It is ironic that travel plays such a significant role in hairstylist Evalyn “Evie” Johnson’s life.

The co-owner of the E&E Hair Studio in Mitchellville, Maryland has taught natural hair styling in Los Angeles and hair-loss prevention in Australia. She’ll be featured in New Zealand next month at the International Association of Trichologists’ Hairdressing Conference. She’s traversed the globe sharing hair care techniques she’s honed over 20 years as a stylist.

“I do a lot of speaking engagements, so I travel a lot,” said Johnson, 38, of Bowie, Maryland.

But the irony is that she and her family were once so poor that her parents, Julius and Elizabeth Peterson, couldn’t afford to send Johnson or her 11 siblings on field trips around Washington, D.C. 

“We were homeless,” Johnson said. “We slept in cars sometimes. We ate syrup sandwiches and mayonnaise sandwiches. We lived where there was no power…I knew there was so much money out there, but we couldn’t get any of it. I didn’t understand.” 

Johnson attributes the family’s poverty largely to her father’s heroin abuse, which led to his incarceration at D.C.’s prison in Lorton, Virginia. In his absence, the family lived on public assistance, she said. 

When she reached adolescence, Evie rebelled. At 13, she became pregnant by her boyfriend, Antonio Reed, Jr., then 15, and they lived at the city’s homeless shelter at 14th and Park Street, NW. 

Her mother dispatched her to Lorton to inform her father, the only time she visited him behind bars. Julius Peterson made her promise not to get pregnant again until marriage. In return, he promised to kick heroin.

When her son, Antonio III, was 2 months old, he became ill with Kawasaki disease, which causes inflammation of blood-vessel walls and spent seven months at D.C. General Hospital. 

Each day, Johnson attended school, then took public transit to the medical facility, where she studied and nurtured her baby.

“It was important for me to do well for him,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want him to think that his mother wasn’t smart.” 

The Washington Post highlighted Johnson in 1994 for graduating with a 4.0 GPA from then-Kelly Miller Junior High School. She was 15. 

“I was on Cloud Nine,” Johnson said. “I was accomplishing things…It was a matter of proving – against the odds and what people said – that I could accomplish everything that I was supposed to accomplish.”

Johnson had dreamed of becoming a stylist since she was very young. She braided her sisters’ hair, kept her brothers shaped up, and styled her mother, relatives and friends.

After beauty school, Johnson worked at area salons before she and Earlisa Larry, who met as stylists at a J.C. Penney salon, opened E&E Hair Solutions in Largo, Maryland in 2006. They moved a few blocks to their current salon earlier this year.

Today, Johnson specializes in natural styles, hair bleaching and hair loss reversal.  She co-founded Stuart Edmondson Hair Loss and Restoration, which makes products to improve thinning hair. She and her husband, Joe, a transportation project manager, have four children between them ages 24 to 15.

She is also a master stylist for Mizani, a L’Oréal hair products company, and works as a platform stylist at hair shows. She has coiffed such celebrities including Tasha Smith, Ari Nicole Parker, and Trey Songz. Her styles have been featured on the Grammys and BET awards. 

But it’s her clients that she gets the most praise from.

“If I had enough time, I’d come twice a week,” said Shaina Taylor, 41, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, admiring her “wheat blonde” faux hawk moments after Johnson styled her hair recently. “I get tired of people stopping me talking about my hair.”

Johnson said memories of the hard times keep her moving forward. 

“I’m excelling, but I’m still growing,” she said.