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Heinrich: Seeing Red

Wednesday Night something happened that I honestly was starting to believe would never happen. While watching NBC’s prime-time Olympic coverage I saw Shaun White fly higher than anyone else. White, the USA’s virtual lock for gold coming into the Snowboard half pipe, did what many believed was inevitable: he won his second straight gold medal. Shani Davis also won his second straight gold medal Wednesday night in the 1000m speed skating event. Winning back-to-back golds isn’t something new to the Olympics. The thing White did before during and after his gold medal run, however, was something I or anyone before me had ever seen. He became A Ginger Superstar.

We (and I say we because if you haven’t taken a good look at my picture), Shaun White and I have one thing in life in common: our hair color (Well two, but I’m not counting my wife being attracted to both of us because White might be the only one holding that title soon., especially since I’ve made her watch curling, biathlon, cross country skiing, speedskating and Nordic combined- all of which she thinks are boring. But she makes me watch Figure Skating and I would rather watch another re-design or house buying show on HGTV than that.) Shaun White is now a household name. Kids six years old idolize him. Parents respect him. Grandparents know the name, but can’t remember if it’s their ninth grandchild or that hippie riding one ski down a mountain. But they’ve heard of him. And only two percent of the United States population has the same hair color as him (Only four percent of the world population has red hair, and that number is dwindling. Some experts believe by 2050 there will be no more redheads born into the world. We’re going extinct. My children’s children will be telling stories to their friends at college, “No, I swear my Grandpa was a redhead. Yeah he was. It’s crazy I know but it was bright red. Like Shaun White’s.”)

A quick biology lesson for you (or genetics or whatever science this falls under). Red hair comes from recessive genes. This means that both parents must have the gene, and both must pass that recessive gene to their child for said child to have red hair. If one parent doesn’t have the gene or passes along a dominant gene (i.e. black or brown hair) there is no way for the child to have red hair. It’s a long shot. I’m a rarity. My parents both have brown hair and I got lucky- or unlucky- depending on how you look at it.

Why is it such a big deal to the Ginger community that there is someone this prominent on the main stage? Quite frankly, it has never happened before. Some people will make the argument for Conan O’brien, but he isn’t liked by almost everyone and wasn’t even as popular as he should have been until the Tonight Show blew up in his face. A friend of mine joked Carrot Top. Let me be the first to tell you that if we could, we would kick him out of the Redhead Club. No one likes him. Especially redheads. He does nothing good for us. (I like how I capitalize Redhead Club like it is an actual club, because it’s not. It is something I made up because when I was trying to become a stand-up comedian everyone used to call me Carrot Top, and it made me so mad I created a completely fictional club composed of all the redheads in the world, called the Redhead Club. He only got in because he’s a legacy. Note: Those last few sentences were written just to keep myself in the Redhead Club. But the first rule of Redhead Club is you have red hair. The second rule is that you bring ideas on how to get Carrot Top out of said club. Then, the third is don’t talk about the Redhead Club. The fourth is, if you do talk about the Redhead Club, you create an elaborate excuse that really doesn’t seem plausible so people don’t know the Redhead Club actually exists and they just think you are being a silly Ginger.)

The closest we have ever been to a cultural icon the likes of Shaun White was Ron Howard. Yep, Opie, Richie Cunningham. But even when he was at his hey day in Happy Days, his best friend, the Fonz, was still cooler and more popular. Hell, Richie Cunningham’s older brother didn’t like him enough that he went upstairs after playing basketball in season one, and never came down again.

Lack of fame in the Ginger Community is something that we’ve have had to deal with our entire lives. Especially male redheads. There is no one to look up to that has our hair color. Women have Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman, even Elizabeth I was a redhead. But it’s hard to tell if the redheads now are natural or just have great stylists. Almost every woman out there has dabbled in being a redhead. No man has ever gone that route. It’s a step down. There has never been any cool redhead. Never one that we could look up too and think we’re better than everyone else.

Look at high school comedy movies. Movies like American Pie and Can’t Hardly Wait. The dorky kid nobody really likes…a redhead. Granted, we scored in both movies, but still it brings us down a bit. Just a bit. If we hadn’t hooked up with the hottest girl in American Pie it would have devastated us. The fact that after that movie I was referred to as the Shermanator for six months doesn’t help much, though.

Ron Howard had a chance, but he ducked behind the camera. He’s famous, yes. Most people know the name and know what he does. But if you walked up to a twelve year old and held up a picture of Ron Howard they might just think he’s Shaun White’s dad. That is why what White has done is so great to someone like me. Yes, he’s younger than me, and shorter (he is only 5’8″), but I still look up to him as a fan of sport and as a Ginger.

As a kid the athletes I idolized were Cal Ripken Jr., Patrick Roy, Steve Young and Edwin Van Der Sar- none of them redheads. (However Edwin Van Der Sar does hail from the Netherlands, which holds “Redhead Day” every year. I have yet to go, but some day I will make it. And I really hope that day is cloudy, or I’ll invest in a ton of Coppertone and sell them for ten bucks a bottle.) I never had someone who I could relate to on a personal level. They were all great, but they weren’t me. I am sure there are Ginger Snaps (young redheads) out there right now watching the Olympics and thinking that could be them someday.

White has done what few other athletes can do. He is bigger than the sports he competes in. He has gone to a point where he is now his own brand. He does more for the sport than the sport does for him. There are only three others who have ever done that: Jordan, Woods and Hawk. That last one stands pretty large in this story. Hawk met White when Shaun was only seven, riding a skateboard at a local skate park. Hawk took him under his wing (pun partially intended) and remains close to him today.

It isn’t just White’s amazing ability as an athlete that puts him in such an elite class. He markets himself extremely well. He has a clothing line at Target, a whole line of products with Burton, and his very own video game. And at the center of all of those marketing opportunities is a huge mop of red hair.

He’s made his hair just as identifiable as himself. It is its own entity. Like Aaron Neville’s mole, wait scratch that. Like Cindy Crawford’s mole, or Michael Strahan’s gap. You see the hair you know the star. And the biggest thing for him with the hair situation is that it isn’t a joke. Like another redhead who once wanted people to like him. It makes other Gingers proud. I want him to keep growing it. Take it as long as he would like. Flaunt it Shaun White. Let everyone know that you are Ginger and you are proud of it. And from the other Gingers out there; we’re proud of you too.

Send questions or comments gheinrich@ktar.com