Seeing Red: Nature vs nurture

Those possessing the ginger gene are notoriously tempestuous. So was the fracas between Sun editor Rebekah Wade and husband Ross Kemp down to her flame-coloured tresses - or do those with auburn hair get an undeservedly bad press? Cahal Milmo investigates

Friday 04 November 2005 01:36

Aristotle, for all his learning, was among the first to express hair-based prejudice when he wrote: "The reddish are of bad character." The Medieval inhabitants of modern Poland were so wary they burnt them all as witches, and the Normans charged twice the going rate when they were put up for sale as slaves.

From Cleopatra and her auburn tresses to the blood-stained ginger locks of Boudicca and the dance-related strops of Patsy Palmer - and including Napoleon Bonaparte, Oliver Cromwell and Leeds United hardman Billy Bremner - redheads and their reputation for a temper as fiery as their manes have fascinated humanity since they apparently first stalked the earth just 20,000 years ago.

All it takes to be born with red hair is the presence of the melanocortin 1 receptor or MC1R, the genetic mutation that dictates whether a person has the type of pigment to produce such distinctive locks.

But from this accident of nature flows an avalanche of science, history, mythology and naked prejudice to suggest that redheads are indeed to be feared and admired, if for their fury and ability to withstand pain and exude sexual attraction.

The role of a fiery temptress was laid down for redheaded women as early as the Bible; Lilith, the lascivious she-demon with a propensity for eating male children before medieval theologians made her the first wife of Adam, has always been portrayed as a redhead.

Experts on redheadedness say that if a child is born with red hair, it is better if it is a girl, for the auburn male is likely to attract little more than derision.

Marion Roach, a New Yorkbased writer whose history of red hair, Roots of Desire, was published this summer, said: "Redheads have been the subject of curiosity and stigma since time immemorial. "At some point in history, our perception divided along gender lines. The red-haired woman has moved from being portrayed as merely evil to being highly sexual.

"But the mythology of the male remained one of distrust. Redhaired men don't have the power or appeal of women. For example, pollsters will tell you it's very difficult to sell a red-headed male politician."

The allure of the redheaded sex siren show little sign of diminishing, with everything from pornography catering for "redophiles" to the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen singing their praises. As one line from Springsteen's "Redheaded Woman" put it: "But you ain't lived till you've had your tyres rotated by a redheaded woman."

The epitomising of redhaired woman as feisty and erotic owes much to Roman historians and their portrayal of Boudicca, the Iceni warrior queen who supposedly quelled the Roman legions on the 1st century AD.

Marcellinus, one witness to her harrowing beauty as she rode naked on a chariot, described her as "tall and terrifying in appearance ... a great mass of red hair fell over her shoulders". Experts believe this portrayal may be an early example of anti-redhead propaganda.

Ms Roach said: "It is likely that the Romans were desperate to provide an explanation for why they had such problems quelling the ancient Britons. "By fixing on their red hair, regardless of the fact that many Picts would not have been, they were establishing their 'otherness' as a reason for not being able to defeat them."

The Who's Who of redheads past and present provides some evidence for those who claim they possess an innate belligerence: Nero, Cleopatra (her famously jet-black hair was a wig), Judas Iscariot, William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Cromwell, Napoleon and Winston Churchill.

But it is the involvement of science which has more recently lent credence to the idea that if not susceptible to violence, then redheads are at least more likely to lash out when they suffer pain.Research in America this year found that those with orange locks are more susceptible to cold and heat as well as physical pain. A study by Louisville University found that redheads are unable to bear temperatures 10 degrees centigrade below that of dark-haired people.

Academics also found that they were more resistant to the effects of anaesthetics, sometimes requiring twice the dose for those with dark hair. Professor Daniel Sessler, director of the department of anaesthesiology at Louisville, said: "Our results confirm anecdotal evidence that redheads are more sensitive to certain types of pain.

"We received more than 100 communications from redheads who claimed that anaesthesia often failed or that unusually high doses of local anaesthetics were required to achieve adequate analgesia. "It suggested that the redhead gene may have some role in the pain pathway."

Quite what role such genetic indicators played in provoking, for example, some of Billy Bremner's crunching tackles for Leeds in the 1970s, or the rows former EastEnders' star Patsy Palmer had recently with her partner on Strictly Come Dancing is unclear.

But others are less quick to attribute complex social behaviours to a genetic quirk. For a start, for every redheaded warrior, there is a sensitive flame-haired soul to be found throughout history, albeit of varying talent.

The roll-call of redheaded artistry is indeed impressive: Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, William Blake, Lord Byron, James Joyce, Jean Paul Sartre, George Bernard Shaw, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe (the blonde was dyed), JK Rowling, Nicole Kidman, Glenda Jackson, and, er, Lulu and Geri Halliwell.

This despite an ingrained attitude to those with redhair which has ranged from the idiosyncratic to the downright evil. A 1912 study reached the improbable conclusion that redheads made the best waitresses and Nazi Germany banned them from intermarrying in case they threatened the Third Reich with "deviant offspring".

