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Mary Beard vs hair dye

When making Radio 4 documentary Glad to Be Grey on a subject close to her heart, the writer and academic had a consultation with a legendary hair-colourist. She found the results unexpected.

I have found myself in all kinds of surprising locations when I’ve been making BBC programmes, but I’ve never been quite so surprised as last week – when I found myself in Mayfair, standing outside one of London’s most upmarket and pricey hair salons. It is not my usual habitat. But I was making a Radio 4 documentary on a subject close to my heart: grey hair and why most of us are so keen to cover it up. And I had come to interview the legendary Jo Hansford, one of the most expert hair colourists in the country, if not the world.

Mary Beard with Jo Hansford at her Mayfair salon

Mary starts her investigation with a consultation with Jo Hansford

Jo works on a glittering range of celebrities, from Nigella Lawson to the Duchess of Cornwall. It is said that women fly in from as far afield as the USA and Dubai to have the Hansford colour treatment. I was rather afraid that we weren’t exactly going to hit it off. I have long grey hair, which I have never coloured, for a variety of reasons. Partly I don’t like the idea of covering up my age. I’m 61. I’m grey and happy. Why pretend that I still have the same hair as I had 30 years ago? Partly I resent the time, money and commitment that colouring would take. The idea of being obliged to turn up at the salon every six weeks or so – or else risk the disguise being ruined by the appearance of those tell-tale white roots – fills me with dread. But I didn’t think that Jo was likely to see it this way.

I was right, she didn’t. I started by asking her tentatively what she would advise if I came in to consult her on my flowing grey locks. Without a moment’s hesitation she said that I definitely needed something doing. If I were to have them coloured (and probably get a good trim too), I would walk out looking 10 years younger. Everyone who went grey, she insisted, should opt for a new colour. There was absolutely nothing to be said for staying grey at all.

But I needn’t have been apprehensive. Despite our very different standpoints on my ‘look’, we got on like a house on fire, and the interview came close to being a genuine and good-humoured consultation. I certainly wasn’t about to change my mind and opt for colouring. But I was gripped as Jo explained to me exactly how she would help me to pick a new tint (not too warm, else it would make my skin look too pink, she warned). And we were both in stitches when she showed me, with some big trial swatches of hair, Donald Trump style, just how wrong some colour choices would be.

And I like to think that she got some fun out of listening to my reasons for staying grey. I don’t imagine many women cross the threshold of the Jo Hansford Salon and start sounding off about how they think grey hair is a great celebration of “maturity” and how colouring is a form of deception and fakery.

We parted with honours even, I think. Or perhaps Jo got the edge. As I left, she called out: “When we get to heaven, then I’ll make you blonde...”.

Listen to the documentary Glad to Be Grey on Radio 4 on Friday 4 March at 11am and then online.

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