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AJ’s salon in the West Loop gets brush with fame on ‘Chicagolicious’

HIGHLIGHTS OF THEIR DAYS: Salowner AJ Johns(foreground laughing) his crew are followed “Chicagolicious” premiering Monday. | DOM NAJOLIA~SUN-TIMES

HIGHLIGHTS OF THEIR DAYS: Salon owner AJ Johnson (foreground, laughing) and his crew are followed on “Chicagolicious,” premiering Monday. | DOM NAJOLIA~SUN-TIMES

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8 to 9 p.m. Mondays on Style Network

Updated: July 12, 2012 6:07AM

An employee at AJ’s beauty salon is in the back room, mixing Mountain Dew, La Croix and a splash of Coke Zero to make it look like champagne.

Filled flutes in hand, she ventures into the main area of the West Loop salon that’s at the center of Style Network’s new docu-soap “Chicagolicious.” She saunters past a couple of clients who look more like background extras, sitting under hair dryers that don’t appear to be on.

About an hour earlier, AJ’s got a delivery of cupcakes decorated for St. Patrick’s Day — even though it’s April.

I later bring up some of these “reality” TV observations made during a “Chicagolicious” set visit with the show’s creator and executive producer, who takes it in stride.

“All the stories we’re following are real stories,” said Alex Duda, a three-time Emmy Award winner. “They’re all based on what’s happening in the stylists’ real life, but we have to organize them into our production schedule.”

That schedule called for filming the action both inside and outside of AJ’s, 648 W. Randolph, over winter and spring. Crews followed ambitious salon owner AJ Johnson in his quest to build his business and make a national name for himself.

AJ and his primping posse of employees — along with several well-heeled clients — made their way about town, working fashion shows and galas, celebrating AJ’s birthday at Japonais with Charlie and Rochelle Trotter, and dining everywhere from Michelin-starred Moto to Al’s Beef.

“These are real people, not actors reading lines,” Duda said about her spinoff of “Jerseylicious,” now in its fourth season. “AJ has a salon. He’s trying to make it on a national level. Everything he’s doing on the show is real and everyone who works there is real.”

These real people are also real characters. Especially the salon’s namesake.

The extroverted entrepreneur, who’s hammier than an Easter buffet, boasts a client list that includes celebrities such as Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett and Iman.

“I’m very well known in the city,” said Johnson, single father of a 22-year-old aspiring rapper.

“I used to hear all the time, ‘You should have a reality show,’ ” he said. “I want to let everybody know how amazing I am, how talented I am and how talented my team is.”

That team includes Howard Godfrey, a flirtatious, fitness-obsessed barber born in Chicago’s housing projects.

Valincia Saulsberry is the resident diva prone to fighting fellow former model Katrell Mendenhall for the salon’s alpha female spot.

Hair extension whiz-kid MaCray Huff is a flamboyant fish-out-of-water from the South who’s besties with make-up artist Austin Maxfield, 23, an ingénue whom AJ calls his “diamond in the rough.”

In the show’s pilot, a naive Maxfield orders red snapper at Vivo and is dismayed to learn it’s fish, not red meat.

When the salon gets a gig doing hair and make-up for a high-profile fashion event at Logan Square’s Stan Mansion, Maxfield says she’s excited because she’s never been to a “gala” before.

“I honestly didn’t even know what it was,” she tells the designers. “I had to Google it.”

The show’s beauty is that it’s both aspirational and accessible, Duda said. AJ’s employees work in an upscale environment catering to a clientele who have it made, while several of the stylists are “still making their way and striving,” she said. “That upstairs/downstairs thing is kind of fun.”

“Chicagolicious” isn’t just a Windy City version of the New Jersey original.

“The salon in ‘Chicagolicious’ — you’ve never really seen this kind of salon before on TV,” she said. “It’s a trendy, affluent salon in an urban environment with a diverse clientele, diverse stylists.”

Unlike “Jerseylicious,” set about 90 minutes outside New York City in Green Brook, N.J., the Chicago incarnation spends more time dwelling on AJ’s customers and the fancy circles they run in. Local movers and shakers pop up in frequent cameos, which lends added appeal to hometown viewers. Socialite Candace Jordan, ex-Chicago Bear Garrett Wolfe, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) and NBC news anchor Marion Brooks are among the many notables who get air time.

So does the city itself, and it looks pretty darn good.

“The city is a character,” Duda said. “We want to show it in its very best light. It’s going to make people want to go there.”

That might explain why some of the footage came courtesy of the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture.

One thing that isn’t different from “Jerseylicious,” or just about any show of this kind, is your typical ration of catfights, conundrums, humor and personal drama — all that stuff that tends to give reality TV a bad name.

“I feel like a lot of the people who look down on it are truly watching it because there are stakes,” Duda said. “The stakes are real. That’s the one thing you don’t have in a scripted show.”

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