November 26, 2011 in Features

Seeing red

Uncommon hair color brings attention and, sometimes, ridicule
Kristin Tillotson Minneapolis Star Tribune

The Robertson family – including Katie, 11, top left, Erin, 8, top right, Tommy, 7, left, and Bridget, 5 – knows all about the extra attention that red hair brings. Even the parents are redheads.
(Full-size photo)

Patti Stanger, host of “The Millionaire Matchmaker,” is making carrot-tops see red.

Stanger, who has often criticized redheads on the Bravo reality show that sets up rich men with comely women, is the target of a new Facebook protest campaign cheekily called “We’re the 2 percent.”

“Redhead discrimination is overlooked, laughed at, and swept under the rug,” writes campaign instigator Erin Roche, calling it an “accepted form of racism.”

That’s not the only example of dissing those blessed with strawberry blond, auburn or flaming orange tresses.

In September, the world’s largest sperm bank (Cryos of Denmark) began rejecting redheaded donors, claiming a lack of demand.

Television shows including “South Park” and “Glee” have aired episodes poking fun at “gingers.”

It’s even hit the animal kingdom, as photos of a pitiful-looking seal pup with aberrant russet fur being ostracized by his colony made the rounds online.

Stories of bias against redheads may flare up now and again, but for those who are part of the 2 to 4 percent of the world’s population who have red hair, a pattern seems to hold true: When they’re kids, they’re not always wild about being different. But when they grow up, they wouldn’t trade it for the world.

At the Robertson household in New Brighton, Minn., redheads make up 100 percent of the population. Dad Tim is auburn, mom Beth strawberry blonde, and their four children each sport their own hues, ranging from flaming to subtle.

To them, the only unusual thing about red hair is the extra amount of sunscreen they go through.

It can get tiresome when they’re all together in public and strangers can’t seem to see past the hair, says 11-year-old Katie, “because we’ll be at a restaurant and people will say, ‘Oh, look, how adorable.’ ”

The only negative remark directed at her hair she could recall was someone at school saying “it could be a bad omen,” she says, adding: “That’s just sad.”

While teasing is common, actual bullying of redheads is much rarer in the United States than it is in England, as well as Down Under, where they are called “rangas ” – short for orangutans.

Still, all reds have to deal with more than their share of stereotypes: the sexy siren, the goofball clown, the devilish prankster, the bullied weakling.

“Red hair is something you must live up to,” says Marion Roach, author of “The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair” (Bloomsbury USA, 2006).

“Society expects it. We would never dream of talking about skin color the way we do hair color.”

Angie Heitz, manager of Clubhouse Jager, is clearly comfortable with her nearly glowing locks, shimmering in the dim late-afternoon light inside the Minneapolis bar. So comfortable, she’s amped up her natural hue with a little dye.

Heitz describes herself as the “typical hot-tempered redhead,” acknowledging that trait could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but “in my case, it’s genetic.”

She also sees a practical bonus to her hair: “My husband can always find me in a crowd.”

Some red-haired men, despite having to deal with less flattering stereotypes than women, still manage to work it to their advantage.

Ric Fohrman, a 51-year-old Plymouth, Minn., auto broker whose orange locks are receding, says it’s made his life more interesting.

“You get teased as a kid, but after that it’s a big plus, because people remember you more readily,” he says

Then again, says Fohrman, “You can never be anonymous, even when you want to.”

Stereotypes about redheads have their roots in ancient history. They were once not only teased, but also vilified, says Roach.

“It was easy to point at a rare thing and say, ‘That’s bad,’ ” she says.

Judas was frequently portrayed as a redhead. In the first production of “The Merchant of Venice,” the villain Shylock wore a red wig.

In a large triptych at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Eve is portrayed as blond in the first two panels, but a redhead in the third, after her disgrace.

Loki, the shape shifter and troublemaker of the Norse gods, also had red hair.

The biggest cross most American redheads have to bear is not having a day go by without someone mentioning the color of their hair.

“It irritated me at age 8, but not at 50,” Fohrman says. “What cracks me up the most is when they ask if it’s my natural color.

“But it’s always been such a part of my identity, and it’s falling out. What now?”

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