For nearly 20 years, Zariff, who wouldn’t reveal his last name and said age “didn’t matter” (he’s right), has been President Barack Obama’s trusted barber.
But the Chicago native didn’t start out wanting to become a barber; he dreamed of being a hairstylist. After graduating from cosmetology school, he applied for a position at Hyde Park Hair Salon, not realizing it was actually a barbershop. Still, he was hired and has had the same job at the shop, where everyone from Muhammad Ali to Spike Lee have stopped by for a cut, ever since.
Now, he’s served as the First Barber of the United States, or FBOTUS, for the past eight years, flying back and forth from Chicago to Washington and even coined the term “The Obama Cut” at Hyde Park Salon.
In the final days of Obama’s presidency, Complex spoke with Zariff about his barbering techniques, advice he’s given to the President, and his plans after the Obama family leaves the White House.
How did you start cutting Barack Obama’s hair?
There was another gentleman cutting his hair, named Wahlee. Barack came in one day and he said, “Where is Wahlee?” I said, “He relocated down the street.” It was probably about half a block away, but Barack was very loyal to the shop. He said, “What you doing?” And I said, “Well, I’m cutting you hair, I guess. I’m not busy.” So I started cutting his hair.
What makes this experience so surreal for you?
A long time ago, my school went on a class trip to D.C. At the time, my parents couldn’t afford for me to go and I didn’t feel too good about that because I really wanted to go. I didn’t know that down the line I would actually be making that trip on a very regular basis and cutting the future President’s hair. I say that to say you never know your path. You just have to live life, do right and stay prepared for anything.
How would you describe Obama’s demeanor in the shop? Did he participate in shop talk?
He would definitely participate in all the debates when he was there. He’d get on your case too. He’d talk about you. He definitely had a lot of competition in there too as far as a lot of the debates. He was very intelligent, but he didn’t really throw it at you. He would lay back in the cut with it and listen to everybody else.
Does Barack Obama wear a durag?
[Laughs]. No, not at all. He isn’t really into vanity. He leaves his hair up to me. If he has any slight changes, it would probably [be] just not to make it as short this time or to have it look like he got it cut two or three days ago.
Is it true that you get to fly to the White House on a private jet to cut Obama’s hair? How often are you going?
That sounds really good, the private jet part. I would love that. I’m his only barber so I have to travel a lot to make that happen. I’d say on average every two to three weeks, it all depends.
What’s your favorite moment with him?
It’s a really simple one: When he used to bring his girls in the shop every now and then when they were very young. Of course, they were so little they’d sit in the chair and their feet wouldn’t even hit the floor. They would watch him get his haircut. I think it was Malia who asked him one day, “Dad, why do you get your hair cut all the time? It looks the same.” And he said, “That’s the point.” [Laughs]
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