A poll of my friends results in a slew of attractive red-headed Hollywood starlets—Christina Hendricks, Emma Stone, Isla Fisher, Ann-Margret, Amy Adams (and a shout out to Daphne from the Scooby Doo cartoon—she was, after all, the leading lady her co-star, Fred, secretly wanted to bang…we think). The names continue to pour in: Rihanna, Scarlett Johansson, and Rose McGowan—even though their ginger locks were only temporary.
Few guys are mentioned, and even then, their inclusion in this club is debated. Damien Lewis, Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch, and, of course, Prince Harry, whose notoriously bad-boy antics and blueblood status have made him a lust-worthy redhead.
One thing is confirmed: Redheaded females are generally more appealing than redheaded men. The ladies score the leading roles while the men are left to portray quirky, comedic (and mostly undesirable) characters. Even outside of Tinseltown, the same rules apply. Redheaded men are quickly dismissed because of their hair, while redheaded women are considered exotic and the subjects of sexual fantasies. Why the double standard?
British artist Thomas Knights poses this question in his RED HOT series, as he sets out to “rebrand” redheaded men as “ultra males”—confident, heroic, and sexually desirable. He photographed 100 men from across the globe for the book, RED HOT 100, and has an exhibition of the photos opening at BOSI Gallery in New York City on September 3.
“There was no sense of being proud of having red hair at all,” Knights tells The Daily Beast about his experience growing up ginger. “It’s all about this conditioning we have, especially in the UK, that having red hair is really un-cool and shameful.” For 10 years, Knights dyed his hair blond and shaving off “every trace of ginger” before he decided to return to his natural locks. He finally felt comfortable enough to embrace his ginger roots.
Recent studies reveal that more than 90 percent of ginger men are bullied and discriminated against solely based on the color of their hair. “You can’t tell a bully to stop bullying someone for their red hair. It has the opposite effect,” Knights says. “It highlights the issue even more and lets them know that they are winning.”
So the photographer set out to “rebrand” the look. With the help of some extremely attractive shirtless men, Knights uses high-fashion advertisements as inspiration to present red hair as a lifestyle dream. The aqua blue background of the photos, along with the lack of clothing or other distracting accessories, perfectly highlights the red locks featured in each portrait.
The history of “gingerism,” what some consider a form of racism, can be dated back over 500 years, as Knights explains. “[It] plays into this whole culture that we have going on [in the UK] that started … with a war with the Scottish,” he said. “We turned our hatred of the war to the red hair, and it’s a hangover from that.”
While the trait is typically associated with the Irish population, there is actually a larger proportion of the gene in Scotland, where one in eight people are redheads, according to Scotland’s DNA Project.
The teasing is so common that is has been accepted as “the standard ginger bullying” by those who Knights has encountered. Either they’ve “resigned themselves” to the fate to ease the blow of the teases or “their parents pre-warned them” that they should expect it. A mindset, he thinks, no one should have.
And he’s not the only one.
Last year, a group of redheads banded together to participate in the UK’s first Ginger Pride Walk, standing up to the prejudice. The crowd, which marched through the streets of Edinburgh, held signs stating “Ginger and proud,” “All hail! The red, orange and pale,” and “It gets redder” (a play on the LGBTQ campaign “It gets better”).
“Although it isn’t a real word, gingerism exists and bullying exists and you can’t deny that kids are being subjected to taunts or being bullied in schools just for having red hair,” the walk’s leader, Canadian comedian Shawn Hitchins, said.
The prejudice reaches even further than the playground. In 2011, Cryos, the world’s largest sperm bank, began turning away redheads. The demand was too low. Even one of the photographer’s own friends embarrassingly admitted that she would be “really disappointed” if she were to have a ginger baby.
Knights’ project seeks to eliminate these negative reactions, showing both bully and bullied as well as hopeful parents and singles that being a ginger male is a desirable trait.
Finding the models proved to be a difficult task. Not because of the lack of attractive gingers, but because only two modeling agencies in the UK had redheaded males on their books. Knights had four guys to work with, and, after shooting them in one day, he took matters into his own hands, creating a flier which he posted online. Within the first day, it was re-blogged 30,000 times on Tumbler. Conan O’Brien even cut himself into the RED HOT promotional video for his TBS talk show. “We kind of knew early on that we had hit on something really unique,” Knights says.
Hundreds of submissions began to pour in from across Europe, the United States, and South America. There are baby faces and beards, men of different statures and skin tones, every shade of red hair, dreadlocks, and even a set of twins.
Since the initial exhibition in London last December, a lot has changed for the guys. Fashion editorials have begun featuring more redheaded models, such as Tom Turpie and James Parr, who scored a Mulberry campaign alongside blue-chip model Cara Delevingne. RED HOT’s cover model, Kenneth Beck, who Knights discovered in a juice shop, has gone on to modeling full time. And many more have followed suit.
Given all the success that the project has had, Knights plans on expanding the RED HOT project into a full, marketable brand for redheads. He has already developed a hair product that enhances the luster of red hair and has plans for more products. There’s even talk of a book of redheaded women. “Once we have done all we can for the guys, I want to start shooting girls,” he said. “Ultimately girls do struggle with red hair growing up, it’s just that they have better [redheaded] role models in life.”
RED HOT will be on display at BOSI Contemporary, 48 Orchard St., from September 3-14, 2014. RED HOT 100 is available for purchase here.