By Marianne Power
Sea of red: Mariane Power has joined thousands of others in Breda, Holland to celebrate the International Redhead Day
The two men either side of me are wearing orange Lycra bodysuits so tight their ginger hair is the last thing anyone is looking at. ‘Do you want a sticker?’ one asks. ‘Go on, have a sticker! You’ve got to have a sticker! It says “Justice for Gingers!”
‘We’re fighting against gingerism — the last acceptable form of racism. We have a whole manifesto for positive discrimination for redheads: we want more gingers at Oxford, more gingers in Parliament . . . maybe our own ginger country!’
The other chips in: ‘We’re here to show people that red is beautiful. We are scarce and rare, like gold, which makes us valuable!’
Before I have time to process this radical new political movement, I’ve been accosted by two men in white drainpipe jeans, open white shirts and dark auburn hair sprayed into quiffs, like a ginger version of Jedward. ‘We’re from Milano,’ says one of them, shoving a card in my hand. ‘This is our Facebook! Be our friend! Go Jeen-gerr!’
In a second they vanish, and I’m being hugged by a woman with waist-long cinnamon-coloured curls. She has travelled from Israel to be here and can’t believe her eyes. ‘At home I am the only one — now here, I’m everywhere,’ she says. ‘It’s spiritual.’
I can’t believe my eyes either. I’m standing in a sea of more than a 1,000 redheads with hair of every shade: copper, mahogany, strawberry, auburn and day-glo orange. There are red beards, red mohicans, red curls, red spikes and even a red afro.
We’ve gathered in the town square in Breda, Holland, to celebrate the 6th International Redhead Day. Gingernuts have travelled from around the world to be here — from Australia, Canada, South Africa and South America — to have a group picture taken and participate in a weekend of events including lectures about being a redhead, the biggest ever redhead Mexican wave and a huge outdoor screening of Moulin Rouge, featuring the redhead Nicole Kidman.
The two men in orange suits are 33-year-old twins, Luke and Aaron Brownless, a teacher and a civil servant from Newcastle. It’s their second year here. They tried to find orange tuxedos in which to deliver their ginger manifesto, but couldn’t — so they settled for orange bodysuits which cost £20 a pop from a party shop.
Aaron says: ‘It’s great to be around so many other people who feel proud to be ginger. Last year we wore T-shirts that said “Justice for Gingers” and we got interviewed on TV. They asked what our manifesto was — so we thought we’d give them a few ideas.’
The celebration of all things redhead was the brainchild of Bart Rouwenhorst. Back in 2005, the (blond) painter placed an advert in a Dutch newspaper to find redheads to feature in an exhibition, and more than 150 people responded. Redhead Day was born. Now in its sixth year, there are redheads as far as the eye can see.
‘It’s hard to tell how many are here, but it’s thousands,’ says Bart, shaking his head. He seems overwhelmed by the size of his ginger family.
Ginger manifesto: Luke and Aaron Brownless are two of the wackier members of the crowd at the festival, and are fighting against gingerism, as well as trying to create their own ginger country
‘I met a couple who live in the outback in Australia. They have black hair, but two children with red hair. The children were the only redheads in hundreds of kilometres, so they were feeling a little bit strange. The parents decided to bring their children to the Redhead Day so that they would see thousands of other redheads. It is really something. If you see one redhead it’s beautiful. If you see this many — it’s like a dream.’
A dream for some, but a nightmare for others. Including me. It’s fair to say that I had misgivings about coming. As I’ve got older I have come to accept my red hair, but I don’t consider it something to celebrate.
I can think of nothing worse. As a kid I would have given anything to have ‘normal’ hair. I went to a lovely school and was never bullied, but you hear all the usual nicknames — I was called everything from Ginger Minger to Carrot Top and Duracell.
A few weeks ago, I was walking down the street when a car drove past. A boy, aged around nine, sitting in the back seat, turned down his window and shouted: ‘Oi, Ginger!’ There was spite in his little face.
The fact is that being a redhead is still considered a joke. My sister, who dyed her red hair black when she was 16 and who now celebrates every new white hair because it lessens her orange glow, refused to come to the festival when I mentioned it. ‘It sounds like a freak show,’ she said.
Making friends: Nick Evans has returned for the fourth year and runs a website where people with red hair can chat online before meeting up for real at the event
Weekend activities: Youngsters at the Redhead Day could have their faces painted, while adults socialised in cafes and went on bike rides together
When I told others about it, they said: ‘But what are you going to do? Compare freckles and listen to Simply Red?’ A British woman I met on the way over says her friends asked her if it had been organised by school bullies who were trying to round us up and exterminate us.
