Lifelong bottle-blonder Maggie Alderson knew she was supposed to embrace her hair’s natural age, but seeing the results made her want to reach for the bleach.
I first realised how cool natural grey hair could be on women over 50 about six years ago, when I bumped into an old friend called Thelma. I’ve known her since we were bright young things in the 1980s, but hadn’t seen her for years – and where there used to be a head of thick black hair she now has the most fabulous shock of silver grey. She looked unbelievably chic, and I knew in that instant that grey hair was where it was at for women my age (60, which is ‘later midlife’, OK? We don’t say old – no, we don’t)
However, much as I liked Thelma’s do, having coloured my hair for most of my life, I wasn’t yet brave enough to step away from the bleach.
I first started peroxiding my hair when I was a 19-year-old punk and deeply affected by seeing Blondie herself, Debbie Harry, playing live. I’ve been having more grown-up highlights since my early 20s. In those days we called them ‘streaks’ and they were done via a tight rubber cap rammed over your head, through which strands of hair were yanked with a hook, before being slapped with bleach. It was torturous – they should have been called shrieks – but oh-so worth it when the golden locks appeared. So much better than my natural colour of… actually, I can’t remember.
As a child my hair was blonde and it darkened with puberty. When Crazy Color was invented, it was all a happy highlighted blur. Then, about three years ago, I realised I was going longer between visits to the salon for colour touch-ups because I had a very handy streak of silver right at my widow’s peak, which hid the growth of roots at the crucial front area. I liked it – and the grey mixed in with the leftover highlights behind. I liked it so much I decided to finally let my colour grow out.
It gradually grew greyer as, with each haircut, the last of the colour was gone. After about two years, I was totally grey. I was like Thelma – I was cool! I was also richer. I’m a big fan of my colourist Cetera at John Frieda in Mayfair but she comes at a price. So I was both saving cash and time spent looking oven-ready in hair foils. It all seemed good. My husband liked it. My harshest critic, the teenage daughter, said she liked it. Everyone I hadn’t seen for a while said, ‘Oh, you’ve gone grey. I like it!’ I thought I liked it.
I’d look in the mirror, squinting a bit, and convince myself I was embracing my passing years with pride. Flying the flag of my experience, like Patti Smith (but more Womble shaped). Plus, I was on trend, which is always a good look for a former fashion magazine editor. There were Instagram feeds devoted to fabulous women with natural grey hair and a new wave of older, grey-haired models such as Daphne Selfe and Maye Musk. When I saw that the model Kristen McMenamy – fellow traveller of the 90s fashion scene – had gone grey, I felt in sync with my tribe. And most of the time I felt good. In Hastings, where I live, my grey hair went well with my day-to-day rock-chick style: distressed jeans, an army surplus jacket and bandana tied cowboy-style (except it’s Hermès). I felt like a hip-cat swinger. It was all very downtown.
What didn’t feel so good was when I had to go uptown. I was browsing the boutiques of Mayfair one day, looking for a new jacket, with serious intent to buy, and I noticed the way one of the young assistants looked at me. She didn’t roll her eyes, but her expression said it all: ‘She’s not going to buy anything, I’m not going to bother with her.’ Even in the shops where they did acknowledge me, I got a similar reaction.
But I really started to change my mind about my hair the evening I met an old pal from Sydney. I just couldn’t make my hair look normal that day – it seemed to spring out with a life of its own, and even in a ponytail looked scruffy. My pal, a TV presenter, still tints her dark hair, and with that and her mani and heels, she looked so groomed. I felt like Worzel Gummidge’s sister.
So I had a haircut, believing my grey hair would bed in. But its texture got worse and no amount of blow-drying, straighteners or serums would fix it. I’ve always had full, swingy hair, but my grey hair didn’t swing, it just sat on my head like a dead ferret. I started to hate it.
Then one day, staring in the mirror, feeling kind of grubby with my weird hair, I realised what was making me feel so unhappy with myself. Beyond the silver streak was this gloomy mass of darkish, mouse-ish hair, almost green – it was my natural hair colour, now specked with grey. That was it – I rang John Frieda and booked Cetera. I was going blonde again. However, I didn’t tell a soul; I wanted to see their reactions. As for mine, when I finally looked in after the mirror after my colour and blow-dry, I felt utter joy. Rather than the buttery blonde tone I used to have this was more silver, which blended in with that front streak. I loved it and swanked out of that salon swinging my hair like Miss Piggy (yes, swinging – colour swells the hair cuticle, making it heavier and smoother).
Of course, when I got home, my husband didn’t notice. Two hours later, when I finally pointed it out, he said he liked it. My daughter did, too – and admitted that while she had genuinely liked the grey at first, she had started to wonder. So that was nice, but I didn’t really care what anyone else thought: I had my old, groomed self back. I didn’t just feel more chic, I looked somehow thinner, too. The sleeker hair seemed to make my face more cheekbone-y.
And it seems I’m not the only one seeing that. A friend recently asked if I’d lost weight. Yes, I thought to myself, I’ve lost the weight of a dead ferret off my head. Back in the same boutiques that gave the grey-haired me the brushoff, with my new hairdo I was greeted with enthusiasm. The difference was startling. But the most satisfying reaction was from my chic best friend. I hadn’t told her I was going back to blonde and the first thing she said when I met her was, ‘You look amazing! You look like you again.’
I feel like me again, too. And a little bit like Emily Maitlis – back in the blonde tribe where I spiritually belong, along with Debbie Harry, Madonna and all the other career blondes. So even if Mother Nature planned for me to have slightly green, mousy hair, and however cool it is to be naturally grey, it’s back to blonde for me. And I’m staying here.
Maggie’s latest novel Secret Keeping for Beginners is published by HarperCollins, £8.99