The Reinvention of Michael Christopher—Again
More than 40 years after he launched his legendary salon—and begat dozens of local stylists along the way—the pioneer, visionary and creative force that is Michael Christopher Hemphill remains as fabulous as ever.
Michael Christopher Hemphill opened his new salon in an abandoned garage in Greenville that was deemed “unrentable.”//Photo by Leslie Barbaro
Every morning, Michael Hemphill skips the eggs and OJ and logs on to the Daily Word to feast on what he calls his spiritual breakfast. If it’s nice out, he’ll jump on his bike—“not wearing those shorts that ride up my ass,” he says. He’ll pedal. He’ll talk to God. He’ll muse. “I’ll say, ‘Send me a sign. Lead me down the path of where I need to be.’”
That question reveals much. Most would consider his high-profile career to be a darned obvious path.
Chatting in the new HQ of his legendary Michael Christopher Salon, now in Greenville, Hemphill, however, poses another question: How does a lamp get lit? “That’s easy—from the plug,” he answers. “But I’m not plugged into anything you can see. That’s faith.”
While Hemphill doesn’t rip off the Good Book, he’s famous within his circles for speaking in proverbs. The Book of Michael would weigh with equal sanctity statements such as “There are two important days in your life: The day you were born, and the day you know why,” and, “We’re all the fastest swimmers—you’re the sperm that hit the egg, girl!”
The bike-riding, God-talking, faith-forward side of Hemphill might not be what most people imagine when they think of Michael Christopher.
This is, after all, a guy who expertly matches a kiss of blue-green on the upturned cuff of a Burberry shirt to his eyes; who is internationally celebrated in the hair-styling world; and whose name probably graces the side of a styling product you might find in half the vanities in the state—and that’s just Delaware. QVC sales of his products extend coast to coast.
“I can look at something and see more,” Hemphill says.
Like the space he stands in.
In 2017, the salon left its former digs along Pennsylvania Avenue, where it stood for almost four decades, for the Montchanin Corporate Center in Greenville. The commercial property boasts perfectly reasonable retail space. But Hemphill, who calls himself the master of “future pacing”—a practice at the crux of his business—saw more.
“When I toured this place with Pettinaro, I saw this big gray box that said ‘unrentable.’ I said, ‘Show me that.’” The rep told Hemphill it was a dead zone, a dirty truck depot. Hemphill was undaunted. He took one look at the four-bay garage and said, “I’ll take it.”
Famous for reinvention, it didn’t take long for Hemphill to turn the abandoned garage into a sanctuary.
Bold and interesting art and sculpture in gilded vintage golds enliven the walls and complement the wood flooring. The warm tones collide unexpectedly with the cool hues of exposed pipes and beams, stainless steel touches and utilitarian-chic vibes. Natural light drenches the place. Decadent furniture in the reception area offers clients a place to sit and sip something from the beer and wine case. Or clients can hang on the front terrace, nudge their toes into spongy Astroturf and nurse a frap. A private shampoo cavern jams tranquil playlists. The open-look color-mixing space lets clients play voyeur as Hemphill’s masters whip up potions. And the beautifully lit makeup bar is a dream realized for the palette-besotted.
A master of detail, there is but one particular out of place: Cozied up next to lovely bottles of wine in the self-serve case is row upon row of Coors Light cans, and not for irony’s sake. “Oh, God,” he says. “I’m gay. What do I know about beer?”
Hemphill, the future pacer, paces in the present—in $450 martini-embossed Stubbs & Wootton velvet slippers. “The Wi-Fi is down,” he says, thumbing a device now rendered practically useless. “That means no Internet, no music. The phones are down, too. When they come back, we’re going to be flooded.”
It’s an interesting moment for two reasons: The satire at the loss of ’net in the salon of the man who, over a decade ago, in a pre-smartphone world, pioneered the implementation of computer stations at every stylist’s chair so clients could surf the web while getting a partial foil. And the notion that almost 45 years after he started his salon, the 65-year-old Hemphill still books like crazy.
