MANCHESTER, N.H. — It was late afternoon. Street lights were switching on along South Main, and Catherine Leafe still had a block of clients. A cut and color for one. Highlights for another.
Leafe poured colorant into a plastic bowl. She looked like a billboard for her profession, fantastic at 57, as though time paused the night she was voted Foxy Lady of May 1978 at the Kaleidoscope Disco here.
“I’ll put you in blue because you look so pretty in blue,” Leafe said, wrapping her client in a royal blue smock and warm banter, until the woman looked up and noticed two Donald Trump bumper stickers propped on a shelf.
“What brought this whole thing on?” the woman asked.
“Oh, I’ve just been going to Trump rallies,” Leafe answered.
There was a pause, and then the woman said “wow” into the silent space that suddenly divided the Granite Square Salon, much like the country.
It’s risky mixing business and politics. For Leafe, though, what Trump is offering taps something so deep in her, she feels compelled to share her faith in the presidential contender — mystifying family, friends, and clients, many of them turned off by his jarring rhetoric about immigrants and his opponents.
Some 30 percent of the Republican primary electorate here tell pollsters they plan to vote for the front-running billionaire. But gentle-natured Cathy? Daughter of this polyglot city where she grew up speaking Quebecois, surrounded by immigrant families? A woman whose small business relies on connection and comfort?
“We didn’t see this coming,” said Nancy Clayton, a cousin.
On paper, Leafe hits the bullet points of a Trump supporter profile — she’s older, white, without a college degree. Her income has stagnated, as she has had to hold salon prices steady to keep clients, even as product costs have risen.
Descended from Native American heritage, Leafe has long mistrusted politicians whose predecessors she blames for the Trail of Tears. She only began paying attention to the 2008 election when a colleague chided her for not knowing more about politics. She followed a client’s lead and latched onto Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but then that candidacy fell away and Leafe returned to her apolitical burrow, until this year.
She’s deserted Clinton and hoisted Trump signs in her yard. She’s assigned Trump’s visage to her phone’s background screen. She’s bought slingback shoes from the Ivanka Trump fashion collection. And on a recent Sunday night, she mashed Spanish onions and breadcrumbs into ground beef, a la Trump’s mother Mary Anne’s recipe, and delivered meatloaf sandwiches in brown bags to Trump’s New Hampshire campaign staff.
She gives the candidate’s flamboyant hair swoop a pass. “He owns it,” she said.
When pressed, she can rattle off Trump doctrine. A wall between the United States and Mexico, taking the fight to the Islamic State, tough limits on welfare.
“If he says it, I believe it,” she said.
His proclamation last week that Muslims should be barred from entering this country makes sense, she said. Although she “adores” her Syrian dentist, a line must be drawn. “There is no other solution. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch,” she said. She leaves it there, then adds, “It’s all so crazy.”
But really, it’s not policy she talks about when she talks about Trump.
The man she wants for president offers something else entirely.
A Manchester upbringing
Leafe lives in a 1950s-era maroon Cape. She shares it with her soon-to-be ex-husband. Its tight corners and snug rooms feel smaller with star-cornered mirrors, ruffled throw pillows, velour couches, scented candles, and flouncy curtains that she’s stuffed it with — as if the décor discounter HomeGoods could fill what was missing in her life.
Her childhood home is 15 minutes away, in the same neighborhood where her parents grew up. Her father, worked his way up to purchasing agent at Sanders Associates, a defense contractor. Her mother was a homemaker.
There was Catholic school at St. Augustin. Pork pie, pudding, and Chelmsford ginger ale at her grandparents’ on Sundays. Hampton Beach with aunts and uncles come summer, and every year, a sprawling family Christmas party of “biblical” proportions, recalls her cousin, John Clayton, a former columnist for the Union Leader.
Manchester was one big embrace for Leafe.
At home, though, life could be chaotic. To outsiders, Leafe’s mother was “eclectic.” Leafe recalls her as erratic, even unstable. She’d be happy and warm one minute, cold or even angry the next. And Leafe bore the brunt. Some nights Leafe walked the streets, wandering until daylight, she said, to avoid her mother’s wrath.
