Scratch below the surface — beneath the cavalcade of supporters, piles of cash donations, President Donald Trump’s approval and Sen. Ted Cruz’s cameo “mullet” — and Dallas' pandemic martyr has herself an optics problem.
Even for Shelley Ann Luther, defiant owner of Salon à la Mode and America’s viral “hero” of the anti-lockdown right, it’s not a good look when …
- Your lucrative crowdsourcing site is billed as a spontaneous, grass-roots response to government overreach, but it was set up before you even flouted government orders to keep your North Dallas salon closed temporarily.
- You state you’re two months behind on your mortgage, but in the past year took a healthy divorce settlement and bought a luxury SUV to drive to your $500,000, five-acre ranch complete with guest house, five-stall barn and bevy of exotic animals.
- You cry on the jailhouse steps to Fox News host Sean Hannity while knowing you already collected an $18,000 emergency federal small business assistance loan, you get monthly child support from divorce No. 1 and more than $2,000 a month from divorce No. 2, and have half a million bucks waiting with your name on it in a GoFundMe account.
- You claim to struggle with “panic” and “feeding my kids,” but recently took a Caribbean cruise in the middle of a global pandemic.
Depending on one's perspective — and, let’s face it, political party — Luther is either a Rosa Parks freedom fighter or a shill for the right. She’s a conservative hero suddenly coveted by The View who's been thrust in the political spotlight, which has provided a boost in bookings for her cover band.
“I can’t think of anyone more undeserving of a giant donation or a hero label,” says Luther’s former coworker Phillip Bradley. “It’s disgusting. She’s being applauded by the Facebook Nazis as some sort of vigilante, but she’s far better off than most people donating to her cause. She didn’t need any of that shit to begin with.”
Not true, says Luther’s attorney Warren Norred.
“This isn’t some Walking Dead plague. I have harsh language for those with the audacity to criticize Shelley for opening a very sanitary salon when there are daycares open and workers swapping snot with 3-year-olds. Even Condom Sense is open. You think those places aren’t dirty? Give me a break. She’s just standing up for her families, the one at her salon and the one at home.”
Through her stubborn stance to reopen against state orders, she has galvanized the right, divided Texans and reignited racial division in DFW. Just weeks after a rally in Frisco to cheer Luther’s resistance, supporters of state District Judge Eric Moyé gathered in front of the George Allen Courthouse on May 11 to praise him for throwing her in jail for contempt.
“If the salon owner was black and the judge was white,” said activist Rev. Peter Johnson, “we both know she’d still be in jail.”
Luther is white. Moyé is black.
At the same time Moyé’s supporters gathered, Luther was on The View explaining again why she usurped the authority of Gov. Greg Abbott, who ordered retail business like hers closed as Texas attempted to bring coronavirus infections under control. Salons have since been allowed to reopen.
Said Luther, “I didn’t want to be the reason (my stylists) weren’t making any money.”
Strip away the partisanship, and who is Shelley Luther exactly? A review of court filings and social media along with interviews with former co-workers and family members find that her "open up" message may be clear but the messenger is muddled.
'It's Just Outta Control'
Before she ascended to fame and fortune by playing hardball, Luther was Shelley Byrd, born in Illinois, raised in Irvine, California, and up to here in softball. She began in 1992-93 at Mission Viejo’s Saddleback College, where she’s a member of the program’s Hall of Fame. Her prowess earned her a scholarship to UT-Arlington, where she hit .219 with 20 RBI in a modest stint (1994-95) playing shortstop.
At UTA she met and married Kenny Porterfield, and the couple have two children, a 24-year-old daughter and 17-year-old daughter.
After earning her degree in Spanish from Sam Houston State in 1998 and gaining certification in health, physical education and English as a second language, Luther returned to DFW for a decade of teaching, including a stint at Centennial High School in Frisco. She then bounced around — makeup artist, night-club singer, pharmacy tech, vice president of sales for a credit company, director of operations for a financial services group in Allen — before divorcing Porterfield and, in 2016, marrying Barry Luther.
The longtime executive at Seattle-based tech company Avanade moved Shelley into a $1.2 million house in the gated Castle Hills community in Lewisville. In fall 2017, Barry says, they acquired the salon, which Shelley kept in their divorce settlement.
Denton County court records show the couple divorced on June 6, 2019.
“Barry provided everything for her,” says a family friend, who spoke on condition she wasn't named.
After her second divorce, she moved in with Tim Georgeff, who performs with her in their band Crush.
Barry Luther declined an interview, citing “the strain this has already put on my family, including bullying on social media of immediate family members.” Multiple interview requests to Luther (personally and through her media representative) and Georgeff were declined.
