What Happens When a Dictator Shaves?

By David Michael Newstead.

When a man shaves his face, he looks in a mirror and at himself. What’s reflected back is then filtered and viewed through the lens of his psyche. And for many people, that picture is a fairly accurate portrait of reality. Oh, you might delude yourself into thinking you have more hair on your head or less belly fat. But a clear mirror and a rational mind can only reasonably stretch the truth so far. But when the worst men in history shave, what do they see reflected back in the mirror?

The answer is likely colored by their own inflated egos, possession of near absolute power, and the legions of frightened, but adoring Yes-Men that surround the typical, everyday tyrant. Although we don’t usually imagine dictators beyond the uniformed orators that they’re depicted as in a news clip, they’re very human. They eat and sleep and shit and shave their faces like everyone else. For instance, the idea that Adolf Hitler spent every morning of his adulthood combing an exacting part into his hair, trimming his perfect Toothbrush moustache, and then dressing up like some satanic Boy Scout would be comical if it wasn’t deranged. But it’s these private details that might say a lot about a man: a self-image so warped that shaving is like looking into a funhouse mirror.

First Case: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Also known as North Korea). It’s been reported that North Korean president, Kim Jong Un, cuts his own hair, owing to his fear of barbers. The rumor is that this is due to an unexplained childhood trauma, but it’s just as likely for legitimate security reasons. Paranoia runs so deeply among that country’s leadership that in 2013 Kim had his own uncle, Jang Song-Taek, purged, tried, and executed for treason. Jang was accused of plotting a coup against his nephew and whether this was real or imagined, he and his entire entourage died for it. One of them was even supposedly executed with a flamethrower. It is in this turbulent environment that receiving a shave and a haircut from a barber could just as easily leave a person vulnerable to being murdered, especially a man like Kim Jung Un. Therefore, a unique hairstyle was born with the young and pudgy Kim as its model. State media in that country has dubbed this bad, self-inflicted haircut to be the “Ambition” style, heaping praise onto a man who already resides in a delusional cloud of propaganda and personality cult. Even by autocratic standards, North Korea is absurd. Kim’s birthday is a national holiday. He supposedly shot 11 hole-in-one’s on the golf course. And at age 31 with no combat experience, he’s also been labeled a military genius. No matter how over-the-top, the praise he receives never ceases, even for his cartoonish hair. Agents from the North Korean embassy in London recently showed up at an unsuspecting hair salon to demand that the business removes a satirical advertisement, mocking Kim’s hair. Yet this tale of crimes against fashion is rounded off with an ironic twist for the world’s most totalitarian regime. The “Ambition” haircut is not included on the list of 28 government-approved hairstyles for North Korean citizens. But whether this behavior ultimately stems from the traumatic childhood of a North Korean boy, from fear of assassination, or from a twisted combination of both is just another question on a long list about the strangest dictatorship in our time.


We do know, however, that similar fears motivated the Iraqi strongman, Saddam Hussein, albeit manifesting themselves quite differently. Throughout his reign, Saddam employed an unknown number of body doubles to confuse and deflect any assassination attempts from his long and ever increasing list of enemies. In that nightmarish situation, the same grooming style and wardrobe were copied each day by a small army of men as they sought to impersonate the original. Every morning, they would sit and silently prepare themselves for the possibility of a violent death all while their own identities were stolen from them and replaced with the mask of a sociopath.

And while the fate of Saddam’s duplicates is not known, there is one survivor from that time period with a story to tell. Latif Yahia was forced into service to act as a body double for Saddam’s oldest son, Uday, during the Iran-Iraq War. He would eventually escape in 1992 and later went on to write a book that became a movie, The Devil’s Double. As a conscripted decoy, Latif was first tortured, then threatened, endured plastic surgery, and faced strict scrutiny in his efforts to emulate the appearance and mannerisms of another man. Despite all that, however, the hardest part of his ordeal seemed to be dealing with Uday Hussein: a petulant man-child who was raised in the shadow of his cruel father. He placed no value on human life and was prone to violent mood swings that could be inflicted on absolutely anyone in Iraq. Uday was also a known rapist and murderer. In fact, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak once called him “a psychopath” after he witnessed Uday stab someone to death at a birthday party in Cairo. Not surprisingly then, Uday also beat, tortured, and shot Latif Yahia, a man essentially employed to save Uday’s life. And although Latif somehow survived his tenure as a body double, one can only speculate as to the bizarre psychology at play in that situation; a man who habitually mistreated others, while also gravely mistreating an identical copy of himself.

