.

Although he wasn't a close friend of Michelle's, Corbin, who cochaired Senator Obama's National LGBT Leadership Council in the primaries, happily reminisces about the progressive education that helped shape their adolescence. "There were students who were out and open and gay in 1975," says Corbin, who came out just months after graduation. "It was just a school where you got to be who you wanted to be--it was accepted."

Obama has taken that comfort level into her adult life--attending gay fund-raisers and participating in panels on HIV, speaking out on behalf of designating historic gay sites like the Henry Gerber House as official Chicago landmarks, and fostering friendships with gay people across the city.

Her ease around LGBT people was on full display when she showed up at an annual fund-raiser for the Chicago-based Lesbian Community Cancer Project in 2004 without her husband, who was attending a separate event. Jessica Halem, the organization's executive director at the time, remembers telling the assemblage of gay women, "Barack must really love the lesbians to send his beautiful wife to a lesbian gala." Laughing, Obama stood up to acknowledge the welcome. "You would have thought she hung out with lesbians her whole life," Halem says. "She was being flocked, and she was nothing but smiling and outgoing and extremely comfortable."

Renae Ogletree, a high-profile Chicago lesbian and an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention, was Michelle Obama's designated escort at the LCCP fund-raiser. "That is the largest lesbian event in the Midwest. We easily had 800 to 900 people that year," she says. "For any person to be thrown into all that, you'd be shell-shocked for a moment." But Michelle worked the crowd from front to back, asked questions, and wowed everyone she met. "She was interested in who we were," says Ogletree, who met Obama for the first time that night. "She might have felt like she had to come to the LCCP event, but she certainly didn't have to stay as long as she did, she certainly didn't have to engage the way she did."

For those who know Obama, this story would come as no surprise. Friends uniformly describe her as warm, accessible, authentic, and amazingly even-keeled--an enviable asset on a campaign trail filled with hard knocks, soaring highs, and sometimes desperate lows.

"What's remarkable about her is that the kind of human-first, personal compassion is also the kind of public compassion she has," says Jane M. Saks, a friend since the mid 1990s, when Obama was the founding executive director of Public Allies Chicago, an organization that teaches young people how to actively engage in their community. p

Obama's career has largely embodied her passion for kids, education, and community involvement. After she graduated from Harvard Law School in 1988, she took a job at the corporate firm of Sidley Austin in Chicago, where she met 27-year-old Barack Obama, who was there on a summer internship. After three years, she left to find a job she hoped would be more fulfilling, taking positions with Chicago mayor Richard Daley's office, Public Allies, and the University of Chicago, where in 1996 she became the associate dean of student services. Above all, she says she's committed to her role as a wife and mother to her daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. "My girls are the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about when I go to bed at night," she recently told a luncheon of 800 Women for Obama, which supports her husband's candidacy and promotes a national discussion of women's issues.

husband running for president, eventually left her position as vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals to hit the campaign trail. "I thought politics was a mean, rough business. And the last thing in the world I wanted was to turn my girls' lives upside down," she explained at the luncheon. "But then I took a step back, and I thought about the world I want my girls to grow up in--a world where they'll be paid fairly for their work. Where they won't have to choose between their kids and their careers."

It's with her children in mind that Obama has primarily confined her campaigning to day trips, flying out of Chicago in the morning and returning to tuck the girls in at night. She's also centered much of her messaging on issues particularly important to women, such as affordable health care, equal benefits and wages, and day care. It's a natural fit, Saks says. "There's a seamless relationship between who she is as an individual, as a partner, as a mother, as a family member, a friend--and then who she is in the work that she's done."

It's in Obama's devotion to family and women's interests that many see the greatest potential for her to promote equality for gay people. Ogletree, who works in the Chicago public school system, sees Obama's passions as a way to get beyond the traditional hot buttons of gay marriage, employment nondiscrimination, and "don't ask, don't tell" to address issues gay youth face like bullying, harassment, and homelessness.

Mary Morten, a prominent Chicago lesbian and former LGBT liaison to Mayor Daley who met Michelle Obama through their mutual work with Chicago Foundation for Women, says, "She understands very clearly that families take many forms and that it's important to have protections in place for all kinds of families and particularly those in the LGBT community."

The mystery surrounding every first lady is what sway she'll have as the closest confidant to the president.

"Every first lady has influence," says Allida Black, a historian at George Washington University and project director of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers. "The issue is whether or not we see it and whether or not [she wants] to use it."

First ladies have made some welcome and sometimes surprising contributions to the gay rights movement in recent years. Hillary Clinton captured the hearts of many by campaigning for her husband at gay fund-raisers, befriending her gay staffers (even trying to set them up on dates), and marching in pride parades. An unlikely ally, Barbara Bush, lit candles in the White House windows when the AIDS Memorial Quilt first graced the National Mall, attended Ryan White's funeral, and visited a Washington, D.C., facility for babies with HIV and had her picture taken cradling one of the infants.

"She said she did it because she wanted to convince people that AIDS could not be acquired from hugging someone who was HIV-positive," says Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University who recently finished a book on Bush.

While Obama shares some of Eleanor Roosevelt's empathy and verve for community engagement, Black rejects the comparison overall. "Look at Eleanor as a power broker," she says, pointing out that Roosevelt ran the women's division of the Democratic National Committee, sat on the boards of labor unions, and had already testified in front of Congress twice before her husband was even elected governor of New York. "She was compassionate, but she was shrewd and she was fierce and she was a massive political war-horse who loved politics."

Obama, on the other hand, has categorically said she will not engage in specific policy initiatives and has even held up Laura Bush (arguably the anti-Eleanor Roosevelt) as her model if she were to become first lady. "I'm taking some cues," Obama said during a February appearance on The View. "There's a reason why people like [Laura]. It's because she doesn't fuel the fire."

Of course, her legacy as first lady will not be Obama's only consideration if her husband is elected president. "She has two young children, and she will undoubtedly devote a yeoman's amount of effort to shielding them from the horrible eyes that are all over Washington," Black says.

Obama's wit, candor, and sense of humor have proven powerful on the campaign trail. A 2007 Chicago Tribune article dubbed her "The Closer" because of her ability to seal the deal with on-the-fence voters. But that same frankness has gotten her into Hillaryesque trouble, as it did in February when she told a Milwaukee crowd, "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country."

But when Obama addressed the Gay and Lesbian Leadership Council in New York City in June, she stuck mostly to a script that emphasized her husband's commitment to gay equality. She did stray for one innocuous moment to ask, "Are we willing to settle for the world as it is, or are we willing to work for the world as it should be?"

And while that's just the kind of statement that helped make Roosevelt powerful in her own right, professor Black still isn't convinced that Obama is the next New Deal first lady. In fact, she likens Obama to a surprisingly different wife -- someone who had a network inside the White House to find out who was saying what about her husband, who helped orchestrate his appearances in public, while occasionally weighing in on issues of concern to her. "Whatever you think about Nancy Reagan's politics," Black says, "she was shrewd, she was effective, and she had the people's ear -- I think that's going to be a good model."

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