Page last updated at 11:30 GMT, Wednesday, 9 September 2009 12:30 UK

People get red-dy

Redhead Day

By Clare Spencer
Breda, Netherlands

Clare Spencer

The idea of a ginger festival may sound like little more than a bit of fun, but when 3,000 redheads came together for a recent gathering it became a bonding experience.

Bart Rouwenhorst steps on to his crane and slowly rises above his ginger empire. A sea of redheads all dressed in white look up from the park below and follow his instructions to wave at the 20 or so photographers and cameramen.

The photo shoot is the culmination of celebrations for Redhead Day - an annual day - which has spilled across a weekend - to mark all things ginger, paid for by the local government in Breda, a city in the south east of the Netherlands.

Festival founder Bart Rouwenhorst explains how Redhead Day was born

But for its founder, Mr Rouwenhorst, who is notable for his blond rather than ginger locks, it is the pinnacle of his efforts so far to champion the ginger-hued among us. A mechanical engineer by day, Mr Rouwenhorst is also an amateur painter and it's this sideline which first awoke his interest in those of fair skin and flame hair.

Finding himself drawn to the aesthetic qualities of redheads, he advertised for 15 ginger models to paint - only to be deluged with e-mail responses. The 15 turned into 150, whom he photographed. But when many of those who didn't get selected voiced their disappointment, Mr Rouwenhorst decided to make an annual event of the redhead gathering.

Five years on, it has grown into a huge festival of ginger self-affirmation, overtaking the city centre for one weekend every September.

"We have families with children, we have older people who were teased as children and then we have many proud women who come to the festival. They know they are fantastic and they just come to feel great."

Driven out

The promise of this amber spectacle also appeals to the more muted-mopped mainstream - with an estimated 7,000 non-redhead spectators attending.

Ginger twins
Strength in numbers - many redheads find the festival empowering

But the initiative is firmly with the redheads. And there is much common ground. Men and women sporting a spectrum of ginger, from strawberry blonde to rich ochre, swap stories of being picked on in the playground, discrimination in the wider world - a family in Newcastle claimed they were driven from their home because of anti-ginger abuse in 2007 - and the whys and wherefores of raising a ginger brood.

Walking round the city, redheads smile and laugh with one another. Since this is a celebration of gingerism, an army of hairdressers, makeup artists and cameramen have been drafted in to prepare for the fashion shoot, treating redheads like celebrities. The dermatologist's class - redheads tend to have very fair skin - is so popular it has to move to the main part of Breda's cathedral to accommodate all those who want to attend.

Mr Rouwenhorst marvels at the innate connection between members of one of the most genetically distinctive yet disparate groups in the world.

"When people come together as redheads, they just look at each other," he says. "They have a certain bond. And I think this whole event will some day expand to multiple events, maybe across the world. I think the ginger community will start."

Strong people

It's a far-sighted pronouncement. Do people with red hair really want to seek out the company of those with similar colouring?

This exclusive community is already functioning and making money for Brigitte van Hengel. She runs a ginger modelling agency and is looking to add a ginger-only theatre company.

Ginger family
Whether or not to raise a ginger brood - one topic of conversation

Ms van Hengel, whose reddish locks are somewhat faded, seeks out redheads not just for their aesthetic qualities - but their character traits too. Most have had to put up with bullying, she says, which in turn has made them strong and proud characters.

Behind the scenes at the fashion show civil servant Anneloes Rynders is preparing for the catwalk. While being sown into her dress by the designer Marian Kastelein, she tells a story of an uncomfortable childhood that is shared by many at the festival.

"In my youth it wasn't nice to be different. It changed around the age of 16 or 17. I got more confidence, I went out and got attention - because I'm a redhead. I stopped being ashamed. It's actually nice to stand out in a crowd."

Ms Rynders prefers being unusual and doesn't like the idea of an exclusively ginger community. However, she is disappointed that none of her children has ginger hair, so welcomes the idea that such a place may spawn more ginger offspring.

Alan Petrie has travelled from Aberdeen to research the possibility of starting a ginger community in Scotland. Curiosity drove him to the event but he is going away with a sense of belonging.

Should there be a redhead community?

"I came here because I wanted to see if people with red hair would like to meet each other - we could take that back home and see if it worked on a more local level. I think redheads do enjoy being together and not being the odd one out."

