The new trick to look younger? Go half grey!
One dye-hard brunette tries out the latest age-defying salon treatment
Dyeing my hair was one of the first things I ever did to fight the ageing process. I was in my mid-30s when the first bits of grey poked through.
I remember being livid. As well as shocked. Surely I wasn’t that old? How dare my hair start to go grey? I felt it was a deep betrayal.
I immediately made an appointment with my hairdresser and ever since that day I have been dyeing it back to nut-brown every two to three weeks.
As all women know, glossy, youthful hair is the very essence of femininity. After all, nothing says I’ve given up like grey.
And I most definitely have not. I’ve written two anti-ageing books and, as a late fortysomething edging ever upwards, I’m engaged in an enthusiastic fight with time.
My hair is long, swishy, and resolutely conker-coloured. Until now, that is.
I’m sitting in Knightsbridge’s swanky Michaeljohn salon about to have my first experience of what have been dubbed ‘silver lights’, and which are, essentially, grey streaks.
My hair has been blue, and it’s been pink, but the one thing it has never been is grey. Yes, I know all about last year’s trend, which saw the very glamorous — and, mostly, the very young — dye their hair gunmetal grey.
But while gorgeous things like Rihanna and Cara Delevingne looked wonderful with it, I firmly believe that a full head of grey is a very brave choice for anyone over 40.
Silverlights, however, are apparently something else entirely. For this is a clever, grown-up trend. This, ladies, is transition hair.
Because as much as we all know we have to hit the bottle as soon as the first grey rears its ugly head, we also know that, at some stage, we have to stop. We all have to accept that sooner or later, block colour just doesn’t work. You simply can’t keep on dyeing into your dotage.
Let’s be honest, there comes a point when that conker-brown brunette or dazzling platinum rinse is very obviously not natural.
And while you may have been a raven-haired beauty or blonde bombshell in your youth, maintaining that colour eventually simply draws attention to the sad gap between your fantasy and reality.
I have a female relative in her 80s who still dyes her hair dark brown. It’s not a good look. Eventually we all have to soften the dye job, but for a lot of women that cut-off point is tricky to negotiate.
Accepting that it’s time to let the grey come through can be a very emotional journey.
This is where the new trend for silverlights or ‘half-way grey’ — that’s somewhere between block colour and the full-on as-nature-intended — is so brilliant. It’s a totally new look that says ‘I embrace my age but am still glossy and glamorous’.
Carefully done, this is the colour to bridge the gap between the two for many years.
Which brings me to the salon. For while I’m years away from masses of grey, I’m prepared to accept that my uniformly Dairy Milk hair might be pushing the bounds of probability. I’m at my tipping point — it’s time to try transition hair.
Halfway grey is not for the faint-hearted and neither is it for those on a tight schedule. And it is definitely not something you should try at home.
Ironically, going artificially grey is a deeply complicated process because before you can even think about creating silver streaks, your hair has to be ‘lifted’. This translates as the stripping away of your hair’s natural pigmentation, rendering it a sort of anaemic blonde.
‘We have to lift it to a very pale blonde in order to get silver,’ the colourist Imran explains.
‘If the colour is not pale enough, the silver will look slightly orange or muddy.’ I agree wholeheartedly that orange-tinged silver streaks should be avoided at all costs and insist he take as much time as he needs with the process.
While he begins the ‘lifting’, Imran tells me that this new silver-dashed look is proving extremely popular: ‘Demi Moore’s silver highlights have inspired many of my clients to embrace their own grey. These are discerning, high-powered women.’
Keeping your hair too dark for too long is a common mistake, continues Imran: ‘As you age, your skin lightens and if you don’t lighten your hair, too, then it makes you look washed out,’ he explains.
‘Just because you had deep brown hair when you were 20, doesn’t mean keeping that colour will keep you looking 20.’
‘People’s temples are usually the first place they lose their natural pigment. Enhancing and embracing what the hair is naturally doing, like making the hair line silver will be the most flattering. You definitely need some lights around the face,’ he says.
‘It stops the look being too harsh and stripey. The key here is that it has to look deliberate — it can’t look like you couldn’t get an appointment to have your roots covered or that you chickened out midway.’
You should also avoid being too tentative, which, in his opinion, was the trap that Demi fell into. ‘She didn’t do enough’, is his verdict ‘so it looks as if she was scared.’
