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Undercover Redhead

Molly Young
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An hour before I was due to pick up my hair, the snow started coming. On Saint Patrick’s Day, no less—ick! Young men and women in shamrock-themed gear clogged up the trains, adding notes of Coors Light to the dirty-snow smell. I was on my way to Thanos Samaras’ Park Avenue apartment and workshop, where the dreamy actor-artist-hair-wizard was going to put a red wig on my head and send me undercover to a redhead convention.

Let me explain.

A couple months ago, ITG’s Nick alerted me to “ Rock It Like a Redhead,” an event billing itself as “the world’s FIRST beauty/fashion event for Redheads!” I’m not sure whether this is true (it’s tough to fact-check), but the event promised beauty tips, manicures, tiny desserts, and the introduction of a “revolutionary” new product: bobby pins made especially for redheads (which turned out to be red-colored bobby pins). Having not been born with red hair but frequently lusting after it, this seemed like a great opportunity to both indulge my wig habit and join a very exclusive club for a day. I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like for the other 1%—that sliver of men and women blessed with what is, objectively speaking, the most extraordinary hair color of all.

If red is a rare and mythologized shade, it’s also a bizarrely stigmatized one. Ancient Egyptians abhorred red hair (because of its connection to Set, the god of storms and darkness) and 15th-century Germans determined that “those whose hair is red, of a certain peculiar shade, are unmistakably vampires.” (Unmistakably?) If you type “Why do redheads” into Google, the third result that auto-fills in is “Why do redheads have no souls.” (The fuck?) Even the name is tacitly demeaning. We don’t call people with black hair “blackheads.”

Not only are redhead epithets harsh, but redhead bodies are notably fragile. The hair color results from a mutation in the MC1R gene, which is part of a family that includes pain receptors in the brain. Redheads, therefore, can require substantially more anesthesia than other-haired patients, and are more than twice as likely to avoid going to the dentist. (Who can blame them?)

These were the thoughts that filled my blah-brown-haired head on the way to Thanos’ studio space a few hours before the event. I arrived to find him in a pair of crisp white Nike sweatpants, making tea with almond milk. (The pants looked so good that I made a furtive iPhone note to buy some, then deleted it upon reflecting that I did not have the physique—male, Greek—to pull them off.) Pouring tea, he inquired about the event: “What will you do? Talk about sulfate-free shampoos?”

I should stop here for a moment and explain about Thanos, because he is an exceptional human being. He styles hair (including covers for Vogue, Elle, Vanity Fair); acts (he trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London); takes photos, and probably does more that I don’t know even about, because he’s not the boastful type. Thanos splits his time between New York and Greece, and thankfully he was in town when Rock It Like a Redhead rolled around. Lucky me.

The wig awaited us in his workshop, where Thanos had been Google-imaging pictures of red hair for inspiration, including a ton of Sharon Tate photos. “She had one of the best reds of all time in The Fearless Vampire Killers,” he said. “It haunted me as a kid.”

The movie?

“No, the wig.” Thanos sighed. “ That scene where she’s taking a bath in the castle. The old studio wigs were like horse hair, but there’s something perfect about Sharon’s red hair amid the white suds. I remember thinking, THAT is how you take a bath.”

I sat down and Thanos wet my hair and wrapped it around my head, forming a smooth surface that made it easy to slide into a stretchy black wig cap. Wearing a wig cap is wonderful—you feel tightly sleek and tapered, like an otter. In order to create the right color for the event, he’d gone through several rounds of bleaching and dyeing until hitting upon something between electric peach and creamsicle. A delicious color. He put the wig on my head and then orbited me, trimming and pinning while we nibbled crispy almond cookies from a tray. As a final touch, he glued my new red sideburns to my cheeks so they wouldn’t flap in the breeze. (A delicate strip of adhesive applied with tweezers did the trick.) Together, we padded into the bathroom to take a look.

