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She’s a Rainbow: Having Fun with Hair Color—Even Gray

All her adult life, Lorraine Duffy Merkl has treated her head like a canvas, expressing her individuality. She hasn't let gray hair thwart her art project.

My husband Neil has been married to a brunette, a redhead, a blonde, and a less ghoulish version of a jet-black-maned Morticia Addams.

He is now married to a silver fox.

Over the course of our 35-year marriage and 42-year relationship, I have treated my hair like a canvas, expressing myself with various shades and highlights and low lights.

So many L’Oreal and Clairol shades, so little time.

I pity those who found a haircut and color at 18 and stuck with it. Our hair was meant to be permed and straightened, spiked and grown ’til it hit the back of your jeans. So many L’Oreal and Clairol shades, so little time.

Through it all, Neil loved me always and all ways—not, however, with the same level of enthusiasm.

Read More: Going Natural: What to Expect When You Let Your Hair Go Gray

My Roots Are Showing

In high school and college, I experimented with different styles, and my color fascination kicked off in my post-grad life. It all began with a few gray hairs. My family grays early, so I didn’t freak out, in fact, I thought I’d use them to my advantage. I brought a pink rinse that didn’t attach to my natural chestnut locks, only the colorless ones. The sparsely scattered strands were hardly noticeable except in the sunshine, where Neil first asked, “Why do you have pink in your hair? Is that an advertising thing?”

I was a creative in a New York agency, so he, who wore a Brooks Brothers suit along with a businessman’s haircut to his law firm, was getting used to me not having to go to work in traditional office attire. My hair was just an extension of that.

A Timeline of Tints

Throughout the ‘90s, I only wore black with hair to match. I looked cool, and Neil thought so too.

In the early 2000s, I was a stay-at-home mother with two children under five doing freelance work. I needed to feel like I hadn’t lost my edge. My bold move came in the form of Lucille Ball-red.

I wanted to look vibrant and alive to counter how I felt most of the time, which was exhausted and boring.

Without a trace of a Cuban accent, he invoked Ricky Ricardo’s proverbial demand for me to “‘Splain.” I told him I wanted to look vibrant and alive to counter how I felt most of the time, which was exhausted and boring. He wished me well.

The legendary I Love Lucy actress must have revived her color every day to keep it so vivid. I was not prepared for the upkeep. It was back to brown, until what became known as the Platinum Incident occurred.

The Platinum Incident

I looked like Deborah Harry during the height of her Blondie fame for three weeks. Until my husband who never raised his voice, not even during an argument, yelled at the top of his lungs, “Change it back,” as I was I putting on my makeup in the bathroom.

And I did once again go back to brown, but always with variations on that theme. There was mahogany with caramel highlights, ash brown, golden brown, and auburn. I even dared to venture back to blonde—dark blonde (which looked a lot like light brown), but blonde just the same.

Would Neil accept the real tresses as he had accepted the manufactured versions?

Right after our 25th wedding anniversary in 2013, I finally decided to let Neil have a wife who is comfortable in her own skin, and by skin I mean hair.

I accepted that I was no longer a brunette covering some gray hair, but a salt-and-pepper woman pretending she was still brunette.

Now my new color would not come from a box, but my head, and it was associated not with “having more fun,” or being “fiery” or “exotic;” it correlated with being old.

But I had to be me. Would Neil accept the real tresses as he had accepted the manufactured versions?

“You’re killin’ it with the hair game,” has become my favorite compliment said as he strokes my long silver locks.

A Hair Adventure of His Own

My new silver served me well, especially during the pandemic, when salons were closed and New York City women who felt ill-equipped to do their own hair were sneaking out to backroom colorists to keep up their appearance. I had no such problems.

It was Neil’s turn to experiment.

During this time, it was Neil’s turn to experiment. He said he was going to let his hair grow, “’til I have a ponytail down my back.” I dared him.

As 2020 dragged on, no Zoom meeting could end without a colleague commenting admiringly on what a head of hair he had. But in the new year, as things slowly began to open back up and he was going back into the office, if only for a day or two, it was back to the barber as well. My disappointment was palatable.

Hope is on the horizon, though, with retirement coming up within the next few years. I look forward to some deep bonding in the future, with both of us sporting long, gray ponytails.

Read More: Forever Blonde: Why I’ll Never (Ever!) Let My Hair Go Gray


Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of several novels, most recently The Last Single Woman in New York City (Heliotrope Books).

By Lorraine Duffy Merkl


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