For some men, the fountain of youth isn’t found in a high-powered fruit juicer, the weight room or the plastic surgeon’s office. The tonic is so simple, and so temporary, that we’re often shocked when said man abandons it. “It” is hair color, and it likely is helping Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen, among others, feel 30 when their bones say 60. Only their hairdressers know for sure, and, as with any rock star’s entourage, the secret is safe.
Medical stats, however, say 50 percent of people are at least 50 percent gray by age 50.
Even so, it can be shocking when a high-profile man - or woman, for that matter - decides to step off the hair-coloring track. Aging Welsh sex symbol Tom Jones, 68, recently stopped dyeing his locks and showed up on a concert tour with a head of white hair and a matching goatee. What’s left of Billy Joel’s hair is totally gray. George Clooney has gone to the salt-and-pepper look and apparently has not lost much sex appeal in the process.
Gray hair can say “old.” In the case of younger newsmen such as CNN’s Anderson Cooper, 41, and NBC’s David Gregory, 38, it can say “authoritative.”
“You can dye it; plenty of guys do,” Mr. Cooper wrote in a 2003 essay for Details magazine. “But if you ask me, you might as well advertise your desperation. Why not just wear a button that says, “I sit in a salon once a month with silver foil in my hair?’ ”
For most women, though, gray hair can say good luck getting the job or the TV role or a boyfriend. Actress Jamie Lee Curtis famously said she was giving up the trappings of glamour, including hair color, as she neared 50. She is mostly just pitching Activia yogurt these days. Would Madonna take such a stance? Paula Abdul? Julia Roberts?
“There [have] always been different cultural standards when it comes to men and women and hair color, ” says Anne Kreamer, author of “Going Gray: How to Embrace Your Authentic Self With Grace and Style.” The book chronicles Ms. Kreamer’s own journey toward self-acceptance by giving up the brown hair dye.
Ms. Kreamer points out that the use of hair color among men and women is likely at a crescendo right about now. Americans reaching middle age have never lived in a world where hair color wasn’t as common as toothpaste. Before the 1950s, only about 7 percent of women older than 40 colored their hair, Ms. Kreamer says. Today, that statistic may be as high as 75 percent.
Ms. Kreamer says baby boomers came of age in the 1980s, “when the grand illusion of permanent physical youthfulness really became widespread and almost obligatory. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Ronald Reagan, a man with impossibly black hair in his 70s, blithely and belovedly presided over the country during that decade.”
Brian Boye, fashion and grooming director for Men’s Health magazine, says men’s hair coloring “is really guys’ dirty little secret.”
“It is on the rise,” he says, “but guys don’t sit around and talk about their highlights the way women do. The main thing that goes on is that men are now being held to the same high standards of youth and beauty as women are. When we see celebrities going the extra mile to maintain youth, [other men] subliminally want to imitate it.”
In the Washington area, that form of imitation is not that subliminal. Pirooz Sarshar, co-owner of the Grooming Lounge, says requests for color have risen dramatically at his men-only salons. In 2007, the Grooming Lounge did about 1,800 hair color treatments; in 2008, that number was up around 4,700. Color treatments are $70 and up at the Grooming Lounge.
The key to not looking like, say, Ronald Reagan, is to use a treatment formulated for men, Mr. Sarshar says.
“Achieving gray coverage is tough,” he says. “Even if you go to a colorist, you can come home looking like a carrot.”
The Grooming Lounge creates gray blending, where color is applied to the hair depending on how much gray a man has, creating a more natural look. Home hair color such as Touch of Gray tries for the same results.
“The stigma of men and hair color is definitely going away,” Mr. Sarshar says.
Whether you are Mr. Jagger or a D.C. policy wonk, the goal is the same: to look younger. And while the salt-and-pepper look may work for Mr. Clooney or Sean Connery, it might not give the average 50-year-old an advantage in today’s tight job market.
“More men are coloring their hair because they want to stay in the game,” says Joy Robinson, public relations manager for Combe, the company that makes Just for Men and Touch of Gray hair color.
Therein lies an economic quandary. Salon color is expensive, and nearly everyone is looking to cut back. At the same time, when a 50-year-old - gender unimportant - is competing with 30-year-olds in the workplace or a job search, every little bit of youthfulness helps.
“There is no easier way to save than to quit dyeing your hair,” Ms. Kreamer says. “Simultaneously, the job market is competitive, and our culture is so youth-driven. If I were a 45-year-old woman concerned about her future, I might think twice about it and suck it up and do what is necessary. It is a sad state of affairs, but it is a tough call.
“However, it can be a competitive advantage to go gray,” she adds. “It can show you are confident and self-assured. It communicates a type of poise.”
Ms. Kreamer thinks American culture is at a sort of tipping point for hair color. Even with the best colorist, aging stars have been unable to stop time. Mr. McCartney is 66. Mr. Jagger is 65. Mr. Springsteen will turn 60 in September.
“I don’t think those men look all that good,” Ms. Kreamer says. “If Mick Jagger went to a short, gray cut, he probably would look sexier than someone trying to look 20.”