Written by Kayleigh Dray
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.
From dark brown to platinum blonde: how realistic are the dramatic hair transformations you see on Instagram? Stylist’s Kayleigh Dray investigates.
As reported on 20 April 2021: this year alone, we’ve seen Billie Eilish unveil a bleach blonde transformation, Lucy Hale embrace a phenomenal new shade of buttery blonde, Toni Braxton steal hearts with a peroxide pixie, and Lily James go blonder than ever in preparation for her role as Pamela Anderson.
Indeed, even Susanna Reid, who traditionally prefers to keep her hair on the dark side, has lightened things up for summer with a sharp new cut and a scattering of golden blonde highlights.
Essentially, it seems celebrities everywhere are using peroxide to freshen up their hair after lockdown, and they’re not the only ones lightening their looks up, either.
That’s right, folks: hair and beauty salons officially reopened in England earlier this month, and the biggest post-lockdown beauty trend of the moment? Well, as is so often the case for summer, it’s all about bright blonde hair.
“Blonde is still the go-to hair colour and we know it’s the leading colour in most salons,” says Adam Reed, editorial ambassador for L’Oréal Professionnel.
“I think the increased demand for blonde hair comes down to the fact that the blonde market isn’t just the ‘traditional’ blondes anymore. We’re now seeing natural-looking, multi-tonal blonde hair winning favour among consumers, which is widening the blonde market and increasing demand.”
Throw in the fact that breakout searches for “blonde hair colour” are up by 150%, and searches for “salon services” are up by 120%, and it becomes all too apparent that blonde is the colour du jour for summer 2021.
But just how realistic are these dark-to-blonde transformations, really?
As reported on 6 January 2020: I’ve been colouring my hair dark ever since I found my first grey at the tender age of 17. I’ve mostly opted for DIY box dye kits in chocolate brown, deep chestnut, mahogany, the occasional firebox red, but I’ve also treated myself to a number of permanent glosses at my local salon, too.
All of this means that, when I walk into Paul Edmonds’ Kensington salon, I’ve over a decade’s worth of dye on my head. Each strand has been put through its paces, well and truly. Indeed, thanks to me waiting months between dye jobs, I’ve an unintentional ombré effect going on: think blocky layers of different shades and hues of reddish-brown.
Essentially, there’s not a patch of ‘virgin hair’ to be seen (other than my salt ‘n’ pepper roots, of course). And so, when I pull out a photo of Michelle Williams’ iconic white-blonde pixie and tell them that’s what I want, it’s hardly surprising that the colourist’s eyebrows raise, albeit ever so slightly.
“Right,” she says, gently pushing me into a chair and taking a handful of my hair up between her fingers. She spends an age looking at the multi-layered effect of a decade’s different dye jobs – painfully obvious, under the salon lights – and takes note of the few inches of root regrowth (almost 70% white, if you’re wondering).
“It’s going to be difficult,” she tells me eventually. “Yeah, it’ll be difficult.”
This, to me, does not sound positive. Embarrassed for wasting Tracey’s time, I start to apologise for the impossible, but she laughs. “It’s absolutely not impossible,” she tells me firmly. “It’ll just have to happen in stages. I just want to make it clear that we can’t do this in one appointment. It’ll be a process. But if you’re up for it, I’d love to work with you on this!”
I’m up for it. Tracey tells me my first appointment will last at least six hours (eek), so I take a look at my calendar and arrange to come back in two weeks time. Let’s do this.
Brunette to blonde: stage one
When planning this appointment, I failed to consider the fact it would take place the morning after an all-night news shift. I’m barely awake when I step into the salon, but Tracey’s excitement at getting started on my hair transformation perks me up, as does the seemingly endless supply of tea and biscuits at my disposal.
I have, as requested, refrained from washing my hair for a week, building up oil to protect my scalp from bleach. But, before we even get started on the bleach, Tracey massages a heavy translucent paste into my hair, which she hopes will strip out some of the colour from my previous dye jobs. She tells me it will need to sit for an hour or so, fetches me a stack of magazines, and pops a cotton-wool halo round my face, to keep the strong-smelling stuff of my scalp and away from my eyes. And then… well, she goes off to see to other clients, and I concentrate all of my energy on not falling asleep.
When we eventually wash the paste out, both Tracey and I are surprised to see it’s actually had an extraordinary effect on my hair: it’s no longer a deep chestnut brown, but a light auburn colour – almost a strawberry blonde, if you squint hard enough.
“Maybe this won’t take as long as I thought,” says Tracey thoughtfully, as she rough-dries my hair ready for the bleach.
