We pluck them out and cover them up - but what about when you've been grey for over half your life? Author Kate Riordan shares her story...
My mum found my first grey hair, when she was helping me blow-dry my curly brown mop smooth for school. I was only 14. She plucked it out but it was soon joined by a few more – all of them clustered together in my parting, near the front. A solitary white hair might have been a novelty but any more was plain odd, in my view. Having a patch of grey hair was, like so much else when you’re fourteen, unbelievably embarrassing. Not being blessed with much height, I started getting twitchy when boys loomed over me in the dinner queue, in case one of them spotted a rogue grey and starting laughing. Thankfully, this was year 10, which was when my friends and I got into dyeing our hair in a big way.
Back then, in the mid-nineties, we enjoyed nothing more on a Saturday afternoon than going into Boots and buying a frosty brown lipstick and a semi-permanent, the latter of which we applied that evening with Blind Date on in the background. Nicola played it safe with minute variations of her own dark blonde colour, but Jo was fearless, leaving her cherry-red shade on for double the time. I always went for burgundy or aubergine, both of which made me look like death warmed up. Eventually realizing my folly, I started going dark brown instead – which still made me look pale, but in a less alarming way. Sometimes I went too far: a Castings shade called ‘Jamaica’ was a great favourite of mine. It was basically jet-black.
The legacy of these years of weekly dyeing – aside from a run of dramatic school photographs – was that I didn’t have any idea what my real hair colour was underneath. I didn’t really want to know, either – in case the greys had been busily multiplying. I was still dyeing it dark brown when I went to university, partly out of nostalgic habit, and for the dye’s temporary ability to make my hair shinier and straighter, but mainly to cover that stubborn patch of white lurking beneath.
Then followed years of blonde highlights, which better hid the grey hairs I could no longer deny by my mid-twenties. During this period, I was on staff at a magazine and reviewing swanky London hair salons every other week. Embarrassed about my premature greys, I would pre-empt any comments by diving in and bringing it up first. Not that there was much to see: I was donning the black gown so regularly that my roots never really had a chance to grow out.
This all changed when I became a full-time novelist and my haircuts were no longer free. I developed a secret loathing of having to go to the hairdresser every few months – like many other women on the quiet, I suspect. It wasn’t just that having colour done was so expensive; it was also wrecking my hair. I found myself becoming increasingly anxious about the whole palarver. ‘How does it look?’ I would squeak to the colourist as she eased the foils out, stomach knotted in case my locks had been fried to candyfloss.
After a last head of highlights for my wedding, I simply stopped going. I lopped off the odd inch of raggedy ends myself and let my ‘roots’ become three inches of regrowth. I wore hats a lot, and felt self-conscious in natural light. A drunk hairdresser called Tarquin (yep: already annoying) accosted me in a pub garden one afternoon to tell me loudly that my hair looked blue and that I should come to him to have it sorted out. My cheeks were burning for an hour.
Eventually, the regrowth became half my hair, and began to blend in quite nicely with my faded blonde ends. And then a really strange thing happened: I went hatless to a car boot sale and a stranger told me she loved my hair colour. ‘But I just really need to go to the hairdressers,’ I protested. ‘Don’t you dare change it,’ she said. ‘It’s so lovely and silvery and… ethereal.’ My husband – who had long claimed to love my ‘weird-coloured’ hair – was jubilant. ‘See?’ he said. ‘I told you.’
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Sure enough, I seemed to garner new compliments every week after that: from the bloke who came to trim the apple tree; from the painter in Cornwall; from the androgynous, fashion-forward art student who said, ‘man, your hair is just so cool. What did you do to it?’
My hair is much happier, too. I mean, it’d love a proper trim from an actual hairdresser, but it’s mainly relieved I’ve stopped torturing it with hydrogen peroxide. It’s thicker than it’s been for years – both in terms of the individual hair shafts and how many of them there are.
I still don’t know if I’ll keep it like this forever, and I reserve the right to buy that box of Clairol nice n easy and go back to blonde. No doubt the (very timely for me) grey hair trend will pass, if it hasn’t already: Zayn Malik has apparently moved on to pink, and Daenerys Targaryen will probably be horrifically bumped off in Game of Thrones, taking her silver tresses with her. Besides, if I’m honest, I’m still shy about it at times, and am already thinking about my university reunion this summer, when I’ll be thrown together with people who haven’t seen me in years.
Still, I’ve come a really long way in the last couple of years and, for now at least, I’m at peace with my weird-coloured hair.
Kate’s new book, The Shadow Hour, is out now.