Red Alert!

Joel Garreau
The Washington Post
March 18, 2002

Two redheaded women meet for the first time. Suddenly they are finishing each other's sentences.

"My whole life I've felt like an oddball -- " says Juliet Strouse, who is 22.

" -- because you knew you were never going to be that way," says Valerie Taylor, who is 35. She is talking about the blondes and brunettes the middle school boys would vie for.

This is in Adams Morgan, at a bar called Madam's Organ, to which redheads flock to be treated to half-price Rolling Rock.

"We have our own lives. We don't live in other people's footsteps," says Strouse.

"If I'm going to get on the bar and dance, I'm going to do it," says Taylor. "Not because I want you to want me, but because I want to do it."

"So awesome!" says Strouse, astonished to hear sentiments she thought had been hers alone. "I've always felt this way, but there's nobody to talk to about this. I don't have any friends who are redheads. We always had to be our own person. Stick up for ourselves. Prove ourselves to other people."

Taylor says she got a little tough about it.

"With redheads there are those stereotypes," says Strouse.

You're "easy," Taylor sighs.

"Exactly," Strauss agrees. "They've heard redheads are feisty. Like, in bed. People come up to me in a bar and go, 'Woo woo. You're a redhead, aren't you?' "

"I can completely remember watching this beauty pageant," Taylor says. "All these women walking out in their cookie-cutter clothes with brown hair and blond hair, and I just remember feeling soooooo bad about myself. Oh my God, there will be no way in the world I will ever look like these women. I'm not a feminist. That's just reality. It's almost like screaming -- "

"Yes!"

" -- when you're dancing on the bar -- "

"I would never have this conversation before I met you. "

" -- screaming because I have all this energy built up in my chest. Only my arms and legs and my head and my smile -- "

"And your eyes."

" -- can let it out. A freakish avalanche scream."

"Aaaaaaaaaaaaah!"

"It's called an epiphany."

"Yeah!"

They slap hands.

Redheads.

They are the mystery.

Where do they come from?

What do they want from us?

Why do we want them so much now?
Other World

They are so rare. So strange. We know so little about them.

The faces, the faces. They have a dangerous quality, as if attached to a pagan soul, a sprite who can talk to trees, and the trees talk back.

The redhead's skin is beyond milky pale. It is so translucent you can often see blue veins. Freckles are a constant, from a smattering across a pert nose to a full-body speckle made up of reds and brown. Comforting mothers call them "angel kisses." Even with high-SPF sunblock, tanning is an issue.

The eyes are often a smoky brown. Or the color of the ocean, from slate to marble, depending on the light and mood. The blue-eyed white-skinned redheads are like walking flags. The green-eyed redheads shake you to your soul; you are helpless in their grip.

No wonder they have so often been seen as gods or demons. Or aliens, mutants, wizards or threats.

Redheads are definitely genetic outliers. Less than 1 percent of the human race may be redheads -- at most, 2. Between 2 and 6 percent of the U.S. population is redheaded, depending on the estimate and definitions. They are scarcer than lefthanders or gays, almost as scarce as Episcopalians.

Historically, this dearth has made them The Other -- feared or revered.

Betty Sue Flowers, a University of Texas myth scholar, says: "Hair itself is symbolically fraught. Hair is huge. If you go into the symbology, you can be lost for days. Hair equals sex. Why do women have to cover their hair in churches? There are more rules about hair than anything else except covering the genitals. It's so connected with spiritual and religious taboos."

Add red to hair, and you "have a double whammy," Flowers says. Red hair "is distinctly Other. If you are not used to seeing redheads, the first time one showed up, you can just see that as amazing. They might be a god. Which would be an evolutionary advantage. You might be allowed to mate with hundreds."

On the other hand, they are the ultimate expression of Not From Around Here. In some times and places, being not from this tribe could be a death sentence. Old American phrase: "Being beaten like a redheaded stepchild."

History is full of this dichotomy -- redheads are goddesses and demons, kings and pillagers.

