When it comes to Michelle Obama's iconic looks, the former first lady puts her trust in stylist Meredith Koop, makeup artist Carl Ray and hairstylist Yene Damtew

By Jackie Fields
May 14, 2021 04:32 PM
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Ever since Barack Obama's run for president, Michelle Obama's style has captivated the nation. Whether in the White House or beyond, the former first lady's fashion, hair and makeup has ranged from timeless to trend-setting, but is ever impeccable. For her statement-making looks, Obama collaborates with her own power trio: stylist Meredith Koop, makeup artist Carl Ray and hairstylist Yene Damtew. "We've been called 'the trifecta,'" says makeup artist Ray of the team. Indeed, this group of three ensures the Waffles + Mochi star and executive producer (who just teamed with Partnership for a Healthier America to deliver 1 million healthy meal kits to families across the country) always arrives in style. Get to know them, below.

Michelle Obama glam squad; Stylist Meredith Koop.
Credit: Elena Mudd

Meet Stylist Meredith Koop

PEOPLE: What's your earliest memory of feeling inspired by fashion?

Koop: "I had a very specific and personal relationship with clothing as a kid. I insisted on picking out my own clothes and had special outfits that I cherished; one with a big fish, one with boats and another with a crocodile. My first memory of being exposed to fashion was through MTV's House of Style. I wasn't allowed to watch, but I snuck it in. It remains a constant source of inspiration for me."

PEOPLE: Where else do you find fashion inspiration now?

Koop: "Everywhere from the streets to the park to TikTok to Instagram."

PEOPLE: Take us back to the first time you met Mrs. Obama. What was it like?

Koop: "I was definitely nervous and also had very few expectations. It felt a little bit like a first date."

PEOPLE: So much of the styling you do with Mrs. Obama is crafted with great intention and rooted in advocacy. Why is that important to both of you?

Koop: "The intention that I work with is first and most importantly about respecting Mrs. Obama as a client and a friend. It's my job to do my best to reflect her values in her clothing while making sure she is comfortable, happy and confident in what she's wearing."

Michelle Obama glam squad; Stylist Meredith Koop.
Credit: Elena Mudd

PEOPLE: Mrs. Obama's post-White House looks have become some of her most viral – from the Balenciaga boots she wore on her Becoming book tour to the By Chari "Vote" necklace at the Democratic National Convention to the powerful impact of her Sergio Hudson inauguration look. Can you share what each of those style moments meant to both of you at the time?

Koop: "Working with Balenciaga and commissioning that look was a risk. I didn't know if she would go for it because it's not something everyone is going to get or like. It's bold, it's different and it's challenging. The fact that she rocked it was a reflection of her power, her confidence and her presence. It was part of her coming into her new chapter as Michelle Obama.

The 'VOTE' necklace was my attempt to reflect the spirit of the moment. During the election, I kept thinking, 'How can I find an item that is understated and wearable — something that every woman or person will want that won't be shouting while she's delivering her DNC speech on video?' I was familiar with Chari Cuthbert's work, reached out over DM, purchased the necklace and it was as simple as that. I was worried it would be too subtle and hard to make out on TV, but clearly people saw it!

The Sergio Hudson look was, for me, about excellence, perseverance and, again, confidence. Having worked with Sergio on three projects now and hundreds of designers over the years, I find his work to be exceptional and tactful. For these big fashion moments, I try to reflect Michelle's evolution and the overall moment. It doesn't always coalesce, but when it works, it's magic."

PEOPLE: How have you dealt with the immense pressure that comes with styling one of the most powerful women in the world?

Koop: "Imperfectly! Some days I managed well and kept chill, other days, not so much. I always come back to [the mantra]: one day at a time."

Michelle Obama Glamsquad; makeup artist Carl Ray
Credit: Arielle Lewis

Meet Makeup Artist Carl Ray

PEOPLE: What was the moment you knew you wanted to be a makeup artist?

Ray: "I do not know that it was an actual moment or event, but more a culmination of experiences throughout my youth, that gave way to my fascination with makeup which began at an early age. My father was in the military and we lived in Italy, Morocco and Puerto Rico. My mother ensured I was exposed to the arts, customs and cultures wherever we lived. During our time in Morocco, a country steeped in rich history, we regularly visited galleries, museums and bazaars soaking up all Morocco had to offer. It was during this time I noticed the women of Morocco and their dramatic eye makeup. The Moroccan kohl powder used for enhancing their eyes created the most dramatic result. I remember how intrigued I was with the look it created.