“I see about 20 clients a day,” he says. “My last client drove from Connecticut. I have clients from an 8-year-old to a 98-year-old. Everyone loves the new space, and they keep coming back.”
That’s what happens when you constantly give them something to come back for.
At age 65, Hemphill still sees 20 clients a day—from an 8-year-old to a 98-year-old—at his new salon in Greenville.//Photo by Leslie Barbaro
At 14, Hemphill had a doozy of a plan: Be a stylist, own a business, travel the world. “Thank God I didn’t know about marijuana yet,” he says.
Growing up in the salon biz—his father owned two salons in Kennett Square and his mom worked the desk—Hemphill opened his salon in 1975, in a brownstone on Delaware Avenue that was the antithesis of what he considered a beauty salon: “Smocks, hair all spun up, smoking a cig,” he says. His concept: the boutique salon. “It was sublime, very New York.”
The salon headed to bigger space on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1980 and enjoyed growth attributed to the host city.
“The banking industry was taking off, and women were beginning to go to work in more numbers,” Hemphill says. Add to the mix that there wasn’t another game in town offering edgy, contemporary looks—and from an openly gay stylist.
“He was one of the first gay men on the scene,” says Ann Tasker, owner of Salon Pasca, who worked with Hemphill for 30 years. “He was so proud of it. I remember when the Hotel du Pont asked him to host a cancer auction. It was a big deal. And fabulous—the best one they ever had.”
Tasker, who met Hemphill when she was still wearing braces, became his No. 1. She often had to talk him out of crazy ideas, like the time he wanted to descend from the rafters in a spaceship at a hair competition. “He never wanted to do the same old thing,” she says. “That was death.”
“I’m the guy who’d rather say I wish I hadn’t than I wish I had,” Hemphill says. “But, God, did I overdo things. But sometimes it’s not done until its overdone. When we moved to Pennsylvania Avenue, that’s when we really went off the deep end.”
He describes an early iteration of the salon as “spaceship meets Studio 54.”
“So much neon and stainless steel,” he says. “I had uniforms made, with these big padded shoulders, huge belts. We looked like the Starship Enterprise. I just kept stretching it into an explosion of grandness. We were the only salon doing what we were doing.”
Stylist Toni Toomey was starry-eyed at what she saw. “I was just in awe of the energy there,” Toomey says. “I loved watching Michael create. It was never boring and always, always ahead of the pack. He showed me that even though we live in a small town, we should think big.”
Hemphill out-thinks the pack by future pacing, the term he uses to define his ability to see future trends in business. “I didn’t see the wear-your-pants-below-your-ass thing coming,” he says.
Things he did see coming: the need for a fine-mist mechanism on hair products. At the time, he was consulting for a Japanese company on a product. “The formula we were working on was fabulous,” he says. “But the delivery system was terrible.” He was right. Now that mechanism is all you’ll find.
He also beat YouTube beauty-bloggers to the punch. Before the video-hosting site was but a Silicon Valley dream, QVC was selling out of Hemphill’s “How-To Blow Dry” VHS series.
“I have to stay ahead,” he says. “The pendulum swings every 10 years. Were we being kaled to death 10 years ago?”
Things he did not see coming: watching the talent he cultivated walk out his doors in the 1990s. “One part is, ‘Damn it. They left me.’ And the other is, ‘I planted you like a seed. I grew you. Go grow elsewhere—but don’t you dare come pick from my garden. I will kill you.’”
“I felt bad when people started to leave, because it was the most amazing place,” Toomey says. “The stylists and the assistants were by far the best in the country. I say that with confidence.”
When George Ritzel, former owner of George Marcus Salon and longtime friend of Hemphill, realized it was his time to leave, he was a nervous wreck.