Helen of Troy was a redhead. Cleopatra was a redhead. The ancient goddess of love, Aphrodite, was a redhead. Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" ("Venus on the Half Shell") shows a redhead. Titian painted so many redheads, his name became a label for a particular kind of red.

"Well, I don't know how many girls you dated, man / But you ain't lived 'til you've had your tires rotated / By a redheaded woman / A redheaded woman / It takes a redheaded woman / To get a dirty job done," sang Bruce Springsteen, who left his supermodel wife, Julianne Phillips, for Patty Scialfa, a redhead.

"Guys always want to 'add you to their list' for a perfect trifecta," e-mails Beth Welch of Austin, who reports that another disadvantage of being a redhead is that "you can't take your swimsuit bottoms off at a nude beach" because of the unwanted attention even there.

Redheads have moved history out of proportion to their numbers.

Columbus was a redhead. As was Isabella of Spain. Leif Ericson found the continent ahead of them, and Thomas Jefferson shaped up America afterward. Redheads also count among their number Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci, Catherine the Great, Charlemagne, Winston Churchill, Hernando Cortes, Oliver Cromwell, Ponce de Leon, the Marquis de Sade, Queen Elizabeth I, Galileo, Vladimir Lenin, Mary, Queen of Scots, kings of Sweden, France, Germany, Bavaria, Austria, Scotland, Ireland and Persia, and eight kings of England, including Henry VIII and William the Conqueror, according to "The Redhead Encyclopedia" by Stephen Douglas.

On the other hand, in ancient Egypt, redheads were sacrificial victims, buried alive in homage to the god Osiris. The ancient Romans paid a premium for redheaded slaves. Satan is portrayed as a redhead. So is Judas. So are Martians and other aliens -- search the Web on "Lyrans." Redheads have often been feared as the most potent of witches and sorcerers. In Holland, redheads are still considered to be agents of misfortune -- perhaps a memory of Viking invasions. "Redheaded women are either violent or false, and usually are both," holds a French proverb.

"My nickname is 'Trouble' among some of my closest friends because wherever I go I always create a stir," says Sarah Cavanaugh, an Arlington fundraiser for nonprofits who is in her twenties. "I'm unpredictable, spontaneous, and just a little out there. It may have just been genes that landed me with the color of the hair on my head," but she believes behavior "has a lot to do with how you're treated socially."

Origins and Outcomes

Where do redheads come from?

The answer, when discovered, was triumphantly labeled the "ginger gene" by the British tabloid press. It is the melanocortin 1 receptor, or MC1R, found on the 16th of the 23 human chromosome pairs. This gene for red hair and light skin was identified in 1995 by Jonathan Rees, who is now, unsurprisingly, at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, the country thought to have the highest proportion of redheads in the world, with over 11 percent.

This wild throw of the evolutionary dice is only about 50,000 years old, Rees says. That's strikingly recent, given that prehumans were taming fire a million years ago. In fact, the redheaded gene emerged about as recently as the "creative explosion" of human culture epitomized by the cave paintings in Lascaux and Chauvet.

Redheads are created across a broad array of ethnic groups. Which famous American political activist was known in his youth as "Detroit Red"? Malcolm X. This distinguished him from "Chicago Red," his contemporary in Harlem, who became . . . Redd Foxx. There are a remarkable number of redheads in the Middle East found among Israelis, Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians and Iraqis.

This does not mean owners of the ginger gene are evenly distributed around the globe, however. Near the equator, being a redhead is a distinct evolutionary disadvantage. Redheads can't routinely hunt or gather -- much less farm -- in the noonday sun. So their tribe would be less likely to eat.

As humans moved north and west into colder and more overcast climes, paler skins became an advantage. They let in more sunlight, thus preventing a bone-softening condition called rickets -- a deficiency in vitamin D, which humans create from sunlight. A woman's pelvis so impaired would affect her ability to have children.

