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Published: Thursday December 19, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday December 19, 2013 MYT 8:04:55 PM

Gingerly does it

Beyond typecast: Greg Rutherford, the Olympic gold medal-winning long-jumper, is still known within sports circles as ‘the ginger athlete’ not the ‘Olympic champion athlete’.

Beyond typecast: Greg Rutherford, the Olympic gold medal-winning long-jumper, is still known within sports circles as ‘the ginger athlete’ not the ‘Olympic champion athlete’.

There’s sexy flame-haired actresses like Julianne Moore, Karen Elson, Lily Cole, Nicole Kidman — but where are their male counterparts?

Thomas Knights wants you to think about action heroes. About James Bond, or the characters Arnie gets to play. He wants you to think about romantic leads in Hollywood movies, about the guy who gets the girl, about the film star every man wants to be and every woman wants to be with. And then he wants you to ask yourself this: how come those men are never ginger?

That’s why he’s spent the past couple of years photographing red-headed men – not tubby, acne-ridden men with greasy hair, but vivid and beautiful red-headed men, the kind who – were it not for their hair colour – would make any member of the mousey majority jealous.

“It’s in the public consciousness that ginger men aren’t sexy and aren’t strong,” he tells me. “They are completely emasculated and desexualised in popular culture.”

And so with his exhibition Red Hot, featuring photographs of 50 men, he wants to do what many people would find either ridiculous or risible: he wants to make ginger men desirable.

If you think “gingerism” is really, well, a bit of a laugh, you’re almost certainly not ginger, as Knights is and as I am. You weren’t one of the red-headed kids injured by bullies at Wingfield Academy in Rotherham, north England, in October, when a group of students decided to celebrate “Kick a Ginger Day”. You’ve never been violently attacked in drunken incidents simply because someone who’d overdone the beer didn’t like the colour of your hair. At the most prosaic level, you’ve never had your hair colour used routinely as an all-purpose putdown, or heard random strangers shout “Ginger!” (always with hard Gs; apparently it’s really funny when you pronounce it like that) as you walk down the street, minding your own business. Though I guess having red hair in public is pretty provocative.

“The main thing for me is the huge polarisation between the way our society perceives ginger men and ginger women,” says Knights.

“You can name successful redheaded women in Hollywood. But with men, once you’ve said Damian Lewis, you’re stumped. There’s got to be a reason for that, because genetically it should be equal. But it hasn’t been allowed to happen. So I think the whole gingerism thing is a stealth form of acceptable racism that goes on in boardrooms, in authors’ minds. Look at Harry Potter – the redheads are the poor, weak family, the buffoons. If Harry Potter had been ginger, that would have been a different story.”

The idea for Red Hot came from the rising profile of Lewis, and from the continuing escapades of Prince Harry, whom Knights views as the epitome of the sexy ginger man – high-profile and a bit wild. He decided redheaded men were having their “moment”. So he called up the leading model agencies, asking for subjects to photograph.

“None of them had any ginger models,” he says. “They had loads of redheaded women, but no male models – there wasn’t a demand from the fashion industry.”

In the absence of models, he had to appeal for subjects and go out in search of others. Greg Rutherford, the Olympic gold medal-winning long-jumper, was among them, and told Knights he’s still known within sport as “the ginger athlete” not the “Olympic champion athlete”.

“His girlfriend told me that when she started dating him, her friends got together and told her, ‘We didn’t know you were into gingers’,” says Knights.

“And her friends were saying, ‘Aren’t you afraid you’re going to have a ginger baby?’ My best mate is dating an Irish guy with a ginger beard. I said, ‘Genuinely, how would you feel if you had a ginger baby?’ And she said, ‘I’m not going to lie to you, I would be disappointed. Of course I’m going to love it, but I don’t want a ginger baby’. This is at the heart of it – that women are ashamed to have a ginger baby.”

He’s heard stories from his subjects of the bullying they have suffered, of their attempts to render themselves un-ginger (as Knights himself did – he dyed his hair for 10 years before resigning himself to his natural colouring).

“That really shouldn’t have to happen in today’s world. That’s why I feel boys need their strong male role models. Back at school, if someone said to me, ‘You f****** ginger’, I’d say, ‘Yeah, I am, and I really hate it’. I agreed with them. I had no pride.”

Not now – even though, irony of ironies, his hair has now darkened, and – as someone whose hair is bright enough to be used as a beacon on dark nights – I’d be hard pushed to describe him as a true ginger. But ginger intersectionality must be upheld, and after 50 minutes of Knights’s determined proselytising on behalf of our kind, I’m ready to head out into the streets of central London and yell: “Say it loud! I’m ginger and I’m proud.”

I don’t, though. Someone would only shout back: “F*** off, ginger.” – Guardian News & Media

Red Hot by Thomas Knights is on at The Gallery in Redchurch Street, London, until Dec 22. For more information, go to thegalleryinredchurchstreet.com.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Red-headed, Sexy Men, Red heads, sexy, Thomas Knights, Photographer

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