What do Prince Harry, Mary Magdalene, Ed Sheeran and Emma Stone have in common? They are all redheads! And although the colour of their hair varies from bright copper to auburn to red-orange to strawberry blond – the colour of Harry and his son Archie’s hair – they all proudly classify as ginger.
A RARE GENE
A recessive genetic trait caused by a series of mutations in the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R), both parents must carry the gene to cause their child’s hair to become red. As a result, red hair appears on less than 2 per cent of the world’s population. The Celtic nations lead the way: around 10 to 13 per cent of Scots, Irish and Welsh are redheads, while up to 40 per cent of these nations might carry the gene; Iceland and Norway have decent percentages too, while the Volga region of Russia has one of the highest number of red-headed people in the world, similar to that of Ireland. Red hair is also a feature of the Ashkenazi Jewish populations owing to their ancestry in central or Eastern Europe.
A SPECIAL BOND
Red hair is beautiful. But at school it can provoke bullies. Rude names such as ‘ginger nut’ (a type of biscuit, but ‘nut’ is also a slang word for ‘head’) and ‘carrot top’ — although the tops of carrots are, of course, green — are used to upset children. Bad experiences are sadly so common at school that redheads often feel a special bond with others of their hair colour.
There are many silly stereotypes associated with ginger hair. Red-haired women are said to be frivolous or fiery-tempered, with promiscuous pasts; Mary Magdalene, for example, is often depicted as a redhead. Ginger men are considered barbaric or clowns. One true characteristic of redheads is that their skin is very sensitive to the sun. They should not sunbathe and must wear sunscreen when walking around. Freckles are also common on redheads, who almost always have green or brown eyes, rarely blue.
In fact, through history red hair has come in and out of fashion depending on who was famous at the time. During the Renaissance, red hair was considered suspicious owing to anti-Semitism during the Inquisition, but it was very fashionable in Protestant England thanks to Tudors Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Portraits of the Queen typically show her with an extremely white complexion and flaming red hair.