Indeed, such is the nature of the prejudice redheads say they encounter almost daily that a new more militant strain of "auburnite" is fast emerging.

A series of redhead self-help clubs has sprung up on the internet, campaigning for taunts of "ginger", "carrot-head", "Duracell" to be treated as racism and for their targets to be given the protection of the law.

One British-based group, Redheads United, declares: "We fail to accept that redhead taunts and jokes are something that we should have to live with, and we think this kind of behaviour is no better than racism."

An American website, Realm of Redheads, now boasts more than 2,700 members of its internet-based support group for people suffering the effects of abuse based on their hair colour, as well as advocating a more pro-active attitude to prejudice.

The site offers a range of T-shirts with slogans including: "It's a redhead thing ... you wouldn't understand", "I am strong. I am invincible. I am redhead", "Carrot Tops are Green, Einstein", and "I am redhead, hear me roar!"

Other redhead campaigners say that if they have a predilection to fly off the handle, it is only as a response to the bigotry they encounter so often.

Simon Cheetham, a redhead who runs the website www., which recently made Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy its redhead of the year, said: "It is a stereotypical view that we are more fiery or more likely to lose our temper.

"But it is also probably true because of the amount of rubbish we have to put up with. If you are born a redhead then you have a lifetime of misery and scorn heaped upon you.It is hardly surprising therefore that we tend to be quicker to anger or are more passionate than others because we have to justify our existence in a way that others simply do not. I would think it is an attitude born 90 per cent nurture and 10 per cent from nature. We are a minority without any obvious rights."

Indeed, the status of the red hair as a minority trait has long been proven to be largely restricted to the British Isles, although it occurs in populations from Papua New Guinea to Jamaica.

Although only 4 per cent of the global population is redheaded the UK and Ireland have concentrations of 10 per cent. Experts estimate that 40 per cent of Scots, the spiritual home of the redhead, have the gene for red hair.

The reasons for the concentration of ruddy follicles in north Europe's extremes are the subject of academic debate. A theory that the gene originated from cross-breeding with humanity's close relative, the Neanderthal, some 100,000 years ago, has been challenged by research suggesting that the first redheads only emerged as recently as 20,000 years ago when homo sapiens first left Africa and moved northwards to the darker and colder climes of Europe.

Jonathan Rees, professor of dermatology at Edinburgh University, who led the team which first isolated the MC1R gene in 1995, said: "There may have been some advantage to having red hair and pale skin. One reason for this is that you make vitamin D in your skin and therefore you're less likely to get rickets if you have pale skin and there is not much sunlight around."

An alternative explanation is that the gene, which leads to a predominance of pheomelanin, the form of the pigment melanin that leads to blond and red hair, is simply a random change, the equivalent of the first human colonisers of the British Isles having had an unusual number of redheads.

All of which amounts to the news that comes too late for red-headed politicians such as Neil Kinnock, but potentially in time for Mr Kennedy: red is the new colour of power. A survey by the hair-colour company, Clairol, found that 30 per cent of young women who dye their hair at home opt for a tint of red similar to that a certain national newspaper editor who today finds herself in the headlines for a supposed flash of temper.

Ms Roach said: "Being a redhead is not about being demure. The modern woman may be identifying with redheads and wanting to be powerful and flaunt the confidence that comes with red hair."

Confessions of a redhead: the female view

Jane Asher, actress and cake designer

The awareness of being different came gradually: the shouts of "ginger" and "copper top" were funny at first, and as a young child I felt proud of being a bit special.

There came a time, though, when I wanted to look like everybody else. The freckles - I hated them! Girls would laugh at my spotty arms and legs, and however much my parents told me that Hollywood stars were sitting under perforated umbrellas to achieve the same look, I knew they were lying.

Showbiz has always been reasonably tolerant, so I may have been affected less than some by redhead prejudice - although casting for commercials as recently as 15 years ago would stipulate "no blacks, no redheads".

But we're tough and I don't mean just psychologically. A clinical trial proved that redheads need a fifth more anaesthesia than everybody else to achieve the same state of numbness. A bit more respect is definitely in order.

Confessions of a redhead: the male view

Tom Aikens, chef and restaurant owner

If you ask any redhead they undoubtedly all will have been teased as a kid to some extent. I was - "carrot top", "Duracell", "copper top", you name it I've had it.

But I love being a redhead. I think the colouring - particularly on women - is very beautiful, very sexy. And being a redhead I guess we do feel different because we are quite rare as opposed to the other colourings.

I would say we are a bit different: some redheads are eccentric; some of them are plain mad. Because most redheads, as I said, are picked on they think "fuck you" I'm going to get on and be someone.

A lot of us do have that bullish get up and go and have the sense that nothing's going to hold them back - I was definitely like that, and still am.

I do have a bit of a fiery temperament now and again but no more than anyone else with normal hair, I just don't give up too easily.

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