07.20.11

Rebekah Brooks’ Distracting ’Do

The ex-CEO’s wild red mane at a Parliament hearing on Murdoch’s phone-hacking scandal was ballsy—and unwise—for someone under fire for allegedly defying laws, says Robin Givhan.

There’s a time when a wild mane of wavy auburn hair sends just the right message of breezy nonconformity and proud individuality, but when you’re trying to convince the world that you’re an aboveboard, by-the-rules, straitlaced sort of manager—who’s done nothing illegal—boho hair plays to your disadvantage.

The hair in question belongs to Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News Corp.’s News International who resigned in the midst of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. That controversy, for anyone who has been otherwise distracted, has Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct London-based tabloid under investigation for systematically and illegally gaining access to the voicemail of both public and private citizens. Brooks, who oversaw the conglomerate’s U.K. news division, was called to testify before the British Parliament to answer the usual litany of scandal-related queries: What did she know? When did she know it?

Brooks arrived for her questioning dressed soberly in navy with a demure little heart-shaped charm dangling from a necklace. Her hair hung thick and loose below her shoulders like a dense tangle of vines. It was free and unruly; it was hair that had been released from any need to be controlled and tidy.

It’s always risky to attach politics, social status, or cultural affinity to a hairstyle—to endow it with too much meaning. Surely the many debates and lawsuits stemming from disagreements over cornrows, Afros, and dreadlocks have driven home this lesson. Still, in such a serious situation as an interrogation by Parliament, why risk being misread, mischaracterized, or misunderstood?

Brooks wasn’t technically on trial, but this was one of those fateful moments in the unfolding of a drama when public opinion will become official historical record. And while her clothes said serious business, her hair said, “I’m here for the Tuck & Patti concert.”

Of all the key players in this tale of journalistic malfeasance, Murdoch and Brooks are the ones who stand out in the crowd. Murdoch, the walruslike media mogul, sat before Parliament proclaiming himself humbled, dismissing the notion that he should resign, conceding the tough questions to his son James, and relying on the fast-twitch muscles of his wife, Wendi, to save him from an errant pie-thrower. Murdoch’s time-marked face conspired in his favor—at least from a purely aesthetic vantage. He looked every bit of 80 years old, and then some. In a youth-obsessed culture in which unfair presumptions are made based on how old one looks, Murdoch’s hangdog expression played directly into the stereotype of the octogenarian who isn’t quite plugged in.

In all the video footage played on American television leading up to her testimony, Brooks was always the jaunty redhead who defiantly refused to look corporate. One could argue that it’s to Brooks’ credit that she refrained from dramatically altering her signature look. She is who she is. She didn’t pull her hair into a trim bun or clip it into a ponytail. Either choice would have made her hair less of a distraction, but it also might have made it less of a personal comfort.

Perhaps she found some reassurance in knowing that the familiar red cloud would hover around her face as always. Perhaps her hair provides a certain sense of protection. It most certainly is a declaration of identity.

From the moment Brooks became a regular face on American television, she was described as a savvy mover and shaker and a political insider. She was a top dog in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, as well as a close friend. In the video clips of her moving confidently through a newsroom or greeting dignitaries, she is immediately identifiable—that flaming hair her single most distinctive characteristic, her own personal spotlight.

That was look-at-me hair—stare at me, remember me. Me, me, me.

Hair like hers is a great asset to have in a room crowded with famous and powerful folks. It makes one immediately memorable without having to utter a single word. It isn’t sexy hair that brushes seductively against the shoulders and it isn’t that gloriously girlish hair in which each long ringlet is carefully cultivated. Instead, it’s a spray of self-conscious indifference. In some ways, Brooks’ hair reminds one of Grace Coddington, the redheaded Vogue fashion editor made famous in The September Issue. Coddington, a former model and a creative savant, exudes competence, romanticism, and an enviable ability to rise above fashion while also defining it.

So perhaps, in her own way, Brooks was attempting to defy presumptions, rise above the cultural rules and style herself according to her own sensibilities. But that’s a pretty brazen thing to do when Parliament is on your case for defying laws, ethics, and common decency.

Brooks’ hair was a distraction because it was a ballsy rebuke of our expectations governing how people on the defensive are supposed to tread. There was no suggestion of humility, timidity, or caution. There was no attempt to disappear into doleful anonymity.

That was look-at-me hair—stare at me, remember me. Me, me, me.

Brooks might have been dutifully responding to her interrogators’ questions; she had no choice. But her appearance suggested she was ultimately more concerned with catering to her ego than in convincing anyone of her innocence.