Mocking redheads is a national pastime that stems from the 15th century when redheads were seen as witches: 45,000 were tortured and murdered. The Egyptians burned gingers alive, and the Greeks thought we turned into vampires when we died.
Fast-forward a few centuries and beauties such as model Lily Cole and actress Julianne Moore may be helping the cause, but there are still Facebook groups promoting ‘National Kick a Ginger Day’ and one Newcastle family was even driven out of their home by anti-ginger abuse in 2007. Just this summer, Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall spoke out against anti-ginger comments made on Facebook, calling them tantamount to racism.
At the festival, we head to the church, which serves as a base for the weekend’s activities. There are hundreds of redheads milling around the square — sitting in cafés, riding on bikes, taking pictures of each other. It’s weird.
I meet 23-year-old student Nick Evans, from Newcastle, at a stall selling T-shirts saying: ‘I’m having a red hair day.’ He’s here for his fourth year, and is meeting friends from Belgium, Germany and the U.S., whom he met through a website called redhead-world.net, an online redhead community.
‘You get to chat to people from all around the world,’ he says. ‘It’s great.’ But what do you talk about? Surely there’s only so much that can be said about being ginger. ‘We talk any anything,’ he says. ‘It’s just a place where you can feel accepted.’
He says there are even a couple who met on the site who are getting married. She is from Ohio and he is from Belgium; they chatted online for a year, then he flew over to see her and proposed. ‘There’s a joke that this is an event to try to make redheads get together to stop the gene from dying out,’ smiles Nick.
So would he go out with another redhead? ‘Sure, why not?’ In my non-scientific study over the weekend, it seems that redheaded men would be perfectly happy to marry a fellow redhead, but women are much more reluctant.
‘People would think we looked like brother and sister,’ said one.
But no matter, there seem to be a few non-ginger groupies along for the weekend.
On the Saturday evening, we go out for drinks and a dark-haired man comes up to me and, without so much as a hello, strokes my arm, saying: ‘I love your freckles . . . ’
He says he has come here precisely because he loves redheads. ‘You are unique and beautiful,’ he says. I thank him and run.
Later that night I’m approached by a short, blond German. ‘So are you a very passionate person?’ he asks. ‘Er, no . . . why?’
Family trip: Archie Graham may be the only ginger in his family, but that didn't stop them attending, although ten-year-old Libby was worried her brother would get lost
I learn for the first time that as well as having fiery tempers (which I don’t have), there is a myth that redheads are great lovers. I assure him I’d be a big disappointment and he’d be better off trying someone else.
The idea that redheads — who make up 2 per cent of the world’s population but a comparatively large 10 per cent of Britons — will die out has been knocking around for a while, but if this event is anything to go by there’s no danger of that. We may be the Marmite of hair colour, but from the festival it seems that redheads are still walking the earth in abundance.
On Sunday morning — after queuing up with 100 other gingers for coffee and croissants — we make our way like a red army through the town to the park to be photographed. Every shade of red, orange and gold is bobbing in the sunlight.
There are so many that poor ten-year-old Libby Graham from Bristol is very worried.
She’s used to her 13-year-old brother Archie, the only redhead in the family, standing out in a crowd, but now there are little Archies everywhere.
‘What if we lose him and get confused and come home with the wrong Archie?’ she asks her mum, watching her brother like a hawk.
The big picture: The last event of the weekend sees all the people who attend gather in a park to be photographed
As we all gather in the park, television camera crews and photographers go up in a crane to capture the incredible strawberry field. Everyone around me is smiling and laughing and feeling quite special.
My fellow gingers look so happy, relaxed and confident that it rubs off. I look at everyone — even the man with no hair on his head but an orange beard that reaches down to his tummy — and think they look beautiful. Really beautiful.
One older lady, whose red has faded to gold, looks as though she has tears in her eyes. ‘It’s very special,’ she says. ‘Hard to put into words . . .’
Indeed. When our moment in the sun is done, I make my way back to check out of my hotel, where I meet a woman in her late 30s who has come from Lithuania.
She grew up as the only redhead in her town and says girls used to hit her at school because of her hair. She is looking at a family of two parents and two bright-red-headed children, who’ve had their faces painted like a pirate and a butterfly.
‘They look so happy,’ she says quietly. ‘I wish there had been something like this when I was a child. It would have made me feel that I was OK, that I was not alone.’
How strange that it might take a weekend in Holland doing Mexican waves and wearing silly T-shirts to make us feel like it’s OK to be a redhead — but I think for many of us it has.
Weird though the weekend has been, it has healed a little wound I didn’t even realise I had. For the first time ever I don’t just accept my hair, I love it.