As I stare at the reflection of my, formerly, chesnut hair now folded into foils around my face and smelling strongly of peroxide, I can’t help but feel a certain sympathy for Demi.
In between blow dries for models appearing at London fashion week, Imran checks my foils. ‘It’s lifting nicely,’ he says quite a few times. ‘Another ten minutes.’ He says this more than once.
At this rate becoming a silver fox is going to take somewhere in the region of three hours.
Rather like a professional manicure where the preparation is the time-consuming thing and the nail varnish goes on in a matter of minutes, the lifting here is what drags on. Finally, however, I’m deemed to be suitably lifted and it’s time to remove the foils.
Horror! Strips of my hair have been reduced to a sort of milky blonde. I am reminded of my 16- year-old self when I bleached my hair with cheap peroxide. I look hideous. I want to cry.
But before I can run screaming from the salon, Imran gets started on the silver: ‘It will take quite quickly now that your colour is down to this porous neutral tone.’
I think this is intended to sound comforting, but frankly I’m rattled. Will I end up with grey, straggly hair and looking as though I’ve let it all go? The exact opposite of the chic, put-together look I was aiming for?
Sensing my distress, Imran tells me about his techniques for counterbalancing, a process that could clearly play havoc with the condition of your hair.
Then Imran put in revolutionary new product called Olaplex, which builds up the hair shaft, in with the silver highlights
Helena’s hair was given a bouncy blow-dry afterwards
He uses, he says, a revolutionary new product called Olaplex that builds up the hair shaft. The best way to picture the wonders of Olaplex, he advises, is to imagine my hair as a broken ladder and then to imagine Olaplex rebuilding that ladder with false steps.
He has, he assures me, been adding Olaplex to the peroxide and will use it over my whole head at the end of the treatment to boost condition further.
He does concede, however, that silver hair is harder to maintain than other colours. ‘Warm colours do shine more. And you never see wild silver hair that looks good, you really have to style it.’
I’m worried about this bit, too, because I know Imran’s blow-dry will be worlds away from anything I’ll be able to recreate at home. So if this look relies on good styling then I’m doomed.
My post-washing routine has hitherto consisted of drying my hair very briefly and sometimes using straighteners to smooth it out. I watch Imran working with a round brush and the hairdryer with a sinking heart.
Finally, we’re done. I look in the mirror. At first, the result is slightly shocking. I am grey. Grey equals old. This is not good.
But then I look again; there is a new life to my hair, a movement, there is definitely some ‘interest’ as Imran would have it.
Actually my new look makes the old block colour I had seem rather drab. And, dare I say it, ageing. Imran is delighted with the result. ‘It’s elegant, sharp and chic,’ he declares. ‘I love it.’ Finally I escape the salon to have lunch with a friend. ‘I wouldn’t have had such a big bit right at the front,’ she says. ‘But it looks good.’
As I leave the restaurant to go on to a business meeting, I must say I feel rather good. The usual post-salon glow aside, the streaks are turning heads — in a good way I think. A colleague tells me I look ‘fabulous’.
After all, I tell myself, this is purposeful, confident hair. It is clearly man-made so speaks of bold decision making. This is hair that says: ‘Yes, that’s right, I’m older and I’m enjoying it.’
‘You look almost as hot as your mother,’ says my ever-helpful husband. I should add that my mother, now aged 72, stopped dying her hair at 64 and today looks wonderfully elegant with a striking, silver bob.
Three days in — and despite my daughters’ comments — I am a convert. I have even managed to blow-dry my hair and although it doesn’t look quite as good as it did when Imran dried it, I have managed to smooth the silver bits out with straighteners and they’re still eye-catching.
After a few days the family are converted. ‘I agree it lightens up your face,’ says my husband. The girls treat me like a kind of circus animal, telling any friends who come round to ‘check out my mum’s silver streaks’.
So far they have been unanimously approved of. In an Instagram and Facebook poll I carried out among my friends, 80 per cent voted for me to keep them.
So, it seems, the halfway grey is here to stay.
Helena’s hair and colour was done by Imran Chowdhary at Michaeljohn. michaeljohn.co.uk. Helena Frith Powell’s Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles published by Gibson Square is out now, helenafrithpowell.com.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019