“I admired the man,” says Ritzel, who now lives in Spain. “I strived to be him. I wanted to do the right thing in telling him goodbye, and not be sneaky about it, giving him a choice to either let me go or let me stay until my opening date. When I approached him, he first thanked me for my honesty and congratulated me. Then he told the scheduling coordinators to please inform my clients of my new address. I’ll never forget that—or his famous quotes: ‘The wheel is round, water is wet and the sun is hot. What is it you don’t understand?’”
Years later, Hemphill insists it’s all good. But it stung. “I was the only pie in town,” he says. “And all of a sudden, there were all these new pieces of pie—and I baked them.”
Tasker says if it weren’t for Hemphill, Delaware’s salon industry wouldn’t be what it is. “I remember he got a small business award—and, my numbers could be off—but he had created some thousands of jobs in the state,” she says. “Everybody that has a big, upscale salon, at one point, worked for Michael. I think people fail to realize how big of a deal he is in the industry. International competition awards, he was on the Olympic team. He’s the top of the top.”
Says Ritzel, “We all need to admit that there is a little Michael in every salon that has spun off his.”
That pendulum swing was hard. But another was much harder.
At 40, Hemphill dangled his feet from the top of the world.
“I was at the pinnacle of my career, and I had my great love,” he says. “We were just sailing into the moon.’
But then his partner, Mark, tested positive for HIV.
“I didn’t know anything,” Hemphill says. “AIDS was relatively new. Was I infected? It was all still a mystery.”
Future pacing kicked in. He bought cemetery plots, took out a life insurance policy, got his business in order.
Hemphill was negative.
“The doctor said ‘nonreactive.’ They wanted to do a study on me. After that, I got into gear. Once you say ‘AIDS,’ people scatter. My story was, Mark has stomach cancer. Everyone bought it.”
Hemphill brought his test results into the salon. “This is sad. But I hung it in the lounge. If Mark was positive, then I’d be, too, and they could see I wasn’t,” he says. “I couldn’t juggle anything else, so I lied. I’ve never felt more horrible about something.”
Years later, Hemphill—now happily married—was on a trip with his staff. He stood in the middle of a bus and confessed.
“There were tears and applause,” he recalls. “His death still kills me. And it changed me, because here’s what I’ve always believed—we can spend 10 minutes today invested in this and get back 10 minutes tomorrow, but it doesn’t work like that. I started asking myself, ‘How important is that party?’ Time is the most precious thing we have.”
Tasker was on that bus. “It was really devastating, but we were all proud of him,” she says.
In 2006, he gutted the Pennsylvania Avenue location, put $300,000 into it and relaunched. Count to 10, and he’s in a once-forgotten truck depot, trading laughs with a client, wearing a cornflower waffle-knit henley, jeans and taupe flats.
A henley and jeans? At Michael Christopher’s?
“I remember when we hooked the fancy,” he says. “Everyone started dressing up to come. Why? It’s not like that. Unless you’re booking me, we’re on par with many salons.
“It’s like I have this persona,” he says. “I was in Pathmark in a hoodie and jeans, and a woman said, ‘Does anyone ever tell you you look like Michael Christopher?’” He said yes. Then she said, “But he’d never be caught dead in a Pathmark buying chicken.”
“I’m down to earth,” he says. “I can be all, ‘Ladies and gentlemennnnn’ in a second, but it’s not every day. Yes, I’m gay. I know the real meaning of fabulous. But you don’t need to come here in Gucci.”
Having launched his salon, consulting jobs, a remade salon, QVC products and another renovated salon, Hemphill is considering his next act. “I lay in my pool with a cocktail and think, What am I going to do next?” he says.
Right now, it’s putfeetunderyourprayers.com, a web-based matchmaking service where entrepreneurs can mingle with giving spirits and make business dreams come true.
“I think we’re here for someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to and something to leave behind,” Hemphill says. “Life is simple. We make it difficult. We need to find our mission, and I’m still looking. When you’re ripe you’re rotten, but when you’re green, you grow.”