'How going grey made me sexier': Taxi drivers are chatting her up and even her son thinks she looks cool... so why is JENNI MURRAY desperate to go back to brunette?
- I couldn’t face letting the silver roots slowly creep through — my vanity couldn’t bear that
- Maintaining my hair colour has been non-negotiable. I had no idea what my natural hair colour was throughout my 50s
- Blimey, maybe there’s something to be said for this Silver Vixen look -
not that Him Indoors would have been likely to notice
- A grey-haired woman seems to attract rather more scorn and irritation from the general public than her less obviously aged sisters
By JENNI MURRAY
PUBLISHED: 18:08 EST, 6 September 2013 | UPDATED: 18:16 EST, 6 September 2013
A curious sight greeted me as I stepped out of the hair-dresser’s this week. I glanced into a shop window and saw an old woman staring back at me — dumpy, swathed in black, and with gun-metal grey hair. She stared critically at me. ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’ she seemed to say.
It took me a couple of nervous heartbeats to realise that woman was me.
I began dyeing my hair to conceal the first signs of silver 20 years ago, aged 43. Two decades on, I have decided to see what life would be like as nature intended. I was also prompted by the criticism M&S attracted for not having any grey-haired women in their adverts.
Broadcaster Jenni Murray with brown hair (left) and grey hair (right) - she wanted to find out what life would be like as nature intended. She was also prompted by criticism M&S attracted for not having any grey-haired women in their adverts
What would it be like to let my hair show some signs of ageing? I couldn’t face letting the silver roots slowly creep through — my vanity couldn’t bear that — but what if I let the hairdresser loose with a grey-dye bottle?
And so I dared to go back to my roots.
As a child, my hair was long and very dark. My mother tended it carefully with daily pigtails and lots of brushing. I went through a short period in my early teens when I tried curls, thanks to Twink home perming kits, and uncomfortable nights sleeping in rollers and a hair net.
It’s subsequently been bobbed a la Mary Quant, permed to match Christine Cagney and, for the last few years, cut well into a short style by spectacularly good hairdressers who did what they and I thought suited me best. I’ve certainly never stinted when it comes to keeping my hair stylish.
But I dreaded going grey. When the first white hair began to peek through, you couldn’t see me for dust as I legged it to the salon. Because, in my mind, grey meant old.
Jenni Murray pictured in her 20s - with brown hair - as a radio presenter in the 1960s
There is no denying that I’ve done my best, short of having plastic surgery, to fend off the inevitability of the ageing process.
I’ve had costly dental implants to replace my ageing teeth and avoid dentures, and I’ve struggled on and off to keep my weight down, as has been well documented in this newspaper. Maintaining my hair colour has been non-negotiable. I had no idea what my natural hair colour was throughout my 50s: colouring products and techniques these days are of such good quality, you can almost make your hair a work of art, changing it to suit your mood and disguising that dead giveaway of age.
The moment I knew I would do whatever I could for as long as I could afford it to conceal my true colours was when, after I lost all my hair during chemotherapy for breast cancer at the age of 56, it began to grow back — not a soft silver, but a hard, iron grey. Nothing pretty about it.
‘I need to ask you a question,’ I said to my cancer consultant at my next visit. He looked slightly alarmed and obviously expected some detailed challenge about treatment or side-effects. Not a bit of it.
‘How soon can I get my hair dyed?’ His relief was palpable. ‘As soon as it’s long enough for your hairdresser to cope,’ he sighed.
Nothing, throughout the whole treatment process, made me feel better than the day I walked out of the salon with a full head of, admittedly short, brunette locks. I never wanted to see my grey hair again.
So it was with some trepidation that I made my way to Daniel Galvin’s salon in Central London.
Liz, the senior colourist, explained the quite complex plan. My hair would have to be bleached before a grey toner was rinsed through it. The whole process would take from eight in the morning till lunchtime when finally I would be ready, blow-dried and quite grey, to face the world.
Short dark hair: Radio presenter and writer Jenni Murray pictured with her mother in 2001
I was almost seduced by the look when I first caught sight of it in the mirror. Echoes of Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Julie Walters went through my mind as I saw the shiny, perfectly coiffed head of hair that appeared to belong to me.
Outside, in broad daylight, however, my courage wavered. As I stood on the pavement peering at my reflection in a shop window, anxiously wondering if I had made a terrible mistake, a taxi pulled up on the other side of the road at the lights, and wound down the window.
‘Yay! Jenni,’ came the shout across the traffic. ‘Fabulous, gorgeous, we love you! Forget your dieting. You look great.’
