Scared that grey hair wouldn’t cut it in a youth-obsessed world, journalist Amy Oliver started dyeing in her 20s. But she’s felt liberated since she embraced her natural colour (and reveals why her husband is thrilled, too).
It has been a tough journey, but I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finally stopped hitting the bottle. My not-so-secret habit was costing thousands of pounds, hundreds of wasted hours and nearly resulted in divorce when my husband felt he could take no more. But today, at the grand old age of 38, there is something I can say with absolute certainty: ditching my trusty brown hair dye and letting my natural greys grow out is the best decision I’ve ever made.
As a child, my hair, like my mother’s and paternal grandmother’s, was almost black. My battle to cover my greys began 13 years ago when, at 25, silver strands seemed to appear overnight and shone from my scalp like a warning to shipping. I ignored the old wives’ tale that plucking them out would increase their number threefold and, lo, they sprouted at a fierce rate.
At first I embraced it, ignoring the stares and shock. (The moment a new colleague on the newspaper where I used to work exclaimed: ‘Oh my God! You’ve got grey roots! Just how old are you?’ has stayed with me.) My fate was sealed when another former colleague advised me to dye it. It was, they said, the only way to be taken seriously in a youth obsessed industry. To my – and my purse’s – eternal regret, I did what they suggested.
Suddenly, my hair was important, when, in truth, it had never meant a great deal to me. For most of my childhood, it was long with a slight wave and required no maintenance. During a rebellious phase at secondary school it was pillar-box red before I decided to shave it all off (well, it was the 1990s).
In my 20s, I spent hours straightening it, but that was the extent of my grooming. I balked at paying more than £3 for shampoo and thought mousse was something you had for pudding. So imagine my surprise when a single colour tint cost close to £100 and three hours of my time at a rather ordinary salon chain in London. After the deed was done, I stared at myself in the mirror and realised I’d actually paid someone to dye my hair the same colour as my mother’s mahogany sideboard. It was cheap, tacky and glowed red under certain lights; I looked like a Poundshop Duchess of Cambridge.
My grey roots came through after just a week. After three, the stripe down my centre parting was so obvious I could have lived with a family of badgers. I tried to last four to six weeks before my next appointment, wearing my hair up or using hair make-up – a bit like eyeshadow – to cover my roots. Once, I found myself applying it in the bathroom at work with another woman doing the same. She voiced concern about the amount of chemicals we were both using because we were dyeing so much. ‘I’ve read they can cause Alzheimer’s,’ she said.
For some insane reason this did not deter either of us. Maybe because the comments my newly dyed hair got were all positive. ‘It takes ten years off you,’ my mother said, kindly. I wasn’t so sure, but it did mean I faded back into the ‘normal’ and therefore acceptable background.
On one occasion, I was due at a party and couldn’t get a salon appointment in time. In desperation I bought a £6.99 at-home kit and slapped it on. To my eyes the result was the same. Enough was enough, I thought, I’d dye it myself from now on.
Except I couldn’t. I found brushing the dye on to my own roots impossible; I could never reach the back and couldn’t see if I had covered every hair. So I persuaded my husband to do it instead. He is six foot one, likes beer and still owns pairs of pants from his teenage years. In short, there’s nothing metrosexual about him. Suffice to say that he loathed his new role as my hairdresser. But he did it because he’s nice (and likes saving money). Every few weeks, he’d stomp into our bathroom like a sullen teenager, saying, ‘Let’s b****y get this over with.
The gloves that come with the dye are not made for male hands. He ripped nearly every pair and got dye all over his fingers. He was most infuriated by my inability to keep my head at an appropriate angle, because I was too busy looking at my phone (I’ve never been good at talking to hairdressers) and would yank my hair back into position. It’s no exaggeration to say that we nearly got divorced after a particularly bad session.
So two years ago, he was positively encouraging when I announced I was going to embrace my grey hair while on maternity leave. I’d like to say the decision came from a desire to be a good feminist (and of course I felt profoundly guilty about the chemicals every time I dyed it while pregnant). But in truth I went grey because I could no longer be bothered to dye it and didn’t think I’d have time to with a baby.
