This essay is excerpted from Megan Dunn’s must-read new book Things I Learned At Art School, a collection of essays exploring her coming-of-age in Aotearoa in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
Other chapters are titled The Ballad of Western Barbie; A Comprehensive List of All the Girls Who Teased Me at Western Heights High School, What They Looked Like and Why They Did It; Good Girls Write Memoirs, Bad Girls Don’t Have Time; Nine Months in a Massage Parlour Called Belle de Jour; and Various Uses for a Low Self-esteem.
The book cover was photographed by Megan's art school friend and Ensemble hero Yvonne Todd.
Being a redhead is serious. Maybe it's easier for redheads now that we're in the twenty-first century, but to be one in the twentieth century was a miserable enterprise. It's not just the hair, it's what usually comes with it: fair skin and freckles. I know what you're thinking - who is this drama queen? A redhead.
Life contains real catastrophes that are constantly updating, but nonetheless I am going to commit words to this measly trivial detail of my appearance.
Bear with me. I'll try and be quick.
For a little girl or even a full-grown woman, appearance is - virtually - everything*.
(*I only said 'virtually' because I thought you'd judge me harshly for saying that good looks define women, whether we want them to or not.)
I doubt any of those girls at high school would have teased me if I was a blonde with a tan. I'm not kidding either. Being a redhead singled me out. I went to high school during the era of the ozone hole. The sun was hot and violent. No suntan lotion meant burns, then peeling, then back to that same fair freckled complexion as usual. The beach was not my friend. I didn't want to go anywhere that involved a swimsuit or bikini. My skin wasn't equipped to deal with such a proposition. My freckles freaked out at the thought of school swimming day.
Once outside class a boy called me not just a dog but a red setter. Another girl laughed. I stared at her, dazed. She was a blonde, but not pretty. She had a weird jaw and a banality to her features that makeup was never gonna put right. I knew the score though: laughter, dizzying, a relief. It wasn't her, not today.
Still, I clocked it. Meanness set in.
The one thing I learned at high school that really hit home: I was a dog. Woof. Woof.
At my school there was another Megan in the same year. She, by virtue of her genetics, looked exactly like Brooke Shields from Blue Lagoon. Imagine if Brooke's character in Blue Lagoon had been played by a freckled redhead with buck teeth? Why not? Technically any little girl could have been stranded on that island. But it's just as well that it happened to Brooke, whose skin contains melatonin so she was able to go deeply, sexily brown over the many months in and out of the lagoon, becoming an underage sex object as she foraged for coconuts and tried to get the right cut of each scene. If I'd been cast in that role I would have wanted to wear flesh-coloured stockings on location. The day I left high school was the happiest day of my life. I will never have to wear a skirt in public again!
Things you might not know about being a redhead
You will get told you look like any and every other redhead. I’ve been told I look like:
1. Tiffany (this was big as Tiffany’s hit I Think We’re Alone Now was released in 1987, when I was twelve).
I once said to a boy, ‘Name a good-looking redhead’, as a challenge.
His reply: ‘Tiffany.’
So this is a gentle beginning to the list.
I think I do look a little bit like Tiffany, who became famous singing in shopping malls across America, but like my later career as a video artist it didn’t last. In 2002 she posed nude for Playboy. Posing for Playboy typically means one of two things: you’ve made it or you’ve had it. I hope the financial remuneration helped her get through the next wave of bills.
In retrospect, I Think We’re Alone Now is a great anthem for being a redhead. I am often the only redhead in the room. Especially when I write.
2. Molly Ringwald. Again, this might seem aspirational - in fact this is aspirational, I love Molly Ringwald. Unfortunately it’s not true. I don’t look like Molly Ringwald; she has much fuller lips, a softer jaw and no dimple in her chin. But guess what we do both have: red hair. I loved Molly in The Breakfast Club. Especially the dance scene. That was a cool library - very spacious too, plenty of room for an extended eighties dance sequence. I can’t dance as well as Molly, either.
3. Princess Fergie. Now you see how the list gets less appealing. As a teenage girl I didn’t want to be compared to Fergie, who was certainly not beautiful and graceful like Princess Diana. Especially when Fergie was exposed having her toe sucked by a Texan millionaire in that photo shoot splashed around all the women’s magazines. I have never had my toe sucked by a Texan. Was it especially uncouth because she was finer? That was never said, but it felt implied. Like, how dare this plain freckled royal who is not Diana go off and f**k a Texan, just to have a good time. What was she thinking?
The list doesn’t seem that bad so far; I must have blocked out the worst redheads. Or maybe there were just never that many redheads to compare me to. Between 70 and 140 million people in the world are redheads. And I know what our 2 percent of the population has to go through at high school - sheer hell.
Auburn, that’s the term used by middle-aged women. ‘I love your auburn hair,’ they gushed. Philistines. Empty words. I didn’t want to get it on with a middle-aged lady.
Ginger, that’s the going term for anyone under fifteen.
‘Ginger’ is tantamount to a swear word. It’s a taunt. And to have ginger pubes is the worst. Shirley Manson from Garbage even wrote about it. I read the article when I was at art school. She detailed her boyfriend’s reaction to her pubic hair - I think it was favourable - but still, I clocked it.
I know what you’re saying, Shirley. To be a redhead is something else. And yes, if you were a blonde I don’t think you would have written the line, ‘Pour your misery down on me.’
Those years at high school rained misery because I was a redhead. I felt disgust at my own skin, my own being. Even if I dyed my hair - and later I did - so what? I still had the freckles, the untanned, untenable skin. I couldn’t get away from this aspect of my biology.
Once in high school, Mr Rumble the science teacher mentioned in passing that statistically it was likely that we would all find sexual partners, as our parents had got together and made us.
I found his pragmatism oddly comforting.
So you can imagine how much the TV series Anne of Green Gables meant to me in the 1980s. I watched it avidly. The Canadian actress Megan Follows, a bona fide redhead, played Anne and to miss an episode was to miss something essential - I had to know what happened to Anne next. Everything that happened to her might happen to me. In class, Gilbert pulled her plait, and called her ‘carrots’, and she turned around and smashed a slate over his head. He was love-struck. Anne was brilliant, a writer, different; marked out by being an orphan, yes, but also by being a redhead.
To be a redhead was to be typecast.
Once a middle-aged man leered at me and whispered, ‘Redheads are wild in bed.’ I was 10 years old at the time and wore a bright yellow cardigan that made me look like an oversized banana.
Over time other redheads appeared: Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore. Axl Rose. A friend at art school said they would never have sex with Axl because of his ginger pubes, and I cringed inside. Axl and I had more in common than I’d previously imagined.
Now, you might say that Ariel the mermaid and Jessica Rabbit are redheads. Wrong! They are cartoon characters. And I don’t know how to end this digression, because being a redhead doesn’t really finish, though my hair has now turned dark brown and shows the first flecks of grey. Grey pubes! Now that’s something to freak out about. But if I learned anything about being a redhead it’s this: ugliness isn’t a part you can play. It’s got real character.
This is an edited extract from Megan Dunn’s new book Things I Learned At Art School ($35, published by Penguin)