Growing up, wigs were a big part of the 1960s and '70s fashion scene — and my mother was all in. It gave me the chance to have a model to work on and I started dabbling with makeup applications on her foam wig heads. I would apply it all; from the eyeshadow to liner, drawing on lashes and brows, brushing on the blush and a multitude of lip colors.

In my early teen years, we had returned to the U.S. Unfortunately, after a couple of years stateside, my parents filed for divorce. I ended up living with my mother, and once she started dating again, I would watch her applying her makeup and think that I could do a better job. Eventually, I asked if I could apply her makeup [for her], and she obliged. I also asked her not to tell anyone I was doing this. I was active in sports and did not want to be labeled. After all, it was the early '80s and diversity, equity and inclusion were buzz words decades away from being used. This lead to my mother waking me up to do her makeup in the morning, before going off to work or on a date. Her reaction to how she looked and felt (as well as others complimenting her looks) is what really inspired me to eventually pursue life as a makeup artist, but it would be years before I pursued it as a career. I had many career iterations before then."

PEOPLE: You got your start in bridal beauty. How did that set you up for success in the industry?

Ray: "Early in my beauty career I was working for a little startup beauty shop in D.C. called EFX. While we sold an array of products in the store, I gravitated to the makeup counter — it reignited my fascination and love of makeup. However, we did not provide full application services. Customers began asking me to do a complete makeup services for events and lessons too. Eventually, this led to my promotion as Resident Makeup Artist, offering full services for our clients.

Then, a customer asked me to do the makeup for her wedding. (Little did I know at the time that this would help launch my career!) She turned out to be an editor at Washingtonian magazine and her wedding was published in it with my picture applying her makeup and name listed in print with makeup credits. From there I took a leap of faith, tore the page out of the magazine, marched myself into the salon at the Four Seasons hotel in D.C., asked if they had a resident makeup artist and presented them with my article. We chatted over tea and I was hired on the spot, becoming their first and only resident makeup artist.

The Four Seasons is a hub for the social scene in Washington, D.C., and a destination for the high powered, well-heeled and famous to stay while in the city. It afforded me the opportunity to not only share my passion and hone my craft, but it was also an education in discretion and humility.

Referrals and reputation are so important to me and were the social media before social media existed. For me personally, the biggest compliments in my career have been with the transcendence of generations, as former brides call on me to provide services for their children, friends or loved ones for other milestone events.

I have found it is important to know when to look for the next open door, and have always done that for myself. I sought out new opportunities and departed the Four Seasons before the end of President Obama's second administration. Today, I have fully transitioned to an independent makeup artist. I have a small team I work with for larger events that understand the Carl Ray way. My team is extremely talented, and I trust them to provide services reflective of my brand and style."

PEOPLE: Take us back to the moment you got the call from the White House that Mrs. Obama wanted to work with you. What were you feeling? Who was the first person you told?

Ray: "I remember back during the 2008 campaign when I saw the Obamas on The Oprah Winfrey Show and was drawn in by Mrs. Obama's poise, grace and beauty. In that moment, I said to myself, 'If he gets elected as President, I want to be her makeup artist.' As they say: the rest is history.

I initially received an email from the White House asking if I wanted to audition for the role of the First Lady's makeup artist. My first thought was, 'This was junk mail, spam and could not be real.'

I followed up, and lo and behold, it turned out to be the real deal. The first person I told when I got the call was my mama!

I showed up at the White House and was escorted to a small salon where I met and did Mrs. Obama's makeup for the first time. Mrs. Obama asked how I was, and I replied that I was so nervous! I remember her making me feel extremely welcome and offering me water. I received another email two days later asking if I was available for another session and I was ecstatic! 

I've since been so fortunate to travel with Mrs. Obama on a number of occasions, and these were incredibly memorable experiences. It is hard to pinpoint them all but some of the destinations that stand out in my mind are: Buckingham Palace, The Great Wall of China and multiple trips to Africa and India. Prior to starting on this historic journey, most were places I would have only dreamt of traveling to."

Michelle Obama Glamsquad; makeup artist Carl Ray
Credit: Chynna Clayton

PEOPLE: Looking back at all the looks you've created together, can you pinpoint one or two that hold the most meaning for you?  

Ray: "I love the looks I created for her Becoming book tour: can you say, 'glam!'

Working on the photo shoots for the portrait that would eventually be installed in the National Portrait Gallery was a thrilling project because it documented history. Our nation's first First Lady of Color. Collaborating with the portrait artist, Amy Sherald, and discussing the finest details was a process I really enjoyed and found enlightening as an artist. I really enjoy being able to gain the insight of another artist and getting a view into their creative process."

