Sixteen years ago, a young African-American man with aspirations of making this country a better place walked into a local barbershop for a haircut. He was looking for an older gentleman who had cut his hair before, only to find out that he had retired. Sitting in a chair reading the paper sat the barber who had just taken over for the old man at the Hyde Park Hair Salon. The man asked the barber, “Hey, you busy?” Those three words marked the start of what is now a sanctified relationship between President Barack Obama and Zariff, who is now officially known as “The First Barber.”
Still based in Chicago, Zariff continues to work at the salon servicing over 100 male and female clients. While he wasn’t able to talk about when he cuts President Obama’s hair or how often (yes, it’s a matter of national security), he did tell ESSENCE.com how his life has changed since his most famous client moved to Washington, D.C., why he has decided to launch a new hair care and skin line, and the exciting, yet surprising, changes he sees in what Black women are doing to their hair.
ESSENCE.COM: You are the inventor of something called “The Obama Cut.” What is it and how is it done?
ZARIFF: The Obama cut is a custom cut. It came about in 2004 when Mr. Obama came into the shop and said he was speaking at the Democratic National Convention that evening. So I had to make him look sharp. Before that he was wearing his hair longer and a little curlier. I took it down to a short cut, tapered on the sides, back and neck. I wanted it to look more natural.
ESSENCE.COM: What’s it like for you seeing him go from virtually unknown to having worldwide recognition and now joining him on that journey?
ZARIFF: I’ve always been pretty popular at what I do but never on this scale. I’m very proud to be the First Barber. There’s a lot that goes with that because he’s seen by the entire world. It’s very important to keep his look consistent, but I haven’t really changed doing what I do for him. When I see him, the conversation is basically the same normal conversations that men have and it’s just developed into a trusting friendship. It’s really cool. Not too many people can say they’re friends with the President.
ESSENCE.COM: What would we all be surprised to know about Mr. Obama?
ZARIFF: Don’t ever take what he says lightly, because he definitely means what he says.
ESSENCE.COM: It seems he’s graying more and more these days. Is that something he’s concerned about?
ZARIFF: Not at all. It’s average for men in his age group. I don’t see a lot of the changes that other people see since I cut his hair regularly. He’s not really big on vanity so I don’t think he notices that much.
ESSENCE.COM: You’re about to launch a new hair care line. What makes your products different from what’s already on the market?
ZARIFF: The line will also include facial and grooming products for men. I’ve taken all my years of experience and incorporated them into these products. I know what works on people’s hair. I’ve worked with products for a long time and I think people will be satisfied with what I’m about to offer. I use a lot of natural products because 40 percent of my clientele are women who sport short natural styles. Everything will be phased out in different time frames but the first will be the hair care line next year. I’ve always recommended certain products to my clients anyway, so why not put something out there that’s from me.
ESSENCE.COM: When women come in the shop, what are they asking you to do?
ZARIFF: They want the shorter styles. It’s about lifestyle. Women want to work out and not have to worry about a whole bunch of hair. Neat, short cuts are very nice on a woman because then there’s nothing to hide. It’s always been a myth that men enjoy longer hair on women. I’m in the barber shop, so we talk about women from time to time and you would be surprised how many guys like shorter hair on their ladies. I think you’re really looking at the future with a lot more natural hairstyles.
ESSENCE.COM: Can people still come into Hyde Park Hair Salon and get a cut from you or are you super booked up and exclusive now?
ZARIFF: That’s what is special about this situation right now. Anybody can walk into the shop and I will cut their hair, but that’s not going to last for too much longer. And yes, I still charge $21.