You might not know the name Yene Damtew yet, but you've definitely seen her work. The 31-year-old hairstylist is responsible for every one of former First Lady Michelle Obama's looks on her Becoming book tour, after years of working as an assistant in the White House.
But before landing a full-time gig with the first family (and opening her own salon, Aesthetics, in Arlington, VA), Damtew was running a makeshift salon out of her parent's garage. Ahead, she shares how she went from being a college dropout to styling one of the most famous families in the world. The following interview was told to Jessica Cruel and edited for length and clarity.
The Garage Hustle
“In high school, braiding hair was my side hustle — I think maybe I was charging $20. My parents put a sink next to the washer and dryer in the garage and I set up this makeshift station. I would bring in my rotating computer chair and have [clients] bend over when I washed their hair. As I grew older, I started to work with hot irons and colour; I messed up a number of my mom’s bath towels when I coloured people’s hair. This flame for doing hair came at a very young age, and my parents — instead of dimming that light — let it stay lit.”
Ahead Of The Class
“I went to cosmetology school my junior year of high school, but then I dropped out because I was going to college. The agreement with my parents was: 'You can go to cosmetology school, but you still have to go to college.' After I got my associate’s degree, I took a semester off and went full time to finish cosmetology school. Then, I was enrolled at Cal State Fullerton and I remember the first week of class [thinking], this isn’t for me. Something in my spirit told me to withdraw, and I ended up relocating to D.C."
Path To The White House
"I met Johnny Wright through my brother, who works in entertainment. Johnny brought me on to assist him on a McDonald’s commercial with [WNBA player] Candace Parker. I was just there to shadow, assist, and hand him things when he needed. That was the first time I was exposed to that world.
"In 2009, Johnny [who was working as Mrs. Obama's hairstylist at the time], offered me the position as his assistant. He wanted somebody that was both business savvy and had the skills to provide hair services. When I came on, I was working exclusively with the former first daughters [Malia and Sasha] and Mrs. Robinson, Mrs. Obama’s mother. I would work with Mrs. Obama as her colourist, and from there it kind of evolved.
“My parents were very proud of me when I started working with the Obamas, but my dad was like, ‘You’re dropping out of college?’ It was the opportunity of a lifetime, but you could see an inkling of disappointment being a child of first-generation immigrant parents. So in 2014, I went back to Marymount University — while working two full-time jobs — and got my bachelor’s in business administration with a minor in marketing.”
Part Of The Family
"After the Obamas left office, I became [Mrs. Obama's] full-time stylist. A lot of people think that Mrs. Obama always wears her hair straight because that’s what we see when she’s at formal events, [but] she is not always in the public eye. There are things she’s tried, but she just might not have been photographed in them. If you were to catch her relaxing at home, there’s a higher possibility that you’ll see her hair natural.
"Now, with the book tour, she has shown herself with straight hair, long hair, curly hair, dark hair, bangs, no bangs, pulled back in a bun. The memoir, and the movement it’s created for women, is about Mrs. Obama showing a side of herself that the world has never seen. We try to go back and forth between naturally curly and straight styles to keep her hair in its healthiest state.
"I tell all my clients to change it up, step outside of their comfort zone, and embrace their natural curl texture. When you go on vacation, don’t flatiron your hair. If you are going somewhere tropical or humid, find a protective hairstyle. Nobody’s hair is perfectly coiffed at all times."
Becoming A Business
“Being a salon owner wasn’t a part of my plan, ever. I was doing research and I learned that business professionals [of colour] couldn’t find a salon that respected their time. They couldn’t find a salon that cared for their hair and where the stylists had professionalism. I started to realise there was a demand for this, and I wanted to create a space for like-minded women to come and be serviced. I opened Aesthetics Salon in 2017.
"Opening up the salon was not only for clients to have the quality of service that they were looking for — I also wanted to train the next generation of stylists. One of the things that I learned growing up in this industry is that stylists are very apprehensive with sharing their knowledge; that is just the spirit of the industry that needs to be broken. I want to make artists more unified.
“I work with celebrities, but I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m a celebrity stylist. Mrs. Obama is like a big sister, a mentor, a motherly figure to me — especially being that my parents are on the opposite side of the country. I like to have conversations with her about life, and more than anything, I think my philosophy about paying it forward is from the Obamas [because] that is what they do day to day."