Instead of limp, medium-brown hair, I now had a cloud of wispy, textured starlet hair. Like a Playboy bunny from 1967. Thanos was like a real-life King Midas, except instead of everything turning to gold at his touch, it turned to beautiful. Except my hair. My hair turned to gold.

“It looks natural!” Thanos declared. We took photos and examined the hair from different angles, then hugged goodbye. “Good luck,” he said. Outside in the pale snowy light, my new hair was luminous. I walked south on Park Avenue, and someone yelled, “HAPPY SAINT PADDY’S DAY!”

__

Downtown, I grew anxious as I approached the event. Would natural redheads spot the imposter? No one wants to be “wig girl.” I reminded myself that Thanos was a hair master, and that he’d recently come off a shoot styling Carmen Dell’Orefice, and if he was good enough for Carmen Dell’Orefice, he was definitely good enough for Rock It Like a Redhead.

Pounding Adele remixes wafted out of 60 Reade Street, where the redheads were assembled. I handed over my $86 ticket and entered the event space, which contained makeup stations, a manicure booth, a DJ, bar, lounge area, and about 200 redheads. Caterers circulated with tiny quiches. It was like being inside the bedroom of a well-accessorized teenage girl: lots of hair products, scented candles, and miniature cupcakes (in red velvet, of course).

Unlike what you might find in a teen girl’s bedroom, however, there were some men wandering about. Men without redhair. Hmm. I texted iPhone selfies to a couple of friends. My friend Harry replied instantly:)“Are you wearing a merkin?”

“No,” I thumb-typed angrily.

Nearby, the writer/performer /Noted Redhead Personality Julie Klausner wore a floor-length navy gown and lustily ate an apple. When asked whether her hair color invited stereotyping, she nodded. “People size you up all the time. They’ll say, ‘You look fiery!’ And you’re like, ‘I’m gonna excuse myself.’” On her podcast, How Was Your Week with Julie Klausner, Ms. Klausner regularly appoints redheads to her Redhead Hall of Fame, which currently includes Conan O’Brien, Little Orphan Annie, Foghorn Leghorn, and Loretta Lynn. (Not in the Redhead Hall of Fame: Clifford the Big Red Dog, Tori Amos, Thomas Jefferson.)

After exhausting the small talk, cupcakes, cocktails, people-watching, and manicures, I couldn’t find much else to do at Rock It Like a Redhead, so I went upstairs to collect my gift bag. As an experiment (can a wig ever look real?), the night had been a success: I’d passed as a ginger, with two people complimenting my hair and no one asking if it was real. On the other hand, I’d presented myself as the target demo for a bunch of products and paid $86 for the privilege.

The swag bag was heavy, and on the walk home, I began instinctively to swing it back and forth like an udder. When I realized what I was doing, I reconsidered: the gesture didn’t go with my new hair. My new hair was aspirational, and my behavior, it seemed, ought to follow. I straightened my posture and quit swinging the udder. If I’d been holding a glass of wine, I would have switched from a deathgrip to a pinching-the-stem-daintily-between-two-fingers-grip. Where presentation went, red me was lovelier than normal me. My phone pinged with another reply: “You look so glam-rock!” another friend had texted. Case closed!

If wigs weren’t so uncomfortable—picture wearing a skullcap lined with toothbrushes—I’d be tempted to do it more regularly. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a comfortable wig, and by the time I got home, I was twitching like a rat. I took off the wig and dumped my swag bag out on the bed. Inside were hair accessories for redheads, fancy redhead shampoo, and fancy redhead conditioner. Nothing a wigged person could make use of. I brought the stuff to my office the next day and displayed it in the kitchen with a “PLEASE TAKE ME!” sign. By noon it was all gone.

Molly Young

[1] Molly Young photographed by Rachel Chandler Guinness at Thanos Samaras' studio in New York; [2-8] photos by Molly Young. If you want more Molly, read her ITG Foundation Week series, her Top Shelf, and follow her on Twitter @magicmolly.

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