There’s a well-known image of Callista Gingrich in which she and her Newt are at a fancy event and she looks very much like she has a case of the crazies. You know the one? Head tilted, eyes bugging, forced smile. But what seals the deal, of course, is the hair. Platinum blond. Razor sharp on the edges, and molded into a shapely helmet on top. Who has that hair in 2011? What does it feel like to wear your hair that way? And what does it take to get it?
Having just undergone a Washington, D.C., salon’s best attempt to Callistify me, I now know that hair like that doesn’t come easily—in fact, it suggests a certain strength of character on Callista’s part that she’s able to do that to herself every single day. And I’m much less inclined, now, to judge her for looking a little off-kilter. The fumes from that many products mingled together and swirling around her head must be dizzying.
How did I wind up in the Okyo Salon in Georgetown, showing a photo of Callista Gingrich to Pejman, my stylist for the day? Let’s just say that I’ve learned my lesson about sending jokey responses to speculative email threads at Slate. As I sat in the chair, I thought about what having Callista’s hair might mean for me.
I am no stranger to the bob. In fact I’ve sported one of various lengths most of my adult life. And blond is normal for me as well. But mine is more of a buttery blond— I have never been platinum. I have dark eyebrows. And I’m more of a wash-and-go type of girl. I’ve never had sculpted hair—well, OK, maybe that one time in the ‘80s, but I have since learned that when the wind blows, so should your hair. Hers, I think, does not. What a huge commitment, to be perfectly coiffed at all times. Imagine the fear she must have of a fire in the night, or simply sitting near an open car window.
Like many tony D.C. salons, Okyo sports its fair share of powerful clients, including Nancy Pelosi. (Callista gets her hair done at Andre Chreky on K Street.) But as Pejman eyed my hair and my 8-by-10 Callista glossy, he seemed dubious about giving me the full power-hair treatment. My hair is much thicker, much darker and much healthier than hers, he said, but he’d do his best to make the transformation—on his terms. Going from a dark, yellow blond to platinum is usually done over the course of two or three visits, he said. A gradual coloring is less shocking to the eye and also less damaging to the hair. Since we didn’t have two or three visits, he wanted to take a few extra steps to protect my hair. And for that I was grateful. Going platinum was one thing, but going platinum and fried? No, thank you.
The color alone took three hours to achieve. Three hours of bleach and gloss and glaze and goop and my head being knocked about left and right. The gloss (or maybe it was the glaze?) burned my scalp; when I mentioned this, Pejman looked right at me and said, “Beauty tingles.”
Then it was time for the cut. As Pejman started to snip and razor and thin, hair fell onto my black salon cape. White hair. As white as snow, it seemed. I gasped. What had I done?
But when the seat swiveled back toward the mirror I was dumbfounded. My hair didn’t look crazy at all. It actually looked, well, good.
The most difficult part was yet to come, however. I braced for the rest of the transformation, where Pejman would tease and curl and spray and shellac and turn me into the most recent Mrs. Gingrich. But it didn’t happen. Pejman steadfastly refused. He reminded me that he said he’d do it on his own terms—and his eyes told me there was no way in hell he was going to let me leave his salon looking that way.
I stepped onto M Street and I felt my knees buckle just a little. I’m not sure if it was nerves, or the fumes from my new hairdo—the glazes and glosses have a distinct smell, a bouquet of oils and perfumes that could be nice in small doses but were rather intoxicating in the volumes we used—but I needed a moment to steady myself before I began my walk. In all my 40 years, I have never been more aware of my appearance—not even when I was 36 weeks pregnant with twins. To cope, I pretended to be hugely famous. As I walked, I braced for the looks and whispers.
Nobody even noticed. I’d spent four hours in a chair, having my hair magnificently bleached, scorched, chemically altered, and cut, and I’d come out with a cute, modern, edgy bob. If Callista could step away from the hairspray, her hair could be soft, smart, cute and young—according to Pejman, a very flattering cut for her features. Why does she do it? To conform to some ideal of the “Washington wife”?
To look older, bridging the age gap between her and Newt? (She’s 45; he’s 68.)
Whatever her reason, a haircut that could be modish and progressive transforms, on her head, into a symbol of stand-by-your-man devotion. She never changes that hairdo of hers. Another salon customer, overhearing our conversation, confided that she’s a neighbor of the Gingriches and that Callista’s hair looks perfectly done all the time. All. The. Time. Can you imagine? It’s like she’s a prisoner in her own hair.
In the end, I think that my attempt at Callistification has made me admire Callista Gingrich and her awful, but extraordinary, hairdo. It took a huge leap of courage (and hectoring from my editors) for me to get this platinum bob, which, all things considered, isn’t that extreme. But out of loyalty or passion or shared (blond) ambition, Callista does all this and more to herself every day. Now that I understand what’s behind that helmet, I have a little more respect for the woman who wears it.