In 2011, celebrity hairstylist Elgin Charles appeared on The Wendy Williams Show to promote his VH1 reality series, Beverly Hills Fabulous. While Charles was giving hair tips to guests, host Wendy Williams asked, out of the blue, "Do you have a lover?"
"Do I have a lover?" responded Charles, while putting the final touches on a wig. He paused. "I've had many of them. I'm 50 years old, so I've done it all!" he exclaimed, before moving on to the next hair makeover in the stage lineup.
In the present day, the long-haired stylist, sitting on a couch at The Advocate's office in Los Angeles, reflected on that moment and Williams' strategic use of the word "lover." "I already knew where she was coming from. She wasn't asking me, 'Are you in a relationship?' It was coded. It was definitely messy," he said. "You know, just ask me straight up if you want to."
And what if Williams had asked Charles point-blank about his sexual orientation? "I probably would [have answered]. I don't know. I was glad she didn't!" he said with a laugh. "It wasn't too bad, you know. It just caught me off guard, and I wasn't ready for it," he continued. "So now I'm ready. Ask me anything."
Today is a monumental day for Charles, a.k.a. the "Emperor of Hair," whose life already boasts many accomplishments. His 25-year-old salon made history as the first to cater to African-American clients in the tony 90210 zip code. His star-studded client list has included Serena Williams, Drew Barrymore, and Gabrielle Union. And Charles is a reality star in his own right from appearing on his VH1 show as well as Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair. He also has an adult son, Frank, whom he adopted in 1997 with his then-wife, Sister, Sister actress Jackée Harry.
As much as Charles has shared with the world, there was one part of his life that he was hesitant to speak about publicly. Now in his 50s, he doubted if he ever would. But his father’s death, two years ago, galvanized him to take that step. In his new memoir, By the Way, a lyrical and honest telling of the hairstylist's life and his loves, Charles comes out as bisexual.
“I've been living in fear — and especially with my dad,” said Charles. “I [always] said that when he passes, I'm just going to write a book and really just put out there everything that I've done in my life. I think it can be helpful for other people, and definitely helpful for me.”
In many ways, Charles's love of hair intersects with his coming-out journey, which is traced in By the Way. “For as long as I could remember, hair has been a part of me,” reminisced the celebrity hairstylist. Charles’s father, however, was less thrilled with his young son’s passions. Charles, now 58, described his dad as a “good man,” but one who was “dogmatic” and “rigid” in gender-policing during his upbringing. He recounted a conservative home life in San Antonio and a spiritual tug-of-war between siblings — a sister coaxing him to cheerleading, and a brother pulling him toward football. Inevitably, his father steered him toward the more traditionally masculine pursuits.
But change was on the horizon. As recounted in By the Way, Charles drove a "powder blue Mercury" to Los Angeles from Texas at age 21. It was a move that changed his life. Through a temp agency, he found a job at the Crocker National Bank, where he met his first male partner, Keith.
“I liked what I saw,” he wrote of the “young professional man who was delivering mail to my office," who was "a little geeky, but nevertheless cute." During their first date, he thought, “I had waited my entire life to experience what I knew he would eventually give me permission to do.”
Charles' romance with Keith lasted only six months. But it had opened a door for him that he had not known existed. Charles began a dating life that included both men and women in L.A. during the 1980s. And after working at the finance firm Smith Barney, he left the corporate world to pursue his passion in hair. By 1991, he had opened the Elgin Charles Salon on Wilshire Boulevard.
By many accounts, Charles had found freedom and financial success. But as much as the City of Angels had helped Charles discover himself, the era was also one of heartbreak.
"Things started changing. The AIDS epidemic came out. People were dying. A lot of the hairdressers that I've worked with all passed away. It became so devastating that I hid, and I went back in. I said, I feel condemned as a Christian. No one really knew what I was doing because I kept it hidden. I was very much on the DL," said Charles, referring to "down-low" closeted culture.
The closet led Charles back to the study of religion — a place that was one of the sources of his shame about his identity. He once even considered joining the ministry. But what he would eventually learn from the Good Book is that there is room for queer people in communities of faith. "People are people, and when you operate in love, and you come in with the love, and it's all accepting. That's what Christianity is all about," he said.
Charles, through his own book, hopes to preach this message of acceptance to others. "Stop judging and realize the act [of same-sex love] is not the sin," said Charles. "What they say in the scripture — everybody has their cross to bear. You know, mine happened to be this."
In life, Charles also found support from members of his family. He was not out to his child, Frank, while he was growing up. But when Charles finally told his 24-year-old son, the reaction was one of acceptance. "He said, 'Dad, I love you regardless. You my daddy, you know. Just live your life. Be free.' And that was it. These kids are much more mature than we are," Charles said with wonder.
Charles also counts his ex-wife, Harry, among his allies. "Jackée and I are cool. Jackée and I are good friends. We were married. Our marriage was real. It went on for what, seven years? I'm still there for her. She's still there for me. We have a son together. We love each other very much," said Charles. "Just like any other relationship, you grow apart. But there's a different kind of love there. ... It's not an eros love where it's sexual. But it's love, where you're making sure someone's OK and you're there for them."
There were moments where Charles considered coming out earlier in his life. His reality show, Beverly Hills Fabulous, presented an opportunity. But he ultimately decided to keep that door closed. "I wasn't strong enough at that time, you know. I didn't want to deal with the dialogue. It was whispering all around me and in the assumptions [were] always there because, you know, I was still living my life."
"Do I regret not going there? I probably would have gone there if the show had continued, because that was always my purpose in my heart, was to just eventually let the layers go, come off and people get to see me for my true self. But I'm very soft inside, so I don't really want anybody in and talk about that. So I keep a barrier up," he explained.
Charles kept this barrier up throughout his father's life. In a heartbreaking chapter of By the Way, he explained why.
“You saw the feminine parts of me and you were so against them. I never had the courage to share the struggle I was having with my sexuality for fear that you would not accept me or that you would judge me," he wrote. "I have only ever wanted to please you, and I vowed to take my secret to my grave, so as to spare you from the grief.”
To The Advocate, Charles spoke with some remorse about his decision. "I may have been unfair to people. My dad is gone and I never shared this with him, you know? We never had any dialogue about it." But they did come close. Once, his father asked why he chose to dress so flamboyantly on his television show. "I was like, 'Hey, I'm a hairdresser. We have that freedom. We should be able to do that.'" In response, his father said, "I don't know what I did, but I must have done something right."
Today, Charles, encouraged to do so by his manager Christopher Broughton, is ready to let the barrier down completely — in part because of the courage he sees in the younger generation. But he is also coming out because he has a message about bisexuality and wants to help "so many other people that are in my shoes."
"It's nothing to be ashamed of," said Charles. "The bisexual man is out there, and he's willing to hold his head up high and discuss it."