Happily, there’s never been a better time to go grey. Older stars such as Dames Helen Mirren and Judi Dench have been flying the flag for fabulous grey hair for years, while more recently Rihanna and Cara Delevingne have been seen sporting dyed grey locks. Young women are falling over themselves to look like their granny as a result.
According to Mintel, 70 per cent of UK women now agree that it’s acceptable to have some grey. So far, so fabulous. But despite going grey happening to us all eventually, in our ageing-is-the-enemy culture it’s not the norm. And although chemists’ shelves are groaning with ‘silver’ hair products, very few actually mention the word ‘grey’: ‘steel’ and ‘chrome’ have been decreed more palatable.
Cetera Lamb, master colourist at John Frieda, whose clients include Kate Winslet and Claudia Schiffer, says while she is inundated with young women wanting to dye their hair on-trend grey, 50 per cent of her clients from 30 years plus are covering theirs up. ‘There’s still a stigma attached to it because it’s an obvious sign of ageing,’ Lamb says. ‘I have clients I do every two weeks. They say the maintenance is the bane of their lives.’
Meanwhile, men have the opposite problem and are mostly ridiculed for dyeing their hair. Sir Paul McCartney, another John Frieda client, recently came out as a silver fox after years of dyeing his hair chestnut brown. Many of the salon’s staff had been trying to persuade him to ditch the dye for years, Lamb reveals.
I expected my own grey hair to grow through as a block colour, so it was a shock – and rather nice surprise – when the grey grew through in almost perfect highlights, mixed in with my old, darker hair. But still, letting it go was one of the hardest things I’ve done, both physically and emotionally.
Many people – including members of my family – said I was ‘brave’, as though I was enduring gruelling medical treatment. I don’t recall anyone saying I was mad (at least, not to my face). But felt judged, and that I had fallen squarely into the ‘letting yourself go’ mummy camp. After one friend suggested I go to the hairdresser as a treat, I had to explain to anyone who would listen that going grey was very much my intention.
When I went back to work, one colleague would say ‘Nearly there’ every time I saw him. Another said ‘Old hair, young face’ after telling me they ‘admired’ me, and yet another sent not-so-subtle emails with salon offers. There were days when I nearly crumbled and times when I looked in the mirror and thought, ‘Gosh, who’s that?’
But the real war was inside my own head. Would I become invisible? Would I be taken seriously at work? Would my husband still find me attractive? Crucially, would I still be able to wear my favourite boho dress with the flowers on?
Interestingly – or annoyingly – going grey has thrown up different maintenance problems. I feel I need to make more effort to be groomed. I’ve cut my longish hair, which was often shoved up in a messy bun, into a sharp bob. My make-up also needed a rethink. I’d always worn brown eyeshadow, but it just sank into the background.
I was advised by a make-up artist to use cool browns rather than warm tones. I should really wear lipstick but often forget. I’m still rethinking my wardrobe, which was filled with mostly black clothes that Alice Cooper would be proud of. There are certain outfits I just can’t wear now. That dress with the flowers on? Binned.
Growing out grey hair is not for everyone, adds Lamb. I am ‘lucky’ (the first time anyone has said that) because coverage of my grey is around 70 per cent. Those with 50 per cent or less may find grey grows in patches and won’t look so good. But you only discover how much grey you have once you start the process, so you might want to book into a nunnery for six months while you do it.
Of course, there are days when I think about dyeing it again, and look enviably at women with naturally dark locks who have never given greys a thought. But mostly I love it, feel liberated and am anything but invisible. I get lots of compliments – one woman ran after me on the tube the other day to tell me how good it looked. I still get taken seriously at work and my husband admits that although he worried about it looking terrible as the roots grew out, he was more concerned about me ‘bottling it’ and us returning to the dreaded dyeing routine. Now he loves it, and not just because he’s free of the colourist shackles (I think).
Two years on and I’ve just had the last bit of brown cut out of my hair – a true milestone. While I was in the salon, a teenager came in to ask the price of dyeing her hair grey. It was close to £100. I’m finally happy to say, I get mine for free.