Who is Yene Damtew? Virginia hairstylist praised for Michelle Obama's 'laid' locks that set social media aflame
Personalities like Shelby Ivey Christie, the American fashion historian, who specializes in the contributions of Black designers complimented Yene Damtew and applauded her artistry
Michelle Obama was a joy to many Black women to behold on Inauguration Day as her bouncy locks was styled and coiffed to perfection. Black women are often called to task for having 'messy' hair because it is generally more difficult to style Black hair. So Michelle's envy-generating style made Twitter sit up and notice, especially since it was such a stark contrast to her messy updo in 2017 when she was leaving the White House and had the task of welcoming Melania Trump as the new FLOTUS into the White House.
"Every Black woman understands the difference between Michelle's 2017 messy ponytail and the 2021 laid weave. It's existential," said one tweet, while another replied to the comment saying: "2017 mama said if I have to go imma be lowkey and comfy. 2021 she ate and left no crumbs.". Another tweet said: "Oh my.... the Obamas are in the capital and I am here for it! They look great! Always representing #BlackExcellence! Michelle's hair is LAID and she came to slay!," and posted a picture of the Obamas waiting to enter the venue of the inauguration ceremony.
Every Black woman understands the difference between Michelle's 2017 messy ponytail and the 2021 laid weave. It's existential.— Kimberly Nicole Foster (@KimberlyNFoster) January 20, 2021
2017 mama said if I have to go imma be lowkey and comfy. 2021 she ate and left no crumbs.— Bougie Auntie in Training (@BECCAucity) January 20, 2021
Oh my.... the Obamas are in the capital and I am here for it! They look great! Always representing #BlackExcellence! Michelle's hair is LAID and she came to slay! 👏🏽👏🏽Yaaaaaaasssss 🥰🥰 pic.twitter.com/EvpUPqZEyx— Bridgette Bishop (@bosslady_mommy) January 20, 2021
Another remarked that the former first lady putting in that much effort to getting her hair right showed how excited she was for the new Biden-Harris administration compared to how she was feeling in 2017 when Donald Trump was sworn in as the president. "Michelle cared about and respected this inauguration because she got her hair laid, and didn't just put it in a bun. (Pro-Tip: If a Black woman - who normally gets her hair done - doesn't bother to get her hair done for your event, she doesn't care.)," explained one tweet.
Michelle cared about and respected this inauguration because she got her hair laid, and didn't just put it in a bun.— Bärí A. Williams (@BariAWilliams) January 20, 2021
(Pro-Tip: If a Black woman - who normally gets her hair done - doesn't bother to get her hair done for your event, she doesn't care.)
Who is Yene Damtew?
But who did Michelle's hair on this important occasion? Once "Laid" started trending on Twitter, the artist behind Obama's hairstyle decided to take a virtual bow and acknowledge the applause. It was none other than Arlington, Virginia based hairstylist Yene Damtew, who has been Michelle's main stylist for a while now. She said in her tweet: "Thank you all for the love this morning. It's an honor to be on Mrs. Obama's team. #HairByYeneDamtew". She also tweeted about her "business coaching for stylists" was going to restart.
Yene has worked on many fabulous manes from Michelle to Hollywood's Hugh Jackman, Tracee Ellis Ross, K. Michelle and more. She also runs Aesthetics Salon, a boutique-style salon, in South Arlington Ridge along with three others
Thank you for the kind words about Mrs. O's hair today. I am SO grateful! Many of you are also asking when my business coaching for hairstylists is starting back up. It's opening soon! Sign up here to learn more: https://t.co/zxXdQqvSEA— Yene Damtew (@yenedamtew) January 20, 2021
In one interview, she described her journey to becoming Michelle's primary stylist. "I grew up in Orange County (California) in a predominantly white neighborhood. I went to a school where they didn’t teach us ‘black’ hair, so I got pigeonholed and put into a box.... There’s the whole race component of it, but then there’s hair, which has such a divide. Hair should be associated with texture and not race. Women of all different ethnic backgrounds and shades have different textures to their hair," she said, touching on how Black girls and women grow up associating their coiled hair with traumatic memories of harsh criticism rather than happy ones of being complimented.
“When I came in to work with Mrs. Obama, I started working as an assistant [to Johnny Wright], and then I became her main stylist. The trajectory of my career, its development, and the role started with the confidence being in me. There wasn’t the validation of her directly saying ‘You’re worthy and you’re good,’ but what she stands for. The more and more I’m around people who spread positivity and encourage people who look like me, it makes you feel stronger and empowered. Working with her didn’t give me the foresight of what I wanted to do in this industry—I knew that before working with her. I already wanted to make an impact with my career, in this industry particularly," she said of why she works so well with the former first lady.
At first, she worked with first daughters Malia and Sasha before starting to color Michelle's hair. She has described the experience of having Michelle as her client as "humbling" because it allowed her to be "part of moments in history that will never come again".
“Michelle Obama is such a champion of creating your own table if [it] doesn’t exist. So that’s what I did. I didn’t need to sit down and have a pep talk with her, but what she speaks about and me being around her story, watching it, and knowing it...listening to the messages she puts out there, how could I be someone in her world who isn’t practicing that? I must use my platform within my world to be the change I want to see. Instead of just complaining about it, I wanted to be about it,” she added about Michelle who she refers to as a "mentor" in an Instagram post about her appearing in Obama's podcast.
Other personalities who are known for their expertise on Black fashion complimented Damtew by name, applauding her artistry. For instance, Shelby Ivey Christie, the American fashion historian, who specializes in the contributions of Black designers, tweeted: "Laid is trending lol — Shoutout to FLOTUS Obama’s hairstylist Yene Damtew #Inauguration2021". 'Pose' choreographer Twiggy Pucci Garçon also tweeted, saying: "Can we give @yenedamtew alllllllll her roses for how she #[email protected]’s hair!? Like!!!"
Laid is trending lol — Shoutout to FLOTUS Obama’s hairstylist Yene Damtew #Inauguration2021— Shelby Ivey Christie (@bronze_bombSHEL) January 20, 2021
But while Damtew styled Michelle's hair to the extreme so that it would behave on this important event, she has also helped the former first lady flaunt her natural hair texture in more informal moments. Speaking about it, she said: “There wasn’t a conversation in which we discussed ‘You’re going to start wearing your hair natural.’ Her hair is natural. When we see her on vacation, anyone who has textured hair knows when you hit the water, your natural texture will come out. So there’s a photograph of her leaving the beach—her hair was wet. There was no thought, nor intent. I think a lot of people were shocked."
Damtew also spoke about Michelle's Essence cover image where she wore her hair natural. "It was just a ‘this is me’ moment. She’s done a little bit of everything—she’s worn wigs, she’s worn weaves, she’s worn her hair natural, she’s worn her hair straight, she’s colored it, she’s worn it short, she’s worn bangs. I think most people don’t know how often black women change our hair... It’s just what we do, and it’s a part of who we are. It’s a part of our identity, and you saw that with her with all the times she changed her hair.” Inauguration Day 2021 will be one more to add to Michelle's iconic hair looks over the years.