Good grief! I hadn’t attracted the carriage trade for as long as I could remember. I flashed what I hoped was a winsome smile and felt quite unaccountably delighted.
Had the hair addled my brain and made what I would usually have perceived as unwarranted and irritating attention from a stranger in a public place seem acceptable? Had hair that stands out in the crowd made me a coquette?
Back down to earth and a lunchtime meeting with my son, Charlie, a photographer with a keen eye.
He looked slightly astonished at the complete change in his mother’s appearance and then said: ‘Actually, Mum, it suits you. It looks pretty cool. I could get used to it.’ Maybe for a son it’s quite a comfort to see his mother looking her age.
After that encounter I went on, somewhat nervously, to dinner with one of my oldest friends.
More shock initially at the total transformation, then she said: ‘You know, it was bit of a surprise at first, but I think I’m beginning to like it. I almost think it makes you look younger and I’d even go so far as to say it looks really sexy.’
Blimey, maybe there’s something to be said for this Silver Vixen look — not that Him Indoors would have been likely to notice.
Broadcaster Jenni Murray (sitting) with former government minister Edwina Currie on Radio 4's Woman's Hour back in 2002
He happened to be away this week and did ask how it had gone on the phone, but I’ve come back from the hairdresser’s for years with no comment from him. I doubt this time would have been any different.
But how would strangers greet this grey-haired woman in their midst? I remembered another telling observation from author Meg Rosoff on her one, and only, foray into greyness. Like me, she’s been through the same process of cancer and chemotherapy, and when her hair grew back it was pure white.
On boarding a packed Tube train one day, a woman, of about the same age but with not a grey hair in sight, stood up for her and said: ‘Come on, dearie, you have my seat.’
‘Dearie,’ spat Meg, in venomous tones. ‘Dearie indeed! That was it. I put my feminist principles in my pocket and went straight off to get it coloured. It’s never happened since and it’s worth it. I’d rather stand than be anybody’s “dearie”!’
I remembered her story as I boarded a crowded train. Sure enough, a rather attractive young man shot out of his seat and offered it to me. ‘Do sit down, dear,’ he said.
Not quite dearie, but almost enough to send me screaming back to Liz with a plea to make me ‘normal’ again. But I took it graciously.
Steven, the only man on our production team, stopped dead in the doorway of my office, hopped from one foot to the other and muttered: ‘Hmmm, I think I prefer you brunette’
I tested the theory out again at Euston station: It’s always a nightmare to find a seat on the platform if you’re waiting for a train and I have never, ever been offered one, even during my hip difficulty period when I walked with crutches.
Grey and bold, I hovered expectantly alongside a row of seats on the main concourse, occupied by four adults and two small children.
None of the adults offered this old lady a place and I was pretty appalled to find the parents didn’t ask their children to stand up either. Maybe my grey hair was simply too smart and stylish to warrant special treatment, or maybe there just isn’t the respect for older people there used to be.
That has been my general observation as I’ve gone around with my new look and observed other women who go au naturel. Apart from that young man on the Tube, I’ve seen no great respect for us, indeed, I would say, on the whole, the reverse is true.
A grey-haired woman seems to attract rather more scorn and irritation from the general public than her less obviously aged sisters: I don’t think I’ve ever been so ignored or pushed past in my life.
Was it me, or was there more barging and shoving in the queue at the train station than usual? And it definitely took longer to be served at the chemist — the assistant just didn’t seem to notice me in the throng.
Philosophical: 'The response to my new look at work has varied enormously,' says Jenni Murray
Do men experience this? I suspect not: where grey hair in a man seems to signify power, experience and respect, in a woman it says she’s finished her useful life as breeding material and is best left to her own devices — and ignored.
The response to my new look at work has varied enormously.
Steven, the only man on our production team, stopped dead in the doorway of my office, hopped from one foot to the other and muttered: ‘Hmmm, I think I prefer you brunette.’
Mike, one of our studio managers, said: ‘Wow! I love your hair. Very Helen Mirren. Very on trend.’
The receptionists loved it and thought it made me look younger, but Kirsty, the producer closest to me in age, told me a story of a friend of hers who’d gone a very pretty grey in her 20s.
‘She kept it that way until she was in her 40s. As a young woman, it was unusual and fashionable, but as she grew older, she thought it gave away her age.
‘As for you, I think it’s well done, but it adds more years onto you than you need.’
I think she’s the one I’ll go with. I’ll give it a week or so and then back to brunette.
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