Hairdos and Don'ts

At the time this article went to press, the trial of Jennifer Thong's case was scheduled to begin March 22. It was later postponed until the end of this month.

A politician's hair is, pardon the expression, an extension of her politics.

When housewives across the country began imitating Sarah Palin's signature updo, it was seen as support for the self-styled populist. The New York Times interviewed Palin's hairdresser in Alaska, who said, "We would talk about pedicures and manicures and moose and politics, all while Sarah was having foils in her hair and holding my baby on her lap." The article described the rural salon as "Steel Magnolias on the tundra."

A hairstyle can also communicate a distinct lack of populism, as the furor over John Edwards' $400 haircut proved. Or it can signal a political evolution: Hillary Clinton was scorned as a rube for sporting a classic pageboy throughout the 1990s, but as a presidential candidate she was asked at a New Hampshire town hall, "How do you do it? How do you keep up ... and who does your hair?"

Even without a presidential campaign in full swing, slideshows of political hair crop up on gossip Web sites, concentrating on the evolving hairstyles of Washington's reigning politicians. Last year, Nancy Pelosi's stylist told the New York Daily News that while Pelosi may have a lot of political power, she doesn't have much power over her hair. And when the Los Angeles Times asked actress Elizabeth Banks the secret to playing Laura Bush in Oliver Stone's W., she replied, "It's all about the hair. Hair speaks volumes about every politician's wife."

It's no surprise then that high-end D.C. salons use their clients -- politicians, K Street lobbyists, news anchors -- to enhance their standing. When the most sought-after stylists leave one fancy salon for another, they take their loyal clientele with them. "If you have ever been to a salon where you really loved the stylist -- I think that does tend to happen here," says Sherri Dalphonse, a senior editor at Washingtonian magazine.

In one of the more notable D.C. salon shake-ups in recent memory, several employees left Andre Chreky's salon at 16th and K streets Northwest, an establishment that touts its proximity to the White House and its high-profile clients -- including former first lady Laura Bush. In 2006 and 2007 Chreky, who owns the eponymous salon with his wife, was sued by two former employees who say they suffered years of sexual harassment that escalated to instances of sexual assault in his fifth-floor office.

In 2006, Chreky sued one of his stylists, Jennifer Thong, after she left to help start a nearby salon, One80. (She no longer works there.) The move might have gone unnoticed by all but her followers had Chreky not alleged she violated a no-compete clause in her contract, a claim he lost in court. But then, in turn, Thong filed the sexual-harassment suit -- at the time this article went to press, a civil trial was set to start at the end of March. Another former employee, Ronnie Barrett, was awarded $2.3 million after she prevailed on similar claims in a jury trial that ended March 9.

Chreky and his attorney, John Michael Bredehoft, tried to portray the accusers as losers who were just on the outs with a powerful purveyor of style. When talking about his former employees during a videotaped deposition that was replayed during the trial, Chreky sighed and smiled, saying in his French accent, "They cannot keep a job." He said that a former manager of the salon who supported the women's claims was merely in charge of cleaning toilets and changing lightbulbs. When an attorney off-camera asked Chreky what he would think if a jury sided against him, Chreky said he would have to see a psychiatrist to understand how it's possible he could be a sexual harasser "for calling people 'honey.'"

The first cracks in the image of Chreky's salon as a posh and indulgent retreat came in a 2005 Washingtonian article by Dalphonse. The magazine's "top salons" list that year did not include Chreky's, and though many women in D.C. swore by it, she wrote, "like any salon, how you're treated can depend on who you are, who you see, and when you go. The salon seems to treat established customers very well. But a surprising number of women, especially newer clients, feel that for the price they deserve better treatment." The article, published around the time that Barrett was leaving her job as a colorist, also singled out the salon's coloring section as problematic.

At the trial, Bredehoft argued the case was based on salon rumors -- "I heard 'so-and-so' was sleeping with (Chreky)." Hairdressers in D.C. form cliques, Bredehoft said, and everyone who made allegations was in the unpopular group. "I think you all learned more about hairdressers in D.C. than anybody should ever have to know," he told the jury. Bredehoft even tried to use the salon's politically powerful clientele against the accusers at trial: If the women were so scared, why didn't they complain to the Secret Service?

Proximity to political power isn't just a defense used by Chreky's lawyer. The point of a D.C. salon trumpeting its political clientele is to attract those who pay attention to the truly timeless style of K Street: rubbing shoulders with the powerful. (After all, Laura Bush's matronly bob never won any fashion accolades.) But the gimmick doesn't always work. "A lot of very well-known women go to George at the Four Seasons," Dalphonse says. "Sometimes they slip in there at the crack of dawn, and the salon's open just for them. If you go get your hair cut there that afternoon, it doesn't mean that Nancy Pelosi is in the next shampoo bowl." So don't expect to run into D.C.'s political elite at a salon soon, especially if that salon is involved in several sexual-harassment lawsuits. The D.C. desire to avoid anything that smacks of scandal is more powerful than vanity, no matter whose name is on the marquee.

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