Image of Alex Hopkins by Lee Butler
"Yuk, he's a fucking ginger!" The insults had been happening for weeks before I combusted in all my redheaded glory. "Yeah, well, it's better than having boring brown hair, the color of... POO!" I screamed back. That did it. Paul and Derek charged at me, pushing me to the ground, kicking my satchel and tugging at my hair: "Yuk, it even feels weird."
And "weird" was always how I felt -- from the earliest age -- marked out not only by my acute shyness, but by the color of my hair. The irony was that what I had on my head made me conspicuous -- it suggested I should be bold and dangerous -- the antithesis of my nervy nature and propensity for tears whenever my (ginger) mother left me at the school gate.
I fulfilled every stereotype associated with gingers (or "GIN-GERS," as the word was later pronounced when I hit secondary school and the bullying worsened). I looked weak and pasty, was poor at sport, and had no friends. Miraculously, the only ginger-trait I had missed out on were the the dreaded freckles.
At 18, drastic action was called for -- I reached for the Nice 'n Easy and attempted to go brown. Instead I went dark black. And once purple. And several times a vibrant henna. Nor did I stop there. I'd just discovered sex and it seemed only natural that collars and cuffs should match. "Who wants to go down on the ginger forest?" the director of Hard on Holiday (my first and only Ibiza-bound porn extravaganza) remarked. Only years later when I revisited the archive footage did it occur to me that a jet black bush set against alabaster skin is not the best look, particularly when said surrounding Celtic skin has erupted in a lurid chemical-induced crimson rash... and you have to shoot a vigorous scene in a heavily chlorinated jacuzzi the next day.
But this was par for the course in my 20s -- a time when my red hair was only one aspect of my overwhelming self-hatred. It would take me almost a decade of squandering self-respect and integrity -- in order to build what I convinced myself was "self-esteem" -- before I began to do things on my terms. Realizing that the gay commercial scene I had found myself on was every bit as vicious and judgemental about looks as playground bullies certainly played its part in the masks I felt condemned to wear.
But in youth there are often few lengths that gingers will not go to to change or conceal their genetic heritage. Indeed, it was only when my hair started falling out at 28 that I stopped coloring it, plunging my money into a long-term Propecia prescription instead. As I've grown older I've learnt to accept my looks -- ironically age has faded the tint of red. We never appreciate what we have when we have it.
Being gay and ginger has also had its benefits -- and that's something I never thought I'd say; indeed, it's fair to say that I have never felt so popular. Colombians may say that "gingers smell," but I've seldom met one who has turned his nose up (so to speak) when presented with a red hot pole. And as for the Brazilians -- let's not even go there! "Oh, Alberto!" Clearly, what's rancid to one is exotic to another. Fashions change -- we experiment with looks, just as we experiment with one another. Anything else becomes boring.
And experimenting is what I'm doing right now -- or "upping the ginger ante," as a friend said to me the other week when he examined the beardy thing that's sprouting on my chin. "What made you do it?" he asked. "You've joined the beard club." I shrugged. "I've never been interested in joining clubs. It started to grow and I thought I'd see what happened." Perhaps I'm making up for all those years of being ashamed of being a ginge -- in the most visible way I can -- with a mass of red electric wires around my no longer shy and retiring mouth. Will I keep it? We'll see. All I know is this time it doesn't feel 'weird' and I challenge anyone to shout "fucking ginger."
And in the meantime the Grindr ginger lovers just keep coming and coming...