Eminence grise: when it's cool to fade to grey

Sexy, powerful, intelligent - wouldn't you rather be groovy grey than dumb blonde? Katie Sampson on women who dare not to dye
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"But no one wants to go grey," protests Calum, colouring director at Vidal Sassoon, when I ask him how best to style greying hair. "Why let it happen when there are so many options for covering it up?" Calum is a man on a mission. The mere mention of a grey streak sends him, er, a whiter shade of pale.

But journalist and former war correspondent Emma Daly presents something of a challenge. At 31, she wears her dramatic bands of white and grey with pride. To many, her attractive streaks with their hints of life lived in the fast lane are to die for rather than dye for. She has only one nagging doubt. "I live in fear of people mistaking my age and referring to me as well-preserved," she confesses. Her fear is understandable, for, in this youth-obsessed age, greying hair still seems synonymous in many minds with all the unwanted bodily transformations brought about by the ageing process.

Just what qualifies as premature greyness differs according to your ethnic origin. If you're white, your first grey hair will appear, on average, at 34. At 50 years old, 50 per cent of Caucasians are likely to have half a head of grey hair. If you're black, you probably won't start going grey until your mid forties. But for some women, allowing the grey to shine through before one hits 60 is a simple matter of letting the side down. No one wants to be reminded of their mortality, runs the argument, so why advertise the fact that your melanin-producing factories have shut down?

But the constant association of greyness with ageing or trauma are deeply resented by academic Claire Harris, who began to go grey at 13. "I loathe the expression, 'It's enough to turn your hair grey.' Why should grey hair always be associated with age or shock?" she protests. "When I went to India, people were so appalled by my hair that they would donate henna or find excuses for it. One man even decided the greyness must have been caused by the high altitude."

But she admits that she has no objection to another die-hard stereotype, the image of a grey-haired woman as intelligent. "All the women I most admire, such as Susan Sontag and Germaine Greer, have wonderful grey hair," she says. She was also delighted when Cruella De Ville, with her characteristic white streaks, made a comeback. (Harris admits her own streak isn't entirely natural. She sectioned off the odd band of white and dyed the surrounding hair back to a darker shade.)

The monthly rush many women make for the bottle represents a nice little earner for the hair-dye manufacturers, but it's not just women who are lining their coffers. When the makers of Grecian 2000 launched a new fast dye product called "Just for Men" the sales went through the roof. Clearly, there was a new generation of men who, having spotted their first grey hairs, go into the same "get rid of it" panic mode as many women. "We are seeing a lot of younger men who are keen to avoid looking grey when they don't feel it," claims David Hills, marketing manager for Grecian 2000. According to Hills, women have an easier time of it than men: "For women, getting rid of grey is much less of an issue than for men, because dying hair is almost a fashion accoutrement."

Feminist writer Natasha Walter, who has been dying her hair for years, says she won't be letting her white hairs shine through until she's at least 80. She doesn't agree that she's fallen for ageist and anti-feminist propaganda by concealing her "natural" greyness. "After all, nothing about the way that we dress ourselves is natural. I'd also argue that the decision to go grey or not is a very personal thing rather than a gender question." But Natasha does concede that some women may prefer to stick to dyeing in order to avoid drawing unwelcome attention to themselves in the workplace. "I do think that women working in a difficult environment tend to want to look like they fit in rather than stand out."

Sexual politics aside, determining whether one is going to embrace greyness with enthusiasm is often dependent on what your hair holds in store for you. There's no denying that there's a world of difference between snowy white elegance and grizzly grey hair the colour and consistency of a Brillo Pad. Even if your hair decides to age gracefully, its shade won't necessarily do your skin any favours. Beside an olive or sallow skin, grey hair frequently has the unfortunate effect of making the face look washed out or downright unwell.

"It got to the point where I just couldn't stand seeing my greyness in the mirror," says Stella Kane, a forthright publisher who tried living with grey hair for two years. "I've got strong features but the grey hair made my face look ashen and the definition seemed to get lost. I was constantly reminded that I had reached my peak and was going downhill." Her boyfriend pressured her into keeping her grey, because like many men, he found it sexy. But once he was out of the picture, Stella rushed for the DIY dye bottle and has never looked back.

She has no regrets about her decision to dye, saying that it was one of most liberating moments she has ever experienced. "It's allowed me to be as I feel. In fact, I never intend to see my grey hair again," she vows, and something about the way she flicks her glossy black hair from her eyes makes you believe her.

But Marie Martinez Seznec, head of Christian Lacroix Haute Couture and grey-haired model for Lacroix in the Eighties, would not countenance dyeing her hair back to black. "People are always stopping me to ask why I have grey hair and what I do to keep it so white," she claims, explaining that pollution can often turn white hair yellow. These impromptu consultations inspired her to approach L'Oreal with the idea of her endorsing a product designed to keep grey hair healthy looking. L'Oreal rejected the idea on the grounds that the market would be too limited, but Seznec suspects that the reverse is true. Surely, if grey hair could be made to look wonderful, women would be keen to keep it, she reasons. "It's simple. Women are encouraged not to have grey hair because hairdressers need to work," she snorts.

But who knows, with George Clooney the current symbol of male sexiness, is it inconceivable that one day a new look Jennifer Aniston will be telling us that she's just fallen in love with her "Glad to be Grey" shampoo?

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