Glad to be grey: Is it time to embrace the real me?

I’ve gone grey overnight. It’s fake (I’ll explain later) but, even so, applying an amateurish smudge of lipstick in the station lavatories before I meet my husband, I’m anxious. There’s an element of chucking a grenade into a long-term relationship when you surprise your spouse with a physical transformation. When mine came home from a fortnight’s holiday with a straggly beard, I refused to look at him until he’d shaved.

He’s poking at his phone and doesn’t see me until I’m standing in front of him, then he looks up, recoils in surprise and laughs. “Well?” I say. He looks at me more appraisingly, but he’s smiling. “It looks good, actually. I think it suits you.” Thus begins my week of grey.

We live in a silver age, aesthetically as well as demographically. Young women have been hashtagging their #grannyhair since at least 2015 when Lady Gaga went grey to the Grammies (and arguably since Jean Paul Gaultier showed grey beehives in 2011). Cara Delevingne has tried it; Rihanna rocked it twice. Experimenting with silver, pastel blue or lavender seems to be this generation’s Sun In.

Meanwhile grey-haired models have spread far beyond token appearances from 87-year-old pin-up Carmen Dell’Orefice or that Joan Didion Céline ad. In New York, during February’s fashion shows, former street photographer Tommy Ton’s label Deveaux had thrillingly grown up silver-haired models (including set designer Jocelyne Beaudoin, personal trainer Grece Ghanem and acupuncturist Walda Laurenceau). They were the highlight of a diverse casting that felt anything but gimmicky.

In Milan, Martin Margiela’s diffusion line MM6 starred what US Vogue described as “local women of a certain age having the time of their lives”. Closer to home, Sylviane Degunst and Pam Lucas represent the silver demographic in the Guardian’s Fashion for all Ages series with panache.

This greynaissance is running in intriguing parallel with a phenomenon that appears to be gathering momentum: more women are apparently choosing to go grey at a time that is, or could be age-appropriate. The amplification effect of social media makes it hard to tease out whether sporting grey hair, natural or faux, is really increasing, or if we are just hearing about it more. But natural grey, and the process of getting there, is absolutely in the ether. Inevitably, Instagram and Pinterest are fertile grounds for grey and white hair inspiration. Salma Hayek recently posted an Instagram shot of herself, sunlit and smiling, hair loose with a handful of white strands catching the light. “Proud of my white hair,” read the caption, to 450,000 rapturous likes and “So beautiful!” comments. Meanwhile, Pinterest searches for “going grey” increased by 879% at the end of 2018.

Shades of grey: Cara Delevingne.

Shades of grey: Cara Delevingne models silver hair. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The Grombre Instagram account (“a radical celebration of the natural phenomenon of grey hair”, 98.6k followers) catalogues inspirational hair “journeys”, from coy grey roots to full heads of silver. It’s a place of sincere self-love and gratitude where God gets regular shout-outs. A sample post of a radiant woman with luscious grey waves cuddling a goat reads: “I stopped colouring and cutting my hair three years ago and am the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m embracing who I am.”

If you can stomach the positivity, goodness these women look wonderful: stylish but also indefinably badass. Because there is something slightly subversive about going grey. Alyson Walsh of grown-up style blog That’s Not My Age has chronicled her own grey hair journey with wit and intelligence while also celebrating stylish grey-haired women that cross her “greydar”. “People say ‘grey’s a trend, everyone’s doing it!’ Well, they’re not. There are women who can’t be seen to be ageing. So it’s more than just a trend. You are accepting the ageing process and making a stand by not dyeing your hair.” Sarah Harris, 39 and UK Vogue’s deputy editor, whose platinum locks have launched a thousand envious #hairgoals posts, has said the same: “I like the rebelliousness of grey hair. I like that it’s nonconformist.”

On several levels this speaks to me: a supportive community of grown-up women sticking it to the man, his beauty norms and his dubious PPD dyes. Aged 44, I’m also quite enjoying ageing so far. Obviously I am not immune to that thrill of horror when the pouchy, saggy goings-on between my forehead and shoulders are revealed as my phone sadistically switches to front camera. But mainly I don’t care. The invisibility we are supposed to dread is one of the purest pleasures of middle age for me. I feel free: free to go to Tesco in gardening clogs; free to wear a padded gilet and woolly hat in the library. Invisibility is a superpower for a reason.

On another level, however, I have absolutely no interest in grey hair for a simple reason: I don’t have any hair. It fell out when I was 20, followed by my brows, body hair and lashes. I have alopecia universalis, an auto-immune condition where the body views hair as an intruder and – efficiently but wrong-headedly – destroys it.

Greys and favour: Jean Paul Gaultier.

Greys and favour: models go grey on the Jean Paul Gaultier catwalk. Photograph: Jason Lloyd Evans

It was awful at first, but it’s not a tragedy now. Think of all the money I save on waxes and haircuts. Months can go by without me thinking about my baldness. I wear an ultra-natural, comfortable wig with a vacuum silicone base I can completely forget about. I can shower and even swim in it. Losing my lashes was harder: I was downcast when my eyes stopped tolerating contact lenses and sadder when they vetoed eyeliner. Now I’m gambling with grim follicular punishment whenever I wear makeup (a recent photoshoot left me with a full-blown infection and a not-at-all-rakish eye patch). It has turned me into one of those brisk, wind-exfoliated English women who view vanity as suspect, which is not ideal, but eminently survivable.

