Saturday 10 December 2016

The future is orange - Barry Egan

His hair hue posed many challenges for a teenage Barry Egan, who explains how he's learned to embrace the ginge. As we celebrate redheads, he reveals he is forming his own movement: The Grateful Red. Portrait by Kip Carroll

Published 28/09/2015 | 02:30

The Grateful Red: Barry Egan's portrait by Kip Carroll.
The Grateful Red: Barry Egan's portrait by Kip Carroll.
Barry Egan, aged 5, and his mum Maureen.

Ginger is the new black. Ginger - it is worth pointing out - wasn't always so in vogue. Or on the cover of Vogue Italia, with carrot-top models. At the start of this year, Steven Meisel photographed American fashion model and foremost ginge, Natalie Westling, for Prada's pre-fall 2015 campaign. It was far from appearing in Prada campaigns that gingers were reared. Gingers are all the rage now, of course. You - the world - can't get enough of us and our white skin and freckles and Titian tresses. We are the new cool. Everybody, it seems, wants to be a redser. Everybody wants to be a ginge. A matchstick head.

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Michael Fassbender told GQ last year, "I'm definitely happy to fly the flag for gingers". Even Bono has found what he's looking for in a bottle of red hair dye. He has joined this small but very cool community of ginges. Three months ago, when the U2 singer walked into a bar in Vancouver to do an interview with me, his preposterous flaming hairdo made me think I was looking at an older version of myself. A bad-paint-job version of myself, perhaps. He looked worse on the cover of the August edition of Q magazine.

It is also worth pointing out here that gingers were not always the rage, like they are now. Years before Ed Sheeran, Florence Welch or Julianne Moore . . . years before Prince Harry, Jessica Chastain (who has said she was bullied because of the colour of her hair), Amy Adams (to name but one of a dozen scarlet starlets), or Kelly Reilly of True Detective . . . years before Josh Homme (the self-proclaimed Elvis of Ginger) or Glen Hansard, or the aforesaid ginge-flag-flying Fassbender, having red hair made you feel like an unloved, and heavily medicated, stepchild of sorts, tolerated by society but not particularly wanted.

Now, the future is bright orange, and we of this hair hue are the Grateful Red, but once upon a time it was a darker tale. In Ireland of the 1970s and 1980s, having my hair colour wasn't a look that was remotely associated with being fashionable or cool. More like the village fool. Or at least an element of second-class citizen, or 'not quite as good as the rest of ye' with your brown and dark and blond gruaig.

Ginges were judged because we looked different, and were in a small minority in Ireland, and in the world. It takes a special kind of stupid to judge people because of the colour of their hair, doesn't it? I am content with all it now: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ginge. I've got my ginge groove on. But you don't ever entirely forget the past - that sense of being marginalised - because it wasn't so easy 30-something years ago.

In 1979, I wanted to dye my hair black and look like Elvis Presley or Marlon Brando, not Maureen O'Hara or Lucille Ball. I didn't want to go pink in the sun, like a prawn in human form. I wanted to tan. To this end, I once put on some of my sister Marina's fake-tan, and decided to venture out into the metropolis that was Churchtown with my vaguely brown (and doubtless faintly ridiculous) face. As I made my way down Henley Park, the road I grew up on, I bumped into Marina and her mates. "Are you wearing fake tan?" they asked in unison, before Marina pointed out that it was the tan containing sparkly bits that I had plastered myself in. And I looked like a drag queen gone wrong. Ginge gone bad. I ran home in disgrace. I resigned myself to having skin resembling the White Walkers in Game Of Thrones.

I had heard all the jokes growing up (indeed, many of them are still in circulation). Q: What's the difference between a ginger and a brick? A: At least a brick gets laid. Q: How does every redhead joke begin? A: By looking over your shoulder! Q: What's the difference between a ginger and a vampire? A: One is a pale, bloodsucking creature that avoids the sun. The other is a vampire. Q: Why are the Harry Potter films unrealistic? A: A ginger kid has two friends!

I think I was the only ginge at my school. I felt like an outsider, and not an outsider in a hipster way. I didn't know what self-loathing was, because this was 1979. Looking back now, I did have those emotions. My feelings of alienation because of my gingerness weren't unjustified. It wasn't that I felt unattractive. It went deeper than that. I felt ugly. In hindsight, I don't doubt that something as deeply personal as my sense of attractiveness could have been influenced by society, and by the negative stereotyping of young gingers.

Some young redheads paid the price emotionally, psychologically, mentally and, of course, physically. (Circa 2015, it is a bright new world, but I'll get to that.) I was in a place of perpetual ennui at school. Girls seemed beyond my ginger reach. We had religion class at school, where instead of contemplating Christ's suffering for humankind, I would gloomily dwell on my ginger worldly woes instead. Jesus had his suffering, but, at 14, mine seemed just as profound.

This was not just because, according to the Bible, I had the same colour hair as Satan. It was more because being ginger was definitively untrendy and a source of ridicule. I cultivated detachment and an interest in The Jam and Joy Division. I read Gulliver's Travels. I was especially enthused by the bit where Jonathan Swift writes, "It is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity".

