I was standing in a record-breaking crowd of 1,721 natural redheads, all dressed in various shades of blue, posing for a group photo in a large green field. We had all come together for a weekend-long international redhead festival held in the Netherlands. As photographers were hoisted up into the sky on large cranes, I looked around at the colors. I'd never been surrounded by so many people that resembled me.
From shades of deep burgundy to yellow-tinted gold, the entire spectrum was there. From burnt orange to an orange that resembled a pile of autumn leaves. Bright copper and ginger and strawberry blonde and auburn. There were babies with bright and pure curls, balding men with those telltale ginger bleach-blonde eyebrows, and older women whose once-flaming hair had grayed to a duller straw yellow kind of orange. So many different combinations. A bright, beautiful sea of red.
Still, I felt alone. Surprisingly alone.
I first found out about the strange gathering in college when a friend sent me an article about the festival, with the comment, "Look!! You can go be with your people." After several years of wanting to attend I finally embarked on the trans-Atlantic journey.
As the only natural redhead in my entire family, I've often felt alone in the ways I experience the world. My sister has dark brown hair and tans easily, and unlike me, was never made fun of for being pale and pasty while we were growing up. As one of the few redheads in my high school, I frequently felt ostracized after being called names like "firecrotch" or being told, "redheads have no souls." I've never quite fit in — not with my peers, groups of friends, or family.
My coppery red hair is not the hair of someone who goes quietly through life. I thought maybe I'd find someone who deeply understood me at the world's largest gathering of redheads. I expected to find that feeling of belonging I so longed for. I hoped I'd finally feel at home in such a sizeable redhead community.
The first gathering of Redhead Days in the small Dutch town of Breda dates back to 2005, when the blonde painter Bart Rouwenhorst put an advertisement in the local newspaper asking for 15 natural redheaded women to model for him. Over 150 women responded to his ad. When I met Bart in Breda in 2015, he told me that he was initially inspired by artists such as Gustav Klimt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who famously painted red-haired women, and that he didn't want to turn any of "these beautiful women" away. So he invited them all to participate in a lottery to decide which ones he would paint on his canvases.
The festival has reoccurred — and grown — nearly every year since its inception. Over 5,000 people from more than 80 countries attend each year, yet only about one-third of the attendees are genuine redheads. There are always far more "admirers" than actual redheads in attendance, which you might not notice until the evening events looking out at the heads in a crowd.
To get to Breda, I first had to fly to Amsterdam, and then catch an hour-long train down to the southernmost part of the country, near where the Netherlands borders Belgium. On the train, I began looking for signs of other redhead festival-goers. I noticed a couple of redheads pass through the cabin on the way down. Too shy to ask them where they were headed, I kept to myself in my row.
When I arrived at my hotel there were a handful of gingers sitting in the lobby, all staring awkwardly at each other. It went unspoken, but we all knew we were in town for the same reason, as did the hotel staff. Still, it didn't feel entirely okay to address one another. What if they spoke a different language? Or what if they really were just in town on this same weekend by coincidence?
That night, at the kickoff party, I met my first admirer. He had long, stringy brown hair and a full beard, wore a floppy brown hat and a shirt that read "I ♥ REDHEAD GIRLS." We took a picture together. He gently kissed me on the hand. I indulged his curiosity and told him my name, where I was from, and then turned around to introduce myself to another red-haired stranger.
Men with every shade of hair color but red approached me with cameras, asking if they could take my picture. I saw that other redheads had posed for them, and wanted to surrender to the chaos of the crowd, so I did, albeit reluctantly. Even with my boyfriend accompanying me, I felt a strange sense of submissiveness to these men, where the only option felt like allowing them to capture me on film. I had come all this way to admire and appreciate other redheads' appearances, and it felt wrong not to share mine with others.
The weekend was packed with a random assemblage of events, some having to do with red hair, and others nothing at all. There were more than half a dozen photographers set up beneath tents ready and willing to do individual photoshoots. There were speed-dating/speed-meeting sessions, fashion shows, a Mister Redhead pageant and a heel race, lectures on the history of red hair, and redhead-specific beauty product tutorials. In 2015, the theme was Vincent van Gogh, who was — you guessed it — also a natural redhead, so you could have your photo taken next to a vase filled with sunflowers, or pose in a face-cutout portrait of "Potato Eaters." I did both.
Ever want to go on a pub crawl with a dozen other strangers with whom you have nothing in common but your red hair color? You can do just that at Redhead Days. Want to do yoga in a field surrounded by gingers? Or take a Latin dance class with fellow freckled companions? You could do those here, too.
Imagine the love child of a Renaissance Fair and a family reunion, and you'll have some sense of what this bizarre festival is like. There's a weird, deviant sexual vibe during the whole thing — like the kind I imagine teenagers experience at a sleep-away camp. Except here, it felt incestuous.