“It will be extremely ageing.” These words linger, like skunk smell. We’re not talking about telomere shortening, metabolic toxins or the damage from free radicals: the usual causes of ageing. This comment comes from the mouth of a hair and make-up artist at one of the commercial television networks after I confess I’m growing out my grey hair, beginning with streaks at the temples.
I feel like yelling, “Our cells die each day! Why do we live in denial? Ageing is better than the alternative.”
But I stay schtum. It’s uncomfortable confronting our mortality: no one wants to look death in the face. I guess this is the reason the “skunk stripe” is a screen trope for villainy: 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein with Elsa Lanchester as the bride, Cruella de Vil, and even Julianne Moore’s character in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay have an evil streak, figuratively and literally.
I grew up watching the cartoon Josie and the Pussycats. The antagonist, Alexandra Cabot, is pictured as a smelly weasel. One of the few two-toned heroines is Rogue in X-Men, who’s accidentally impaled by Wolverine.
In contrast, miscreant males either have hair as slick as an otter or a dodgy dye job, like Le Chiffre in Casino Royale and Raoul Silva in Skyfall. The exception is Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd. But he could be a villain in real life.
Sure, granny hair is hot right now. (As it was in the 17th century when European royalty wore powdered wigs to cover scalp sores from syphilis.) Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Katie Price are part of the blue rinse set. So are Dascha Polanco from Orange is the New Black and Zosia Mamet from Girls. But according to the kids, if you’re aged over 40 you can’t get away with it.
“Mum, if you go grey, you cannot pick us up from school,” 10-year-old Grace says to me.
“Yeah, Mum, please don’t embarrass us in front of our friends,” 11-year-old Taj adds.
One of their teachers is a gorgeous woman with olive skin and long silver locks. “She looks cool,” I say one day. “She looks like a witch,” the kids reply.
We need to reassess the words describing men and women as we age: Why are grey-haired men regarded as distinguished while women are witches?
Recently, researchers uncovered the “grey gene”, IRF4, which regulates melanin, the pigment responsible for hair, skin and eye colour. Professor Brian Morris, at the University of Sydney’s School of Medical Sciences, says the findings could be used in future to reverse greying.
But a survey – ironically, by a haircare brand – says nine out of 10 women wouldn’t want to change. “I love my white hair,” one respondent writes.
“The problem that needs solving is not a treatment for grey hair. It is the negative way society perceives ageing.”
As I said after my 2014 TEDx Talk, “The Lady Stripped Bare”, I’m not anti-beauty, I’m pro-reality. One of the legacies of the Spicer family (aside from heads like wing nuts) is premature greying: The antecedent appeared – frizzy, like a pube – in my early 30s.
By 2020, the colouring market in Australia will be worth $279 million. It’s a waste of time and money, not to mention a Sisyphean task.
I’m following in the footsteps of those silver foxes Jamie Lee Curtis and Helen Mirren, and the countless folks who watch TV. Last week at Sydney’s ABC headquarters I saw a tour group, all of whom were women with white or silver hair. There are few female television presenters who reflect this large tranche of the audience.
“I think it’s terrific that you’re going grey,” says another make-up artist as he blow-dries my hair for a TV appearance. “My mum did it when she turned 50. It was really stylish.”
Sadly, style isn’t one of my strong points. But I like to think of the grey streak I’m growing in the front of my hair as a lightning bolt. In fact, this is why Jack Pierce designed the streak in Lanchester’s hair when she played the bride. There’ll be five billion joules coursing through this body, baby!
And if I look older? Well, who cares? I’ll relish being a free radical.