YOUNGSTOWN -- Funny, I don't feel stupid.
Just nervous. Yeah, nervous. A little jumpy even.
It's a rare sight for almost every pair of eyes in the newsroom to be distracted enough from the racket of the computers and the urgent "brrring!" of the phones to glance at anybody.
Let alone an intern. Let alone during deadline.
But it's happening. I've timewarped back to middle school, where the new kid entering the cafeteria puts one foot in front of the other apprehensively, trying not to trip or skid or do anything to attract an ounce more of attention.
People are whispering between cubicles, heads almost butting, deconstructing me with their eyes.
At 8 this morning, I was just a 20-year-old kid learning the reporting ropes under a veil of mousy brown tresses. Upon my 10:20 return, I must be different: More striking, more turn-and-stare-and-drop-mouth worthy.
I must be blonde. Well, not just blonde. BLONDE.
National holiday: Granted, I was assigned my flaxen tresses under the guise of National Blonde Day. (Web site slogan: "Be true to your roots.") A publicity stunt to promote Reese Witherspoon's new movie, "Legally Blonde," which opens today, Blonde Day promotes the battle cry: Blondes and blondes-at-heart, unite for follicular equality!
Or something like that.
Also, I've dabbled in the peroxide arts before. After a lifetime -- 16 years -- with brown hair I felt was the color of dirt, I, then a junior at Austintown Fitch, decided my locks would shimmer with highlights.
There is a homecoming picture circulating in a 1999 yearbook of a girl with a curly fluorescent monster hissing atop her head -- a style that prompted my brother to ask, "Ash, did you intend for your hair to resemble a traffic light?"
For the record, Kevin, I didn't.
So I let the blondness fade away. But almost three years later, I stand here again, co-workers gawking, bleached as anything.
"You look so ... what's the word? ... fun," writes a co-worker on our office instant-messaging system.
"Like, Oh my GOD! Totally," teases another.
I've been in the newsroom for no more than five minutes, and this wig, a sandy geometric bob with thick bangs from Karl's Beauty Supply in Austintown, has netted more notice than anything I've written thus far.
I'm not having more fun yet.
Changing perception: The limelight gradually illuminates me. Part of it is the striking difference in my appearance. My reflection is taunting me: same wide nose, same large eyes, same dark, unruly eyebrows, just a variation on the halo of hair surrounding them. I do a double-take each time I eye a reflective surface.
Yet part of it is the striking difference in my perception of those around me. As a reporter, I'm trained to be observant, to notice subtle shifts of the eyes or the manner in which someone inhales a cigarette.
But the drastic hair change has caused my alertness to soar into hyperdrive. Every wayward glance is questioned: Is it me, in my coral top and black pants, that's prompting looks? The inadvertent choice of pink does cast me as a makeshift Malibu Ashley.
Or, is it that blonde, blonde wig?
So I ask. Several reporters give me an oh-look-what-they-made-the-silly-intern-do gaze. My bank teller keeps saying, "Huh?" until I drop the question. My mother tells me I should bleach my hair again.
A random man in my bank's parking lot practically runs away.
Regardless of what their reactions are, I can feel people staring. And then, I start to realize the Marilyn Monroe allure of blond hair.
There is a grain of truth to every stereotype: Some blondes act ditzy; some redheads, feisty; some brunettes, intelligent. Think any Goldie Hawn character, "Annie," Janet Reno. So, it's reasonable to assume that the positive stereotypes associated with blonde hair -- the sexiness, confidence and fun-loving nature -- could seep into any blonde's head as quickly as the dye lightens his or her hair.
Meeting expectations: Maybe my enhanced perception of glimpses was simply that: An enhanced perception. I expected to be gawked at as a blonde; therefore, any look lifted the hairs on my neck more so than when I was dark-haired. Did that make me strut with confidence? Possibly. Smile wider? Probably.
I refuse to admit, however, that I tossed my hair.
In fact, I may have misinterpreted some reactions.
Flash to 6 p.m., when I sprint to teach 21 Immaculate Heart of Mary cheerleaders a dance. They've seen me once, with no makeup and a blue bandana covering my brown, brown hair. Some of them coo, admiring the blondness, and others clap.
The next time I return, with a red bandana covering my hair, now dyed auburn, they told me they knew all along it was a wig. I don't believe all of the girls -- at age 12, you tend to think you know everything -- but some had to have pinpointed the difference in my hair texture.
I thought, though, that I had every last one of them fooled. I am such a glutton for punishment.
As the clock nears 11:30 and I prepare to celebrate Friday night, I survey my black pants, aqua top and pink toenails. I glance at my hair-sprayed brunette-ness, then back at the blond wig.
Brown, blond. Brown, blond. Brush teeth. Brown, blond.
Well, it is for the sake of journalism.
I strap the wig on again, pushing bobby pins through the cap underneath in a very non-expert fashion.
I survey my lipsticks. Something with drama is needed, maybe with a hint of red.
Knock, knock.
Come in, I call to my friend.
Sauntering downstairs, I strike a "Ta da" pose.
Josh, whose penchant for women runs toward females with black roots cascading to a golden glow, is thrown off.
He looks at me, pauses, looks again.
"Ash," he concludes, "you're not leaving this house like that. At least not with me."
He's got me there. My car's in the shop.
Brushing my wig for the last time, I smile at my remnant of follicular deception. Hair color isn't everything, I tell myself. Attitude is.
So, I rush out the door, vowing to have the brunette version of fun.
Which means, I suppose, perceiving myself as a blonde at heart.

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