PEOPLE: You've said your tattoos are inspired by different experiences and travels. Would you ever get one dedicated to Mrs. Obama?

Ray: "I did get a tattoo to commemorate my time at the White House working with Mrs. Obama. I got the word Hope tattooed on my right forearm. 

The Obamas' ability to project such positive energy and messaging throughout their years in the White House and beyond is uplifting. As we were on the road with the book tour, I was continually reminded of what a remarkable woman Mrs. Obama is and inspired by her message to multiple generations of women.

Mrs. Obama is now working on her Netflix show Waffles & Mochi which has been an exciting venture. I'm truly blessed to have the opportunity to work in so many mediums of the makeup industry [with her] from editorial, commercial, print, TV and film. Working with the entire Obama family continues to be a humbling, once in a lifetime opportunity."

PEOPLE: Mrs. Obama has said of your work: "Carl genuinely wants to understand what makes a woman feel confident and radiant, and he builds on that." What does reading that mean to you?

Ray: "To me it means I have succeeded in my goal — there is no greater compliment. As I said earlier, it is about the client and not about me. Getting to know your clients provides insight on how to bring out their best self. After 12 years working together, we know each other well. 

I adore and cherish the relationship we have along with being a part of history in the making. I'm happy to call Mrs. Obama a mentor and a friend. It was surreal having my name along with my working style and workmanship called out in her memoir, Becoming. When I started my journey in beauty, I never imagined I would end up seeing myself in a documentary applying makeup to our forever first lady.

I pride myself in enhancing a woman's natural beauty. When done right, it instills self-confidence and can empower a woman because when you look good, you feel good."

Michelle Obama Glamsquad; Hairstylist Yene Damtew.
Credit: Antwon Maxwell

Meet Hairstylist Yene Damtew

PEOPLE: You often cite your mother as the reason you became interested in hair. Take us through some of your earliest memories getting ready with her. 

Damtew: "Sundays were the days that the magic happened. My mother would get ready for church and I would stand beside her watching her take out her hot rollers and waiting for the day that my hair could be styled the same way. Then, when we got home from church, I distinctly remember it being my wash day. I would lay on the kitchen table and tilt my head over the kitchen sink [for her to wash my hair]. Then. I'd sit between her legs as she styled my hair for the week. As I got older the routine changed, but the memories are still there."

PEOPLE: You went from being a local hairstylist in your neighborhood to cosmetology school to assisting White House hairstylist Johnny Wright! How did you connect with Johnny and what does his mentorship mean to you?  

Damtew: "I connected with Johnny in 2008 via my brother Kedus. I was back in cosmetology school at the time and looking for a mentor and my brother made the introduction happen. Mentorship is very important and at this point in my career I understand that mentorship is both silent and active. More than anything, I am grateful for the places and spaces Johnny exposed me to within the industry that truly showed me the endless opportunities available to budding hairstylists."

PEOPLE: Mrs. Obama wore her natural curls on the November 2018 Essence cover – a look you collaborated with her on. In your opinion, what impact did that look have for Black women? How does Mrs. Obama use glam to also send a message?

Damtew: "The November 2018 Essence cover was a pivotal movement for Black women across the globe. For the first time, they were seeing a woman they loved and admired in this new light — where she was confident and glowing with her natural curls. It was quite a moment and I will never forget the feeling [I had] as people reacted so positively [to it]."

Michelle Obama glam squad; Hairstylist Yene Damtew.
Credit: Chynna Clayton

PEOPLE: Looking back at all the looks you've created together, can you pinpoint one or two that hold the most meaning for you?  

Damtew: "There are two moments in the work I have created with Mrs. Obama that have been meaningful to me. The first would be her iconic 2012 DNC speech, where her hair was styled by Johnny and colored by me. That was a very special moment as color is my first love and it was the first time my work with her was recognized. 

My second favorite look had to have been the 2021 inauguration of then President-elect Joe Biden. Aside from the look going viral, it was a moment when I think people could connect to Mrs. Obama as a relatable beauty. It was a familiar style that all women have worn at some point in their lives. People always talk about Mrs. Obama as being relatable, even though she's an icon and in a league of her own. This was a moment when her hair carried that message forward even more, particularly for Black women."

PEOPLE: The looks you've created with Mrs. Obama will live on forever in history books. Has the impact of that hit you?

Damtew: "Absolutely not. Sometimes, it seems surreal because Mrs. Obama is my mentor before anything and the love and wisdom she pours into me is the impact that I hold onto. She encourages me to want more and do more professionally and personally. I fully haven't grasped the idea that my work will be a part of history."