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Red (hair) is the new black

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Stylist speaks to six redheads about their most enviable of tresses

Like Siberian tigers, Arctic foxes and snow leopards before them, redheads are being threatened with extinction. A few years ago news outlets reported that red hair could die out as early as 2060. Redheads are a rarity – an endangered species if you will. And that fact only serves to make us want it more.

Less than 2% of the world’s population is born with red hair. MC1R, the gene responsible for red hair is recessive, meaning both parents must be carriers of the gene in order for red to appear; even then there is only a 25% chance that a child will be born a redhead. And the less frequently this happens, the rarer redheads will become. Don’t fret however, the assumption that recessive genes will die out so early is scientifically incorrect. While the flame-haired among us might be depleting in numbers, enough people carry the gene to ensure their existence beyond 2060.

For those who aren’t true redheads, real red is tricky to achieve from a box and like all things unobtainable that makes it more covetable, just like the eternally sold-out Kenzo tiger sweatshirt (which just happens to look great on redheads). When Alexander Wang sent his models down the catwalk of his a/w 2013 show with Titian ponytails shimmering down their backs he sealed the deal: this season, red hair is the ultimate accessory, running the gamut of shades from natural tones of strawberry blonde to fiery russet – think how amazing Julianne Moore and Jessica Chastain look wearing black with their copper hair cascading around their shoulders.

It’s no wonder women are running for the dye box in their droves. Clairol has pinpointed the surge in red popularity to the end of 2011* suggesting Rihanna and Christina Hendricks as primary influences. Two years later, that popularity hasn’t faltered: 40% of the UK women who took part in Clairol’s study on hair colour habits wanted red hair, while Garnier’s bestselling home hair colourant is Intense Red 6.6**.

While it might have caused childhood anguish for its owners – a fact corroborated by the women on these pages – red hair has lost its unjust stigma, instead conjuring up images of revered Pre-Raphaelite paintings or the fashion world’s formidable Grace Coddington, creative director of US Vogue. In celebration of this exceptional and rather elusive shade, we spoke to six real redheads to find out what their hair colour means to them.

“If you’re ginger, you’re a nerd, a hot-head or a sexpot”

Anna Fielding, 34, editor of stylist.co.uk and Emerald Street

“People assume things when you’re a redhead. You’re told, ‘You must have a temper with hair like that’. You’re asked if you had any friends at school and, in the next breath, if Nicola in Girls Aloud was your favourite. You are smart so yeah, Ginger, you’re a geek. But you’re a sexpot too and a crazy girl spinning off a dizzy edge. You are Michelle in American Pie, the nerd who did surprising things at band camp but also glamorous Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Strange men in nightclubs will tell you that of course everybody knows red-headed women are better in bed. Stranger men will inform you that, ‘There’s nothing like the pubic hair of a redheaded woman to tie a fishing lure with. The fish go mad for it.’ Or there's the simple approach: ‘Oi, Ginger! Does your collar match your cuffs?’

Personally, I do fit certain stereotypes. Some things are obviously rooted in the physical.I’m generally uncomfortable with pink, due to an Anne Of Green Gables-style childhood clash with my (then much brighter) hair. My extreme misery in direct sunlight is practical: I am the girl who once got sunstroke in Deptford. In April.

Do I see qualities I possess ascribed to other gingers and feel companionship? Or have I moulded myself into something culture at large sees as fitting? My temper does flare up now and then. I am a bit of a bookish geek. Nicola Roberts is obviously the coolest. And I will smile discreetly and leave other things to your imagination. But there’s no ‘typical’ redhead and I wouldn’t assume every other person with my colouring shares the same traits (just imagine if we were talking about ethnicity or sexual orientation here). It’s only hair and I could always dye it, but I’m happiest red. Just don’t talk to me about fishing.”

“I love being a redhead in a sea of hollywood blondes”

Debra Messing, 45, actress

“When I started out as an actress, I had naturally deep auburn hair. For some reason I kept coming very close to getting a role only to lose it to someone else. It wasn’t until I started to enhance the red tones in my hair that I started getting those jobs.

I was 26 when I first dyed it. It was for my first film and I was told to enhance the red tones to suit my character. It was supposed to be a richer version of my natural auburn but the hairstylist put an almost neon, Titian red colour all over my hair. The director of photography hated it. But that hair colour triggered something. I landed my first TV guest role on NYPD Blue which led to my first sitcom, Ned And Stacey and ultimately Will And Grace. I loved being a redhead in a sea of Hollywood blondes because it made me stand out. I

’ve always felt a little different to what is considered the norm so I was quite comfortable not being like everyone else. On the flipside, there are certain jobs I didn’t get that I’m sure was down to my hair; roles that were very sombre, introverted and shy, which casting directors wouldn’t even see me for. I think in Hollywood, redheads are perceived as being extroverted and funny. When I started Will And Grace I was back to being a dark auburn but they asked me to lighten and brighten the red because they thought it was ‘funnier’. I think that’s because of actresses such as Lucille Ball and Madeline Kahn – great comedians who just happened to be redheads. I don’t mind.”