What really highlights the difficulty for body doubles like Latif Yahia in perfecting their craft is the nuanced oddity of many dictators; their unusual behaviors and a sense of style personalized to a man who has been unchecked in any practical way for years. Examples from the recent past like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and Uganda’s Idi Amin would be hell to impersonate with their outlandish clothes and animated, bombastic gestures. But in terms of eccentric personal grooming specifically, Hitler’s trademark moustache is now an iconic symbol all on its own. Actually originating in the late ninetieth century, the Toothbrush moustache was considered a more sleek and orderly fashion alternative to the gaudy, waxed handlebar moustaches of the day. The famous British actor Charlie Chaplin began wearing a Toothbrush moustache in 1914, while Hitler supposedly acquired the same style as a soldier in World War One. The use of mustard gas on the Western Front forced soldiers to wear protective gas masks, which can be obstructed by longer facial hair, preventing them from being securely sealed. For that reason, Hitler trimmed his regular moustache around 1919, forever linking a specific facial hair style with history’s worst despot. Adolf liked the new look so much he kept it that way for the rest of his life. However, while that is an interesting back-story, there is no apparent reason why the current, longtime ruler of Zimbabwe (Robert Mugabe) has shaved a slender version of this same moustache into place on his upper lip. This underlines just how unusual a person can become after having been in charge of a country for decades; he copies a style only associated with Nazi’s and Charlie Chaplin. But in Zimbabwe at least, who would risk telling the president-for-life that he’s wrong?

In a dictatorship, citizens are trapped in a grand projection of one man’s subconscious priorities. The leader’s official portraits decorate every office and doorway, every postage stamp and dollar bill. Their face is mass produced and deified, groomed and photo-shopped to perfection. The Soviet propaganda machine was known to airbrush away Stalin’s substantial wrinkles in photographs, leaving only Hollywood good looks instead of the harsh reality. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin is something of a master at photo-ops and staged public relations stunts that would likely make Stalin envious. In that respect, a dictator’s self-image is reflected back on every conceivable surface. They become the pinnacle of national achievement by virtue of suppressing everyone else’s. And the dark corridors of their paranoia and personal inadequacies become the blueprint for the society they rule, the policies it administers, and the mood forced down onto their besieged people.

History shows that these political intrigues can manifest themselves in any number of ways. Before his rise to power in Russia, Vladimir Lenin was known for his distinct goatee. Shedding this recognizable look was, in fact, key to a major turning point in world history. Long unresolved issues in Russia along with the deteriorating strain of the Empire’s participation in World War One were causing irrevocable changes. The Russian Czar had been toppled in the February Revolution of 1917, but the Provisional Government that replaced him was weak and made the unpopular decision to continue their country’s involvement in the war. Despite growing opposition, it appeared that the conflict would drag on and that the death toll would continue to climb. But the Germans, recognizing the feeble position of their enemy, set out to destabilize the situation and permanently remove Russia from the war. To do so, German authorities under Ludendorff launched a clandestine operation to support the anti-war Bolsheviks and assist the revolutionary exile, Vladimir Lenin. Having lived in Switzerland for years, Lenin had to make his way back to Russia to capitalize on the chaotic atmosphere following the fall of the Czar. To do so, he completely shaved his face, donned a shaggy wig to conceal his notable baldness, and took on the alias ‘Vilén’ with false papers provided to him by the Germans. He then secretly traveled in a sealed train car from Switzerland through Germany and arrived in Russia in April 1917. His disguise had allowed him to successfully evade detection by provisional authorities. Once in Petrograd (Now St. Petersburg), he began to dramatically call for an end to Russian participation in the war and for the overthrow of the government. ‘Bread and Peace’ was the slogan of the day and disgruntled Russian crowds listened intently, eager for change. The October Revolution of 1917 soon followed and Lenin went on to lead the Bolsheviks to victory, his usual facial hair now restored.

It’s worth noting, however, that Vladimir Lenin died of a stroke in 1924 and that his corpse has been on public display for propaganda reasons in Moscow ever since. After being embalmed, his body has been groomed and washed daily by technicians for almost a century, undergoing regular and fairly complex chemical treatments to keep it from decomposing. As a result, that same goatee exists today resting on his chin, having lasted substantially longer than Lenin himself, the Soviet government he founded, and several generations of Russian citizens.

When a dictator grooms himself, it is magnified far beyond his own face and the confines of his bathroom mirror. He’s really sculpting his grandiose ego onto society, deciding what statues of himself will look like, imagining heroic murals, the front page of the newspaper, and ominous propaganda posters. He’s designing the picture that will appear in textbooks and sketching his narcissism across the gulf of history. And it is that massive ego that saturates many things. It outlines national policy. It launches wars and touches the lives of millions of people for years to come. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man” and if there’s any truth to that quote, then whole countries in the world today still live in the shadow of terrible men, past and present.