Tennille Jenkins, a 43-year-old model and all-around creative, loves her signature white and gray hair now. When she first noticed her hair steadily turning a premature white nearly 20 years ago, she knew there were only two real choices—and first decided to resist the change.
"I'd be lying if I said I felt confident when my hair first began going white," Jenkins shares with Byrdie. But as a few years went by and her new hair color started to blend in with the original, everything changed. "I no longer felt shy about having premature white hair,” but rather beautiful and unique, Jenkins says. “By embracing my white hair, I was defining my beauty. It was and continues to be very empowering.” Though her journey to acceptance was just that—a journey—Jenkins eventually arrived at a place many are starting to reach for: unabashedly loving their natural gray hair.
Scroll through shots from award shows, photo calls, and red carpets at recent Hollywood events, and you’ll start to notice it. Or click over to any of the fervent, almost minute-by-minute coverage of HBO Max’s upcoming Sex and the City revival—it’s there, too. Spurred either by the emotional insight of the past year or the logistical ones (salons shuttered for months on end), more and more women are forgoing concealing their grays in favor of wearing them loud and proud—and the results are nothing short of stunning.
Andie MacDowell made headlines when she turned up at Cannes Film Fest with a full head of gray-and-brunette curls that only emphasized her radiant complexion and hazel eyes. She told Drew Barrymore that her daughters were the ones who convinced her to go for the untamed silver and even admitted it took her a while to get used to the new, natural look. Now, she’s holding her silver-streaked head high at one of the most photographed events of the year. Sarah Jessica Parker often doesn't bother to cover up her own pretty, gray-streaked hair, either on-set or out with friends, in a move that's earned almost unanimous praise from fans and followers. At 59, Parker undeniably looks her age—and that's a good thing.
It seems to be a pattern with many celebrities this year and last, several of whom were living with their new natural color for the first time, thanks to salon closures. Slowly and steadily, though, the pictures started appearing on Instagram. Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelly Ripa, and Tia Mowry all gave loud-and-proud looks at their gray hairs, and now it seems like some stars have decided to make it a permanent change.
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Hollywood colorist Matt Rez, who's worked with celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Leona Lewis, says while he hasn't necessarily noticed clients clamoring to go entirely white, many are after less opaque coverage—"so the gray that is covered looks more like a highlight vs. full coverage," he tells Byrdie. The result is a more seamless color blend when new grays pop up, and it could help bridge that transition gap until it is time to go all-in on white. As Rez explains, gray hair isn't actually gray after all but rather white hair emerging from color which gives the salt-and-pepper illusion that typically comes to mind. And for those looking to make the leap themselves, Rez has several suggestions.
If you've been putting color on top of white hair for a while but looking to transition to gray, it's key to avoid suddenly ceasing hair dye altogether. Instead, "I suggest having your colorist use demi-permanent color going forward for less dense 'gray' coverage, and over time lighten the formula," Rez says. "Demi-permanent colors used correctly will not lift the pigmented hair in between the white hair, and over time you can potentially stop coloring regrowth as previously colored lengths will be cut off." The crossover will take time, but it's worth it for the most natural-looking color and healthiest hair possible. "This is the safest transition without major damage of trying to remove old color," he explains. "It may take some time, but the integrity of the hair is kept."
For those just starting to notice whites pop up, resist the urge to approximate an all-over look with gray replicating highlights. According to Rez, your still-pigmented hair will continue to grow, creating demarcation lines that can only be quelled with damaging bleach. Unless your hair is already 80 percent white, he says, it's not recommended. When going gray, it's best to just let nature take its course over time.
Maintain Your Gray
It's important to take care of silver hair the way you would a colorist-issued shade. Rez says targeted glosses can help keep the white hairs from veering yellow, often caused by shower water pH levels and mineral deposits. "I love the Redken Shades EQ Glosses in the 9 and 10 level family for cooling-off 'gray' clients," he shares, adding that a powerhouse shampoo like the Redken Acidic Bonding Concentrate ($30) system (it's incredible, by the way) will help keep hair at a balanced pH level and keep the cuticle sealed. This, in turn, keeps the yellow out.
Jenkins's game plan for her own white hair maintenance focuses on products that hydrate, sculpt, and glorify her curls, which she says also contributes to the gray looking so good. With trial and error, she discovered color-specific treatments like purple shampoo are just too harsh for her lush curls and instead concentrates on all-over hair health.
"For example," she explains, "because I use hair mask treatments every wash day (roughly once a week), I believe this also specifically helps moisturize my white hair." Because white hair can be wiry and dry, Jenkins finds moisturizing, curl-centric products help soften them. "Oh, and very important, I don’t use heat styling. Heat is the absolute worst for white hair because it can cause your beautiful white hair to be yellow," she warns. "For me, avoiding heat has been key to maintaining healthy-looking white hair."
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The Big Picture
Regardless of if your white hair is the result of genetics or time, there's something distinctly special about both. For Jenkins, her prematurely white hair was encoded in DNA from her paternal grandmother, a deep connection she treasures to this day.
"She was the most lovely, beautiful woman," Jenkins says. "In my mind, if I could be like her, then I am a fortunate person." It's the sort of perspective many are coming around to, though society hasn't always (read: never) made it easy. For decades, gray and white hairs were considered perhaps the biggest sign of advanced age along with wrinkles, and our youth-obsessed culture views aging as something of a woman's ultimate sin.
Though many outdated notions about beauty are hard to unlearn, going gray can help change your perspective. The anti-aging industry is worth a staggering $421.4 billion. With all that money at stake, is it any wonder we've been fed this idea of youth at all costs for so long? For many, the past year was and continues to be something of a change maker. In times of tragedy, aging becomes a luxury. Gray hair can be, the way it's been in previous eras and many cultures, a hard-fought badge of honor worn with pride.
But while it's clear we're making strides, society still has a long way to go. Until we get to a point when it's no longer brave or even newsworthy for a beautiful female celebrity to attend an event with visible grays, it's crucial to celebrate those moments because it's still being normalized. Jenkins sums it up well: "Sometimes it is very difficult to picture something without seeing a representation that inspires you," she says of the shifting attitudes. She's received countless messages from other women who now have the confidence to rock their own grays thanks to her example. "Bit by bit, the more we see women of all ages with naturally white hair, the more 'normal' it will become for women and the beauty industry. Now that’s a beautiful thing!"