My blonde ambition

"Are you sure you’re not a Russian spy or something?” The man asking me this knows full well I can’t be, but he sounds hopeful all the same. I’m in a coffee shop on Paul Street in Cork and two guys I know socially have been staring at me for the last half an hour. I can’t say I blame them. The last time they saw me I was a crop-haired brunette, now they’re talking to a platinum blonde.

My blonde ambition

As a social experiment I’ve replaced my usual hairstyle — short, dark and curly — with an ice-white, chin-length bob. My hair is now the exact same colour as Jean Harlow’s in Platinum Blonde, the 1931 Hollywood movie that not only gave this shade its name, but turned it into a globally recognised shorthand for sex appeal.

“Very French”, was how the stylist described my wig when she put it on me. With this hair, I’ve joined the ranks of such Gallic femmes fatales as Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve, not to mention a certain American actress who went by the name of Marilyn. My blonde locks have the arctic whiteness of Hitchcock heroines like Tippi Hendren and Kim Novak, the same shade more recently modelled to no less effect by stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson and Michelle Williams.

I am to wear this Hollywood hair for the next week, and write about the reactions I get. If the boys at the next table are anything to go by, I won’t be short of material. They can’t get over me. They were deep in conversation when I walked in, now every couple of minutes, one of them is breaking off to sneak a quick look. And once they start looking, they can’t stop themselves. I walk over to get a verdict.

“It’s gorgeous on you, girl, fabulous,” one tells me. “You’re like a new woman,” says the other one. “A better woman,” his eyes are saying. That’s when he asks me if I’m over from Moscow.

One hour into the experiment and two male acquaintances are already falling over themselves. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, I was warned about the ‘blonde effect’.

“The way people react to blondes is very different, you’d better get ready for it,” says Margo O’Connor my stylist at the Cork Wig Clinic. I am sitting in front of the mirror of the bright little salon in Barrack Street and she’s about to transform me. A blonde herself, Margo knows first-hand how much of an impact the change can have, so she’s taking the time to prepare me psychologically.

“It’s a completely different story, the sort of attention you’ll get, from both men and women, you’ll see,” she says.

Having selected platinum or true ‘white blonde’ as the best match for my skin tone (honey blondes made me look a bit green) — it costs a cool €470 — Margo makes me close my eyes, all the better to be wowed by the transformation when she’s finished fitting my wig. Dutifully I shut them, knowing many women before me have done what I’m about to do.

“Every woman would go blonde at some stage, if she got a chance,” says Lisa Meyer, the owner of the Wig Clinic. The women who come to see her are going through hair loss for a variety of reasons, and they jump at the chance to try on a blonde wig. They have plenty of encouragement, usually.

“If their husband or partner is with them, they’ll be the ones to suggest it. It’s always a bit of craic to start off with, every woman wants to see what she’s like as a blonde.”

In front of the mirror, I’m having a ‘blonde moment’ of my own. Margo does the big reveal and I open my eyes. The woman staring back at me has hair the colour of bright moonlight, and looks... weird.

The whiteness of the hair accentuates my dark eyes and brows and the overall effect is a bit startling. On top of this, I’ve suddenly gone from having a tiny, tidy cap of curls to having what seems like an awful lot of hair.

Margo agrees that the change is extreme, but the colour is good on my skin she thinks, and the bob not only covers my low, dark hairline, but is a better option for my small head than one of the other, longer manes. And so, the bob it is. I set forth onto the streets of Cork, if not legally blonde exactly, then at least with my stylist’s blessing.

The majority of blondes though, don’t just pop their wigs on and go. For any other brunette, the graduation from dark to blonde requires a bit more time and money, and the help of a trusted stylist. Given the chemicals involved, it’s about as clever to try to make yourself blonde as it is to pierce your own ears.

I have talked to many blondes, none of whom had a hope of remaining so without a stylist’s intervention, and many of whom reported disasters when they took to the bleach in their teens. Orange hair, broken hair, burnt hair, hair that literally fizzed. The horror stories are endless, and yet despite the cost and commitment involved, it’s still as popular than ever to be blonde.

The likes of Rihanna, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga might change their hair colour as often as they change their Jimmy Choos, but for most of us, going blonde is still a lasting commitment. Thankfully though, it’s a lot less painful than it used to be.

“It’s called balayage now, honey,” Fergal O’Connor laughs when I ask him if he does highlights. O’Connor and Vicki Galvin are the owners of Origin Hair Design in Cork. They’ve seen plenty of colour trends come and go, and balayage is the method of the moment for 21st century blondes.

“It’s huge now, it’s the biggest thing in years. The blonde comes through seamlessly, and it’s a lot more low maintenance, and edgier. The growing out is so much more natural too,” says Fergal.

A French colouring technique developed during the 1970s, the colour is applied freehand with this method, and the result is a much more natural effect, the sorts of honeyed highlights seen on everyone from Sarah Jessica Parker to Gisele Bundchen, and a million miles away from the highlights-caps of yore.

It also sounds a lot less scary than what happened to one diehard blonde, who told me her hairdresser mixed together bleach and Moroccan oil and literally scrunched it into her hair.

But why do people spend so much time and energy on achieving lighter-coloured hair? Techniques like balayage might be a relatively gentler and more low-maintenance way of going blonde, but it’s still a lengthy process, and can cost up to €570 a year to maintain.

Furthermore, according to some reports, less than 2% of the world’s population is naturally blonde. So why do we go gaga for a hair colour that’s only naturally occurring in a handful of Nordic folk?

According to Gary Kavanagh, group creative director with Peter Mark, you can’t go wrong with blonde hair. “It’s a classic colour that will always be with us, whether on the red carpet in Hollywood or here at home,” he says.

Veteran stylist Vicki Glavin believes blonde is popular because it makes you stand out.

“People look at you differently, they want what you have,” she says.

I knew what she meant after just an hour. Walking down Patrick Street in Cork in my wig it was the closest I’ve ever gotten to a catwalk. When I go through town in a pixie crop, I blend in. With a head of white blonde hair I got attention from everywhere. It wasn’t just the men either — women looked at me too. And not in a nice way. I thought I was imagining it when a woman glared at me in Daunt Square. Thirty seconds later, I got it again from a middle-aged pair in the window seat of Abrakebabra. It was a look of outright hostility and this time I wasn’t imagining it. What made it all the more surprising was that they were blonde as well. Maybe it’s to be expected. I’m the competition now.

“Blondes turn more heads,” says Vicki. “It’s sexier — men are more attracted to blondes.”

Whatever the science or the cultural baggage behind it, after a week with a blonde wig, I’m inclined to agree. It may be societal, mythical, biological or sexual, but blondes have an immediate effect. It’s not for everyone of course, I was thrilled to go back to the anonymity of brunette. It’s never been easier to go fair if you want to, but if my wig taught me anything, it’s that you might have to be brassy to get away with being platinum blonde.

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