“When my curly red mop grew back, it meant I was back”

Laura Smith, 32, PR Manager

“My red hair has definitely always been my thing. As a kid, I hated it but when I hit my 20s I realised a big red mass of curls wasn't such a bad thing. Then when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma I was told I would need six months of chemotherapy with guaranteed hair loss. I was prepared for the sickness that comes with cancer and thought I’d be OK with the hair loss, until it happened. I couldn’t bear to watch it fall out in clumps so I chopped it all off before I lost it, and donated it to a charity that makes wigs for children with cancer. Losing my hair made my cancer real; a stark visual reminder that I was ill. That got me the most.

My red hair meant that I had always stood out but I became a potato head. I felt like I had lost my identity and I hated looking in the mirror – I would cry at the sight of myself. The doctors told me from the outset that my hair could grow back a different colour. If that had happened, I would have felt like a different person. I think I would look daft as a blonde, but I did choose a brown wig while I was going through chemo. It was an opportunity to try something different, but I didn’t like it and hardly wore it. It just didn’t look like me. As my hair grew back, I constantly looked in the mirror examining the fluffy regrowth, checking to see if it was lighter, darker, still curly. When it grew back the same curly red mop, it was a relief to be back to the same old me.”

“I lost out on jobs after bleaching my hair blonde”

Olivia Inge, 33, model

“When I was younger, people would always ask me where my hair came from; I’d say I got it from the village cat because I had no idea; neither of my parents have red hair. There’s a tribal bond between the redheads of the world. You all go through the same thing but career-wise, it’s been interesting. You rarely see redheads bagging the major modelling campaigns but we get the really interesting editorial stories. I used to do fittings for Alexander McQueen; one season he asked if I’d bleach my hair for the show and I thought, why not? I’d never coloured it before so I was intrigued to see what I’d look like. Afterwards I went to a couple of request castings, one for Stella McCartney and the other for Hermès.

It turned out that Stella McCartney had wanted me for the job because of my red hair and Hermès had based a lot of their collection on the natural colour of my hair. I didn’t get booked for either of the jobs and learned my lesson: don’t change one of the most obvious things that makes you you. It’s such a personal thing, this costume of a body we’re all given. You could change it if you want but my stance is that it’s better to stick with what you’ve got. As long as everything works it doesn’t matter what your hair or skin colour is. Just own it. That’s what I tell the young models I come across. Redheads will always have their place. Key creators like Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen have always championed them. Coco Rocha and Karen Elson have made a living from their red hair. It’s a powerful thing.”

“I’d have loved my children to be ginger”

Jo Froude, 39, writer

“My hair has always been central to my identity. At school it saw me cast as the angel in the school nativity play, led to relentless ‘carrot top’ taunts and made me instantly identifiable as my red-haired mum’s daughter. To this day I am still known by some friends as ‘Ginger Jo’ and while the days of EastEnders-addicted builders shouting ‘Oi, Bianca!’ from the scaffolding are happily behind me, I still get comments about my relatively uncommon

hair colour. I knew there was only a slim chance my children would be redheads. We found out the sex of the baby during each of my pregnancies but as far as I was concerned, that didn’t take away the element of surprise at the birth. I couldn’t wait to find out whether he (and then she) would have the same visual link to me that I had to my mum.

When my son was born he had what we referred to as a ‘tinge of ginge’ but his hair soon turned blond. And the moment I caught sight of my daughter’s brown fuzz it was clear that she’d never be a mini-me. They’ll be spared the curse of invisible eyelashes, endless freckles and ginger jokes, but I admit to feeling a slight pang that they didn’t share my colouring. I may miss out on helping them through those character-forming challenges faced by redheads but at least now I won’t have to say ‘they’re just jealous of you’ as often as my mother did.”

“I never wanted to be the same as everyone else”

Thea Bregazzi, 45, one half of the design duo behind Preen

“At first I didn’t like being different but around the age of 16, I began to embrace being unique. It was quite hard growing up with no-one in the family to relate to. There are no other redheads among us; my mum is blonde, my dad’s hair is an ebony shade and my brother has brown hair. My best friend had a gorgeous, straight blonde bob that always looked neat and perfect while my hair was wild, wavy and orange. Now it feels so strange to imagine myself with hair like hers – I’m not a blonde bob sort of woman.

When I moved to London I dyed it bright orange. I wanted to stand out, to intensify the shade and make a point of it. Linda Evangelista had just dyed her hair a very bright auburn; it was such a glamorous statement in the midst of the Nineties grunge scene. I sometimes find myself unwittingly designing for redheads – there’s such a huge variety of colours; some people have pink tones, some auburn, some really orange. My mum used to dress me

in autumnal greens and browns, she always thought they were the best colours for redheads but there’s no set rule. Red is a fabulous way to accessorise a black outfit, it’s something different that no-one else will have.

The fashion industry celebrates things that are distinctive, that stand out, rather than cookie-cutter beauty. Not everyone has to fit in. There’s beauty in all.”

If you have been affected by canceror would like to talk to someone, contact Macmillan Cancer Support (macmillan.org)

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