At 18, she fled her home and landed a job working the Lancôme counter at Jordan Marsh. It was glamorous and thrilling for Leafe, the sort of job she’d longed for as a girl, when she refused to wear pants and insisted on lace socks with Mary Janes. She decided on a career in style and beauty.
Then she met a bouncer at Kaleidoscope. She got pregnant and the relationship collapsed. There were food stamps and embarrassment for landing in financial straits. Her father slipped her $20 here and there. “Don’t tell your mother,” she recalls him saying.
She enrolled in hair-styling school. In six years, she started a salon business. Clients flocked. Her daughter wanted for nothing. “Money was tight, but I never saw any of that,” said her 33-year-old daughter, Megan Ramos, who lives with her family in Kittery, Maine.
Leafe married a contractor friend of her cousin’s. In time, the marriage soured. When her daughter left for college, Leafe began avoiding their home. She extended her work hours. After work, she shopped. And shopped. On a jaunt to Boston, she paid thousands of dollars for a purse and a coat at the Chanel Boutique.
Finally, in December 2014, heavily in debt, she made a New Year’s resolution. “Another new skirt was not going to make me happy,” she said. She cut up her credit cards, told her husband she wanted a divorce, and a few months later, took a phone call from a childhood friend. He wanted a haircut.
He had blue eyes and white hair. He sold commercial real estate. He was divorced. He was assertive. He told her she was sweet. He suggested they meet at Trump’s New Hampshire headquarters. Ivanka Trump was making an appearance.
She eagerly accepted.
Thrust into politics
Growing up, there was little talk of politics in Leafe’s home. She can’t remember which political party her parents supported, although she suspects her father was a Republican.
Now, suddenly, she was thrust into political overdrive. Her new friend could talk Trump 24/7. He helped her craft a sort-of white paper, listing her reasons for why Trump was going to “bring America to a new Don.”
She drove to rallies across New England and soon was helping out as an usher at the increasingly crowded events. She made friends with the Trump staff, whose downtown headquarters is across the street from the salon. She stopped by in the afternoons to hear the latest campaign news.
It was heady stuff. After years of shuttling between her home, work, and shopping, she was out in the world. She’d always felt small and not special.
Now she was a part of something huge. She felt her malaise lifting.
At the end of the day, there was Trump to hear , to emulate, to admire.
Fired up by her idol
Last Thursday morning, Leafe pinned two Trump buttons to a blue v-neck sweater tucked into a black pencil skirt. She had canceled her clients for the day. Hair curled and lips glossed, she drove east to Portsmouth, N.H.
Trump was due that evening at the Sheraton for an endorsement by the New England Police Benevolent Association. Leafe took a seat at a table outside the ballroom. As Secret Service wanded the invited guests, Leafe handed out bumper stickers. She smiled and smiled and then, shortly after 7 p.m., Trump took the stage.
“We’re going to be very tough, very smart,” Trump said.
Leafe waded to the middle of the crowd.
“We’re going to get down to brass tacks,” he said.
The crowd went nuts. Leafe stood on tiptoe and strained to take a photo of her idol.
“People have to be vigilant,” he said. “People have to keep their eyes open.”
Leafe joined the cheers, bouncing in her heels and sending a sheaf of hair into her face.
When Leafe was a girl, her mother, now passed, could be cruelly cutting when she was in a certain mood. “She would say insulting things: ‘You’re cute, Cathy, but you’re not beautiful.’ She never thought I was pretty,” Leafe recalled.
Recently a cousin told her at a family get-together that her mother had been treated for mental health issues when Leafe was a girl. Her mother’s absence had been explained to Leafe at the time as a medical emergency — a hysterectomy.
She had always thought of her father as her shining light. Gentle, calm, and steady. And yet, he had watched as his wife berated Leafe. He hadn’t protected her.
“My father was so doting and loving, but not enough to make me feel safe,” she said.
In Trump, Leafe has found her safe harbor.
“He’s the father figure I always wanted,” she said. “I feel like he’s protecting me.”
Trump was winding up.
Among the first things he’d do as president is protect the country’s protectors: He would see to it that anyone who killed a police officer would be put to death.
“I want to have a safe, great country,” he said.
It was exactly what Leafe had come to hear.
Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sarah.schweitzer @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahSchweitzer.