Dobbo makes blondes see red

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The Independent Online

Gentlemen prefer blondes. Blondes have more fun. After years of fighting off blonde stereotypes, I sympathised with a red-haired friend when she laid into Frank Dobson, Labour's candidate for London mayor, last week. Mr Dobson's latest gaffe came when he responded to the news that Chris Evans was donating pounds 100,000 to his rival, Ken Livingstone. "I am somewhat relieved, really, because my mum always told me to steer clear of red-heads," Mr Dobson announced, a remark of such transparent stupidity that Mr Evans promptly doubled his donation to the Livingstone campaign.

Mr Dobson is too old to be going round telling "my mum" stories. My friend thought his remark was racist, implying a distrust of Celts, who are more likely to have red hair. I thought it was misogynist, resurrecting the ancient slander that red-haired women are duplicitous and sexually rapacious. This, I think, is one of the reasons for the merciless press endured by the flame-haired Duchess of York, in comparison to her saintly blonde sister-in-law, Princess Diana. When Diana had an extra-marital affair, the public sighed over her treatment by James Hewitt. Fergie was pilloried when snatched photos, taken without her knowledge, showed a lover kissing her toes.

It is clear that hair is a fantastically sensitive subject, which politicians would be well-advised to avoid. Mr Dobson was denounced by red-haired Patsy Palmer, Bianca in EastEnders, who said she would now vote for Mr Livingstone. The Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, suggested the official Labour candidate would discover he had lost buckets of votes by offending the red-haired minority.

Curiously, no-one pointed out the time-honoured connection of the colour red with revolution and socialism - nouns for which Mr Blair, Mr Dobson's chief supporter, has displayed a notable lack of enthusiasm. But the most obvious explanation for Mr Dobson's prejudice is that it is a subliminal reaction to the fact that Mr Livingstone, who looks set to thrash him in the election in May, used to be known as Red Ken.

Blondes, as I know from experience, have very different problems. Blonde means sexy, vulnerable, not too clever; it means Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow. When I published a controversial book of essays a few years ago, interviewers stared at me in astonishment and exclaimed: "I didn't expect you to be blonde". The sub-text, which is also apparent in profiles of the fair-haired American author Shere Hite, is that you can't be serious and feminine. You're certainly not supposed to be blonde, wear fantastic clothes and describe yourself as a feminist.

Blonde is a blank screen, on which men project their fantasies. It doesn't work if the blonde in question opens her mouth and starts talking about Nietzsche. If you don't believe me, try ploughing your way through this sentence from Norman Mailer's drooling biography of Ms Monroe: "She was not the dark contract of those passionate brunette depths that speak of blood, vows taken for life, and the furies of vengeance if you are untrue to the depth of passion" - I think we'll just pause to get our breath back here. "No, Marilyn suggested sex might be difficult and dangerous with others, but ice-cream with her". What he's trying to say is that blondes are easy.

Actually the real difficulty with blondes is this: most of them aren't. They start out brown or brunette, and one day they rush out for a bottle which promises to give them not just blonde hair but a blonde life. They want fun and attention, just like Princess Diana or Donatella Versace or Deborah Harry, dyed blondes all. This leaves women like me, one of the six per cent of the population who were actually born blonde, in a quandary: give in and behave like the dippy stereotype or spend your life at cross-purposes with the world. In France, women with russet hair have apparently set up an organisation called Proud to be Red. If fair-haired women in this country decide to emulate them, I've already thought of a really shocking slogan: Blondes Have More Brains.

A couple of months ago, in an article in Tribune, I remarked on the invisibility of many members of Mr Blair's Cabinet. Few of us would recognise the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, I suggested, if he was standing next to us in a pub. One night last week, in a bar at the House of Commons, he was and I didn't. Fortunately someone introduced us and I got over my surprise in time to avoid asking him what he did. Even I, however, recognised the chap on my other side, pumping the hands of the bar staff and thanking them for contributing to a wonderful visit.

It was the Hollywood actor Michael Douglas, flushed with success after his standing-room-only address earlier in the evening to the all-party parliamentary group for non-proliferation and global security. MPs and peers flocked to hear Mr Douglas talk in his role as a UN goodwill ambassador for nuclear disarmament. ("Is Spartacus here yet?" a policeman asked his colleague as I arrived at the House, confusing the star of Basic Instinct with his dad.) Mr Douglas had been well-briefed, warning of the danger of a new arms race between the US and Russia, but he was also terrifyingly on-message, referring repeatedly to "Prime Minister Blair" in tones of slavish admiration. I couldn't help wondering whether someone had fitted him with a pager.

After years of sitting in bare committee rooms, when I was an active member of CND, there was something decidedly odd about hearing the possibility of nuclear annihilation discussed in the sumptuous red and gold surroundings of Westminster Hall. MPs listened attentively to Mr Douglas and applauded enthusiastically when he finished, as though he had drawn their attention to a problem they had not previously considered. Nuclear weapons are dangerous! Well, there's a thing! Peter Hain, the foreign office minister, replied with a laboured joke about his constituency being next door to the birthplace of Mr Douglas's fiancee, Catherine Zeta Jones, and spoke earnestly about his hopes for a nuclear-free world.

No-one mentioned the incongruity of Mr Douglas, who has made a career out of repulsively violent movies like Fatal Attraction and Falling Down, preaching the virtues of global peace. He is also a misogynist, who once complained that "guys are going through a terrible crisis right now because of women's unreasonable demands". I do not know what the Blair babes would make of this, as the star attracted a predominantly male audience. But it did strike me that Mr Douglas, with his sharp suit and perfectly groomed hair, is not remotely sexy. In fact, he looks very much like a New Labour MP. What can Ms Zeta Jones be thinking of?