Despite growing up in an environment full of doubts and skepticism, celebrity stylist, Yene Damtew, was quite adamant she could reach higher heights in her career if she stayed focused and worked hard to achieve the kind of success she visualized. However, working for a first family was far from what she had envisioned.
What began with the fixation and styling of her dolls’ hair during her childhood, subsequently translated into the awe-inspiring curls on former first lady, Michelle Obama’s head, many years later. As a little girl, Yene was fascinated with how her mum’s hair turned out every Sunday after her hot rollers came off her hair, and how it was styled afterward. By sixth grade, young Yene had begun styling her own hair to explore her potential.
When she turned 16, she took a leap of faith toward materializing her passion and enrolled in Cerritos Cosmetology School in L.A. County. There, she met Johnny Wright, former hairstylist of the Obamas, according to Northern Virginia Magazine. Her relationship with the Obamas began when Johnny was called to style the hair of the former first lady.
Yene’s role was to style the hair of the former first daughters, Malia and Sasha Obama, as well as the hair of Marian Robinson, Michelle’s mom, according to Tadias; however, she was occasionally required to fix the former first lady’s hair.
Her affiliation with the Obamas did not end after the former president left office; Michelle asked Yene to officially work for her as her full-time hair stylist, according to Vogue. For Yene it was an opportunity to live her dreams and nothing else.
Soon, she got the world buzzing about Michelle Obama’s curly hair during the inauguration of President Joe Biden in 2021. Social media went into a frenzy, with many wondering who was behind the style and what efforts went into the stunning curls. Yene picked the inspiration from Obama’s wardrobe stylist, Meredith Koop, who had suggested what she would wear to the ceremony.
With the meticulous use of a one-inch barrel, she made each big curl of hair on the former first lady make a bold statement. However, that is not the only hairstyle Yene is proud to have styled for the former first lady. She styled her hair for the cover of her Becoming autobiography and the 2018 covers of both Elle and Essence magazines.
Although she gained major recognition for these hairstyles, Yene’s best out of the lot is the natural curls she styled for the first lady. It was not about the appealing effect, but the symbolism of Michelle Obama wearing natural curls for the first time. Millions of black women of color have been discriminated against, intimidated, and ostracized because of their hair over the years.
Even in settings that recognize the laws protecting minorities, black women still face hair bias. One-fifth of black women say they have been sent home from work because of their hair. It is perceived as unprofessional for black women to wear their hair in a natural hairstyle, according to the Harvard Business Review. This singular act by Michelle Obama has emboldened women of color like Yene to be confident in whatever way they so desire to wear their hair.