According to the ex-couples' divorce decree, Shelley maintained sole possession of the salon, a Toyota Tundra pickup and a Ford Edge SUV, which she has since swapped for a new Jeep Grand Cherokee, and various items including a rolling popcorn machine, horse trailer and livestock.
As part of the decree, Barry also agreed to pay her $125,000 for her part in the home they had shared, dished in monthly installments of $2,850 through 2022.
Said Georgeff in a recent interview with The Dallas Morning News, “We both divorced last year. She had to buy a new home. We didn’t walk away from our divorces with a lot of money.”
County records indicate Luther bought the spread in June 2019 just weeks after her divorce from Barry was final. The price was $505,000 for the land, main house, 1,140-square-foot guest house, barn and horse arena. Luther lives in the house with her 17-year-old daughter and Georgeff. Though Luther consistently refers to her desire to feed her “kids,” the family friend says her eldest daughter moved away years ago. Calls to Georgeff’s ex-wife to confirm the primary residence of their 10-year-old son were unreturned.
Also taking up residence at the family ranch: a menagerie.
“I dunno, she started out just rescuing dogs and horses,” the family friend says. “But now it’s just outta control. She’s got everything.”
According to various social media posts by the couple, they own 11 goats, six dogs, three ducks, two lemurs, several horses, a couple of micro-horses, a Bengal cat and a wallaby named “Scooby Roo.”
“They bought a dachshund for like $1,000,” the friend says. “Tell me again how she’s hurting for money?”
Luther’s fast track to cause célèbre began with a detour to Mexico.
A month after the first death in the U.S. attributed to COVID-19 on Feb. 6, Luther and Georgeff’s band Crush played a gig at Dallas’ Longhorn Icehouse. Four days later, on March 11, the couple shrugged off the World Health Organization’s new “pandemic” declaration, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated warning against taking cruises and Trump’s initial international travel restrictions. Despite 1,000 cases, 31 nationwide deaths and knowledge of the Diamond Princess ship being infected and quarantined back in February, Luther and Georgeff drove from Dallas to Galveston for a Royal Caribbean cruise to Cozumel.
“We were in a panic when this broke out and the virus started spreading,” Luther claimed on ABC’s popular talk show The View.
When asked about his “everymom” client taking the trip during the coronavirus’ accelerated spread, Norred explained: “People get caught up in the wrong stuff. Look, she doesn’t live in a million-dollar house in a gated community, and she has a boyfriend. Maybe he paid for the cruise?”
Before embarking, the couple was interviewed by Houston TV station KHOU.
“I have a real good friend who’s a doctor,” Georgeff replied when asked why they didn't hesitate to go on the vacation. “It’s really nothing more than a severe cold.”
COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has so far claimed more than 91,000 lives in the U.S.
On her social media, Luther wrote, “We’re the last cruise for 30 days on this ship.” A day later, out to sea, Georgeff gave a glimpse of the couple’s economy-over-pandemic point-of-view.
“Half the passengers canceled,” he wrote on Facebook, “and after this cruise the employees are being sent home or kept aboard at little or no pay. 2,500 lives thrown into financial turmoil.”
While the couple posted photos of their “private deck” views of the Yucatan Peninsula, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a disaster and President Trump introduced America to the world of social distancing. The couple returned from their cruise to a transformed, traumatized Texas.
“If some major cities are closing down buildings where large gatherings occur, then EVERY city should,” Luther wrote on Facebook on March 16. “The problem will not fix if (sic) some people are out and about, and some aren’t.”
Luther posted again March 21 after Abbott ordered all non-essential business closed.
“I’m not disagreeing with the shut down,” she wrote. “It just hurts to hear it.”
As the quarantine/shutdown dragged on, Luther’s patience ran out. On April 22 she decided to make a public stand and asked local media to show up outside her salon. “I’m behind on my mortgage … It’s either come in and make money to be able to feed your family or stay home and freak out,” she said.
The cure, she reasoned, was worse than the disease.
Luther reopened her shop in defiance of Abbott’s order on April 24, and at an “Open Texas” rally in Frisco on April 25, she dramatically tore up a cease-and-desist citation issued to Salon à la Mode by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.
“(Jenkins) is not our dad!” Luther told the protesters through a bullhorn. “He doesn’t get to tell us what to do. He needs to be put in his place. Everybody needs to make money. I’m not shutting my salon — ever!”
Said the family friend, “She’s always loved the spotlight. That’s why she’s a lead singer. But this … she immediately got drunk on the power.”
