By Frederick H. Lowe

Joel Mallet charges $90 to $120 to style his clients’ hair. Even his regulars have to make their appointments weeks in advance. But when Hillary Clinton comes to town, it’s a different story.

Mallet’s done her hair since 1997. He’s just one part of the network that cuts, shapes, curls, and blow-dries Hillary’s hair when she spends time away from Washington.

In his office at the Tiffany Kim Institute, a beauty salon on Superior, Mallet sits behind a desk where he occasionally fields phone calls. When taking an appointment from Clinton’s secretary, he says, he can never be sure of the exact day or time. “The secretary asks me if I’ll be in Chicago between this date and that date. When I say yes, she asks me for my cellular, home, and business telephone numbers.”

The first lady doesn’t drop by the salon. Instead, Mallet’s instructed by the U.S. Secret Service to wait in the hotel lobby where she’s staying, usually the Hilton and Towers or the Ritz-Carlton. Then he’s escorted upstairs. Before he gets to her suite, however, agents search him and make him open his bag. They carefully inspect the hair dryer, curling iron, and other tools of his trade. They also check his ID before he’s allowed into Clinton’s room.

The tight security didn’t prepare him for his initial meeting. The first lady shook his hand warmly and said, “Hi, I’m Hillary Clinton.” Mallet says he was barely able to mutter “Yeah, I know who you are.”

They usually have an hour alone, but she never lets the talk get too personal. “Mostly she makes fun of my French accent,” says Mallet, the 30-year-old son of a grocer in Lyons, France. He emigrated to New York in 1995 to start a salon for the Paris-based chain Jacques Dessange. He moved to Chicago two years later. Another French stylist, an LA hairdresser named Christoff, advised Mallet on how to best handle Hillary. “Christoff told me to do what she thinks she would like.” Wearing his usual working uniform of a black turtleneck, black pants, and black motorcycle boots, he combs his fingers through his blond hair and offers perhaps his most important assessment: “She has very good hair. It’s very thick and strong.”

Mallet hooked up with Clinton through a recommendation from another client, Bill Kurtis. In 1997 Kurtis was planning to shoot an A & E documentary about the first lady on her 50th birthday, and he suggested Clinton get her hair done by Mallet. So in March of that year the Secret Service began checking into Mallet’s background. Seven months later he finally met Clinton in her suite at the Ritz-Carlton, just before she celebrated her birthday with a party in late October. Meeting the first lady was exciting, but his first time styling her hair resembled an intrigue straight out of a spy movie. When her secretary realized Clinton was running late for a taping of Oprah, Secret Service agents surrounded them within seconds, and Hillary was escorted out of the room, down an elevator, and into a waiting limousine. Mallet suddenly discovered he’d been left alone. He walked down the hall to an elevator, but the Secret Service agents who’d stayed behind demanded to know why he was there. They asked a lot of questions, and after some fast explaining Mallet was allowed to call Clinton’s secretary, who told him to hurry up and catch a cab to Winfrey’s studio to finish the job.

He says he was pleased when clients called to say Hillary’s hair looked “great” on TV. And he’s already been put on alert for a return trip here next week–Clinton will give a speech on October 27, and Mallet will drop everything if she stays overnight for another birthday celebration. Does he expect a big tip for all his trouble?

“She’s never paid me,” Mallet says. “It’s not supposed to happen that way.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.