I didn't, however, recognise my ginger self or my experiences in there. It must have passed me by that I was apparently more libidinous than the rest. Because I wasn't getting any. And I mean any.

In the Ireland of my youth, having ketchup-y freckles on your face and body, coupled with bright-red hair made you feel kind of freakish, certainly impossibly unattractive to the opposite sex. Sex? Please. (Before I start my rant, allow me to give you a taste of where I am coming from, with a joke. Q: What book will never make a woman wet? A: Fifty Shades of Ginger.) You felt that any young Irish man with red hair would only lose his virginity to a girl if she resembled Peig Sayers, or, indeed, actually was Peig Sayers.

Once it wasn't a ginge Peig Sayers.

It was the burning bush that most occupied my troubled, and very Catholic, teenage mind. Not the burning bush of the Bible - where Moses, on Mount Horeb, was appointed by Yahweh to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan. No, this particular burning bush was in the underpants my mother had bought for me in suburban Dublin. Back in 1984, I was concerned that, upon seeing my red pubic hair, any potential young maiden I was about to do any fumbling deed with might die, on the spot, with fright.

Thirty years later, Taylor Swift declaring, patronisingly, "I would do a ginger," as if 'a ginger' was something bizarre, seemed to set The Ginger Cause (stop laughing) back decades. I don't want to moan - you can dub it my red, red whine - but as redhead Erin La Rosa wrote, in her blog, about Ms Swift deigning to shag a ginger: "My initial thought was, 'What did you say, bitch?' This could be a hyper-sensitive redhead diatribe, but maybe this is also one example in many of why things like Kick-a-Ginger Day even exist. Because when you reinforce the idea that a group of people are an acquired taste, it doesn't lead to inclusion, it leads to exclusion."

This state of being excluded, of looking different - however negative it seemed at the time, in one's ginger youth - would eventually become a positive for me. As you get older, you soon realise that your hair and skin colour actually shows how individual you are in the world. It makes you stand out. And once I reached my early 20s and started travelling abroad to places like America and Italy and Spain, the women over there, thank God, seemed to see something that Mna na hEireann evidently could not: that being ginge with alabaster skin that had weird spots on it was - whisper it - sexually attractive almost to the point of a fetish. It became part of my shtick (and possibly something else that rhymes with shtick, too).

I remember one French girl in Los Angeles, who dyed her hair my colour after she had her wicked way with me. Thus ended my years of zero physical intimacy with the opposite sex.

Again in hindsight, a major problem was that there were no auburn role models to look up to in my youth. I used to follow Liverpool FC as a kid. Their only ginger player of note in the 1970s was David Fairclough. He never seemed to get a game, other than coming on late, albeit gloriously, as a substitute: super-sub, they called him, but the ginger flier was never deemed good enough to start a game. In the late 80s and early 90s, Mick Hucknall of Simply Red was routinely mocked by the media as ugly. (This was years before Ginger Spice was routinely the ugly one in the Spice Girls. In fairness, she was a munter, regardless of her hair colour.) I recall interviewing Mick in Amsterdam in 1988 for NME and hitting it off really well with him. Three weeks later, we met up in The Pink Elephant nightclub in Dublin. Everyone, including Mick Hucknall, joked that he was my father. Even my own brown-haired father thought the joke was funny.

Nowadays, there are plenty of positive role models, auburn ambassadors, for young gingers to find strength in. This has to be a good thing. And there were lots of good things along the way. I wrote the introduction to a coffee-table book, Redheads, that came out in Germany and America in 2000. I remember when I started at the Sunday Independent in 1990; the first thing Terry Keane, queen bee of the social diary, said to me in the office was, could she cut a lock of my hair to bring to her hairdresser? The next day, she came into the office with her hair dyed my colour. I had arrived. I was Terry's chocolate orange.

And a new world opened up for me.

In terms of the actual world of the ginger, for decades, we've been told that we are soon to be extinct. Yet still we thrive. It's a bit like Keith Richards or Shane MacGowan being told they should be dead by now, albeit for their pathological penchant for excess. Our existential crisis is essentially that the ginger colour, which is caused by a mutation in the MC1R gene, is dying out. The scientists tell us we have maybe another 100 years, (carrot) tops. None of that really matters, as we are the in-thing now. Me and my fellow gingers stand out in a world of wishy-washy-looking blonds and mass-produced, black-haired robots. Every fash-hag bible is telling the world that crimson locks are 'so this season'. Every hipster is dyeing their own locks a colour that would have got you sneered at 20, 30 years ago.

Our flaming follicular rise is hard to miss internationally. Ginge has gone global. This is our moment. Don't take my word for it. Listen to Damian Lewis. "This might be a unique moment in recent history: redheads everywhere are doing well," the ginger star of Wolf Hall said recently. "The redhead stock is very high at the moment. This might be a unique moment in recent history: redheads everywhere are doing well - Prince Harry, Ed Sheeran, Julianne Moore, me, Lily Cole." Have You Noticed That Redheads Are Totally Taking Over The Oscars? MTV asked earlier this year. "Talk about whatever 'it' dress colour on the Academy Awards red-carpet you want, we've just noticed something else that's red: a bunch of people's hair. Fully three-sixteenths of the acting nominees this year rock the fiery hair colour. If you're all like, 'Three-sixteenths? Pft!', then compare that fraction to the two-to-six per cent of Americans with red hair, and it starts to look like a mighty big number. Check out this proof that redheads are taking over the red carpet" - it went on to name-check Julianne Moore, Eddie Redmayne, Emma Stone and Giuliana Rancic.