The rest is the genetic history of the Vikings and Celts from Norway to Scotland and Ireland, Rees believes. Through migration, it is also the 19th-century pigmentation history of the American South, Appalachia, the northern Great Plains, New York and Boston. Not all redheads got burned at the stake.

The Pain and the Privilege

What do we really know about redheads?

"Redheads do what blondes dream of," says Nicola Phillips, an author who has curly red hair that hangs below her shoulder blades.

"They're a brutal bunch," says Bill Duggan, owner of Madam's Organ. "Most stereotypes come from something. It's got to be. Happens too often. So sweet, and then man, there's that fire. We get some wild ones come in here. It's just like they're coming from your regular law firm. And two drinks later, they're dancing on the bar."

It's the rare redhead who doesn't recall being shaped if not scarred by formative years wearing a neon halo.

"Children all want to blend in and be comfortable," says Carmen Harper, a South Carolina planner. "A child with red hair might as well have a red target on their head." She vividly remembers a boy who "would belt out at the top of his lungs as we came to the lunch table, 'ATTAAAAAACK! Attaaaaaack of the Killer Tomaaaatoes!' To a first-grade girl with red hair and in the process of losing baby teeth it was devastating."

The hot-tempered thing feeds on itself. "Relatives would say, 'Temper, temper -- oh, look, it's from her red hair!' " recalls Lori Wright, 42, an administrative assistant at the University of Virginia. "Boy, that comment would make me even madder, and the whole vicious cycle would start anew."

"Eventually I had to accept that my hair was going to stay that color," writes Daphna Peled, 31, a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill. "I ended up changing myself. I became more outgoing and learned to be confident. Since I was already forced out into the open because of my hair, I had to take advantage of the exposure, rather than shrink from it."

According to a Clairol Color Attitudes Survey:

" Redheaded women are fearless, with 71 percent saying they feel the word "bold" describes them -- 24 points ahead of blondes; 80 percent say they are self-confident -- 25 points ahead of blondes.

" Redheads are seen as savvy. Only 15 percent of women think redheads are naive, compared to 49 percent who see blondes that way.

" Seventy-five percent of redheads say they consider themselves to be sensual, the highest of all rankings, 10 points ahead of blondes

" Yet, 93 percent of blondes see themselves as being popular with men, compared to 74 percent of brunettes, and only 64 percent of redheads.

Not surprisingly, then:

" Relatively few redheads describe themselves as sensitive.

They've had that knocked out of them.

Howdy Doody. Carrot Top. Hey, Big Red! Ronald McDonald. Redheads have heard it all.

But they don't all react the same. "The association of redheadedness and hot tempers is unfair and wrong," writes Elizabeth Sheley, an Alexandria technical writer in her forties. "The two meanest redheads I ever met were quietly passive-aggressive. Many redheads are actually gentle souls."

The break between red-haired men and red-haired women is astonishing. "Men and women with red hair are on opposite planets," says Shannon Cahoon, who works in human relations in Fairfax. "I think men with red hair suffer from an Opie Taylor syndrome -- kind of goofy and out of place. I find redheaded men are pretty shy and quiet, almost embarrassed by their hair color. I think that ends up making them less attractive to most women."

Charlie Brown is always carrying a torch for the "little red-haired girl." Who in history has been recorded pining for the little red-haired boy? Redheaded hunks of this generation are few. There's David Caruso, formerly of "NYPD Blue," and possibly Cream drummer Ginger Baker, with his Visigoth face. Willie Nelson, the Redheaded Stranger, is now gray.

Redheaded men typically are cast as clowns and second bananas. Red Skelton, Bozo the Clown, Alfred E. Neuman. Their freckles are made to come across as juvenile, their pale skin weak. They end up trivial, like Archie of comic book fame. The fellow with the blue-black hair is Superman. The redhead is Jimmy Olson.

What's striking is how little we actually know about redheads. Do redheads have a sweet musklike odor? Does their body chemistry change with emotions, thus altering the effect of perfume? Does their hair grow faster? Their fingernails? Do bees go out of their way to sting them? Were redheads the fastest guns in the Old West? Do clusters of redheads mysteriously appear followed by long periods with no redheads whatsoever? Scientists say they don't know, and don't trust anybody who says he does.

