Beauty

Being Blonde Has Never Been Just About Hair Color

Pigeon dung. Horse urine. Mud. Peroxide and ammonia. Soap flakes, bleach, lemon juice. Gold dust and dye made of saffron, the most expensive spice in the world. All of these have something in common: humanity’s relentless obsession with blonde. People across time and civilizations have subjected their hair fibers to all of the above in pursuit of becoming more blonde. There is something about what it means to have golden hair, to have the kind of beauty that poets have written epics about, the kind that soldiers kept grainy photographs of in foxholes, that makes coating your hair with pigeon dung seem rational. Blonde is a dream to hold on to. Blonde is glamour, sex. When you think of a “blonde bombshell,” you think not only of the woman herself but of the frenzy of desire that surrounds her. You think, first, of Marilyn Monroe. 

Monroe’s celebrity owes itself to her peroxide habit and her well-documented beauty rituals. Every Saturday morning, she would fly her colorist Pearl Porterfield (who had also worked with Jean Harlow) from San Diego to Los Angeles to dye her naturally brown hair blonde in the kitchen of her LA bungalow. So protective of her trademark shade, Monroe didn’t like to work on a movie set with another blonde actor, refusing to film in such cases. With her hair dyed blonde, she was the center of gravity in every room she walked into. Monroe’s blonde is iconic because it meant desire and control.

“It’s a very distinctive artificial blonde that you can’t hide behind. It takes a lot of maintenance; there are never any roots showing. It’s not only a statement, but it’s a very expensive statement,” says Rae Nudson, author of All Made Up: The Power and Pitfalls of Beauty Culture, From Cleopatra to Kim Kardashian. “You cannot divorce the context of what blonde has represented in Hollywood from what you want to be associated with when you dye your hair that color. It’s what you enter the room with and the projection that first comes to mind.”

Over the past 60 years, when people think of the term “blonde bombshell” they think mostly of Monroe’s doomed glamour and a long procession of white women following her footsteps in Hollywood. But the term has accommodated more melanated members too. There is the singer Joyce Bryant, nicknamed “The Bronze Blonde Bombshell” and “The Black Marilyn Monroe,” who coated her hair with silver radiator paint and performed in a lowcut gown with silver mink fur, looking so immaculate that reportedly even Josephine Baker would offer her flowers. Bryant’s career was at a high before Monroe ascended. So, really, Monroe was “The White Joyce Bryant.”