Now though, swayed by the grown-up goddesses of Grombre, I find myself silver-curious. If I had hair, would it be going grey? Should I add a few strands to my next wig or is it time for a total transformation?

I’m in the rare position of being able to do a no-commitment trial run, so I call superstar stylist John Vial of Salon Sloane for advice. He’s cut everyone from Zaha Hadid to Vidal Sassoon himself, but also my wigs for the past 18 years. He’s emphatic: “I can’t see why you would do it, Em – 99% of people look worse with grey hair. I must have done 30,000 cuts and I can only think of one woman who looks better with grey hair.” Despite this, he agrees to find me a grey wig to try and a few days later, I get a call from a Brixton wig emporium.

“There’s one that could work, but we need to get it now because it keeps selling out,” he says.

“Wow, is grey really that popular?”

“No. Apparently people are getting it to dress up as Theresa May.”

That night, he posts a picture of himself wearing the wig, complete with Big Ben, crying laughing emojis and the caption: “I’m running for election.”

Thus forewarned, I have mixed feelings when I reach his salon. On the train, I have been reading Une apparition, French journalist and Instagram influencer Sophie Fontanel’s account of her two-year hair “journey” from dyed dark brown to natural white. Fontanel’s book – a philosophical exploration of her transformation I would describe as “peak French” – moves from Saint-Tropez to New York and Milan, via Parisian private views and the Café de Flore. Men opine on her desirability; women confide; her 150k Instagram followers have Thoughts, both positive and negative. It is very readable and, ultimately, quite joyful. Fontanel loves her new hair and so do several sexy young admirers. Paradoxically, it makes her more, not less visible. Perhaps this could happen to me. Or perhaps I’ll look like a 62-year-old politician having the worst year of her life.

“You’ll be shocked how old you look,” John warns darkly, brandishing Theresa, an unpromising mop of salt and pepper, but once he applies his magic we’re both pleasantly surprised. It is a cheap, shoddy wig: £25 and 100% synthetic, but oddly flattering. I have never had highlights, but I imagine this is the desired effect: the lighter colour illuminates my skin, making it look fresher. I like the shorter fringe, too. Other clients and stylists even come over to compliment me (admittedly, they could hardly tell me it looks awful).

Leaving the salon, I drop in on my best friend, who does an exaggerated double-take and bursts out laughing, but kindly. “You look like some kind of Shoreditch designer,” she says. “You should change colour all the time.” I’m so exhilarated I leave my real wig in a café and have to sprint back, panicked, to rescue it, before heading home for a week’s Theresa trial.

Here’s what happens when you go grey overnight in York: absolutely nothing. In Paris, Sophie Fontanel was assailed with constant comments – I get tumbleweed. At home my husband is away, my sons snigger for a minute then forget, and the dog doesn’t notice. On the streets, my new look is a total non-event, even when I see people I know. Whether this is British reserve, proof of my invisibility or the fact that York is distractingly packed with Viking warriors and hen parties in onesies carrying inflatable phalluses is unclear. When I take my first anxious trip to the library, the man I sit opposite every single day doesn’t even look up. Indeed, the only person who does notice is my elder son, who is also here, revising. “Ugh, I forgot you’d be wearing that,” he hisses, quietly appalled. “It’s really weird.” Then he moves to the other side of the library and ignores me.

On day three, I take Theresa to my French conversation group. Surrounded by mature fellow Francophiles spanning shades from salt and pepper through snowy white, I feel a bit awkward in my fake grey. Is there such a thing as generational appropriation? The greynaissance has bypassed them entirely and they are politely bemused as I explain. “So I’m à la mode?” says a lady with an enviable platinum crop. They’ve all seen The Favourite though, and point out that those powdered periwigs are a reminder that there’s nothing new under the sun. Later, my singing teacher, who has stunning soft silver waves, asks: “What have you done to your hair?” She clearly thinks I am insane, pointedly ignoring my furtive readjustments when Theresa shifts around as I sing.

‘Too chemistry teacher’ (but in a nice way): Emma Beddington.

‘Too chemistry teacher’ (but in a nice way): Emma Beddington models her grey wig Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer

The only person who is really affected is me. It doesn’t make me feel older and I love the paler colour (“hag highlights”, my friend Jane calls it), but I’m desperately uncomfortable. The nylon mesh base leaves me freezing cold and rabidly itchy. I wear my normal wig from morning shower to bedtime, but I rip Theresa off in fury as soon as I get home and scratch for a full glorious minute. Wig caps – pop socks for your head – help a little, but I still spend every day dreaming of binning her. I even nip out for milk and walk the dog wigless (in a woolly hat), something I haven’t done since 1995.

