May 18, 2021

How David Bowie fulfilled my childhood wish for a redhead pop star

My ginger hair made me a target for bullying in 1970s Leeds. Then came my flaming-red knight in shining armour

David Bowie’s 1970s Ziggy Stardust character set an earthquake under British pop. Artists from Boy George to Bono to Ian McCulloch have pinpointed how the sight of Bowie and the Spiders from Mars doing Starman on Top of the Pops made them want to become pop stars. Even for the millions watching who would never go on to do anything so bold, the sight of Bowie in his Ziggy heyday – stack heels, spiky mullet, flamboyant togs, one arm draped round guitarist Mick Ronson and one eye a different colour to the other – was earth-shattering. I still remember our conversations about him in the playground. “Is David Bowie an astronaut or an alien?”

Like most families, we had a black and white TV, so the full impact of Bowie on me only became apparent when I saw Ziggy in magazines, or on posters advertising his 1973 album Aladdin Sane. This was someone I’d waited for all my short life: a pop star with red hair.

I had red hair and I hated it. “It’s not ginger,” my mother would insist. “It’s auburn.” Maybe it was, but at an age where small children call each other names – or, at least, they did in Leeds in the 1970s – I might as well have had a target on my back or carried a sign reading: “Abuse me.” Other kids taunted me at school or in the street. “Copperknob!” “Ginger nut!” and later “Duracell!” Even those who called me “ginge” or “ginger” as a term of endearment were singling me out. Whenever someone commented “Hasn’t he got beautiful hair?” at the bus stop, my mum would beam with pride while I would glower at the floor. At my lowest point, after Dad died, I sat in the classroom pulling it out in clumps.

“Can’t I just have ordinary brown hair like everyone else,” I pleaded with my mum.

“Mousey hair? The colour of washing up water? Whatever would you want that for?” she’d reply.

But I desperately wanted to look like everybody else – anything to stop me being called “ginger nut”. But then came Bowie, my knight in shining armour. I didn’t know then that his hair was dyed (“flaming red”, the iconic cut by Suzi Ronson), but in a way that makes it better: Bowie was a redhead not because of genetics, but because he wanted to be. Either way, he gave me a defence mechanism, and the beginnings of some acceptance of nature’s cards. From now on, shouts of “ginger nut” would me met with “Yeah, like David Bowie”. The catcalls subsided and eventually stopped altogether. When a taunt compares a kid low on confidence to the coolest pop star in the country, it has nowhere left to go.

I’d love to say that I became a super fan, scouring record shops for the latest Japanese Bowie import, but I was nine, barely had pocket money, and a 7-inch was a major purchase. The reissue of Space Oddity backed with Changes and Velvet Goldmine duly made it into my small collection (otherwise comprised of Gary Glitter’s I Love You Love Me Love, T Rex’s Truck on Tyke and Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody) and I played it half to death. I’d also love to report that I became the Ziggy Stardust of LS16, strutting around in stack heels and glam regalia. Not quite, although I did start wearing shoes with a two-inch platform.

A year or so later, three of us trudged the three miles to Toni’s Barbers on Horsforth Town Street and asked for “a Bowie, please, mister”. Cameron came out with what looked like a giant hedgehog on his head, the epitome of young 70s cool. Paul came out with a perfect pre-punk spike. Then it was my turn. I was in the seat for an age as Tony grappled with my mop, which was just starting to go wavy. “I just can’t get it to go,” he finally admitted, exasperatedly. And there, staring back at me from the mirror, was not a juvenile Ziggy Stardust, but a deranged, berserkly quiffed ginger Elvis.

“What have you done at your hair?” Mum shrieked as I finally crept back home. It was the first of several such outrages.

My hair grew out, as did Bowie’s, and his turned various stages of ginger-turned-strawberry blond for Young Americans and the cover of Low, to these eyes still the coolest pop haircut ever. Even outing his natural mousy locks for the Heroes video didn’t upset me that much. By then, the Damned had a ginger-haired drummer, Rat Scabies, and I had a poster of the briefly red-haired Johnny Rotten on my wall.

Nowadays, ginger icons are everywhere – from La Roux to Ed Sheeran, Tilda Swinton to Alex, the orange-topped character in Minecraft. Today, redheaded kids such as my eight-year-old son don’t seem to get taunted in the way we once were. I like to think that Bowie/Ziggy Stardust played a part in that.