What, if anything, does it mean that Melania Trump is now blonde? As ever, social media has offered a range of snarky readings: Melania and Donald are now using the same hair dye. Melania is trying to look like Ivanka. Melania bleached her hair to blend in better with Fox News women, in advance of her Sean Hannity interview on Wednesday — and the meanest and most fanciful: Melania is growing Donald a new toupee.
We could ignore Melania’s blondification—it’s “just hair” after all, as her defenders will insist. Women all over the country change their hair as they please. But because Melania’s primary mode of communication is her appearance—grooming, dress, and make-up, her decisions cannot go without scrutiny. She is a creature of virtually pure surface and adornment, so it is legitimate to wonder about her latest metamorphosis.
Within the context of her FLOTUS role, a hair color change like this has greater significance than would mere alterations to wardrobe or make-up. First Ladies have traditionally maintained the open fiction that their hair color is, if not “natural,” at least stable and hence, natural-ish. It is very unusual for a First Lady, or a woman politician for example, to make this drastic a change to her hair — it risks suggesting instability or excess vanity. Imagine if Nancy Pelosi turned up a redhead tomorrow. Or if Amy Klobuchar got extensions. They simply can’t. Because within the performance codes of Washington politics, cosmetic alterations or enhancements — surgical, tonsorial, or otherwise — must come in subtle increments and with visible deniability.
Melania is different. She disappears for weeks and gives no explanation. She eschews the unglamorous D.C. look and the usual FLOTUS vibe — maternal, wifely, empathetic — to which even the independent-minded Michelle Obama hewed (remember, she called herself “Mom-in-Chief”).
Melania never abandoned her Upper East Side glam look of stilettos, photo-shoot makeup, and aloof gaze. But within that gestalt, even she had always, until now, evinced a certain consistency. We could count on Melania’s flowing mane of ombré’d brunette, parted in the middle and spray-frozen into slightly parted curtains around her face. And then, there she was on Hannity: a flaxen blond with a side part, speaking about the “opportunists” (‘journalists and book writers’) who focus on “gossip” instead of her “substance,” which she defined as “supporting the troops,” and “doing what is right.”
In other words, while insisting that we ignore frivolities in favor of actions, Melania spoke in airy platitudes while demonstrating only one real “action” which was … altering her hair color. She said one thing and performed its opposite. Not unlike her famous episode of making a great show of caring (for imprisoned migrant children) while wearing an “I don’t care” jacket.
This is vintage Melania. She is a tableau of disjointed meaning. A picture out of sync with its caption, like the walking embodiment of Magritte’s famous Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“This is not a pipe”) painting … of a pipe.
This Hannity interview comes on the heels of the most dramatic progress to date in the Mueller investigations — Michael Cohen’s prison sentence, the publisher of the National Enquirer’s immunity deal with the prosecutors, as well as an increasingly desperate search to fill the open role of chief of staff. As MSNBC keeps saying, “The walls are closing in” on this administration. If this is true, then it should not surprise us that after two years of steady brunette, FLOTUS takes flight with golden tresses. She has always been a weirdly apt barometer of this administration’s disjunction between onstage pronouncements and offstage actions. With this dramatic hair-color shift, Melania may be reflecting the latest deepening of this rift between appearance and reality.