On Saturday afternoon, July 9, as the shell-shocked staff of the “News of the World” put together the last-ever edition of that storied British tabloid, their boss was at the hairdresser, having her famous carrot top tended.
That ill-timed indulgence of Fleet Street editrix Rebekah Brooks cinched her standing as the most vivid, if not vile, symbol of the ever-widening scandal that’s shaken the empire of media despot Rupert Murdoch and, oh yeah, the British government.
One journo at the now-departed News of the World recalled the day:
“We were all pulling together under the most traumatic and devastating circumstances and mustering all the dignity we could and Rebekah was two floors down in the hairdressers getting her hair done. She had it opened especially. That just says it all,” said a senior executive.
For media and political junkies, the Murdoch meltdown, an epic tale of corruption, criminal behavior and sleaze within a nexus of powerful press, police and government high-fliers, is perhaps the most compelling spectacle since big Dick Nixon assured the nation he was not a crook.
For those obsessed with the story, and for whom schadenfreude is the most delicious guilty pleasure — we name no names — the happiest aspect of the matter is watching the swift downfall of a loathsome pack of craven, self-entitled, pampered and privileged prigs.
Among the cast of ass-kissing courtiers to the Great Satan Murdoch, no character getting her comeuppance within this media morality play is more intriguing than the 43-year old Brooks.
So it’s hardly a surprise that the British tabs (coincidentally known as “red tops” for those with colored nameplates) have saved the most histrionic, hyperbolic and lurid language in their lexicon of sensationalism to describe the fire-haired siren of the piece.
In the last few days alone, tabs that compete with those published by Murdoch’s News International have variously referred to Brooks as a “Titian-tressed,” “pre-Raphaelite” “flame-haired Medusa lookalike,” dubbing her “The Witch of Wapping” (for the London neighborhood housing Murdoch’s operations) and “Ginger Spite” (after the redheaded Geri Halliwell of the lip syncing Spice Girls).
Male privilege and volcanic coiffures: Our Department of Fourth Wave Feminism and Camille Paglia Canon Studies has, of course, sensitized our entire staff to the chauvinist underpinnings of the sexist behavior that flows from the male pig-dominated Fleet Street culture that is solely responsible for the unfairly targeted, incessant focus on the glamorous Ms. Brooks. So naturally, it makes our blood boil to read such swill as this:
As a firestorm – (Prime Minister David) Cameron’s word – engulfed her papers she said as little as possible and so become a red-haired icon to which commentators could wittily attach ancient male terrors of the femme fatale. She was compared to Morgan le Fay, the evil half-sister of King Arthur. The Arthurian romances were beloved of Victoria painters, and Brooks’ hair is so exactly like the volcanic coiffures in pairings by the Pre-Raphaelites that not only do Arthurian allusions resonate – check out Rossetti’s painting The Holy Grail — but it looks as if she consciously sets out to look Pre-Raphaelite. Is she an art lover? Well, it’s said that Rupert Murdoch gave her a Lowry for her 40th birthday.
If not a witch like Morgan le Fay, perhaps Brooks resembles a wicked character from some Victorian novel – the Telegraph called her “one of the great adventuresses of the age”, writing on a Trollope high. But, of course, she is not a mythic femme fatale. She is, like all people dragged against their will into the brutal light of media attention, a human being hunted by the pack.
In this context, it’s to be expected that inky wretches assigned to produce instant news profiles of Brooks quickly found evidence that in her rapid professional rise she encountered and overcome precisely the type of workplace bias and harassment to be expected in the bastions of male privilege that are the newsrooms of London:
“There was quite a lot of willy waving, to put it mildly, but she soldiered on,” says Sue Evison, the head of media at Touchstone Media, who left the Sun in 2006 after 19 years. Evison recalls that Wade’s first year as editor of the paper in 2003 was also difficult. “There was an air of misogyny about the place. She endured it.”
(Memo to self: save and recall phrase “willy waving” for future use).
A red top’s red top: The recent chain of astonishing events erupted on July 4, when a dogged reporter named Nick Davies disclosed in the Guardian that during the time Brooks was chief editor of the News of the World, staff members hacked into the cell phone of a missing 13-year old girl named Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered. The story set off a firestorm of outrage that just keeps rising amid ongoing revelations.
Besides Murdoch himself, Brooks has emerged as the high profile player with the largest curiosity quotient in the saga (at press time, a Google search of “Rebekah Brooks” yielded 14 million results) not only because of the meme of her spectacular rise and fall within Murdoch’s magic kingdom, but also because of, well, you know, her hair.
No less a figure than the Pulitzer Prize winning critic Robin Givhan, now laboring for the Daily Beast (the second must-read on the story, right after the Guardian) wove a splendid, 1,000-word pseudo-psycho-social analysis on the subject, a one-part Rapunzel, one-part Rumpelstiltskin tale of the profound meaning to be gleaned from the head and hair products of the Biblicaly-named news hen and Debra Saunders lookalike.
Brooks arrived for her questioning (in the House of Commons) dressed soberly in navy with a demure little heart-shaped charm dangling from a necklace. Her hair hung thick and loose below her shoulders like a dense tangle of vines. It was free and unruly; it was hair that had been released from any need to be controlled and tidy…
Hair like hers is a great asset to have in a room crowded with famous and powerful folks. It makes one immediately memorable without having to utter a single word. It isn’t sexy hair that brushes seductively against the shoulders and it isn’t that gloriously girlish hair in which each long ringlet is carefully cultivated. Instead, it’s a spray of self-conscious indifference…
So perhaps, in her own way, Brooks was attempting to defy presumptions, rise above the cultural rules and style herself according to her own sensibilities. But that’s a pretty brazen thing to do when Parliament is on your case for defying laws, ethics, and common decency.
Brooks’ hair was a distraction because it was a ballsy rebuke of our expectations governing how people on the defensive are supposed to tread. There was no suggestion of humility, timidity, or caution. There was no attempt to disappear into doleful anonymity.
That was look-at-me hair—stare at me, remember me. Me, me, me.
Of that, there can be no doubt.
Going, going, gone. By week’s end — after the News of the World had been shuttered, the two top cops of Scotland Yard had resigned, Murdoch had abandoned his bid to take control of the largest pay-TV broadcaster in the United Kingdom and (pause for breath) Brooks had been canned and then arrested — her hair had gone global: Red hair was massively trending on Murdoch’s home turf of Australia; countless comics concocted elaborate parodies on the subject, and Givans wannabes tossed off derivative hair pieces with the speed of a buzz cut:
No one is claiming that Brooks’ hair cast a spell over Rupert Murdoch for all those years.
Nor are they suggesting that the mysterious power wielded by a frothy mass of in-your-face russet curls tells the untold story behind one of the greatest scandals of our times. Because that would be silly.
But what if it’s true? There’s a missing link in this story. And it’s the magic of the power barnet. Brooks’ hairdryer is the smoking gun.
To be sure.
It must be said, then, in the immortal words of Jeeves, the most famous character created by the great British writer P.G. Wodehouse: “Red hair, sir, in my opinion, is dangerous.”