Old Hair by Alex Bilmes
The other Friday evening, my daughter, aged nine, came sauntering downstairs for her supper trailing one of her familiars (Roxy, a regular visitor) and announced to the household, apropos absolutely nothing as far as I could make out — though doubtless Roxy knows something the rest of us don’t — that she wished her mum was Perrie from Little Mix. Yeah, chimed in Roxy, or Taylor Swift would be good. No, said our angel, with an imperious flick of her hair. She was firm on this point, as she is on so very, very many things: Perrie from Little Mix was the mother she wished for. She would accept no substitutes.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I couldn’t resist. I know how you feel, I said. I wish your mum was Perrie from Little Mix, too. And from the kitchen, where her actual mother was sorting the laundry
into piles, laughter came there none. Kids: they say the cruellest things. And useless middle-aged men can be total shitbags, too. I mean, Perrie from Little Mix might have plenty going for her (I wouldn’t know) but does she sort laundry too?
At parents’ evening in February, in the big hall at the primary school my children attend, I was handed my six-year-old son’s work book and invited by his teacher to read some of the stories he’s been writing. The first one I turned to, sitting on my tiny plastic chair, had descriptions of his family’s identifying characteristics. He correctly noted that he has blue eyes and yellow hair. His big sister has blue eyes and brown hair. His mum has green eyes and brownish-yellowish hair. His dad has blue eyes and old hair.
I’ve been thinking about my hair a bit, of late. My old hair. It’s one of the few physical traits I have that might, at a stretch, be regarded by other men my age as enviable. No, it’s not. It’s the only one. I have a full head of thick hair, and it’s showing no signs at all of disappearing. If anything it grows faster, becomes thicker and more stubborn. Like toenails. If I spent enough time on it, I could train it into something magnificent, voluminous. It could become a conversation starter, a trademark affectation, like Melvyn Bragg’s swoosh or Graydon Carter’s Hokusai wave.
When I was very young, my hair was strawberry blonde. Later it was tinged with ginger. But it’s been brown — basic, boring brown — since I was in my teens. And now it’s not. It hasn’t been for a while. I’m 46, and I’m going grey. Better than the alternative, says my barber, wincing at the idea of losing yet another once-loyal customer to the home clippers.
Men who go grey, it’s often said, begin to look distinguished. They develop gravitas. It’s almost kinda sexy. As long as you “own” it. Which is a thing people do these days that means something other than what it used to mean. My colleague Catherine has a pronounced grey streak in her hair that she very much “owns”, by displaying it proudly and prominently. It’s part of her look. It’s one of the things that makes her cool, and soignée and distinctive. My grey hair is not part of a look. It’s just there. Just sitting there, on top of my head. Looking old. And not, so far as I can make out, raising my level of distinction in any appreciable way. I don’t own it. I mean, I own it (it’s mine, as much as hair can be) but I don’t own it.
You’re aware, no doubt, of the existence of
the silver fox. Clooney. Mourinho. Obama. I bet even Perrie from Little Mix would agree that those guys are powerfully sexy. And they are respected. But they had mad respect before they went grey. The salt and pepper just seasoned the stock a little. What about men who never earned much respect, don’t deserve any, and don’t as a result get any more when they go grey? What’s the upside for us?
Did you catch any of that BBC drama, a few months back, in which Richard Gere played a Murdoch-style media tycoon? Gere, it is widely accepted, is one of the most handsome men who ever lived. In Bret Easton Ellis’s recent book White (widely interpreted as a reference to his ethnicity, though I’ve noticed that Bret EE, too, has lost much of the pigment in his thatch), Gere is described, accurately I think, as “extraordinarily beautiful”. Gere’s appearance in American Gigolo, Ellis writes, “changed how we look at and objectify men.”
Gere will turn 70 this summer. But he’s still a himbo dreamboat, with sad eyes and a sensual mouth and smooth skin and a hot bod and truly great hair. It’s no longer chestnut. It’s not even grey. It’s white. But it still falls just as it should around his lovely face.
Gere has never been taken very seriously as an actor, possibly because he’s so beautiful, possibly because he’s not a terribly good actor. I like him in American Gigolo, but he plays a cipher: Julian, the Armani-clad, Mercedes-driving prostitute of the title. “Cool, detached and creepy, a fatuous Apollo,” is how David Thomson describes Julian in his own recent book, Sleeping with Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire. I like Gere in Days of Heaven, too, but that’s a Terrence Malick movie, so he, like all the actors in Malick films, is there to look gorgeous. He might as well be an owl, or a waterfall, or a sunset. Or a Mercedes.
I even like him in Breathless, the criminal New Wave remake of the Nouvelle Vague classic, which is mostly considered a travesty, but is actually a lot of fun. By the time of Pretty Woman, his biggest hit, he’d gone from hooker to john. And the star of that film, indisputably, was Julia Roberts, who has not gone grey and, as long as anyone keeps re-watching Pretty Woman, in a sense never will.
Is it a coincidence that it’s around the time of Pretty Woman — 1990 — that Gere, possibly believing it would lend him gravitas, started to allow himself to be filmed grey-headed? Since then it’s hard to think of many Richard Gere films I’ve seen, or at least can remember.
Gere’s white hair is a cautionary tale for those of us who believe that going grey will axiomatically enhance our reputations, lending us kudos, respect. Like Richard Gere’s characters, I am a fundamentally unserious person. There’s not much of a hinterland. I lack depth. That wouldn’t be a problem, but occasionally, for professional reasons, I am required to project something more substantial. Something approaching, if not gravitas, then at least vague authority.
I’ve tried suits, I’ve tried ties, I’ve tried humourlessness, I’ve tried sobriety. Like Gere, I’ve tried spectacles. I’ve tried everything I can think of short of remaking Ocean’s Eleven, winning the European Cup and becoming the President of the United States (no longer a guaranteed route to r-e-s-p-e-c-t, it has to be said).
I’d dye it, and accept I’ll never be taken seriously, but then what chance would I ever stand with Perrie from Little Mix?