It wasn’t as if Liesl Tommy couldn’t get her colorist flown in. It was the Los Angeles premiere of “Respect,” the Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, and Ms. Tommy, the film’s director, would be photographed every few steps.
When planning her red carpet looks, “my hair was certainly part of the conversation,” said Ms. Tommy, who declined to give her age. She wanted “to feel glamorous and comfortable and like myself.”
On the evening of the Aug. 8 premiere, her silver curls were up in a high ponytail held together by silver braids. For a Martha’s Vineyard screening, silver and white braids to her waist. In London, a gray cornrowed mohawk.
“I’ve had more fun with my hair in the last six months than I ever have,” she said. “With gray hair, I actually feel more powerful.”
Gone are the sigh-filled justifications for overgrown roots and faded hues. The “I had no choice” and the “nobody sees me anyway” phases of roots resignation during Covid’s first year have been phased out. Steering clear of a colorist’s chair has less to do with health and homebody status, and everything to do with embracing what was once an excuse.
Gray grief got a full makeover to gray joy.
‘I Move Through the World in a Different Way Now’
At first, Maayan Zilberman, an artist and candy maker, would walk around her neighborhood in Brooklyn and hear a chorus of commentary usually reserved for how incorrectly a parent is swaddling their newborn.
“Why would you do that?” was a common refrain from people wondering why she chose to abandon a lifetime of self-described “inky black” color for her natural shade of gray (though she had previously experimented with her natural color in 2012). But lately, her Instagram DMs have been flooded with fans wondering what shampoo she uses and asking for advice on whether to ditch the dye.
“I just tell them to try it,” Ms. Zilberman said. “It’s superfun.”
But it was about more than fun for her. Ms. Zilberman, 42, began the pandemic coloring her hair for Zoom meetings with clients. But as the months dragged on and devastating headlines never ceased, hair color became symbolic of something bigger.
“It was a time where I was thinking a lot about truth and looking myself in the mirror and being honest about who I am and what I stand for,” she said. “That led to ‘How are you presenting yourself? Are you coloring your hair? Modifying your body shape with corsets? Filling your face? How honest are you with the way you look?”
Ms. Zilberman hasn’t dyed her hair since and doesn’t worry about the two to three inches of dye still darkening her ends. She said that since going gray, her life has changed much more than she anticipated, and not just because she finds herself wearing brighter colors and buying shades of lipstick she never thought she could pull off.
“I move through the world in a different way now,” she said. “I find myself looking people in the eye a lot more and having a personal connection with strangers. Now, you could say that’s a reaction to the past year and a half. But it’s also because I shed a huge layer of myself. It looks good to feel good.”
The Colorist With the Consent Form
If anyone is an advocate for the transformational move of deleting your colorist’s number, it’s Jack Martin, the Southern California guru of gray. With clients like Jane Fonda, Sharon Osbourne and Andie MacDowell, not to mention more than 640,000 Instagram followers, he has been helping women return to their natural color since late 2018. In other words, yes, he’s a colorist, but his marker of success is that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, you no longer need him.
In the last 18 months, his business has tripled, he said, and clients have flown in from faraway places for six to 14 hours in his chair. Earlier in the pandemic, “a lot of women found out how beautiful the pattern of their silver was,” he said.
In a typical session, Mr. Martin spends hours bleaching all of his client’s treated hair except for the roots, which remain untouched. He then mixes up a chemical version of her natural color, which will then match what continues to grow.
“There are many kinds of gray and silver,” Mr. Martin said. “There is blue silver, white silver, silver silver, charcoal silver, even lavender silver. He explained that this is “why we have to formulate based on the client.” Clients leave with assurance that if they follow Mr. Martin’s maintenance plan, complete with which products to use and when, they shouldn’t need to come back.
Mr. Martin has every client sign a consent form that their natural shade may not yield the desired effect. “I don’t promote silver hair for every single person. The person who has to decide is you, you, you,” he said. “During consultation, if I fear she is hesitant, I will say, ‘This is not the right time for you.’”
‘It Needed to Happen Sooner or Later’
When Susan Gray (no, she wasn’t named for this story), a lawyer who lives in Oakland, Calif., first told her house-call hair colorist that she wanted to go gray, the colorist didn’t know where to begin.
Together, they flipped through Mr. Martin’s Instagram before-and-afters, and over the course of 10 months and several sessions, achieved the shade that would allow her hair to continue to grow out naturally. (“There was definitely a beige phase,” Ms. Gray, 48, said with a laugh.)
Ms. Gray is not alone in seeking inspiration from social media pages, our 21st-century version of tearing out a photo from a magazine to show a stylist. Gray hair fan accounts are too many to count, as are hashtags like #GrayHairDontCare, #SilverSisters and #Grayhairrevolution.
An account like Grombre (gray meets ombré, get it?) preaches a “radical celebration of the natural phenomenon of gray hair” to almost a quarter-million followers. The account posts stories of liberation, in which women detail their journey to gray, both literal and emotional. Anyone feeling uneasy about the once-awkward growing out phase would immediately have her anxieties assuaged by the number of fawned-over photos that turn the gray-roots-and-dyed-tips combo platter into a fashion statement.
For Ms. Gray, it may not have been a style statement, but neither was it an act of defeat. “I’m not generally an early adopter of trends,” she said. Going gray “needed to happen sooner than later in my life. I didn’t want to be one of those 60-year-olds with jet black hair and not know how to get out of it.”
She was recently buying a bottle of vodka at Target, when the cashier looked up at her, confused.
“She was pulling off that giant protective plastic collar on the bottle to keep people from stealing them, and her eyes traveled up to my hair, and then there was this long beat,” Ms. Gray said. “She was a little discombobulated, like she couldn’t figure something out. I just said, ‘Thanks for thinking about it.’”
Not Just for Pharmaceutical Commercials
If that cashier was bewildered why someone in her 40s was gray, it’s probably because she is fed daily images promoting the idea that people with gray hair are the ones in an outdoor bathtub hoping to get lucky with their pill-necessitating man.
Recently, thanks to a “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” marathon, I spent an evening watching commercials, and indeed, over the course of three hours, the only ones starring women with gray hair ended with a rattled-off list of side effects ranging from bad rashes to death.
“It’s not fair that women are called ‘granny’ or ‘old’ with natural hair,” Mr. Martin, the colorist, said. “This is just propaganda and a myth we brought on ourselves.” When Ms. MacDowell, who is 63, was in his chair, he said, the two discussed how her manager encouraged her to stick with her chemical shade of brown.
“He was just afraid she wouldn’t get hired on future jobs, not thinking about how beautiful she’d look. I told her, ‘Be who you are when you’re not behind the camera,’” Mr. Martin said. “I also told her, ‘If you get a role for a redhead, there are plenty of wigs they can put on you.’”
Of course, Ms. MacDowell still does have to pay the bills, including Mr. Martin’s. (His self-described rate is “expensive, and maybe put three lines under it.”) And even a great colorist can’t bleach out ageism and sexism.
When Ms. Tommy was first settling into what would be a six-hour process with her colorist, Alfredo Ray, she also discussed the double standard. “For my male directing peers, there is no implication” to going gray, she said.
“No one stops thinking they’re cool or talented because they went gray. But this is something people were talking about with me. People were concerned.” In fact, one well-meaning person told Ms. Tommy, “‘If you go gray, you just have to make sure you look cool every time you leave home.’”
Ms. Tommy rejected that advice. “That’s so much pressure!” she said. “There is so much projection that is constantly on women and their choices.”
“Also, I always look cool.”
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