The man who gives Rice her flip

Hairdresser Bruce Johnson tends her locks in D.C. suburb

April 08, 2004|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

When millions tune into today's long-awaited testimony of Condoleezza Rice, one viewer will be paying extra close attention to her coiffure.

Baltimore-born hairdresser Bruce Johnson is the stylist who transformed the national security adviser's hair into a fashionable flip 2 1/2 years ago. As owner of Avatar, one of the premiere beauty salons in suburban Washington, he's used to seeing clients on television - and it's not always pleasant.

"Most of the time I will pick out the things that need to be done," he says. "That's the first thing that comes to my mind. I really key in on the healthiness of the hair. Hopefully I'll say the hair is looking healthier or the shape is looking better."

The 36-year-old hairdresser will not speak publicly about his styling arrangements with Rice - a past discussion elicited White House disapproval. But, he doesn't make a secret of their connection. On his salon wall is a framed magazine profile entitled "The Most Important Woman in the World." Scrawled across it is a handwritten note: "For Bruce, thanks for the Great Hair. All the best, Condoleezza Rice."

Johnson will talk, in general ways, about such prominent clients as Alma Powell, wife of Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Alexis Herman, the first African-American to serve as U.S. Secretary of Labor. Herman recently invited the hairdresser to the unveiling of her official government portrait, a painting destined to decorate the halls of government. Fortunately for Johnson, it also commemorates her classic hairstyle.

"It was just pinned up in the back, and she had a little short bang out front," he says.

After 15 years in the business, the hairstylist has learned powerful women want simple hair-dos.

"They don't want the excessive beauty look. They want something basic. ... They want people to understand they're concentrating on their jobs."

Johnson and the other six stylists at Avatar Salon and Wellness Spa in Silver Spring are careful to give VIPs the "everyday" treatment they crave while getting $150 haircuts.

Avatar is an unassuming shop located in an office building near Silver Spring's main metro stop. With rooms painted in warm earth tones, the salon offers clients tea and muffins as they wait for haircuts, pedicures, manicures, massages and facials. Washingtonian magazine has called it one of the best places for cutting and styling ethnic hair.

Johnson followed an unconventional route into the world of beauty. The younger son of Doris Johnson, a single mother who worked as a domestic in Northwest Baltimore, the hairstylist grew up in the Rosemont section of Baltimore. After graduating from Polytechnic Institute in 1985, he entered the engineering department of the University of Maryland, College Park, intending to become a mechanical engineer.

Then he had a defining hair moment: A bad haircut at a local barbershop forced him to cut his own hair with a pair of $14 clippers.

The results were so good friends began to line up. Before long, the student discovered he liked hair better than logarithms and enrolled in Scanners International Beauty Academy in D.C.

He loved it. His friends, however, became concerned.

"All kinds of questions started rising," he recalls. "One of my friends, Lawrence, came in and did a little sit-down with me, like the Mafia or something. I was still living in campus housing and all these folks would come over and see these mannequin heads on the floor. The average male can't take that."

Johnson had a simple explanation. "I'd say `No. 1, I love women. No. 2, I love doing hair.'"

The stylist says he's always had a passion for hair, but finds snipping it especially exciting.

"Cutting hair is the adrenaline rush," he says. "I could have a cigarette after every haircut - that is, I could if I smoked."

He also enjoys competing. Johnson has won international hairstyling awards in such places as Paris and Amsterdam. Before opening Avatar in 1999, he worked for 10 years at Obsessions salon, also in Silver Spring. Many of his clients go back 15 years.

"I'm proudest of the looks that are clean, everyday looks," he says. "When I do a great haircut and see it outside the salon, I appreciate it so much more because I can see the energy of the shape and the movement it has."

When he sees a 'do that's merely limping along, however, he's not above saying so. He recalls a time when he passed a client driving in the opposite direction. Things didn't look so good. Johnson called the salon for her phone number, then left a frank message.

"I said `You just drove past me two minutes ago on the street. It was good seeing you but you need a haircut. You need to come into the salon immediately.' She was there the next day."

Would he ever make a similar hair appeal to "the most important woman in the world"?

No comment. But he suggests her boss could use his help.

Bruce Johnson

Age: 36

Occupation: Owner, Avatar salon, Silver Spring

Hometown: Baltimore

Resides: Mitchellville

Roots for: Ravens, not Redskins

Cost of a Johnson cut: $150

Signature style: "Clean, everyday looks"

VIP clients: Condoleezza Rice, Alma Powell, Alexis Herman

Hair he'd like to cut: President Bush, Mayor Martin O'Malley

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