London - It’s no coincidence that all the big redhead festivals happen at this time of year.
In Ireland, there was one at the end of August; in Holland, Breda Redhead Days were celebrating their 10th anniversary in September, and in London, the recent Redhead Days UK.
What these festivals do is celebrate everything that makes being a redhead such an amazing experience. If you’re wondering what exactly is so great about red-letter tresses, allow me to explain.
1 Being a redhead precludes you from being a slave to convention
We are scientifically proven to be incendiary.
We of the fellowship of the MC1R – the gene that is linked most strongly to red hair – can not only make adrenalin faster than those with other hair colours, our cells can access it more speedily too.
When I was very young, with hair the colour of the label on a bottle of hot pepper sauce, the class bully at my village school was fool enough to pick on a friend of mine. Apparently, in front of all the mothers lined up at the school gate to collect their children, I wound up my right arm like Popeye and decked him.
As my mother hustled me away, I heard one of her friends remark: “Well, what did he expect? She’s a redhead!” I was 5 years old and I had just learnt two very important lessons. One, the world has expectations of redheads; and two, those expectations give you a licence not granted to other people. I was expected to lose my temper. I could be a screwball. I could be fiery. Boudicca was a redhead; Emperor Frederick II was a redhead; Henry VIII was a redhead; Elizabeth I was a redhead; Oliver Cromwell was a redhead; Garibaldi was a redhead; Wild Bill Hickock and Jesse James were redheads; Churchill was a redhead. I consider them to be rather good company.
2 Everyone loves red
People emulate it – more red hair dye is sold than any other hue, in a market that in the US alone is now worth $200m (R2.6 billion) a year – and when people see it, they engage with it. Apparently, its rarity sets off our reward-seeking instinct. Just last year, the media company Upstream Analysis produced the statistic that a third of all TV advertising featured a redhead, when the actual percentage in the population worldwide hovers at a scarce (and thus noteworthy) 2 to 6 percent.
3 The females of the species are scarlet women
If you’ve dated a redhead, raise your glass. If not, raise your standards. Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who would not “lie beneath”, is traditionally a redhead; there is lively debate as to whether Cleopatra may have been one, too. Mary Magdalene is always shown with copper hair cascading down her back; Clara Bow, the “It Girl” of Hollywood, had Titian hair, so did Rita Hayworth, who was a redheaded Gilda even in black and white. And who can forget Jessica Rabbit?
Redheaded women have gained the reputation for being sex on legs, and with some good scientific reason: for females, all that Vitamin D means a strong pelvis, and once their babies are safely delivered into the world, they can withstand the rigours of breastfeeding more easily as well. All of which does rather open up the possibility that the image of the sensual, erotic, irresistible flame-haired temptress might stem from no more than the basic realisation, in pre-history, that choosing a redhead as a mate meant breeding successfully.
4 Our shade brings solidarity
I probably shouldn’t even be telling you this, but imagine that you and your rare hair are heading into work one morning; or waiting in the queue at the supermarket, and suddenly you spot another of your kind. And the two of you share “the look” – a little glance, a half-smile, a lift of the eyebrow. A tiny moment of ginger solidarity: “Hello, I see you, how’s the world treating you?” Why don’t blondes and brunettes have a special look? Because they’re two a penny, that’s why.
5 Even our stereotypes are intriguing
Okay, so we’re dealing in lazy assumptions here, but when you’re talking about redheads, even the way we’re stereotyped is fascinating. Not only is red hair incredibly gendered, but it’s one of the rare examples of a stereotype in which women get the better deal. Redheaded men have been stigmatised as barbarians ever since the Greeks encountered the tribes living round the Black Sea 3 000 years ago – and promptly returned to Athens, terrified out of their wits. The Thracians were the hard men of the Classical world. Never mind their warmongering, even their war dances were violent enough to be deadly. Alexander the Great recruited them into his armies as fast as he could. Spartacus might have been a redhead, for heaven’s sake; at least, he came from the right part of the ancient world for that to be a distinct possibility.
6 We’re rare
The gene for our amazing hair first appeared 50 000 years ago, somewhere on the grasslands of Central Asia. Not Ireland, not Scotland, but Asia. It can stay hidden for generations (I am the only redhead in my family in living memory, for example). But as a double-recessive mutation, any community set that little bit apart, either culturally or geographically, from those around it will give it the best chance of re-appearing. Which is why there have been so many redheads in the Jewish community, in the valleys of Austria and Switzerland, in the remote republic of Udmurtia in Russia, in Scandinavia, in Scotland and Ireland. We’re homo sapiens unicornus. We’re special.
7 And while we’re on the subject
Let’s hear it for all the other oddities that set us apart – like the fact that we need 20 percent more anaesthetic than people with other hair colours. And we may provide an answer to what causes Parkinson’s, Tourette’s and endometriosis (all over-represented in the redhead community). Also, we feel the cold acutely while being rather partial to warmth. (It’s said that we can fire-walk with impunity.)
8 We’re adored…
… by bees and wasps, unfortunately. The little blighters love us. It seems our species is not the only one to find red hair attractive.
9 Finally, and most importantly
Being a redhead means, more often than not, standing up for difference. To celebrate the otherness of ourselves and others. As different forms of prejudice and discrimination have been slowly but steadily outlawed, the fact that the rubiferous are still expected to put up with being stereotyped, teased, marginalised and picked on has become more and more visible. But we’re countering the prejudice and discrimination still expressed against our hair colour in festivals that now loop around the globe.
We’re a community. We have a magazine – MC1R : The Magazine for Redheads – and our own groups on social media. We have ruby-locked role models on the red carpet, from Julianne Moore to Isla Fisher. We have Damian Lewis, possible future 007, and Ed Sheeran, who credits his early success to the stand-out power of his fireworks hair. We have Benedict Cumberbatch, who currently has half of London queueing to watch him play the Dane, and Michael Fassbender, who has half of Hollywood worshipping at his feet and blithely refers to himself as a ginger Viking.
Ginger pride is taking over. The future’s bright: the future’s orange.