The Upshot on Palin and Her Updo
THE customer has always been listed in the salon’s appointment book as “Sarah P.”
“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,” said Jessica J. Steele, the owner of the Beehive Beauty Shop in Wasilla, Alaska, where Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, has visited over the last six years, most recently in July, refining her much-discussed updo.
Hair, of course, is never just about the hair. Intentionally or not, hairstyles help answer the voters’ throw-down question: “Who does she think she is?”
Hillary Clinton struggled for years to achieve hair credibility. Now Ms. Palin’s upsweep is being praised and derided across the Internet. Do her bun and bangs signal that Ms. Palin does not want to attract attention to her appearance — even as she wants to remain presentably attractive?
Of course, a hairstyle may not tell you about her views on universal health care. But how Ms. Palin honed her image can be glimpsed at the Beehive, a tiny pink-collar haven in Wasilla, a mountain-rimmed community of less than 10,000.
According to Mrs. Steele and another Beehive employee, Ms. Palin has patronized the shop since at least 2002 (the McCain-Palin campaign did not reply to e-mail inquiries, but an assistant in the governor’s office in Juneau said that there was back and forth between the shop and the governor).
The ballerina-pink Beehive, in a 1,400-square-foot ranch house, is a cut-and-color shop. A haircut is $30, discounted to $20 if you get the $95 color treatment. In a downstairs nursery, the stylists’ babies play with mannequin heads. In a phone interview, Mrs. Steele, 37, described a kind of “Steel Magnolias” on permafrost, featuring Ms. Palin as a recurring presence.
Ms. Palin’s appointments were multitasking events, Mrs. Steele recounted. The governor would sit in full foil, checking her BlackBerry, writing speeches and chatting with customers as her daughter Piper played nearby.
“Brooke, my manager, is always telling hunting stories with Sarah,” Mrs. Steele said. “Brooke is a cute blond babe, but she wants to get a bigger grizzly than her husband got last year.” (For the record, Brooke Mongeau said her husband’s grizzly was nine and a half feet.)
As Mrs. Palin became a public figure, Mrs. Steele said, she gave more thought to her image.
“She’s very involved in her look and how she’s perceived,” Mrs. Steele said. “We would talk a lot about how if she looked too pretty or too sexy, people wouldn’t listen to her. How important it was for people to see her as an intelligent, smart woman. It was comical when her hair was down, how big a difference that would make, especially when she was running for governor.”
With more-established salons throughout the valley, the Beehive would seem a surprising choice for Wasilla’s then-mayor. Mrs. Steele started the salon in 1997 when she, a recently separated mother of two, put a salon chair in her garage and painted the interior Barbie pink.
Mrs. Steele relied on word of mouth through local congregations: “We’re all really strong Christians in this shop.”
Around 2000, the mayor called, needing rescue from a bad color job. Back then, Mrs. Steele recalled, Ms. Palin often wore her hair loose. “She’d just say, ‘Whatever is quick and easy, let’s just roll up our sleeves and get this going.’ ”
Eventually, Mrs. Steele suggested that Ms. Palin put up her hair because “Sarah wanted to look more professional and ready to work and not come across as high maintenance and fussy.”
The updo had another benefit. “Sarah’s short,” Mrs. Steele said, and wanted to look taller in front of cameras.
When Mrs. Steele heard that Ms. Palin was running for governor, Mrs. Steele called her: “Let’s get you all picked up for campaigning!”
The two experimented with full bangs, side-swept bangs, clips, curls, twists and blond streaks. “We just kept polishing her look,” Mrs. Steele said. “We would try more warm, red and coppery highlights or more of a contrast with pale highlights, not to be severe but just more striking.”
Over the years, Mrs. Steele said, their lives have intertwined. Ms. Palin attended Mrs. Steele’s bridal shower; this spring, the five “Beehive Beauty Shop girls” were invited to a baby shower for Ms. Palin’s son. Hairdresser and client belong to Wasilla Bible Church.
During Palin appointments, Mrs. Steele, divorced and financially stressed, confided in her client. “Sarah was always saying that God was in control and to have faith that there is a reason for everything,” Mrs. Steele said. “We would say it together.”
Mrs. Steele became engaged. In June 2006, Ms. Palin attended her bridal shower, presenting her with a bright red coffeepot.
“When she became governor,” Mrs. Steele said, “she still came to my small salon in my small town to get her hair done, instead of Anchorage, the big city” — an hour’s drive away. Mrs. Steele gave birth to her third child and began bringing the baby to the Beehive. When Ms. Palin asked how she was doing, Mrs. Steele burst into tears, overwhelmed by competing needs.
“Sarah said: ‘If you love what you do, if you were a stay-at-home mom, a part of you would miss what you love. And if you were at work, you’d miss your kids,’ ” she recalled. Ms. Palin told her “not to make excuses for why I am not a stay-at-home mom or have my kids at the shop.”
When Mrs. Steele expressed frustration with her industry, Ms. Palin told her to stop complaining and “run for something!” (She didn’t.)
Mrs. Steele’s fourth pregnancy overlapped with Mrs. Palin’s fifth. “She kept it quiet,” Mrs. Steele said. “But I remember her hair was acting different. And I thought, ‘Something is going on!’ ”
For the May baby shower for Trig Palin, the Beehive women filled a basket overflowing with homemade gifts: baby blankets, including one sewn from material with salmon and moose designs, and a breast-feeding blanket. In camouflage.
RIGHT before the Labor Day weekend, Ms. Palin’s office left a message, but Mrs. Steele’s attempts to return it were in vain. Days later, she learned why Ms. Palin had been so hard to reach.
Since then, she has observed Ms. Palin’s hair evolution. She approves: “Me and the girls at the salon were saying we’ll probably not see her anymore because she is on a whole different level. And she’ll make a huge difference. But a part of us is like: ‘Ohhhh, we’ll miss her. We won’t have our woman pep rally in the salon.’ ”