She warns me, once again, that the bleaching process is not going to be fun, but I don’t need to hear it: I’ve done my research. I know that the process of going platinum requires removing the colour from the melanin in the hair shaft by softening the hair cuticle with bleach and dissolving the colour molecules through a process called oxidation. That the finished effect is pretty much unpredictable, especially when it’s going onto pre-coloured hair. That it can be incredibly damaging to the hair. And that sitting with it on my head for an hour or so is going to burn like nobody’s business.
The last part quickly proves true: it feels like someone has poured red-hot ants on my head and that they’re going to town on my scalp. Tracey reminds me that it’s up to me how much pain is too much, and that she can take it off when I give the word, but I decide to stick it out. I sit on my hands to keep from scratching, and squint my eyes against the ammonia fumes that seep out when I’m planted under the dryer hood.
I worry about what I might look like at the end of this session, and how desperate the condition of my hair will be, but I take solace in the fact that Tracey has used Smartbond to protect my locks during the lightening process. Plus, in between checking my bonce and fetching me tea, Tracey has let slip that she once coloured Margot Robbie’s hair, so I now trust her implicitly.
After what feels like an age, Tracey finally agrees it’s time to wash the bleach out, and I literally sprint to the sink ahead of her. I want this stuff off my head ASAP. She treats me to an extra-cold rinse, which feels like heaven, and applies the second part of my Smartbond treatment, which needs to sit for a while to take effect. Sigh.
Usually, I hate sitting with my head in a sink, but Tracey smilingly informs me that I’m actually sat in a massage seat, and switches it on for me. I’m soon lulled to sleep, and wake only when she appears to check on me. “Do you want to know what colour your hair is now?” she asks, and snaps a photo of it so I can see.
I gasp. It’s the most vivid shade of orange I have ever seen on a human head, bar Milla Jovovich in the Fifth Element. Tracey laughs at my horrified expression and informs me that it won’t stay this way for long: she needs to tone it. By this point, I’ve been in the salon just over five hours, and daylight outside has given way to night, but I’m more than willing to stay put if it means I don’t look like I’ve escaped from the set of a sci-fi movie.
Tracey shampoos, tones, and conditions my locks. I’m basically blind without my glasses, so I put my faith in her entirely… and it’s gone 6pm when she finally sits me back in front of a mirror.
There’s no two ways about it: I’m blonde. Well, mostly blonde, anyway. There’s a few streaks of strawberry in the mix still, and the longer layers around the front of my face are a lot darker than the rest. But still.
“You look so different,” Tracey tells me, looking at my hair critically from all angles. “How do you feel?”
I feel… I don’t know how I feel. My new hair makes everything look different: my skin tone, my clothes, even the texture of my hair. I tentatively raise a hand to my head, run it over my locks. It feels rougher, stranger, but Tracey tells me this is just a reaction to the bleach, and hands me a pot of conditioning hair masque to use at home. She also provides me with a purple-toner shampoo, and tells me this could help remove a little of the brassiness in between appointments, but sternly warns me not to go nuts with it.
“You’ll only need one more appointment to get to that icy shade of blonde you want,” she tells me. “Maybe two, at a push. We were lucky!”
We book another appointment in for two weeks time (“this one will be shorter, I promise,” says Tracey), and I head home, dramatically double-taking every time I see myself reflected in a window or mirror. My boyfriend does the same when he sees me, eyes widening in shock. He cracks a few jokes about Draco Malfoy, but quickly realises this could result in his being murdered, and stops.
Sandy to ash blonde: stage two
The next morning, I lift my complexion with a rosy blusher, pile on some mascara, and head to work. Working at a magazine means everyone notices when you switch up your look, no matter how small, so this big change becomes… well, it becomes news. Everyone has something to say about it, particularly my deskmate (and editor-in-chief) Lisa Smosarski. “You are so much blonder than you said you’d be after one session,” she says, staring at my head in disbelief. “I thought it was going to take ages!”
I remind her, and everyone else, that this sandy blonde is not the hue I’m going for, but they ignore me. They think it looks amazing. “It looks really natural,” one colleague tells me. “I can’t really remember what you looked like brunette.”
My friends are much the same, although I traitorously wonder if they’re simply complimenting my look because… well, because they can’t pretend they haven’t noticed. It all gets a bit much, in fact, and so I’m incredibly relieved when I duck out of normal life for a family holiday to Lanzarote.
Somewhat awkwardly, I fail to anticipate the impact the sun will have on my new ‘do. It steadily grows lighter during the 10 days I’m away, and I exacerbate matters by piling on purple shampoo after every swim in the pool (I’m terrified the chlorine will turn my hair green).
“Oh my god, your hair is REALLY blonde now,” squeaks one of my colleagues excitedly, when I return to work at the end of my trip. “Have you already been back to the hairdressers?”
