To walk and dream in beautyJun 29, 2023 10:57AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
“My true joy has always been my interaction with humans. I love to touch humans. I love to hold them, feel warmth and to accept that we need each other! There is nothing else like us, not even close. We grow, we learn, laugh, we love, cry. We are just complete, but complicated.” From Mister, Are You a Lady? by Roi Barnard
This is a story that must be told through the fingertips on the man’s 85-year-old hands.
There is no bolder method, no stronger vehicle and no more profound receptacle to know Roi Barnard than to allow him to talk about his life through the active sensation of touch. Touch feels the voracity by which he has lived his long life, from the fame and the fortune to the constancy of loss.
Roi Barnard has touched all of his life, through his search for freedom and acceptance, through the dreams he has achieved and in his search for his life’s most redemptive truths.
“Losing Buddy was the beginning of a long, hard journey for me. The struggle to acquire love from my father, Willie, began in that moment.”
Using the top of the Baby Grand in the living room of his Hockessin home as a table, Barnard flips and pirouettes his way through the story of his life like a dancer in an Impressionist painting, then without pause, transforms himself into the pose of a boxer, jabbing and weaving in defense of every glove that cut him and left a scar.
As he speaks, the sepia-toned and color photographs in every room filled with moments and relatives help guide him through every chapter and fill in every crevice, and they tell the stories that begin when he was a sensitive child growing up in Poplar Branch, North Carolina, population 300 in the 1930s.
Their voices have distilled slightly over the passage of time, but pay no mind to their age and wisdom -- every photograph is a storyteller telling both sides. There is a framed letter dated September 17, 1957 from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover congratulating Barnard – who worked for the agency for two years -- on his recent marriage, a union that he entered into from love and sympathy for his former high school girlfriend who had a baby boy by another man, an arrangement that would serve to shield his homosexuality for two years until he could no longer live a lie, or be found out by his employer.
There are photographs and framed newspaper and magazine clippings that showcase Barnard’s two decades as a male model – a dashing and mustached man resplendent in the haute couture of the 1960s and 1970s.
There are several photographs of the famous mural of Marilyn Monroe above The Salon Roi, where Barnard and his long-time business and life partner Charles the First revolutionized the hair industry throughout the Washington, D.C. area with a foursome of salons. There they are out on the town, riding in their Rolls Royce, hosting lavish parties and arriving at the Cannes Film Festival. Years later, their relationship would crumble and threaten the demise of the business they had built together.
There is a photograph of Barnard with some of his staff at Salon Roi taken in 1981, talented stylists who had begun to shine under Barnard’s tutelage. Then one by one, they began to vanish, the victims of a cruel disease that took millions of promising lives including some of Barnard’s most trusted friends.
There are photographs of Mr. Joe -- “The Voice of God” at Christ Church in Wilmington -- who was the yen to Barnard’s yang and became the quiet savior of Barnard’s life when he most needed a life companion. There are photographs of their travels and their many friends taken throughout the course of their 25-year relationship, one that ended by Mr. Joe’s own hand when his Alzheimer’s had taken full grip of him.
There is also a photograph of Barnard in the arms of his beloved mother Tillie, and beside them his brother Buddy, who would later die of pneumonia at the age of seven.
If there is a touchtone point that informs Barnard’s life as well as his autobiography, however it is found in the grim gray photograph of Willie, his father, whose steely eyes seem untrusting and unsuspicious in direct contrast to the photograph nearby that captures the innocence of his son Roy as a child.
And there it is. We have arrived at the center orb of Roi Barnard’s life – Willie – its most compelling conduit, its angriest muse who obstinately refused to acknowledge the beauty and talent and curiosity of his son.
This story – as well as many others that document his life – is contained in Barnard’s autobiography Mister, Are You a Lady?, the first of his three autobiographies -- two down, one to go -- that was published in 2019.
“My mother Tillie was exceptional in making sure that I was loved, but I know that I was not particularly appreciated by my father,” Barnard said. “He had six sons and three of us were gay. Years later after my mother died, all of his sons were sitting around the table and at one point, Willie looked around and said, ‘Nothing like this in my family.’
“I told him, ‘You can’t say that because we are your family.’ My brothers began to kick me under the table, because they were afraid of him, but I was not. He could not accept us, and I’ve often wondered if it was himself that he couldn’t accept.
“Buddy was all boy and a precious boy, but he never walked, and because it was war time, there was no penicillin. When he died, my father decided to soften the blow by drinking, and I was just became a giant sore to him.”
At a family gathering in Norfolk, Willie hit his six-year-old son Roy so hard that it knocked him off a high porch and into his aunt’s rose garden. Tillie told Willie that if he ever struck Roy again that she would leave him.
“I was always hiding from him, but he always managed to find me and ask, ‘Boy, you doin’ anything, because if you are, I will break your legs,’” he said. “Years later, when I chose to leave home at 17 to work in Washington, D.C., I was really choosing to leave him.”
Roy Barnard became Roi Barnard in 1963. He would not reconcile with his father until Willie was 82 years old, more than 40 years later.
