Lots of women had to confront their natural hair colour when salons were closed or felt unsafe. Now many are sticking with it - and joyfully.
It wasn't as if Liesl Tommy couldn't get her colourist flown in. It was the Los Angeles premiere of Respect, the Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, and Tommy, the film's director, would be photographed every few steps.
When planning her red carpet looks, "my hair was certainly part of the conversation," said Tommy, who declined to give her age. She wanted "to feel glamorous and comfortable and like myself."
On the evening of the August 8 premiere, her silver curls were up in a high ponytail held together by silver braids. For a Martha's Vineyard screening, silver and white braids to her waist. In London, a grey cornrowed mohawk.
"I've had more fun with my hair in the last six months than I ever have," she said. "With grey hair, I actually feel more powerful."
Gone are the sigh-filled justifications for overgrown roots and faded hues. The "I had no choice" and the "nobody sees me anyway" phases of roots resignation during Covid's first year have been phased out. Steering clear of a colourist's chair has less to do with health and homebody status, and everything to do with embracing what was once an excuse.
Grey grief got a full makeover to grey joy.
'I move through the world in a different way now'
At first, Maayan Zilberman, an artist and candy maker, would walk around her neighbourhood in Brooklyn and hear a chorus of commentary usually reserved for how incorrectly a parent is swaddling their newborn.
"Why would you do that?" was a common refrain from people wondering why she chose to abandon a lifetime of self-described "inky black" colour for her natural shade of grey (though she had previously experimented with her natural colour in 2012). But lately, her Instagram DMs have been flooded with fans wondering what shampoo she uses and asking for advice on whether to ditch the dye.
"I just tell them to try it," Zilberman said. "It's superfun."
But it was about more than fun for her. Zilberman, 42, began the pandemic colouring her hair for Zoom meetings with clients. But as the months dragged on and devastating headlines never ceased, hair colour became symbolic of something bigger.
"It was a time where I was thinking a lot about truth and looking myself in the mirror and being honest about who I am and what I stand for," she said. "That led to 'How are you presenting yourself? Are you colouring your hair? Modifying your body shape with corsets? Filling your face? How honest are you with the way you look?"
Zilberman hasn't dyed her hair since and doesn't worry about the 2 to 3 inches of dye still darkening her ends. She said that since going grey, her life has changed much more than she anticipated, and not just because she finds herself wearing brighter colours and buying shades of lipstick she never thought she could pull off.
"I move through the world in a different way now," she said. "I find myself looking people in the eye a lot more and having a personal connection with strangers. Now, you could say that's a reaction to the past year and a half. But it's also because I shed a huge layer of myself. It looks good to feel good."
The colourist with the consent form
If anyone is an advocate for the transformational move of deleting your colourist's number, it's Jack Martin, the Southern California guru of grey. With clients like Jane Fonda, Sharon Osbourne and Andie MacDowell, not to mention more than 640,000 Instagram followers, he has been helping women return to their natural colour since late 2018. In other words, yes, he's a colourist, but his marker of success is that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, you no longer need him.
In the last 18 months, his business has tripled, he said, and clients have flown in from faraway places for six to 14 hours in his chair. Earlier in the pandemic, "a lot of women found out how beautiful the pattern of their silver was," he said.
In a typical session, Martin spends hours bleaching all of his client's treated hair except for the roots, which remain untouched. He then mixes up a chemical version of her natural color, which will then match what continues to grow.
"There are many kinds of grey and silver," Martin said. "There is blue silver, white silver, silver silver, charcoal silver, even lavender silver. He explained that this is "why we have to formulate based on the client." Clients leave with assurance that if they follow Martin's maintenance plan, complete with which products to use and when, they shouldn't need to come back.
Martin has every client sign a consent form that their natural shade may not yield the desired effect. "I don't promote silver hair for every single person. The person who has to decide is you, you, you," he said. "During consultation, if I fear she is hesitant, I will say, 'This is not the right time for you.'"
'It needed to happen sooner or later'
When Susan Gray (no, she wasn't named for this story), a lawyer who lives in Oakland, California, first told her house-call hair colourist that she wanted to go grey, the colourist didn't know where to begin.
Together, they flipped through Martin's Instagram before-and-afters, and over the course of 10 months and several sessions, achieved the shade that would allow her hair to continue to grow out naturally. ("There was definitely a beige phase," Gray, 48, said with a laugh.)
Gray is not alone in seeking inspiration from social media pages, our 21st-century version of tearing out a photo from a magazine to show a stylist. Grey hair fan accounts are too many to count, as are hashtags like #GrayHairDontCare, #SilverSisters and #Grayhairrevolution.
An account like Grombre (grey meets ombré, get it?) preaches a "radical celebration of the natural phenomenon of grey hair" to almost a quarter-million followers. The account posts stories of liberation, in which women detail their journey to grey, both literal and emotional. Anyone feeling uneasy about the once-awkward growing out phase would immediately have her anxieties assuaged by the number of fawned-over photos that turn the grey-roots-and-dyed-tips combo platter into a fashion statement.
For Gray, it may not have been a style statement, but neither was it an act of defeat. "I'm not generally an early adopter of trends," she said. Going grey "needed to happen sooner than later in my life. I didn't want to be one of those 60-year-olds with jet black hair and not know how to get out of it."
She was recently buying a bottle of vodka at Target, when the cashier looked up at her, confused.
"She was pulling off that giant protective plastic collar on the bottle to keep people from stealing them, and her eyes traveled up to my hair, and then there was this long beat," Gray said. "She was a little discombobulated, like she couldn't figure something out. I just said, 'Thanks for thinking about it.' "
Not just for pharmaceutical commercials
If that cashier was bewildered why someone in her 40s was grey, it's probably because she is fed daily images promoting the idea that people with grey hair are the ones in an outdoor bathtub hoping to get lucky with their pill-necessitating man.
Recently, thanks to a Real Housewives of Beverly Hills marathon, I spent an evening watching commercials, and indeed, over the course of three hours, the only ones starring women with grey hair ended with a rattled-off list of side effects ranging from bad rashes to death.
"It's not fair that women are called 'granny' or 'old' with natural hair," Martin, the colourist, said. "This is just propaganda and a myth we brought on ourselves." When MacDowell, who is 63, was in his chair, he said, the two discussed how her manager encouraged her to stick with her chemical shade of brown.
"He was just afraid she wouldn't get hired on future jobs, not thinking about how beautiful she'd look. I told her, 'Be who you are when you're not behind the camera,' " Martin said. "I also told her, 'If you get a role for a redhead, there are plenty of wigs they can put on you.' "
Of course, MacDowell still does have to pay the bills, including Martin's. (His self-described rate is "expensive, and maybe put three lines under it.") And even a great colourist can't bleach out ageism and sexism.
When Tommy was first settling into what would be a six-hour process with her colourist, Alfredo Ray, she also discussed the double standard. "For my male directing peers, there is no implication" to going grey, she said.
"No one stops thinking they're cool or talented because they went grey. But this is something people were talking about with me. People were concerned." In fact, one well-meaning person told Tommy, "'If you go grey, you just have to make sure you look cool every time you leave home.'"
Tommy rejected that advice. "That's so much pressure!" she said. "There is so much projection that is constantly on women and their choices."
"Also, I always look cool."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Jessica Shaw
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