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Cardinal rules

There’s a special something redheads share

Actress Julianne Moore is one of many celebrity redheads. Actress Julianne Moore is one of many celebrity redheads. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)
By Nicole Cammorata
Globe Staff / March 11, 2010

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When I was about 10 years old, my grandmother told me something I’ll never forget: “Redheads never go gray.’’ It was our little secret, from one carrot-top to another. Nana wasn’t entirely correct, though, something I realized years later after discovering that her prolonged color retention came from a semi-permanent rinse. What that statement means to me now, is that there’s a good chance there will be future redheads in my family - thanks to Nana’s genes.

Same goes for the rest of the world too - especially in places like Ireland and Scotland, where red hair is most common - despite a widely circulated urban myth that claims redheads are going extinct. This rumor is, of course, false. Though redheads make up 1-2 percent of the world’s population, we’re certainly not about to disappear.

“They’ll be here forever,’’ says Barry Starr, director of Stanford at the Tech, a program that teaches young scientists how to communicate science to the public and is run by the Department of Genetics at Stanford University. Starr adds that as the gene for red hair is dispersed through the population, gingers will become less common. But they won’t disappear completely.

A mutation on the melanocortin-1 receptor, or MC1R for short, causes red hair. In order for a child to be born with it, both parents will need to contribute this recessive, altered gene. If you’re curious about whether or not you’re a carrier, there’s Alpha Biolaboratory’s RedTracer DNA Test. For $119 ($214 for a couple), a simple swab of your cheek can be sent to a lab to determine the likelihood of redheaded offspring.

With St. Patrick’s Day on the horizon, I can’t help but wonder about the other redheads out there.

“You could call us underdogs,’’ says Steve Warrington, fellow ginger and founder of the social networking site Redhedd.com, which boasts more than 10,000 users since 2008. Warrington cites this underdog factor, the fact that redheads are rare and often depicted as the outcast in popular media (for example, the “South Park’’ episode called “Ginger Kids’’) as one of the reasons why his site has been so popular. It creates a sense of solidarity and community where there hasn’t been previously.

“It’s kind of astounding how behind the idea people get,’’ Warrington says, “how much they identify with being a redhead.’’

Warrington isn’t the only one who’s picked up on this. When Chloe Sevigny launched her line of tweeds, Fair Isle knits, and plaids for Opening Ceremony in 2009, she brought together a bevy of redheads to model the clothing, forgoing the typical lookbook for a limited edition hardcover called “Reds.’’ Nicole Giladi’s book “Little Redheads Across America,’’ published in 2008, assembled an adorable cross section of the country’s ginger children.

Red hair not in your genes? Don’t fret. Going crimson is always in style.

“Red is powerful - it stops people in the room,’’ says Rona O’Connor of Lukaro Salon in Beverly Hills. Something of a fairy godmother to aspiring redheads, O’Connor is best known as the talent behind Debra Messing’s iconic tresses.

O’Connor crafted Messing’s hue in 1998 as a way to define her character on the sitcom “Will & Grace,’’ where her red hair became a character of its on. Naturally brunette, Messing’s hair color was specifically designed to highlight her curls by weaving various red shades in layers atop a more grounded base and using a golden hue to run along each spiral.

It’s clear O’Connor has a passion for red. Her pigment vocabulary alone can attest. Ruby. Golden apricot. Auburn. Copper. Deep scarlet. She may have more words for red than the Eskimos have for snow.

“Red is a pretty powerful color,’’ she says. “It’s sexy, glamorous, funny, passionate. I think red evokes emotion. It’s expressive. Red can show everything. It can show humor, beauty, elegance. There’s nothing sad about red.’’

Talking to my grandmother recently, I recalled the day when she told me redheads don’t go gray. “They don’t,’’ she maintains, and I feared the conversation could have set off World War III in my family. Instead, it has turned into a discussion about shades, about how she and her cousin are a blonder, less pigmented shade now - but not the white gray you would typically expect from women in their 80s.

I can see why the conversation could easily get heated. The idea of losing something that makes us unique, well, that’s a scary thought. It may be true after all that redheads never lose their red. Because deep down, they’ll never lose that sense of having something special that makes them who they are. Just ask my grandmother.