When Kate Spicer started going grey in her 20s, her motto was ‘dye until you die’. Then, aged 51, she finally decided to embrace her natural colour – with some very surprising results.
One night, sharing a bottle of wine with a friend and having a moan, I listed the reasons I felt down. She listened patiently to the usual gripes until the last, which I added as an afterthought. ‘And then there’s this going grey thing…’
In that moment I realised that letting my roots grow out was mildly depressing. It not only looked sad and dreary, it was symbolic of big changes that screamed one thing: death is inevitable.
‘Do you have to do it?’ she asked.
My answer surprised me. ‘Yes.’
My going grey story is a long one. My first horrible wiry lock appeared when I was 29 – which was 22 years ago. For years I lived by the code ‘dye until you die’, until I started to wonder if this was plausible.
There’s a woman in my hair salon who I’m transfixed by. She wears beautiful clothes, has polished nails and shining lightly tanned skin. Her astonishingly glossy brunette hair is so richly brown it has a shimmering aura of rose gold. Even children don’t have hair this lustrous.
I’d been struggling to work out how to be older, how to wear my age with a modicum of elegance. Here was the inspiration I needed to dig me out of my midlife identity crisis. ‘That’s how you do grown-up,’ I said, nodding her way.
The colourist agreed, ‘She is one of our most fab clients.’ Then came the but. ‘She has several blow dries a week and she’ll have weekly glossing masques for upping the colour and shine.’
As he listed her maintenance regime, I knew I was never going to be that woman. ‘And she’s in here every two weeks to have her roots done.’
The colourist and I did some calculations on the amount of time and money one would have to invest to look that glorious. Her hair alone was many days and in the region of £15,000 a year. I don’t have the money nor did I want to spend the time. In that moment, I knew I had to go grey.
But I put off the moment for years. ‘My last ever visit,’ I said every time I opened the door to the salon. ‘I’ll do it at 50,’ I said.
A colder and harder truth appeared in the form of the first lockdown last year. I already had six weeks of roots and that meant no hairdresser for another four months. I wasn’t going to start trying to dye my own hair. Corona had spoken and now it’s been over a year since my last visit to the colourist. Here’s what I’ve learnt…
The first months are the hardest
I felt rubbish. The sight of a woman with a two-inch parting of crackly grey hair and a foot of fading brown ends is impossible to reinvent in any kind of positive way – not in the way that grown-out blonde looks kind of punky and cool.
It didn’t matter we were locked down and no one saw me. I saw me. (Though, if I’m honest, being stuck at home did help get me through those painful early months.)
When I told the renowned colourist Josh Wood how awful I felt he said, sagely, ‘Hair dye is a medicine.’
Yes, it’s an antidepressant. I bought brunette toners to keep my hair shiny, which worked on pepping up my brown ends but turned my roots bright blue. Which, in case you are interested, looks silly.
I bought a lovely fedora. It helped but had its limits.
The regrowth look physically turned my stomach. I’m not an excessively vain person, but the sight of inches of grey root and faded brown dye can’t be anything but a beauty car crash.
There is a hashtag #greyhairdontcare where some women proudly display their regrowth. It’s odd. I’m not squeamish, I’m not scared of snakes, needles, hairy legs or slugs, but these grow-out images disgusted me. Sorry, it’s irrational and unsisterly to admit it. Daily, I wondered whether to surrender and curl up and dye.
‘Cut it all off, cut as much as you can off without making me look like a lorry driver,’ I said to my hairdresser Kieran Tudor. ‘That’s the spirit,’ he said. ‘Let’s take out the parting to avoid that dreaded harsh roots look so you can wear the hair up off your face with more volume.’ He also gave me three things: a lecture about eating well, a very gentle shampoo and a haircare supplement by Centred (both of the last two he makes).
Around this time, for different reasons than hair (they do exist, you know), I drastically cut back on my drinking. Plus, it was five months by now since any chemical dyes had touched my hair.
Who knows which of the above had the greater impact, but my hair texture improved significantly. The texture was not crackly, but soft and silky. I was back on track.
People will be baffled by your decision
At times they will be very rude. Broadly, people were supportive but for every three people who said, ‘I rather like it!’ there was another who questioned the choice.
I’m going grey, I told my boyfriend. Like when I ask, ‘Do you think I’ve put on weight?’ he said nothing. Then replied, ‘Is it a money thing? I’ll pay if you like.’
When my sister Amy started letting a few greys show in her toffee-blonde hair, her neighbour was more bold. She recounted: ‘He said as an aside to his wife but in full earshot of me, “Goodness, Amy needs some hair dye.”’ She’s tough my sister, but on this day, feeling hungover and vulnerable, she went home and cried.
Several women said to me, ‘You’re brave.’ A few challenged my decision directly. All of these women had one thing in common: they were committed to fighting ageing. They were my gorgeous friends whose looks and sex appeal are a powerful part of their persona – the thought of surrendering to ageing seemed madness to them. I remember feeling the same way about people in my life when they went grey – I hated it.
I found I was glad when people challenged me on my decision, as in answering them I felt greater resolve. I felt enduring the transition would be an important rite of passage in our modern Western lives that are so lacking in these psychologically important moments. I would come out the other side with a deeper love and acceptance of myself, a new relish for the late summer and autumn of my life, and a more healthy view of the inevitable. In accepting my greys and mortality, I could live life more fully. That’s the plan.
I had to call my stepmother to apologise for lobbying her hard to dye when she went grey. I remember our concern being that she was still young and attractive, and that grey hair would mark her out as old and negate some of her appeal. Who were we scared for, her, or us?
She says she still feels great about her decision.