According to a study in America that monitored more than 1,700 ads that aired on ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC between 8pm and 11pm on five different evenings earlier last year, 11pc of the actors who appeared in prime-time TV ads were redheads. If you accept that two-to-six per cent of the US population has red hair, then, wrote Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic magazine, "Redheads are more common to see on TV than on the street. Of those ads, about a third featured redheads, and more than half of the ads featuring redheads cast them as main characters. Why might this be the case? [The study] suggested two possible explanations for redheads' over-representation. One is that advertisers showcase redheads because of the colour red's association with sexual attraction; the other is that redheads' rarity sparks reward-seeking in our brains, which are finely-tuned to sense novelty".

That said, it's not all good, and damaging stereotypes remain. As recently as 2012, Sabotage Times wondered whether, a) normal people think it is socially unacceptable to really truly fancy ginger people; and, b) ginger people think it's socially unacceptable for people to truly fancy them. Olivia Foster answered the latter thus: "Ginger people are always apologising for themselves. They don't literally say, 'I'm sorry I'm ginger' - that would be too obvious. They apologise by trying too hard, they apologise by constantly referring to their slightly-less-good-in-the-sun skin."

Let's not get too hysterical here; gingerism is more discrimination against redheads than racism.

To the best of my knowledge, there were no separate eating areas for redheads at the back of restaurants, in Ireland back in the day; and I wasn't the ginge Rosa Parks, riding on the bus in the seats reserved for the folks with brown hair. Although my aforementioned second daddy, Mick Hucknall, did tweet, perhaps a tad ridiculously, a few years ago, "Let's play a game: whenever you read 'ginger' try replacing it with 'black' or 'Asian' and see how it reads". In a later post, he added, more accurately, "Bigots are mostly best ignored". Difficult, when someone is calling you a ginger c**t.

Sometimes I don't know if it is bigotry or pure stupidity. Possibly a mutant of both. You wouldn't insult someone purely on the basis of them having dark or fair hair - could you imagine saying, 'Once the child doesn't have blond hair'. It would sound faintly ridiculous, wouldn't it? But: 'Once the child doesn't have ginger hair' actually works as an insult, but it also fits neatly into our borderline-fascist stereotyping of those with red hair.

Forgive me if I fall, briefly, into woe-is-me hysteria, but this possibly all comes from a historical prejudice. My old friend the Devil is generally depicted as being a ginge, as is Judas Iscariot, and Mary Magdalene - and there's that old nugget that, in olden times, having red hair was seen as a sign of bad character, if not a sign that such a person was on a path to sin, and in time, hell and damnation. That moral guardian Adolf Hitler even warned of the dangers of red-haired people marrying and having children.

The Christian Brothers at De La Salle would tell me that St Jerome warned that red hair on a girl would "presage for her the fires of hell". (Going the other way, Sylvia Plath, the literary Ginger Spice of her day, knew how to put the frighteners on men: "Out of the ash I rise with my red hair, and eat men like air," she wrote in the poem Lady Lazarus.) I won't even mention that South Park once did an episode that pronounced all gingers as being "soulless creatures". OK, they were cartoons! But it is worth mentioning, certainly, that Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice was represented by Shakespeare as a villain with red hair; and that those foul witches in Macbeth had the same evil-looking hair hue. The Bard called red "the dissembling colour".

In a recent article in Slate magazine (titled "Is bias against redheads really one of the last great social prejudices?"), Amanda Hess noted, hilariously, "This is the 21st Century. There is no place in civilised society for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, and any other form of bigotry . . . except for gingerism, which is as necessary as it is real. That's why no right-thinking mother would allow her brown or black-haired children to mingle with redheads In the playground - much less allow them to enter a red-headed home, where they may be at risk of falling into the house boiling cauldron, or spirited away on a magic broom carelessly left unattended in the backyard".

Nobody escapes, it seems, the anti-gingerism. Prince William taunted his own brother during an interview in 2009, quipping that Prince Harry is a "ginger . . . but he's a good-looking ginger, so it's all right". "And let's not forget that red hair, like nature itself, has a habit of winning through," wrote GQ's Stephen Corby, a tad mischievously, of the aforementioned auburn-haired younger son of Charles and Diana. "Look at the example of the world's most photographed redhead (clothes on and off), Prince Harry. He's an exceptional case, of course, because the red-headed gene seems to have leapt into his bloodline by osmotic virtue of his mother being close friends with James Hewitt. Redheads, you see; strange powers."

To quote Vogue magazine of my fellow ginges, "Mythologised! Demonised! Celebrated!"

I'll take the last.

Sunday Independent

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