"I had a dentist tell me that slim redheads are difficult to anesthetize," writes physicist Kim Allen of San Jose. "He claimed he actually read a research study about this. So he shot me up with a huge dose of novocaine. It was a 45-minute procedure, but I was numb for 5 and a half hours. We used less the next time."

The Who's Hue List

All this trauma causes redheads to respond with awe and disbelief to a new development in American civilization.

Redheads are suddenly becoming popular. Redheads adorn the covers of movie magazines. Sales of red hair dye are soaring.

This shocks some, still reeling from growing up red. "I'm thinking, why would anyone want to dye their hair this color anyway?" asks Courtney Webster, 22, who works for the International City/County Management Association. "It's what makes me me."

Julianne Moore, with a figure to challenge her long red hair, is on the cover of the sex issue of Movieline magazine. Cynthia Nixon -- Miranda in "Sex and the City" -- is a natural blonde but prefers to color her hair a radiant red. Susan Sarandon is on the cover of More. Debra Messing was nominated for an Emmy as Grace of "Will & Grace." And let us not forget Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Scully of "The X-Files" Gillian Anderson, that shockingly redheaded French skater in the Olympics and -- not ever to be forgotten by viewers of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" -- Jessica Rabbit, dangerous in every dimension and on every reality plane.

Nor is this a U.S. phenomenon. Assisted by new red-dye technologies that readily work on black hair, red is roaring worldwide -- especially in Asian and Latin American countries where it was almost unknown. Red hair color sales in Mexico are up 21 percent in one year, according to AC Nielsen Scantrack. More than a pound of hair dye is being sold annually in Japan for every woman there over 15, according to Ritsuko Tsunoda, a Tokyo analyst.

Among Korean twenty-somethings, nearly eight out of 10 have dyed their hair, according to the Korea Times. "It is not that easy to find black-haired young people on the streets these days," writes Park Moo-jong, chief editorial writer.

Both here and abroad, demographics and technology have created a cause-and-effect ballet that contributes to this explosion. Generation Xers have learned how Kool-Aid hair colors -- including extreme reds -- wonderfully express individuality while agitating elders. At the same time, the aging baby boom is defying and dyeing the gray. Most boomers restore their original shade. But then they want pizazz. It's easier to make mousy brown pop with red than bleaching to blond.

These market pressures fueled color research at the molecular level that has brought about a new kind of bright, true, laser-red yet believable hair dye. Clairol's patented product is HDAP (hydroxyethyl diamino pyrazol), yielding such hot shades as Peruvian Fire, Rio Red Ginger and Burmese Ruby. Another proprietary example is L'Oreal's Redlights. The big deal is that these reds promise to not turn brassy or fade. Of all U.S. home-use hair color, 17.2 percent now is red shades -- at least three or four times the share of natural redheads in the population. Clairol red shades have seen a 14 percent increase in sales in the last year alone. The barriers to people discovering the red in their personality are falling.

"I am spunky, fun and always looking for attention, so my natural brown hair just didn't fit," says Fairfax's Cahoon, 31, who has been a redhead for 15 years. "But really, when I think of it, I used to be pretty shy. I think that when I dyed my hair, my real personality was able to shine."

There's a unity of spirit between genetic redheads and the acquired ones, says one Washington woman in her fifties who has recently taken the plunge. Becoming a redhead is the final confirmation of a life hard spent.

"It's sort of a diva pass," she says. "When you're born to it, it can be a burden. You have to grow into it. To choose it late in life is to say, 'You can mess with me, but you do so at a price.' It's the equivalent of oak-leaf clusters. As summer comes and I lose 15 pounds, I plan to go from auburn to copper.

"Then I'm going to try to live up to my hair color."

Washington Post staff researcher Mary Lou White and Matt Slovick, an editor of washingtonpost.com, contributed to this report.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


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