Oops. Hopefully Tracey won’t be too cross with me…
Ash blonde to white blonde: stage three
Tracey is gobsmacked when I walk in with my ash blonde ‘do, but she brushes it off like the professional she is. Once again, she applies the bleach to my head (again with the Smartbond treatment) but, this time, I don’t feel the burn. A tickling, perhaps. Maybe a prickling. And the fumes are so strong, I can hardly keep my eyes open. But it doesn’t itch like mad, and it doesn’t make me want to set my own head on fire, so I’d consider that a plus.
After 45 minutes of bleach, rinsing, and toning (Tracey applies it in stages, focusing on the yellowy ends to make sure everything is lifted equally), I’m allowed to see my hair. And it’s exactly what I wanted: pearly, fashionable, brighter than bright. It feels healthier to the touch, softer than it did the first time round, and it’s thanks to all of that conditioning I’ve been doing at home (I’ve gone through a pot and a half of masque, and I don’t regret a drop).
“What do you think?” asks Tracey, snapping photos from all angles like she’s paparazzi. I think it’s the Michelle Williams-esque blonde of my dreams, and I can’t wait to get outside and show it off.
The realities of life as a blonde
This time, I believe everyone when they tell me I suit blonde hair.
“You can see so much more of your beautiful face,” my boyfriend tells me, scoring himself some much-needed points after those Malfoy jibes from last time.
At work, Stylist’s beauty team christen me a “blonde bombshell”. One of my teammates, after staring at my head across the desk for a while, declares that he’s “obsessed” with my new look and threatens to bleach his own sandy locks. My first blonde selfie on Instagram prompts a digital chorus of “LOVE THIS!!!!”. And even my mum, who begged and pleaded with me not to change my hair in the first place (“you’ll ruin it, Kayleigh!”), tells me she is a fan of my new look. In fact, she even goes so far as to insist she always knew I’d suit blonde, and that I should have hit the bleach much sooner.
It’s not all perfect, of course. I had no idea, for example, that pastel and off-white colours reflect much more light than darker ones, which explains why so many people double-take at a blonde head rushing by. I’m naturally shy, as a rule, so it takes me a while to get used to this feeling of enhanced visibility. Indeed, when I sit down in a dimly-lit cinema, I’m convinced that my head is positively glowing, and nothing my boyfriend says will convince me otherwise.
It’s also incredibly easy, I learn, to over-tone your hair. The night before a friend’s 30th, I unexpectedly take myself from blonde to steely grey in under an hour, and spend hours sobbing in the shower with a bottle of anti-dandruff shampoo on my head (as per the advice of Stylist colleague and long-term blonde Gemma Crisp). Thankfully, it works, although it takes a couple of weeks for my hair to return to its bright white blonde glory.
Finally, root regrowth: it happens. And it happens a lot. Despite the fact that my hair is 70% grey, there are still a few pesky brunette sections to contend with, and they usually start to appear every couple of weeks. Controversially, though, I actually don’t mind it when they come through. They switch up my look, give it a less fussy and more edgy vibe (I kid myself that I look like a punk rocker, despite my staid clothing), although I can see why some people would rush to the salon the minute a dark root appears as it ruins the “I’m a natural blonde” vibe immediately.
Should you go blonde?
If you’re wondering if the old adage is true, I’d say yes, blondes do have more fun. I’ve been able to (temporarily) tone my hair pink, and lilac, and blue. I instantly look more put together when I ruffle my pixie, even if I’m wearing an old t-shirt. And I’m getting used to the idea that I can’t blend into the shadows as much as I used to.
However, it comes at a cost: going blonde isn’t cheap. Don’t try to do it yourself at home: book a consultation with a colourist, listen to what they have to say, and adjust your expectations accordingly. It may take a few appointments to get the shade of blonde you want.
“You have to expect that it is a process and it will take time,” says Paul Edmonds. “Although social media makes it look as if it can be done instantly, expect it to take time and maybe a few visits to the salon to get the colour perfect for you.”
On top of that, you’ll need regular appointments to keep your colour looking tip-top, and prepare to invest in some good quality purple shampoos and conditioning masques for home. You may even need to switch up your make-up to match your new ‘do (I still keep things to a minimal: a little blush, some mascara, maybe a dash of eyebrow pencil if I want to unleash my inner Khaleesi).
Personally, I’d also recommend you cut down on styling with heated tools, to prevent damage: I try to let my hair dry naturally whenever I can. And, on that note, you’ll need to keep trimming those battered and bleached ends, too, if you want things to look as healthy and glossy as possible.
All that being said… it’s worth it. I feel bolder than ever thanks to my new ‘do, and I can’t imagine myself going dark again any time soon. So, if you’re on the fence about going blonde, go for it… just be sure to do your research first!
With thanks to Paul Edmonds London.
Images: Author’s own
Lead image design: Alessia Armenise
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