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What’s not to like about Jessica Gagen’s hair? It is goddess hair — silky, swishy and cascades halfway down her back. Most women would kill for it. The colour is a thing of wonder, too.
So many different shades are present in the strands, and depending on how the light hits it, the effect can be copper, auburn, strawberry blonde. What colour does she call it?
‘Red. Or ginger. I don’t mind ginger, although some people do. Some people with hair like this make a point of saying “auburn”. But it’s red. I’m owning it.’
Whatever, it’s the sort of hair that L’Oreal pays teams of scientists to study, with the impossible goal of working out how to replicate it from a bottle. And it’s entirely natural.
‘It’s always been about the hair,’ Jess admits. ‘When I signed with a model agency, it was the hair they wanted. Ironic, really.’
Indeed. Jess is now 26, and a striking young woman in every way. From Skelmersdale, Lancashire, she is currently at Liverpool University studying for an integrated masters degree in aerospace engineering, one of only a handful of women on her course.
She sleeps with a miniature aeroplane, starting to soar, on her beside table, and dreams of a career as an astronaut. For many it’s a pipe dream, but for her it’s entirely achievable. She is on track.
She gives talks to younger girls to encourage them into engineering too, passionate about breaking down those sexist barriers. As role models go, she is quite something.
Jessica Gagen, 26 (pictured), from Skelmersdale, Lancashire, is currently at Liverpool University studying for an integrated masters degree in aerospace engineering, but is also a beauty queen and model in her free time
Why are we talking about her hair, then? Last week, it was revealed that Jess has other, more immediate, ambitions.
When she is not studying or doing paid modelling, she is also a beauty queen. This year’s goal is to represent England in the Miss World competition. If she achieves this, she will be the first redhead in history to do so.
Some may well regard this as a more trivial ‘first’ than the space ambitions, but when you hear her story, you understand the motivation behind it.
This one is deeply personal. For at secondary school, Jess’s hair was not something to be celebrated or marvelled at. Being a redhead made her a target for abuse. Her hair was a beacon all right — but for the bullies. ‘There might have been other reasons, too. I didn’t have any friends at the start of school so I had no one to eat my lunch with.
‘For four years I had a brace — one of those big block ones, followed by tracks. I went through a baby fat stage, like most people do.
‘But mostly it was about my hair, really. It would go frizzy after PE. I remember once, in the girls’ toilets, trying to get to the mirrors to smooth it down, and one girl just looking at me going, “Eugh!” Everyone laughed. I just ran. I ran out to the toilets at the other side of the school. I locked myself in a cubicle and just sobbed.’
There was a lot of that, and worse. We will get onto the spitting, shoving, name calling, even burning, but it’s the way she says, ‘A lot of redheads will understand’ that is particularly sad.
‘I think it’s one of the last acceptable forms of bullying,’ Jess says. ‘I don’t get overtly picked on any more but I still get teased about my hair and I don’t like it, even if people think they are just being funny.
‘I have pulled people up on it. I’m on a course with mostly guys, and one of them was having a joke about my hair colour and I said, “Please don’t. This is not just banter. Have a go at me for anything else, but not my hair.”
‘People still feel they can say things about your red hair, when they wouldn’t comment about someone’s size or religion. It’s not on, and if me being in a beauty contest can challenge that, then… good.’
Perhaps it’s a blessing that Jess’s family did celebrate everything about her, hair included. Her dad Paul, 56, works for Airbus (‘He used to buy me Scalextric sets even though it was a “boys’ toy” ’), and her mum Lesley, 52, works for the Post Office. She was the only one in the family with red hair; her sister is blonde.
‘But Mum and Dad would always tell me how special I was, because my hair was so rare. I think mine is the rarest genetic combination — red hair and blue eyes. I never felt, even all through primary school, that it was something to be ashamed of.’
Then she went to secondary school, and all bets were off. ‘There is a pecking order, and blondes are at the top, then brunettes. Gingers are at the bottom.
‘One of my most vivid memories is of being on the school bus and one girl shook out her coat and sort of held it up across the aisle in front of me, saying, “Only pretty girls at the front of the bus”. Everyone laughed. I’m sure she wasn’t being malicious. People rarely are. It’s just done to get a laugh from the others. It did.’
You’ve never forgotten it, though? She smiles a rather dazzling beauty-queen smile. ‘Never. I’ve never forgotten a single thing that was said to me, or done to me.’
