Press play to listen to this article
LONDON — English hairdressers open Monday for the first time in months, but don’t expect to see Boris Johnson reining in his unruly thatch.
Politicians, TV reporters and coronavirus experts alike have grown steadily more hirsute as the U.K.’s second-wave lockdown has dragged on. But with the end in sight for many (provided they can get a barber’s appointment) it is a sure bet the prime minister won’t give up his trademark mop for a short back and sides.
Despite attempts by fiancée Carrie Symonds to tame Johnson’s rowdy hairstyle during lockdown, the prime minister admitted that months of coronavirus restrictions have left him in need of a professional. “I do badly need a haircut,” he said last month.
But the tufted mess that has become the prime minister’s political brand is unlikely to go entirely. Margaret Thatcher had her handbag, Churchill had his cigar and Harold Wilson had his pipe. For Johnson, the luminous white-blond barnet is a window into how he wants to be viewed at home and abroad, as well as the visual tell that belies his ruthless political ambition.
Johnson has sported a mussed-up mane for decades as a political trademark. “He’s a barber’s nightmare,” a Johnson ally said. “Because the second he gets out the chair he sticks his hands through it and ruffles it all up. So however the barber tries to style it, it will look like a mop.”
Rachel Gibson, a hair historian and former writer at Hairdresser’s Journal, said most people would be unable to “look like that” and still be taken seriously. “In most jobs, you couldn’t present yourself as so disheveled and still be considered an authority figure,” she explained. Most politicians see the clean-cut look as crucial to securing the trust of the electorate and the office of prime minister. But Johnson has built a reputation as a winner despite — or even as a result of — bucking the political norms.
The development of Johnson’s wild look went hand in hand with his rise as a prominent public figure. Sonia Purnell, his biographer, said his hair was pretty much the “only neat thing about him” when the pair worked together at the Telegraph, back when the future premier was in his 30s writing poison-pen stories about the European Union from Brussels. “I think he went to some lengths to make himself and his car and everything quite scruffy. But his hair certainly wasn’t,” she said.
But as Johnson got closer to power, his hair fell in with the rest. “The further up the greasy political pole he climbed, the messier his hair got to be,” she explained.
The hair fast became part of the Johnson brand as he became a household name via appearances on British entertainment TV shows Have I Got News for You and Top Gear — with the future PM actively messing it up before the cameras started to roll. Pin badges for his London mayoral reelection campaign showed a silhouette of his head with a jagged halo of hair.
Voters lapped it up, seeing him as fun and independent of the Conservative elite, despite his expensive private-school upbringing and solid Tory family heritage (his father Stanley was a Tory MEP). “He is the most ruthlessly ambitious person I’ve ever met,” Purnell said. “But in Britain it doesn’t go down that well to be so overtly ambitious.” She said the hair “disarmed people” into thinking he was a bit of fun and distracted from his ambition, like a “decoy” or “camouflage.”
Johnson himself is not ashamed of using the hair as a distraction tactic — however implausible. In a 2014 interview with the Guardian, he refused to disclose his hair care regime, insisting he had no idea even what shampoo he used. “I’m now so short-sighted, I’m blind!” he exclaimed, quipping that he might have used acne cream or toothpaste in his locks that morning. “I honestly couldn’t see, but I put it on and it seemed to work.”
The signal goes deeper than mere distraction though, according to English-Canadian anthropologist Robert Hallpike. Long or disheveled hair symbolizes a shunning of social control, he argues — pointing out that the shaved heads of monks, soldiers and convicts show their submission to rigid discipline, whereas the longer mops of intellectuals and rebels are on the opposite end of the spectrum. “Long hair is therefore frequently a symbol of being in some way outside society, of having less to do with it, or of being less amenable to social control than the average citizen,” he wrote — in comments Johnson might relish.
Hallpike said Johnson’s hair was “against the conventions, but gives an impression of honesty and authenticity.” But he noted that the prime minister was in a privileged position when it came to flouting the norms, because “as a member of the hereditary elite, he is following the tradition of the eccentric aristocrat, who is sufficiently assured of his social position to flout convention.”
In other words, Johnson is too posh to fail.
Gibson, the hair historian, said that in Britain, upper class white men are held to different standards than others. “The mark of an actual posh person is that we accept it almost doesn’t matter that they look like that, because we [assume] they are better than us,” she explained. She noted that the English “love an eccentric character” for their unique nature and refusal to stick to the rules.
