Michael Christopher Hemphill opened his new salon in an abandoned garage in Greenville that was deemed “unrentable.”//Photo by Leslie Barbaro
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.”