“Willie told me, ‘I was always afraid of you, Roy, because you were so smart, and all I had was a second-grade education,’” Barnard said. “I told him, ‘Dad, you don’t need education to love someone. It is natural. All you needed to do was love me.’”
“Suddenly so many that we knew and loved were sick. They couldn’t sleep. They were sweating all night, changing their bedding and their pajamas, taking cold showers, and were dead tired the next day.”
Barnard first met Charles David Stinson in 1968 at the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C.
At the time, Barnard was fully invested in his modeling career in New York City but was beginning to dabble in the beauty industry, inspired in part by the memories he enjoyed watching Tillie give her friends haircuts and hairdos back in North Carolina when he was a child. By the early 1970s, Barnard and Stinson became successful salon owners and in the process, were soon the darlings of the Inside-the-Beltway social scene. They purchased a 15-room, five-bathroom English Tudor in the Carter Barron neighborhood of the nation’s capitol, and installed a pool with the visage of Marilyn Monroe at the bottom of it. They met celebrities. They tooled around town in their gold Rolls Royce.
The sensitive boy from Poplar Branch was now on top of the world.
By the late 1970s, Barnard saw the first signs of Stinson’s erratic behavior. On Sunday mornings, Barnard would wake up and notice complete strangers sleeping in the gardens and near the swimming pool. Stinson began showing poor judgment with the business. Staff was forced to choose between the two partners. Eventually, Stinson left the business and his relationship with Barnard fizzled out, but at the same time, another curvature was forming in Barnard’s world.
Beautiful boys, talented young men all around him, were dropping.
“Wealthy people in D.C. wanted gay notoriety at their parties, and we were all stars then, but when AIDS came, I thought we would be stoned in the streets,” Barnard said. “It was utter terror. I lost my fifth stylist when he was just 23 years old, and I saw him die in front of me, but I was barred from his funeral and his parents thought that his death was something that I may have caused.”
“There are no words to express the honor, respect and love that I felt for Mr. Joe. Of course, there were moments of growth for both of us, but in 25 years this man never raised his voice with me, never lost his temper with me.”
In April 1990, Barnard met Joe Thompson, a quiet and gentile man, at a time when Barnard described himself as “a beaten wreck of a human being” who was weathering not only the dissolution of his relationship with Stinson, but an AIDS crisis that continued to storm through the gay community.
Their relationship – which included their marriage -- lasted for the next 25 years, and was one of a mutual love and understanding of each other, flavored by chilled Manhattans, the Sunday ritual of service at Christ Church and an unforgettable journey on the Orient Express. After Joe was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2012, he retreated into the silence of his disease, and eventually took his own life in the Wilmington condo he now shared with Barnard.
“Mr. Joe gave me the greatest gift – the gift of his life,” Barnard wrote. “I was so angry with him for taking away the opportunity to use my determined commitment to care for him for the rest of his life or at least through the rest of my life. But he set me free to fly again.”
Beginning in 2018, Barnard, then 80, began arriving at the bar at Eclipse Bistro on Union Street in Wilmington on Saturday nights, and started writing in a notebook. At first his entries were the scribbled and scattering of memories, but they eventually formed the basis for what became Mister, Are You a Lady?
“I met Roi in the fall of 2018 at Eclipse Bistro, and at the time, he was really into writing his book,” said Andrew Charlton, a bartender at the restaurant who partnered with Barnard in forming Roi and His Boi Productions, who now produces audio versions of Barnard’s writing. “Bartending can often be a very challenging business, and it was Roi who became my very first cheerleader at that bar, and eventually, I got him to sign a copy of the book for me.
“I’ve seen a lot of the darker sides of life, and when I read Roi’s book, it blew me away. It reminded me of the little towns I grew up in, and the way that people in those town aren’t always accepting.”
Every other week, Barnard is driven to the Wilmington Train Station, where he travels to the new Salon Roi in Chevy Chase, Md. for three-day periods, where he takes care of his clients, some of who he has known for several decades. There is a documentary currently in production based on Mister, Are You a Lady? He is about to publish Willie Tales about his life with his father, and also has a third memoir he is now writing.
In his Hockessin home, Roi Barnard presses his long fingers along the polished surface of the Baby Grand, and pauses.
“When I look back on my life, the losses I have experienced eventually become gratitude, in terms of my survival,” he said. “How grateful I am that I am going to be 85 and I am still needed and loved and wanted, and that I was able each time when I thought emotionally and financially that I would be knocked down to bring it back again and to have this life and that still be able to walk and dream in beauty.”
Barnard said he wrote his first book for a particular audience.
book is for that 12 or 13-year-old boy or girl who turns off the
light at the end of the light and asks, ‘What in the hell is wrong
with me?’” he said. “This book is about forgiveness –
forgiveness of others and forgiveness for who we are. Once we accept
ourselves, our entry in the world will become a far more gentle
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].
Mister, Are You a Lady? is now available online at amazon.com., barnesandnoble.com, and goodreads.com. Willie Tales is now available on Amazon.com. For an audio version of Mister, Are You a Lady? read by Andrew Charlton, visit www.audible.com or iTunes.