Desperate for validation, I emulate Sophie Fontanel, posting an artfully lit Instagram shot. “You look like you’d be wearing trousers I don’t understand (but will be wearing in six months),” comments my friend Tara, which is flattering. “Too chemistry teacher,” from Helen, is not. My favourite comment is that I look “calm and in charge” while my least favourite is that I look like Judge Roban from French detective series Spiral, a cadaverously miserable mop-headed man in his 70s. “It might be that your facial expression isn’t helping,” the commenter adds, which is unfortunate since I think it’s the only one I have.

By day five, I’m bribing my sons to walk the dog because I feel vulnerable and ridiculous and don’t want to go out. It’s not the greyness, though I have realised that 90% of my wardrobe is grey and unless I dress carefully, I look like a stumpy column of house dust. I also feel compelled to wear makeup. I buy a new eyeliner I hope won’t make my eyes explode and take to keeping a lipstick in my pocket. Why? I don’t think the grey hair demands it; it’s more that Theresa has awoken some long-buried impulse to look better. I’m properly uncomfortable with my baldness for the first time in years and sadder than ever not to have eyelashes. I feel like a naked mole-rat, but I’m also wearing foundation and the silk shirts I usually hoard for best. It’s terribly confusing.

On the last day, I wake to a howling gale outside: wig-wearer’s kryptonite. I grit my teeth, put on Theresa and head out. Wind whistles around my scalp, my forehead itches and I can feel the telltale throb of an incipient eye infection from ill-advised eyeliner use. When I get home I take Theresa off and shove her in a drawer. I am transcendentally, emphatically done.

The indescribable relief of putting my real wig back on wears off when I look in the mirror: I hate what I see. The long, dark, heavy fringe, unchanged in 20 years, is doing nothing for me. I send a speculative email to Nicky Bratton of Positively Hair (the company that makes my brilliant wigs) asking if and how her clients go grey. “Lots of clients add white hair to their wigs. It’s all about personality, image and expectations.” Long white hair is trickier, because fewer people have (or sell) it. “It takes 15 to 20 ponytails to make a wig. Are you thinking of adding white to your next wig?” Am I? Maybe I am.

I thought this grey business would be a lark, but it wasn’t, actually. It poked at spots I didn’t know were tender and awoke a desire to look nice I had long squashed down. I was sceptical of the much-documented drama of hair “transition” I explored online, silently judging the “brave” and “not for the faint-hearted” narrative grey positivity seems to inspire. This week has taught me I was wrong. Confronting the reality of a physical self you hide or ignore is big stuff, it transpires, and oddly exposing. Theresa has forced me to accept that I am not just a disembodied brain in a padded gilet. But now what? Grey is anything but giving up: it’s hopeful but it’s also challenging. The white-haired Saint-Tropez beauty who first convinced Sophie Fontanel to start her transformation told her: “You don’t need courage, just curiosity.” I think I will need plenty of both.

Fade to grey

Hairdresser Nicola Clarke’s tips on changing your hair colour

There’s no taboo in going grey any more and it doesn’t mean you’re old either – I went grey when I was 23.

If you’re grey and have been colouring your hair, or have grey roots at your parting or, as is more common, around the hairline, the grey needs to be introduced in stages and, initially, broken up with highlights. It’s a big commitment. We’re looking at six months to a year, depending on hair length and past colour treatments. It’s a really tricky process, and not an instant fix.

If you are blonde with grey roots, you can blend in the regrowth, taking it lighter around the face. If you’re very dark, you might go from a rusty-red to orange to a yellow, softened by toners, and finally grey. You want your hair as clear and white as possible, untarnished by yellow tones (often caused by pollution or smoking).

Once grey, there is no need to introduce any colour. From then on, it’s about keeping your hair cleansed, fresh and nourished. Use a really moisturising shampoo every couple of weeks, plus a violet shampoo to give that nice white wash (rather than a yellowy one). Think of it as looking after a fine fabric, like silk.

Nicola Clarke is salon director and creative director at Nicola Clarke at John Frieda, 58-59 Margaret Street, London W1 (

Work that look

Funmi Fetto on the right makeup to suit grey hair

I’m not advocating the Barbara Cartland school of maquillage here, but there’s no getting away from it: grey hair is a complexion drainer so the face needs more colour. Defined brows put everything else into context and stop your face disappearing into the ether. Anastasia Beverly Hills brow gels are a breeze to use, deliver a natural but robust pigment and the impressive 11-shade range is suitable across skin tones. Dark brown mascara and liners in navy and brown are more flattering than black. Bronzers are divine for warming up the skin (Tom Ford, Bobbi Brown, Nars and MAC have worthy go-tos), but novices need practice, otherwise bronzed statue skin awaits. An easier and more dewy option is to blend foundation (By Terry’s Densiliss Serum Foundation is particularly terrific on older skins) with a subtle liquid highlighter (Becca’s Shimmering Skin Perfector, right, falls into my ‘so good, I’d drink it if I could’ category). Brighter punchier colours on the lips will always make you look more alive, but if you must wear nudes, avoid anything reminiscent of 80s tights and choose one with pink, burgundy or chocolate undertones. Finally, don’t forget a hint (operative word) of blush. It will make you look less grey.


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