One moment it was there, and then it was gone. Sitting in a South London hair salon, I watched as, strand by strand, the clean white streak that had run through my hair faded away like an aeroplane trail in the sky. Three and a half minutes later, it had disappeared for good. I looked at my reflection and reacquainted myself with a woman I hadn’t seen in almost a year. A woman whose cherry-red hair fell in carefully tonged bends around her face. And I felt, for the first time in months, like I had reclaimed an essential part of ‘me’.
Eleven months earlier, I was perched in the same leather salon chair, where an identical reflection sat eagerly awaiting an AW19 hair transformation. Having survived 29 years of transient hair trends (dodgy purple dip dyes, permed undercuts and misguided mullets each had its moment) only to shrug them off again once their allure – and their colour – had faded, I’d fallen into a rut of horrifyingly sensible hair. I was almost 30. A grown-up age. And, as such, I had started to yearn for a more elevated style. I wanted simplicity, sophistication and a head of hair to draw stares, not for its ‘wacky’ dip dye, but for its chic insouciance.
One impulsive hair appointment later and it was done. Dubbed ‘the fashion streak’ by the hair industry’s purveyors of taste, a fresh white stripe peeked out from the front of my hair. Equal parts Daphne Guinness, Deeda Blair and Ginger Spice (circa 1996), my novel bleached streak was undeniably ‘fashun’. Which, when you’re working for a fashion magazine, is no bad thing. I felt sophisticated, yes. But also – and this was the bit no one told me about – like an entirely different person.
You see, with it came a whole new persona. At least, a perceived one. Suddenly, with my snowy-white stripe sitting front and centre, the general public made huge assumptions about who I was. According to them, I was cool; I was a ‘fashion person’! I had edge and authority, and clearly loads of confidence. And who was I to tell them otherwise?
I started adding to the effect by wearing black cashmere roll-neck tops and deliberately ugly shoes. If red lipstick is the beauty equivalent of the LBD, then my single white streak was the Saint Laurent leather jacket. Expensive, understated and just a little bit badass. Eleven inches of fashion anarchy. A fellow journalist even announced when she saw me: ‘Your hair! Someone make that woman an editor!’ Almost overnight I had been elevated to a whole new level of aspiration and I planned on hanging out for a while.
Did it suit me? Probably not. Whether the blonde stripe actually looked nice sat among my copper hair was irrelevant. It was the reinvention that appealed. My not-so-natural Mallen streak created a more directional version of me. And I was into it. As colourist at Larry King, and master of the rogue blonde streak, Amy Fish told me, ‘It’s like power dressing for your hair.’
The infatuation was finally complete. I’d shot my hair with semi-permanent self-assurance, and it had worked. From then on, I wanted more: more compliments, more confidence, more bleach. And that’s how I found myself instructing a polite but terrified colourist to dye half of my entire head white blonde. Five hours and two rounds of bleach later, and my once-subtle streak was bigger, better and more attention-seeking than ever. Forget Geri Halliwell, I’d become Cruella de Vil.
The novelty factor was real. On the left, my newfound platinum-framed profile meant I looked eerily like my twin sister, a fellow bleach enthusiast. Turn to the right? I was fresh Karen Elson copper. If strangers considered me ‘cool’ before, my half and half dye job had taken me firmly into the realms of ‘brave’. Strangers did double takes. Peers stared just a little too long. A child pointed at me in the street. As for me, I was just enjoying the ride.
And yet, ironically, the Catch 22 of being ‘cool’ is that you have to try really hard. Colour-coordinated outfits, matching my make-up to my newly altered complexion, the unexpected threat of chlorine in swimming pools – everything was an issue for at least one half of my head. I honed my exhaustive hair wash routine to just twice a week in an attempt to minimise the sheer amount of hours spent shampooing it in bunches. Having a five-part product system dedicated to just 50% of your head is 100% tiring. A lazily flipped side parting was a thing of the past. And don’t even get me started on air drying. Nonchalance had officially left the building.
Because, here’s the thing: when you ambush your hair with bleach twice, it doesn’t tend to like it. Why? So. Many. Reasons. Bleach strips the pigment from your hair, leaving it coarse, brittle and broken. Think split ends but on an entirely new level. Add to that a brassiness that demands purple shampoo every other wash, and an unnerving chewing gum texture when wet, and you’ve got a surefire way to end up with the most high-maintenance hair routine ever.
Eventually, I stopped styling it entirely, the thought of taming the unruly white side too much for a pre-work Wednesday morning. I fell into a new signature look – the scraped-back bun. Sat at my desk with my two-tone hair wrestled into a knot, it hit me. In my bid to be cool, I’d lost the art of being me.
Six months of Cruella was enough. I wanted my hair back. I wanted the hours of my life back. Hell, I wanted mundane old me back. And if that meant forgetting the ‘fashion streak’ and foregoing my temporary fashion shell, then so be it. With the bleach went the stares, the squeals from curious acquaintances and, inevitably, the aura of seeming like a ‘someone’. The thing was, although I’d hidden ‘me’ behind my hair for almost a year, in a rom-com-worthy turn of events, my false confidence had morphed into the real deal. I’d outgrown the streak, and grown up in the process.
This article first appeared on ELLE UK.