Three days after Luther taunted Jenkins, inviting him to “come and take it,” Moyé signed an order requiring her to close the salon. She again thumbed her nose at authority. She said she would implement social distancing and adhere to face mask suggestions, but otherwise it was business as usual.
When Abbott announced April 29 that salons would remain closed another three weeks, Luther pounced on her increasing critics.
“And for all the cosmetologists reporting me,” she wrote on Facebook, “you can just wait until May 18th to open.” (The 19 stylists at her salon are neither employees or contractors, but renters who pay Luther for the chair and retain all revenue.)
On April 30, she posted:
"People are shocked Texas wants to open back up. Let me try to explain it. 5 years ago Blue Bell literally killed us with their contaminated ice cream and all we cared about was when we could get our next ½ gallon. It’s what we do."
In 2015, Blue Bell Creameries in Brenham was linked to a listeria outbreak that killed three people in Kansas City. It shut down production for about four months, longer than Luther's salon was closed, while it worked to control contamination.
At a hearing in court on May 5, Moyé sentenced Luther to seven days in jail and slapped her with a $7,000 fine for contempt of court. The judge offered to rescind the jail time if Luther apologized, admitted she was selfish and promised not to reopen until Abbott’s new target date of May 8.
“Feeding my kids is not selfish,” Luther told the judge. “If you think the law is more important than kids getting fed, then please go ahead with your decision, but I am not going to shut the salon.”
In his judgment, Moyé wrote that “the defiance of the court’s order was open, flagrant and intentional” and that Luther “expressed no contrition, remorse or regret.”
Abbott softened his order. The Texas Supreme Court ordered her release.
'I Gotta Open'
Luther spent about 48 hours in a cell by herself at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center before being released May 7 and breaking down in tears amid the fanfare, media attention and swift rise in her value as a political celebrity. On her release, she was greeted by a sign-holding, joyous crowd serenading her with “God Bless America.”
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick paid her $7,000 fine. Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin visited the salon. Cruz flew from Houston for his first haircut in three months, joking that his wife was tired of his “mullet.”
Trump offered his praise, saying “Good … she has to feed her children.” Hannity rolled out Fox’s influential red carpet.
“Thank God she’s free from prison,” the popular TV host said in introducing Luther. “She’s a hero for just trying to feed her kids. She’s showed a lot of courage.”
Explained Luther, “I just woke up one day and said ‘I gotta open.’”
In conclusion, Hannity promised to “make a donation to your shop.” But waiting for Luther was the biggest gift of all: the GoFundMe account, which was disabled after donations reached $500,085. The gifts included the $7,000 from Patrick, $4,000 from “Reverge Anselmo,” $1,100 from “QAnon” and the last, $5 from “Tim McDonald.” (Anselmo is a movie producer who has given to Libertarian causes before. Q Anon is an online community of right-wing conspiracy theorists. Tim McDonald, as far as the Observer could tell, is just some guy.)
During her interview on Fox, Luther was aware of …
- The GoFundMe money
- Hannity’s imminent donation
- $18,525 from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (received May 1 for disaster assistance). Norred, for the record, calls it “a small amount of money.” On The View, Luther said, “I can see why that might be troubling. But I had no notice of what it was. There were no instructions on how to spend it.”
- Monthly child support from Porterfield and regular payments from Barry Luther from their divorce settlement.
- Even the looming revenue from Crush gigs, announced on Facebook by Georgeff on May 4 with a photo of a shiny black Dodge Durango SUV adorned by the personalized license plate: PIANOMN. “We booked seven new dates for this year just this week!”
Nonetheless she again played the poor-me card.
“I’m two months behind on my mortgage!” she told Hannity.
Says Norred, “An innumerable amount of people, wealthy professionals, will be taken down by this thing. Doctors, accountants, all filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy and out of work. There is real struggling going on, in places you might not suspect from the outside looking in.”
Curiously, her GoFundMe account was established and activated on April 23, one day before she officially reopened for business. The fund was organized by Houston-area resident Rick Hire, a frequent contributor to the alt-right, QAnon-friendly site, WokePatriots.com.
Did Luther truly just wake up one day? Or was she awakened, as some of her critics suggest, and set up the media event where she announced her plan to reopen as a deliberate act of provocative political theater.
Norred scoffed at the idea her move was a set up.
"This narrative that she put it all together and that it was all a big scam is completely unfounded and is just a straight out lie," he told the Observer's Jacob Vaughn.
Norred said he had only one contact with Hire, who found Luther on his own.
“We researched her and her cause,” Hire wrote on the donation page. “We decided we would approach her and offer to support her as our first patriot cause. She accepted our offer.”