Most people POLITICO spoke to for this article agreed Johnson’s hair was a cynical branding exercise, but some take it in good faith. “For better or worse, Boris seems to regard the grooming typical of most politicians as vain, obsessive and ultimately trivial,” said Guto Harri, a former aide to Johnson while he was mayor of London. “He’s always been more interested in how intelligent, thoughtful and well read you are.”
The ally quoted above said Johnson’s constant running of his fingers through his hair, increasing the chaos up top, was a natural reflex. “Clearly it’s a sort of twitch or habit he’s got when he’s thinking hard,” the person said. “And when you’re prime minister you spend quite a lot of time thinking.”
Certainly, no one should underestimate Johnson because of his scruffy appearance, said one Cabinet minister. “This is someone who has won an 80-seat majority; two terms in London as mayor; the Brexit debate. You can’t ignore those achievements on the basis of a haircut.”
Now that Johnson is in Downing Street, the floopy hair schtick may be starting to wear thin with voters though. James Johnson, a former Downing Street pollster, said that back in 2019, his hair gave focus groups the impression the prime minister was fun and authentic. But as the PM settled into the job, more criticism has emerged. “A few people have said he should ‘brush his hair if he’s representing our country’ and that he can look messy on the world stage,” said the pollster, who now runs his own research firm. “There is something in that shift which shows how the brand strengths people liked in 2019 have perhaps become less persuasive in 2021 during a pandemic.”
That concern about the world stage could be valid. Purnell, who spoke to French officials for a recent project, said those in Paris “look with horror at the way [Johnson] looks.”
The former Foreign Minister Alan Duncan, in explosive diary extracts released earlier this month, said Johnson was concerned while foreign secretary at reports describing him as an “international joke.” When he asked Duncan to explain the reports, his colleague simply responded: “Just look in the f***ing mirror!” Duncan’s own judgement was that the prime minister was an “international stain on our reputation” — though his critique went beyond looks.
A former U.K. ambassador, who served while Johnson was foreign secretary, said diplomats had other concerns. “I imagine the bigger worry is he will say something outlandish rather than his dishevelled appearance,” the person said. “Or that he will turn up having not read any of the papers!”
The Cabinet minister quoted above said foreign leaders would see past the disheveled appearance. “How many other world leaders have the breadth of classical knowledge and learning and academic references and reach that the prime minister has?” the person said.
The Johnson look
So is it natural or artifice? “The Johnson hairstyle is, I fear, impossible to imitate, as it is a product of random and competing forces of nature,” Johnson said in 2008. The then-mayor of London had been voted as having the best celebrity hair as part of a publicity stunt by a firm producing hair products.
Others are less sure how “random” the messed-up look really is. Ronda Lewis, a mobile hairdresser of 25-years experience based in Uxbridge (the prime minister’s constituency) said his hair is too thick and fine to hold in a messed-up state, and would be flat to his head without some human intervention. “I think he puts a product in it and then blasts it with a hairdryer,” she said. “I’ve studied his hair a lot, as probably many people have … I can’t say that people are actually a fan.”
But other professionals disagree. Jo Andersson, who cuts hair at Jools’ in Brighton, said Johnson might not need a product to maintain his unkempt look. She said she thinks the prime minister dyes his hair, the damage from which, alongside the normal thinning and ageing process would make it rougher and allow it to remain chaotic without a product. Johnson denied dying his hair during the 2019 Conservative leadership contest, after first suggesting he did.
There is also the question of whether Johnson is balding — something pundits have taken a keen interest in over recent months and which the PM is said to deny furiously. Hairdressers are split. Andersson thought he was, arguing it “explains why he roughs his hair up, to disguise it.” But Lewis argued not. “I haven’t noticed any baldness. He’s got a good head of hair,” she said.
Purnell, Johnson’s biographer, said any hair loss could be existential. “I almost feel sorry for him because he knows that his hair is what makes him stand out in a crowd,” she said.
The question is whether Johnson might inspire others to adopt his bedraggled image. Some might begin to wonder whether personal grooming in the Zoom age is worth the effort — although of course, not everyone is too posh to fail. “There’s not just one idea of what professionalism looks like in terms of hair,” said Gibson. “But I don’t know if he’s the poster-boy for that. I think he’s just playing a character.”