He is particularly concerned about discrimination against his ilk, which he thinks isn't taken seriously.

"After an anti-ginger South Park episode, Kick a Ginger Day started in Canada and someone was seriously hurt. When it was revealed that one of the Big Brother contestants was dying his hair and underneath he was ginger he got shouted abuse I can't repeat, when he was evicted. If he was black the people shouting this would have been arrested."

Ironically, claims of racial discrimination were also invoked when Mr Rouwenhorst investigated the possibility of getting his festival noted in the Guinness World Records. Redheads, he was told, were considered a minority by its editors, who will not record events based on racial characteristics.

Certainly, there's little taste for any sort of genetic purity at the event. The majority of redheads appear happy to accommodate those of the brown, black and fair-haired persuasion. Even the organisers insist that cafes don't restrict their free drink offers to natural redheads - but include those who dyed their hair for the day.

So has this year's festival helped foster a sense of ginger belonging?

Thorger Enge Herrara, who grew up in Mexico, says redheads are so unusual in his homeland that when he sees one they exchange pleasantries and he buys them a drink.

"It doesn't happen so often. It's not a community where I'm from because it's so rare."

For this weekend, though, Mr Herrara is understanding what it's like to be one of a crowd rather than a curiosity.


Below are a selection of your comments.

I used to be called "Ginger" when I was being made fun of, but three years ago I adopted it as my nickname and now I encourage people to call me Ginger instead of my real name. I hope that this festival will spread to North America and that we too, here in Canada, give Kick a Ginger Day a "kick" in the rear and replace it with Ginger Fest.
Ginger, Vancouver, Canada

There is a serious point underlining all this. It's easy to make derogatory comments about someone with ginger hair. But what if the same comment were aimed at someone with black skin?
Celine Hagbard, London, England

It is true that when I see another ginger there is a connection. You know that they grew up like you, being picked on, being self-conscious, being different, and are now stronger for it.
Kristil Baker, Lake Arrowhead, CA USA

I'm a 13 year old red-head (and I often get picked on for it) and I think this is a fantastic idea.

All my life I've been told by my peers I should be embarrassed by my red hair and people say they avoid me as they don't want to get 'gingivitis'. I would never change my hair colour, I love to stand out from the crowd so does every red head I think.

Ellie, England

My red hair has gone from a bright ginger to an almost sandy blonde over the years. Even though I was horribly bullied as a child I kind of miss being red.
Danny Wiltshire, Bath

I'm a redhead and would love it if there were a ginger fest here. I would definitely go and celebrate with all of the other proud, confident gingers.
Amy Klous, Twin Cities, MN USA

It is so funny because of the surreal nature of the discrimination portrayed.
Andre, Amsterdam

My own very beautiful little girl has long thick locks of red hair that started from birth and I couldn't be prouder. I would love to bring her to an event like this some day.
Jeri Polacek, Madison , WI USA

When I was younger I was ginger and during my first few years at school I was bullied because of it. I have got darker as I grew older but have always been attracted to red heads and I am looking to find a partner with red / ginger hair.
Teddy , Oxford, England

I wish I had known about this. I love being a redhead and am interested in speaking out for my people.
Polly Annabelle Snell , Bristol

Isn't picking on Redheads a form of racial abuse?

It's all down to genetics - and therefore I wonder why it seems to be socially acceptable to ostracise a subset of out population?
Ben Marshalsea, Bristol

The very fact that the BBC considered this story worthy of a light-hearted piece like the one above (instead of, say, a proper news item) suggests that they don't take this very seriously either.
Michael, Edinburgh

When I was young I hated having red hair. At one point I wouldn't date a really nice young man because he had red hair and I thought I might like him, get married and have redheaded kids.
Ann Sell, Ft Myers FL USA

Surely the notion of a "redhead community" will only further attach more prejudice towards the world's gingers.
Mark Spencer, Dundee

All I see is "gingers are so down-trodden" in the media. Truth is, as with anything rare and distinctive, it is both revered and feared in extremes. Regardless of the admiration and scorn I have received for my red hair colour, I am confident enough within myself to not to let other peoples attitudes towards my hair colour effect my self esteem either way.
Elle, Cardiff



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SEE ALSO
Redhead Day Photo Gallery
09 Sep 09 |  Magazine
I'm proud of being ginger!
21 Aug 07 |  Club

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