When artist Alexandra Grant, 46, accompanied Keanu Reeves, 55, to the LACMA Art + Film Gala earlier this month, it sent the media into a frenzy. While The Matrix actor was hailed as a hero for dating someone his own age (he’s actually nine years older), Grant, whose work is part of the collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was mistaken for Helen Mirren (who at 74 is 28 years older).
The reason? Grant had let her hair go naturally gray, highlighting (no pun intended) the fact that when it comes to women’s appearances, and in particular their hair, ageism is alive and well in Hollywood.
“It is unusual to see someone in their 40s completely gray, but by that age most people do have some,” says George Papanikolas, a colorist at Andy Lecompte, whose clients include Carice van Houten (43), Penélope Cruz (45) and Camila Alves (37). “Maybe if everyone else stopped coloring their hair the contrast wouldn’t be so shocking, but if all of your peers are dyeing their hair, it is.”
Grant, with her head of sleek silver hair, certainly stood out at the event amongst her peers. A quick scan through the red carpet arrival photos showed that while many of the attendees at the gala were between the ages of 45 and 74 — Salma Hayek (53), Laura Dern (52) and Naomi Campbell (49) — and many had gray hair, including host Michael Govan (56), honoree Alfonso Cuarón (57) and presenter Will Ferrell (52), if one had placed the two groups in a Venn diagram, the only woman in both categories would have been Grant.
For colorist Kadi Lee, co-owner of Highbrow Hippie, who counts Olivia Colman (45), Julia Roberts (52) and Diane von Furstenberg (72) among her clients, the hoopla surrounding Grant’s silver mane hit a nerve. “I had just read an interview with Katie Couric in The New York Times and there was a quote that jumped out at me and had seriously been bothering me ever since,” she says. “Couric said that only 15 percent of media images feature people over the age of 50, and I felt really shocked. As part of the beauty industry, we post a lot of our work on Instagram and, scrolling through it, you see a lot of beachy waves and blonde hair, while we kind of erase older women. I began to wonder if I was a part of this problem.”
Lee decided to do a deep dive into her media feed and found that 68 percent of the images she has posted were of women over 40. “I came out feeling pretty good about it,” she says. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t encounter problems in the salon related to older women’s visibility in the media every day. “Because older women aren’t represented, they come into the salon with inspiration photos of a much younger person, creating this snowball effect. We all have to step it up and start posting women of all ages.”
For many colorists that starts at home. “I don’t have time to color my hair. It’s not a priority,” says Tracey Cunningham, colorist and co-owner of Meche, who counts Jennifer Lopez (50), Heidi Klum (46), Charlize Theron (44) and Sarah Paulson (44) among her clients. “I think gray hair is beautiful. It’s fucking freedom.” That said, Cunningham has clients who come in every week to cover their grays, men included. “I have a lot of male clients who dye their hair because they don’t want to be the old person in the room at work,” she says. “Having a 30-year-old boss can do that.”
But age doesn’t always correlate with going gray, says Sarah Conner, a colorist at Mare Salon (and the force behind Paris Hilton’s blonde mane). “Gray hair has less to do with age than with genetics,” she says. “I have 20-year-old clients with gray hair and 40-year-old clients with none but, at the same time, there is a fear among my older clients that gray hair is aging; meanwhile, 20-year-olds come in to have their hair bleached and toned gray. It’s so silly. The thing people seem to be most scared of is just being themselves.”