To Dye For
The Dangerous Fun of Having Red Hair
Not everyone loves gingers, but they’re almost impossible to ignore, and science says the attraction is hard-wired: In other words, we can’t help it.
Scarlett Johansson’s done it. Phoebe Tonkin, who played a mermaid, has also done it, inspired apparently by another little mermaid. Rihanna’s done it, over and over again. Amy Childs has made it her trademark, and so has Emma Stone; Ashley Tisdale of High School Musical fame invented a whole new term for it—“strawberry bronde.” Sienna Miller’s done it. Jena Malone did it for her role in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, releasing next spring. What have these actresses done?
They’ve dyed their hair red. And, they’ve got us all talking about it.
As a means of attracting attention, dying one’s hair red is one of the most time-honored in existence, and we humans are hard-wired to respond. There’s an intriguing theory that red might have been the first color early primates learned to recognize, in order to pick out ripe fruits from unripe. It’s the color of blood and the color of fire—are there two elements of more primal significance than those?
Red pulls the eye. In 2014 the media company Upstream Analysis released a fascinating piece of research revealing that while red hair in the global population hovers at a scarce and thus noteworthy 2 percent, redheads in film and TV exist in numbers far beyond that, with almost a third of all characters depicted as my own genetic ginger kin. Upstream Analysis suggests that red hair sets off our reward-seeking instinct. Basically, we are such primates still that if we see something unusual, we have to engage with it. In other words, we buy into red hair.
One of the markers on my journey toward writing a history of the redhead was when some years ago I spent a couple of weeks in Ukraine, around the town of Sebastopol in the Crimea. The Crimea is a tough place to live. The streets were nothing but potholes, the pavements worse, and every evening there was a power-cut, just to remind everyone that Mother Russia had her finger on the switch. The Crimeans themselves were hardy, no-nonsense, and resigned; the young women, however, with whom I spent many an evening yacking in our hotel bar, were beauties to an extraordinary degree, with flawless makeup and cheekbones you could dance on. And almost all of them sported dyed bright cranberry red or traffic-light orange hair. As a (natural) redhead, I found this most intriguing. Redheads are not found in any great quantities in Ukraine (although they might well once have been: in the Classical era the lands around the Black Sea were home to the redheaded tribes of the Thracians and Scythians). Was red hair’s rarity the reason they all reached for the henna?
Only partly. As these young women explained to me, dying their hair these sizzling colors was such an emphatic thing to do, it made them feel stronger in themselves. As they picked their way around the potholes in their vertiginous high heels, what they were channeling was empowerment. Their hair color both brought them the attention they desired, and made them feel confident enough to deal with it.
There is something of a redhead moment going on at present, and as our red hair becomes more popular, more written about and discussed, and more emulated, there is much heated debate among redheads as to whether dyed red counts. True (says the argument against), the dyed reds don’t get our freckles—Mother Nature’s very own cocktail veil. Nor do they get the Vitamin D-enriched, super-boosted immune system conferred on most redheads by our pale skin. But equally, neither do they get the teasing that mars so many ginger childhoods, nor the stereotyping, nor the dubious distinction of being the unwilling object of (what one can only hope) is the last gasp of knee-jerk societal prejudice.
There have been some singularly nasty instances of this in the U.K. recently. The incident recorded by Manchester police, for example, where a driver, a grown man, pulled over and wound down his window just to call an 8-year-old child a “fucking little ginger bitch.” The 37-year-old who justified plans for a mass cyanide attack as belated revenge for being bullied for his red hair at school. Less seriously, the legend recently spray-painted on a road in Devon: GINGERS SMEL OF PISS; which seems only to confirm the fact that all haters, of whatever hair or skin color, whatever religious or sexual identity, whatever crackpot, deeply sad, or hateful motivation, all share the one common unifying quality of stupid.
In these circumstances, I can understand the point of view of my fellow gingers who maintain that a dyed red is putting on the hair color as an actress might pick up a new role. And if an actress finds her dyed red hair no longer says what she wants it to say, she can change it—as was done most famously, recently, by Christina Hendricks, to mark the last of Mad Men.
Of course, a redhead can change his or her hair color, too, and in the past, as revealed by Thomas Knights’s Red Hot 100 project, many a male redhead has indeed quietly done so. (One of the many unique aspects of red hair is that all the desirable attributes seem to gather around the notion of the female redhead, while all the negatives are reserved for the men). But I have yet to hear of a female redhead who has done so without some sense of loss for what is, for many of us, the single most significant defining characteristic of our lives. Stephanie Vendetti, a fabulous flame-head, dyed her hair blond in an attempt to fit in at school; now with her equally redheaded sister Adrienne she runs “How To Be Redhead,” a company whose very existence proves for us redheads how much the times they are a-changing. “Red is more than a look,” the Vendettis say. “It’s a lifestyle.” Yes indeed. And those who adopt it simply as a look are seen by many reds as, well, freeloading cheats.
But are they? There’s a contrary argument which runs something like this: If being red is taken by society as a statement of your character, your temperament, even of your nationality, becoming red is a declaration. You don’t go red to hide in the corner. You are claiming as your own the female redhead stereotypes of rebellion (Lilith, Boudicca), independence (Elizabeth I, Anne Shirley), and hypersexuality (remember Jessica Rabbit?).
All of these are characteristics society has a great deal of trouble with when manifested by women. Ironically, of course, that is their great value in Hollywood, where the whole idea is to get that spotlight of attention turned on you, and to keep it there for as long as possible. And it should be remembered that neither Rita Hayworth nor Lucille Ball, two of the most iconic redheads of all time, were born that way—and where would the image of the redhead be now without them? But as red becomes more and more fashionable, and is now perhaps on the brink of being claimed proudly by both women and men in the public eye, I’ve come to suspect that it’s standing for something more.
Red hair is liminal. For millennia—long before the Wildlings in Game of Thrones—it has symbolized the individualist, the outsider. And culture, which used to be how we told one another apart, is now what homogenizes us. We all see the same movies, know the same books; we all have the same goods advertised to us, the same fashions and fancies rotate around the globe without cease. For the vast majority of redheads, being red—whether born that way or not—means you step apart. It means you celebrate difference and recognize otherness not as something to be scared of, but as enriching and valuable. In our mighty, ongoing struggle, as a species, with all the issues that surround the notion of “other,” red hair is something of a test case. Which is why as a redhead myself I am all for other women dyeing their hair red. They may be affirming far more than they know.
Jacky Collis Harvey is the author of Red: A History of the Redhead.