British author Jacky Colliss Harvey has a witty new book out called “Red: A History of the Redhead.” She examines the history of red hair through the lenses of science, religion, art, sexuality and pop culture. The author, who is a redhead herself, talks to Rico about the genetic benefits of having red hair, the negative stereotypes associated with redheaded men, and why, in general, people care so much about hair.
Rico Gagliano: Jacky, thanks for joining us.
Jacky Colliss Harvey: My pleasure.
Rico Gagliano: So first, let’s get some facts out of the way. Redheads are very rare, correct?
Jacky Colliss Harvey: They are two percent of the population on a global average, slightly higher in some countries, some parts of the world, than others
Rico Gagliano: Where are most of them found? Actually, that was my next question.
Jacky Colliss Harvey: You find them on the West Coast of Scotland and Ireland. You find a lot on the East Coast of America, of course, because of the immigrant population of the 19th century. There is a very intriguing little hotspot on the River Volga in Russia…
Rico Gagliano: Indeed.
Jacky Colliss Harvey: And, there are these little satellite populations of redheads in India, in Iran, in Afghanistan, and in Western China as well.
Rico Gagliano: But, mainly in these northern countries. The reason I bring this up is because I love the Darwinian reason you mention in the book as to why redheads might be more populous in the north: vitamin D.
Jacky Colliss Harvey: That’s right. That’s pretty crazy. If you have the pale skin that so often goes with red hair, then your system is going to be much, much better at making vitamin D out of whatever sunlight is available.
Rico Gagliano: Yes, so it would be an advantage to be a redhead in darker countries to the north, because your body is better at making vitamin D.
Jacky Colliss Harvey: Yeah, that’s right, and you need it for strong bones, and women in particular need it when they’re pregnant and when they’re breastfeeding.
So, my theory in the book, my kind of Darwinian — Mrs. Darwin — theory in the book, is that one of the reasons why there’s always been this connection between redheaded women, in particular, and sexuality and sensuality, is that if you chose a redhead as a mate, then you would breed successfully.
Rico Gagliano: You yourself are one of these rare redheaded creatures.
Jacky Colliss Harvey: I am.
Rico Gagliano: On page one, you call your red hair, “The single most significant characteristic of your life.” How so?
Jacky Colliss Harvey: It’s the thing everybody always remembers about you. If you are a redhead, they will distinguish you as being “the one with red hair.” And even moreso, people’s reactions to you are determined by the fact that you’re a redhead.
Rico Gagliano: In your case, how does that manifest?
Jacky Colliss Harvey: It’s always worked very well for me. One of the things that makes red hair so unusual is that there is this big gender divide, where red hair in men is often much more problematic than red hair is for women. And it’s one of the few, almost unique, examples of stereotyping where the female of the species seems to get the better deal.
Rico Gagliano: Give me some examples of the way redheaded women, for instance, are portrayed positively in culture.
Jacky Colliss Harvey: Rita Hayworth, of course. Famously, not born redheaded, but the name everybody thinks of when you put the words “redheaded” and “Hollywood” together.
Lucille Ball, again, dyed her hair red. Famously, her hairdresser told her, “The hair may be brown, but the soul is on fire.” [Both laugh.] So, he changed her hair to match her soul.
You have a lot of Pre-Raphaelite beauties. The Pre-Raphaelites absolutely adored red hair. They loved painting it. I think, in general, artists like redheaded models. People remember you. The singer Ed Sheeran said this, that when he was starting off in his career, he got much more notice because he was redheaded, and because it was unusual. You stand out.
Rico Gagliano: But, even though, generally, in the book, as you mentioned, men with red hair are considered kind of bad people. They’re often portrayed as bullies or jerks.
Jacky Colliss Harvey: Yeah. It is one of the things that is changing now.
Rico Gagliano: Why, in your research, did you find that men get such a negative reaction?
Jacky Colliss Harvey: It begins about three and a half, four thousand years ago, when the ancient Greeks encountered the tribes of a region then known as Thrace, which is now pretty much modern Bulgaria. And there do seem to have been a lot of redheads in amongst the tribesmen of Thrace.
The tribes of Thrace were famous in the ancient world as being warriors of incredible ferocity. So, any kind of contact with them tended to be very, very bloody indeed. And this became one of the qualities that was associated with red-haired men, that they were violent and had these ungovernable tempers and were barbaric.
Rico Gagliano: A few bad apples ruins it for everyone centuries later. Except Ed Sheeran, apparently.
Jacky Colliss Harvey: Except Ed Sheeran, and Damian Lewis, who I learned this morning, is being considered for the new James Bond.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, very interesting.
Jacky Colliss Harvey: So, a real change coming in there, if that was to happen.
Rico Gagliano: Generally speaking, why do we care so much about hair? Why do we judge people so much based on it?
I mean, there’s talk in the African-American community about how people will really judge each other according to hair. Clearly, redheaded-ness is another thing. Why do we care? It’s just stuff that grows out of our head.
Jacky Colliss Harvey: Well, it is, but I think you put your finger on it, there, that it’s to do with the head. So, it’s connected in some very intimate way with our sense of identity.
We send out a message to the outside world by the way that we present ourselves, and our hair is frequently one of the most noticeable ways in which we do that.
Hair has been called “the interface between the private person and the public world.” And hair is public property. One of the weird things that happens to you, if you’re growing up as a redheaded child, is that people come up and comment upon and even try to touch your hair, as if it wasn’t really a part of you at all. You are just wearing it for their benefit, you know, like a hat.