When former first lady Michelle Obama walked down the stairs of the Capitol to take her seat at Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony on January 20, her hair set Twitter abuzz. The side-swooped bangs and bouncy curls launched a thousand fire emojis and had everyone asking: Who did her hair?
The answer? Yene Damtew, an Arlington-based hairstylist and owner of Aesthetics Salon. And while Obama has been a client since 2009, Damtew is quickly emerging as an influential voice in the beauty industry, known for more than styling the locks of one of the most famous women in the world.
Damtew first arrived in Northern Virginia back in 2009. She relocated from her hometown in Orange County, California, when her then-mentor (and former Obama hairstylist), Johnny Wright, moved here to work with the first family. (Damtew notes she had visited family in NoVA as child, so moving here—not DC—was a decision that made her feel “at home.”) Since her arrival on the East Coast, Damtew has been behind some of Mrs. Obama’s most well-known looks, including the cover of her Becoming autobiography, the 2018 covers of both Elle and Essence magazines and, of course, her most recent inauguration appearance.
As a woman of color who grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Orange County, Damtew says her passion for hair started at a very young age.
“My aunt recently sent me a video of me—I couldn’t have been more than 2 or 3 years old—playing with a doll’s hair. I’ve always had a fixation with hair,” she recalls. She remembers watching her mother put hot rollers in her hair on Sundays before church, putting a shower cap over them and then emerging from the shower with “beautiful, bouncy curls.”
“I remember thinking, What is going on here?” of how her mother got her hair to transform like that.
By sixth grade, Damtew was experimenting with her own hair—and realizing there were differences in her hair compared to her white friends. “I was the only Black girl on the cheer squad, and I remember when we were talking about how we would all wear our hair, noticing my hair couldn’t do that,” she says of some of the suggested styles.
She enrolled in cosmetology school at 16, later met Wright through a connection with her brother, and opened her first salon in Arlington in 2017. She moved to a larger salon on the same street in November 2020 amid the ongoing pandemic.
“I opened Aesthetics because I wanted to change the narrative of the typical salon experience, especially for women of color. My goal is to change the relationship that the beauty industry has with itself and the divisiveness that takes place … my hope is to create an inclusive community where [beauty professionals] learn everything about hair.”
Damtew notes that her salon serves and employs women of all races, which is an important part of bringing unity to the salon experience. “As a woman of color, [I’ve had] people doubt if I’m able to do white hair. But I know hair, and hair is texture. Texture isn’t race.”
Another way she has worked to change the narrative around race in the beauty industry was by launching the Brown Beauty Summit in May 2020. Damtew organized a half-day virtual seminar to bring together more than 2,000 beauty professionals to discuss the future of the beauty industry. Panelists included beauty powerhouses like Sir John, who is Beyoncé’s makeup artist; Nakia Collins, Beyoncé’s hairstylist; and celebrity stylist Felicia Leatherwood, whose clients include Lenny Kravitz. As of press time, the second iteration of the Brown Beauty Summit was tentatively scheduled for this May.
Damtew is certainly becoming an influential voice in the beauty industry—and she’s doing it while also traveling the world with Mrs. Obama. Pre-pandemic, she traveled for six months with the former first lady to more than 20 destinations on her international book tour. And that living example of success is perhaps her best advice for other would-be entrepreneurs.
“You have to believe in yourself,” she says when asked to share her best entrepreneurial advice. “When I started on my journey, no one really thought that being a hairstylist could take you anywhere and everywhere in the world. I hope that my life is a testament that you can do whatever you want, you can go wherever you want, as long as you are persistent and you continue to push through.” // Aesthetics Salon: 2444 26th Rd. South, Arlington; yenedamtew.com
This story originally ran in our April issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.