Before Luther’s doors were reopened, Hire also stumped for donations by predicting a long legal fight.
“I can assure you all of this fact: When this case gets moved up to the federal levels, it will be one of the most expensive causes out there short of Hollywood criminal cases,” Hire wrote on her GoFundMe donation page.
Asked about the GoFundMe money possibly paying for Luther’s attorneys’ fees, Norred, a Republican Party committeeman active in conservative causes, said, “Well I started out as pro bono, but … ”
The family friend, however, says the maneuverings and portrayals are merely theatrics.
“Smells to me like an orchestrated publicity stunt, all of it,” the friend says. “Tim’s always been about putting on a big show, and Shelley positions herself as a star. Now they get a little money and muscle behind them, and here we are. Why doesn’t she just call her mortgage company and get three months’ forgiveness like the rest of us? Is she oblivious to the long lines at food pantries? There are real people with real problems, but she’s not one of them.”
According to her media representative, Luther has hired the same Big Dog Strategies Republican consulting firm used by Cruz and has launched a foundation, CourageToStand.com, aimed at disbursing a portion of the $500,000 to “Texans in need during this time.” Among them are two women in Laredo arrested for violating the governor's order. Luther appeared at a rally for the women and said she was giving them at total of $2,500 for their defense.
Abbott has since amended his order to bar jail time for violators, and The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, which oversees salon licenses, dropped 200 cases against barbers and cosmetologists, including Luther, accused of working in April and early May in defiance of Abbott’s order to close, the Morning News reported. Another 180 pending complaints won't be investigated.
“We have received much more than 10 complaints against that salon,” department spokeswoman Tela Mange says. “We stopped counting because they were all the same. ... The overwhelming majority of our stylists followed the rules, and for that, we salute them.”
Luther told the website Texas Scorecard that, although she hadn't spoken directly with the governor, she talked with members of his "team" and believed she played a role in his decision.
“I think a lot of the regulations when he did open the salons were a lot of the suggestions that I gave him,” she told Texas Scorecard.
To her supporters, Luther — who turned 47 on Mother’s Day — remains a champion activist who defended liberty and, in doing so, earned the priceless “attagirl” from Republican royalty. At her Frisco rally was a sign that read:
“Unemployment kills more than viruses.” On her Facebook are myriad tributes and threats, including “I love the patriot hair stylist!” and “(Dallas County Judge Clay) Jenkins better be ready because now she’s got a $500,000 war chest to have him removed.”
To her detractors, Luther’s a selfish business owner who prioritized revenue over rules and was hell-bent on publicity. She broke the law, ignored the governor and disrespected a judge, they say, only to be granted freedom because of “white privilege.” Read a Facebook comment: “In her world, she can just drive as fast as she wants because speed limit laws don’t apply if they keep you from making money.”
Of course, not all Texas politicos are doing cartwheels at how the made-for-TV drama has played out.
“I see no value in all the hubbub over a hair salon,” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson wrote in a column for the Morning News. “We can’t afford to make martyrs out of those who flout the rule of law. And we can’t send the mixed message that public health guidelines are critical unless it’s unprofitable for you to follow them. That is an affront to those who follow the rules and act responsibly in these incredibly challenging times.”
Added the family friend, “Because of her, a bunch of people are now empowered to not follow the laws of the land. For that she’s a hero?”
'She's Not One of Us'
Luther continues to operate the corner courtyard salon in the strip shopping center at the northwest corner of Coit Road and Belt Line Road in far North Dallas. Announcing it is a sign that reads “Remember the à la Mode.” Surrounding it is a consignment store, quilting place, locksmith and Fiddle & Bow music. Guarding it is a private security company. Drawn to it, at first, were new supporters in camouflage “Trump'' caps, “Make America Great Again” garb and NRA T-shirts, some carrying semiautomatic rifles by the door and others waving Gadsden ("Don't tread on me") and American flags in the parking lot.
“I don’t need a haircut, but I’m going to get one anyway,” says Brian Armiston, who knocked on the door hours after Luther’s release from jail. “I’m just here to support her. Because she’s fighting for our freedom.”
Luther is … “A true patriot,” said Cruz. “She wasn’t just speaking up for the women and men who work in her small business, she was speaking up for 29 million Texans across our state.”
Luther is … “Someone trying to stand up for a community that she doesn’t truly represent,” says Lisa Santos, a self-employed stylist in Dallas since 1991 who rents space at Sola Salon in Plano. “They say she’s making it easier for us, but she’s only out for her pocketbook and herself. She might be trying to help, but she’s going about it the wrong way. She’s not one of us.”