No splitting these political hairs

Ronald Reagan (right) at a Beverly Hills barbershop in July 1980, during his presidential campaign. Paul Ryan had a similar look before a makeover, said one stylist.
Ronald Reagan (right) at a Beverly Hills barbershop in July 1980, during his presidential campaign. Paul Ryan had a similar look before a makeover, said one stylist. (AP)

The measure of their worth starts at the top of their heads.

Posted: September 07, 2012

 Political hair speaks volumes, and at the nominating conventions, every finely combed message is highlighted by the color, cut, and plasticity of the speaker's thatch.

Think the subject is superficial? Balderdash.

Consider the youthful vigor of John F. Kennedy's thick waves. The reality disconnect in former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's overblown plumage. And, in his own gonzo category, The Donald.

"Look back in history," observed Frank Pinto, a.k.a. Julius Scissor, the Center City stylist who trims Mayor Nutter's goatee. "The people who ran the world were very controlled."

Julius Caesar, for instance. Napoleon. Hitler.

Politicians, he said, "want to control everybody else, but first you have to show that you've controlled yourself."

This explains why U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and former Sen. Rick Santorum have constructed Kangol caps of hair - their personal planks girded to repel barbed attacks and hail.

We Built It!

Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has had a makeover, said Pinto. "Before the convention, he had this corny, quasi-Ronald Reagan cut that looked ridiculous. Now, it's kind of post-preppy - with a nod back to JFK. He is, after all, Irish American, and they're playing to that."

Nothing could be done, though, about Ryan's Eddie Munster widow's peak. Youth has its drawbacks.

The head of the ticket is more set. His political positions may flip, but Mitt Romney's hair always conveys a confident nonchalance.

Every convention draws toupees and comb-overs - which this year echoes the Democrats' chant, "Forward not back!"

Savvier aging pols, however, are shearing down, and avoiding facial hair, too.

"Ten years ago," said Pinto, "Nutter had a heavy goatee. I convinced him to crop it closer. It was overbearing. When people see a beard coming at them, it puts them off."

Candidates suffer for their hair. Cartoonists caricature it, journalists monitor the cost of styling it, and the public notices when it turns gray - like President Obama's - taking the change as a sign of maturity or stress. Recently, campaign consultant David Di Martino snarkily tweeted, "Would #Romney-Ryan be the first all hair-pomade ticket? Brylcreem use unlikely to mitigate seniors hating Ryan budget."

Women, both candidates and political spouses, endure even closer scrutiny.

"All the Republican women have blond, shoulder-length hair," said Pinto. "That is the White Goddess Syndrome."

Exceptions must be made for South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Haley, whose parents came from India, wore her silky dark hair uncomplicated at the convention - parted on the side, tucked behind one ear, flowing past her shoulders.

The African American Rice made a more profound personal statement.

"Her hairstyle is seemingly as rigid as she appears to be," said Lori Tharps, a professor of journalism at Temple University and coauthor of the book Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.

"Her hair doesn't move and you get the idea that she's kind of immovable. A straight-shooter. No fun or frivolity."

Watching TV coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, Tharps noticed more diversity than with the GOP in Tampa. "Church hats. Church hair. Turbans. Dreadlocks."

Michelle Obama wore her hair straightened, but in a politically neutral style. "It wasn't stiff. She had to move it out of her eye a little bit."

In the black community, Tharps said, "people would prefer to see her with naturally curly hair.

"But what would have happened if she wore dreadlocks or an Afro? Or put her hair in braids or some kind of twists? That would have made a different impression."

Different, as in too black?

"Her image was one of glamour and beauty, femininity and strength," said Tharps. "I'm sure Michelle's handlers and Barack's handlers are saying, don't get too edgy. Don't push any boundaries. Anybody in any political office would say the same thing."

With the rise of Hispanics as a political force, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro may have wanted his hair to echo the themes of his Democratic keynote speech, honoring his roots. "He had the real old-school typical Latino male look," said Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Democratic councilwoman from Philadelphia. "A soft comb-over, natural, with a little bit of gel."

Sánchez gets her own hair done by Gladys, a stylist at Fifth and Cayuga Streets. "She's a Democrat," said Sánchez. "And she's more concerned about how my hair looks than I am."

If great hair is any indication of a rising star, the candidate to watch may be U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz from Pennsylvania's 13th District, who spoke at the Democratic convention on Tuesday.

"She looks chic and cool and as if she's comfortable with who she is," said Sánchez. "We were all talking about how great she looked."

But only because of the political significance.

Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or

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