It sounds as if the first two years of secondary school were miserable. One girl invited her over after school and offered to curl her hair, but kept burning her with the tongs. The next day another girl told her, ‘She was burning you on purpose because you have ginger hair’. ‘I remember crying my eyes out in the toilets about that, too,’ she says.
Did she tell her parents? ‘Not straight away. You never want to rock the boat. You are afraid that if you challenge the bullies, it will be worse for you, they will think even less of you. I never wanted to make a fuss.’
Her parents did discover it, though. ‘When I was about to do my GCSEs there was an incident with a boy in class. Again, I don’t think he was being malicious. But he spat gum at me and drew in my books. He flicked his spittle all over me.’ She recoils just describing this.
‘After class he came up behind me and shoved me. I went flying to the floor. I was bruised all up the back of my hands. My dad saw that. He went mad. He wanted to go in and talk to the lad, but I wouldn’t let him. I think by then I’d just resolved to get through school and get my exams and concentrate on that.
‘Even then I had this feeling: “This is happening for a reason. I just have to keep my head down. I don’t need people to like me. I just need to be at school to get my exams”. That was my mentality.’
But she says she never wanted to hack her hair off ‘because it was my identity too’.
‘I wondered if I’d be more popular if I didn’t have red hair. But if I dyed it, and they still hated me, maybe it would have been worse, because it was my personality they hated.’
At secondary school, Jess’s hair was not something to be celebrated or marvelled at. Being a redhead made her a target for abuse. Her hair was a beacon all right — but for the bullies (pictured age 11)
Further up the school, Jess did start to make friends. Some of them called her ‘Ginge’. Maybe she bristled at first, but it’s complicated. ‘It was nice to have a nickname, because it meant you were accepted. I came to quite like it. I felt that if I had a nickname I belonged, although I still preferred “Jess”.’
She excelled academically, with ten As and A*s in exams. She was made assistant head girl, and won a prize for best sportswoman.
By the time she was doing her A-levels, she had blossomed physically. The brace was gone. She was 5ft 9in tall, with endless legs, and this amazing hair. She was also becoming acutely aware that there was something rather special about her looks, even if some schoolmates had yet to realise this. She would swipe through Instagram and see women who looked, come to think of it, quite like her.
‘I remember watching America’s Next Top Model and seeing all these women who were striking, rather than conventionally pretty. It was their differences that made them stand out.’
Secretly, she visited a model agency. She was immediately signed up. Were your classmates green with envy? ‘I didn’t tell most of them. I told a few close friends, but most people didn’t know. Some found out when they saw me on the Boohoo website.’
How delicious. She played it cool. Her modelling jobs to date have included Adidas, Marks & Spencer, L’Officiel and Regatta.
This is extraordinary — the ultimate revenge of the redhead, surely? She isn’t crowing about it, but is quietly satisfied.
‘It was just confusing for a while. The thing is that in the modelling world, my hair is the thing that has made me money. It’s the thing everyone wants.’
She reckons that, if anything, her childhood bullying toughened her up for the industry, so maybe she has the bullies to thank, ultimately. ‘It can be quite brutal, but nothing anyone can say about my looks can ever be worse than what I heard at school. It’s water off a duck’s back now. I don’t take it personally.’
The beauty pageant world is a more recent departure. She was scouted for the Miss England contest last year, and was runner-up, missing out to Rehema Muthamia. She didn’t mention her childhood bullying to the organisers, she says, ‘because I don’t like to dwell on the negatives, and I’d moved on’.
This year, going through the heats stage for the contest, she is perhaps savvier about the platform she has, and has chosen to speak out.
‘It was actually my parents who encouraged me to go down the beauty contest route. They knew it offered all the things I wanted — a chance to travel and promote women in engineering. That is my great passion.’
If she does make it through to Miss World, the whole world will indeed be watching.
I ask if she knows what the bullies who made her life hell are doing now. Do they even know what has become of the girl they spat at and relegated to the back of the bus?
‘Some of them do. They watch my Instagram stories on social media. I don’t follow them. They can be interested in what I’m doing if they like. I’m not interested in what they are doing.’
When she was 21, she did run into one of the perpetrators and he apologised. ‘He said he hadn’t been very nice to me at school, and he was sorry. He hadn’t meant it. He was just being a lad.
‘I said, “It’s fine. It was a long time ago”. But I was still thinking, “Don’t think you are going to be friends with me now”.’
Source: Daily Mail