Real grey hair is having a moment
It helps to focus on this. Billions of women have gone grey over the centuries, though they have also dyed their hair (see Cleopatra). It’s a long time since we’ve actually desired grey hair in a woman. That does seem to be changing, albeit minimally. The social media site Pinterest could not give me figures for 2020 when so many of us were forced to go grey, but in 2018 searches for ‘going grey’ increased by 879 per cent.
I created a Pinterest inspiration page, with a range of people from high-fashion Daphne Guinness to intellectual heavyweight Christine Lagarde. I averted my gaze from the blondes, reds and brunettes and focused on myriad different combinations of grey. My confidence improved.
I’ve never followed a hashtag before. My grey hair wasn’t about joining some kind of ostentatious tribe. But watching the hashtag #greyhairdontcare did help in the end. Ignore posts by young women who have dyed their hair grey. Look at the real greys, see what works. Grey hair demands a shift in style and grooming habits. By casting a ruthless eye over other women, I was able to help make sense of my own style goals.
You don’t have to stop faking it
But no one needs to know that. Astonishingly, for someone who is in the business of changing people’s hair colour, Josh Wood and I had been having interesting chats about ‘honouring the grey’ for years. Josh does not colour my hair personally but I enjoyed talking to him about colouring trends.
Wasn’t he shooting himself in the foot collaborating on a piece about grey hair with me? ‘No, because for most of my clients it isn’t even a conversation,’ he says, coining the expression ‘brownerexic’ to describe those who can’t even cope with the thought of their hair being grey, let alone seeing it. He will never run out of clients.
Around 2015 ‘grey hair’ became a more mainstream fashion trend. Products like the fashionable colour salon Bleach London’s Fade to Grey dyes are designed for young women to take their hair, which is generally untroubled by so much as a single strand of pubic-textured gris, to a uniform shade of pretend old, or ‘antique grey’ as People magazine so poetically described a 26-year-old actress’s dye job.
Aside from the two horns of white rising from my forehead, my hair’s a pretty dreary salt and pepper. ‘Don’t worry,’ my hairdresser Kieran said to me when I was moping about it. ‘There are a lot of options between covering it all and doing absolutely nothing.’
As you have read this far, I am going to tell you a secret. I am a cheat. Once I am grey all over a colourist will put some darker chunks in, to heighten the drama between black and white – make it a bit less ‘meh’. This is a two- or three-times-a-year commitment. This, I can handle.
No one said this article was about going grey gracefully. So I have to admit, I cheated some more. My hormones are retreating, taking with them the plumping collagen from my face. This, I realised, was more ageing than the grey, which, truth be told, suited my 51-year-old skin better than the pricey fake brown.
By month eight, I was OK with the hair. It was more me. What was harder to live with is that age had made my face longer, flatter, thinner and my chin more pointy. Some days my skin and hair together were a cruel pairing and I could remedy this with a little make-up. Having a tan was a joy. Though short lived. A dab of black eyeliner brought out the devil horns of white hair and made my eyes bluer.
An icy blonde toner over the top or a violet-tinted shampoo helped the white ‘pop’. Strong lipsticks worked for me in a way they never had as a brunette.
Wearing rollers at home in the daytime like those glamorous Liverpool girls (or Coronation Street’s Hilda Ogden) helped the hair sweep up and away, which with a bit of ‘teasing’ helped open up my face.
Still, I had days when I just felt so haggard. On those days I might as well have been the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West. That long face bothered me more than the grey ever could.
I hunted for the right person and found Tracy Mountford, who is well known for making ageing TV presenters look naturally done. I told her I was on a budget. She prescribed a minimal intervention that required two 3ml syringes of filler to put a bit of width, rather than volume, back in my face, and a dab of Botox to relax the muscle that was making my witchy chin. All the wrinkles remained, but the overall look was more vital. It took ten minutes and I don’t need to go back for another six months.
Now all I needed to do was smile more – this at least is free.
Going grey is a choice
Do not look at it as a life sentence.
Josh Wood says that for every woman who leaves high-flying positions in the City and, with great relief, gives up the hair dye, there’s another who has just got divorced and runs back to the colourist’s chair.
You are the boss of your hair and if it is making you feel sad, change it.
Ways to keep your greys glossy
Think wow not wiry, says beauty director Edwina Ings-Chambers.
‘Grey hair tends to be more coarse because the melanin [which gives hair its colour] is no longer being produced and the hair follicle makes less oils,’ explains leading colourist Nicola Clarke, who presides over London’s Nicola Clarke at John Frieda hair salon and whose clients include Madonna and Kates Winslet and Moss.
‘A moisturising shampoo and conditioner work really well and, every few weeks – especially if you are a smoker or live with one – use a clarifying shampoo and a violet shampoo. These will eliminate any yellow tones, which can make naturally grey hair dull.’ Nicola is a brand ambassador for Virtue and says its Full Shampoo for fine hair and Smooth Shampoo for thick hair (£14 each, spacenk.com) will also help keep silver locks looking sleek.
In addition to a great shampoo, Nicola also suggests using ‘a gentle exfoliating mask to keep the oils and the scalp healthy’, such as Virtue Exfoliating Scalp Treatment, ‘a silky, creamy formula with micro rice beads – most hair scrubs have sugar or salt which are drying for hair’.
As for me, I’ve found great results for shine with these three ranges (even better if you use a shampoo and conditioner but using either also gives good results): Shu Uemura Art of Hair Yubi Blonde (from £29.95, lookfantastic.com) leaves hair really lustrous; Klorane Centaury Shampoo (£8, lookfantastic.com) and L’Oréal Elvive Colour Protect Anti-Brassiness Purple Shampoo (£5.50, boots.com).
Picture Editor: Stephanie Belingard. Hair and make-up: Alice Theobald using Les Chaines D’Or de Chanel, Chanel Sublimage L’Extrait de Nuit and Morgan’s Pomade Volume Powder.