Bluey. Ginger. Carrot top. We know they suffer quips from the schoolyard to the workplace, but Amber Wilson asks if redheads rule.
WHEN I was a little girl, I considered my blonde hair a great tragedy. I was the only one in my family without red hair. Even my Cabbage Patch doll had a headful of crimson yarn. She came to an untimely end when her beautiful auburn-clad head was decapitated after my big brother used her as a football. I didn’t grieve too much – I was always shirty that she had red hair and I didn’t.
During my awkward teen years in the 1990s I realised blonde hair was far from a curse. I saw other blondes rise to the top of the social chain, although – trust me – I was not one of them. Redheads, by comparison, were relegated to the pits of existence along with overweight kids and computer nerds. It was in the same realms of racism and sexism – no matter how beautiful, intelligent, or funny the person was, they were always fodder for teasing.
According to Monash University evolutionary biologist Dr Damian Dowling, both parents must have a particular recessive gene in order for their child to be born a redhead.
Dowling says only 1–2 per cent of the world’s population has red hair, making it the most uncommon hair colour on the planet.
However, he says the Celtic countries of Scotland and Ireland have it in spades, with 13 per cent of the population being carrot tops, and 40 per cent carrying the scarlet gene.
“You can be born with red hair even if neither of your parents had red hair. If they’re each carrying a copy of the gene, there’s a 25 percent chance you’ll have red hair,” Dowling says.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard, for one, sings the praises of being ginger. “I’m happy to be a representative for redheads and I’m incredibly honoured to be one too. I think being a redhead is special and that is something all redheads should be proud of,” she says.
Last year, Ms Gillard made headlines on AFL grand final day when she suggested the football world needed a team of “rangas” and “ginger ninjas”.
With redheaded Ms Gillard, as well as the likes of screen sirens Nicole Kidman and Isla Fisher at the top of their game, I asked some of our city’s carrot tops if things have changed.
Tom Gleeson, comedian and proud redhead
Gleeson has no doubts that redheads are still treated like lesser citizens.
While he grew up with a robust self-esteem at a small school in Gunnedah, the jokes and barbs soon started in year 7 at his boarding school.
“It never meant anything to me because I knew it was stupid; I was never really put upon. It never actually hurt me, which is why I’ve made lots of jokes about it,” he says. “But whenever I make jokes about red hair, I make fun of having red hair, not of people with red hair. It’s a big difference.”
Gleeson says his hair colour has meant he has had to work harder, particularly when it came to love and romance.
“When you’ve got red hair and fair skin, you’ve got no illusions that you’re attractive. People who are attractive are presented as blonde and tanned,” he says.
“There are women who say ‘I’m not discriminating, I just don’t do redheads’. As if I’m supposed to say ‘yeah right, good point, we do look like s**t’.”
He says he has also had to work harder socially and in conversations.
“If you’ve got red hair, there’s probably a better chance that you’ve had to get by on your charms,” he says. “I remember in primary school, if I found a girl attractive, I couldn’t kick a football and make her notice, I had to engage her in conversation and entertain her.”
Gleeson says while he thinks redheaded women are considered more attractive than redheaded men, he doesn’t find them attractive – not even lauded beauties such as Kidman. In fact, he has never been romantically involved with a redheaded women.
“I’ve certainly always been attracted to women with dark hair. Maybe that comes from trying to cancel out negative genetic attributes like getting burnt easily in the sun.”
Joel Cohen and Aaron Webb, founders of RANGA – the Red and Nearly Ginger Association
When redheads Cohen and Webb moved into a sharehouse in St Kilda four years ago, their abode was soon nicknamed “the ginger palace” by friends.
Instead of being offended by suggestions the flat would “catch fire”, the two decided embrace the joke.
They held a redhead-themed flat-warming party, with all invitees required to wear a red or orange wig if they weren’t naturally blessed with flaming locks.
The party was a huge success, and the pair started getting requests to host more “ginger parties”. Soon, they were hosting full-blown events both in Melbourne and Sydney, complete with bands and fund-raising for their mascot – the endangered orang-utan – through orang-utan foundations Borneo Orangutan Survival and the Australian Orangutan Project.
“The association is pretty obvious – it’s ginger primates helping ginger primates,” Webb says.
I’m still the only blonde person in my family, as it seems the gene for red hair has passed on to my two beautiful nieces.
But while my Scandinavian-looking locks don’t necessarily fit with my Irish-looking kin, I know the truth – that on the inside, I’m pure ‘‘ginge’’.
RANGA hosted a red-hair themed charity ball on February 25 to raise money for wild orang-utans in Borneo.
• Earlier Amber: How adventurers adjust to life back in the ‘burbs