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From Bond to Black Widow, the allure of redheaded spies

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Mar 5, 2020, 1:00 PM EST

If you type "red hair spies" into Google, it throws up fictional characters and real women accused of committing espionage. It might seem like a cliché for on-screen covert agents to favor this daring shade, but when the so-called real deal leans into this trope, all bets are off.

Photos of Marvel's Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Sydney Bristow's (Jennifer Garner) bright dyed hair from the Alias pilot sit alongside two alleged Russian spies that made a splash in recent years. Why are flame-haired female agents so enduring in pop culture and real life?

Credit:  Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

In the throes of the Cold War, James Bond (Sean Connery) faced off against SPECTRE assassin Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi) in the 1965 adaptation of Thunderball. As the femme fatale, Fiona had many skills including distracting Bond via any means necessary. Clocking her SPECTRE ring — maybe don't give away your assassin status via accessories — he was always in on the seduction ruse, but being Bond, he slept with her anyway.

"My dear girl, don't flatter yourself. What I did this evening was for King and country. You don't think it gave me any pleasure, do you?" he later tells her. She doesn't buy this response: "I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond. James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents and immediately returns to the side of right and virtue. But not this one." Fiona is not like the notably blonde Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) and Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), who previously fell for 007 after they were sent to seduce him.

Credit: Mario De Biasi/Mondadori via Getty Images

Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi originally auditioned for the lead Thunderball Bond girl Domino, but when she lost out on that role to Claudine Auger, the villainous Volpe was offered to her instead. Originally an Irish character called Fiona Kelley, the name was changed to match Paluzzi's nationality while nodding to her hair color — Volpe means "fox" in Italian. And just like a fox, she is incredibly wily, matching her target in every way including her driving skills, her deadly aim, and her seduction technique. Delivering the shampoo commercial shot, she shakes her strawberry blonde hair out of a motorcycle helmet. However, instead of outsmarting Bond, Volpe is picked off by a bullet that was meant for him. Sadly, her skills only got her so far on the dance floor before she was used as a human shield.

Being a good spy is about blending into your surroundings, but there are times when standing out is vital to the mission. Natasha Romanoff's backstory is still incomplete — which is why we are finally getting a Black Widow movie — but her signature auburn locks have been a vital part of her look since her first appearance in Iron Man 2. As an undercover operative, modeling was in her backstory, which made her an appealing hire for Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). She used several tactics to get close to Tony at the behest of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), including slipping another employee a pill to make her sick so she could deliver some documents to Tony. Johansson is attractive no matter what her hair color, but the shade of red definitely makes her stand out in a sea of blondes and brunettes.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Trained at the notorious Red Room Academy, Natasha's hair plays into the Soviet spy stereotype even if the suggestion is this is her natural hair color. Natasha has gone through many different styles across her decade in Marvel movies, including long curls and a sleek lob back to shorter waves. She ditches the signature red for bottle blonde when on the run, dying her distinctive color in an attempt to protect her identity before letting it grow out in Endgame.

As the current quintessential Soviet-born spy, red hair is a little on the nose. But real-life accused Russian spies Maria Butina and Anna Chapman also lean into the stereotype. Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction, or at least just as unoriginal.

For a slight change-up to the seductive allure of this shade, Keri Russell as the multi wig-wearing deep-cover KGB agent Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans wore an unassuming curly ginger wig in the final season. Her operation wasn't as a honeytrap but as a home-care nurse. In the rotation of Elizabeth's disguises, there were several styles on the red spectrum, but nothing matching the vibrant Natasha Romanoff shade of auburn. But the point of these disguises was to be as unremarkable as possible; if seduction was required it was laser-focused, rather than a flashy display.

Credit: Byron J. Cohen/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

One covert agent who chose a shade of red that resembles a literal beacon is Sydney Bristow in the Alias pilot. The audience gets a first glimpse of the undercover agent while she is being tortured, her bright hair looking bedraggled before cutting to Syd at college — a classic J.J. Abrams use of in media res storytelling structure. Her double life is an essential part of the narrative, which is quickly established. Influenced by the striking bold red dye job Franke Potente sported in the German thriller Run Lola Run, Abrams found the perfect scenario for his lead character's desire to change her appearance.

Borrowing Will Tippins' (Bradley Cooper) sister's passport, Sydney needs to travel to Taiwan under an assumed name. Improvisation is required after discovering she is actually working for the bad guys; cue the bathroom mid-dye scene. At the airport, her bouncy persona and distraction techniques showcase her ability to blend in when she is standing out.

Credit: Byron J. Cohen/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Switching into an all-black covert outfit when she arrives in Taipei makes sense to keep it on the down-low. However, she loses spy points by not shoving her new 'do into that beanie.

Wigs in a rainbow of colors become a vital part of the Sydney Bristow field ops look — the red is actually a wig since star Jennifer Garner wasn't about to potentially ruin her hair for one episode. She does sport a couple in the auburn/strawberry blonde arena (one nearly matches the Julie Volpe Thunderball look), but none of these are as striking or memorable as the initial candy apple signature look. The sequence of her fighting with this shock of artificial colored hair is an indelible image, which helped define the tone of the series.

Credit: Byron J. Cohen/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Toward the end of the pilot, she entered the CIA building as a walk-in to become a double agent in the same black outfit complete with bruises from the torture she just endured as well as her wild hairstyle. Sydney cannot be accused of not being committed to the cause when she didn't even pause to get changed or go back to her regular appearance. On this occasion, the only seduction occurring is between Sydney and the people she is trying to convince she's on the same side they are.

Whether it is natural color or straight from a bottle, redheaded spies have left their mark on pop culture and in real-life cases of alleged espionage. The ability to adapt and adjust to the task at hand is an essential weapon in the covert arsenal. Image is a part of this, which is why all of the women discussed here are so effective: they know that hair can be a major weakness for the men they are tasked to infiltrate. However, it isn't simply a case of a siren call to lure via sexuality. Yes, this is a factor in franchises like Bond, but in recent years, Natasha Romanoff and Sydney Bristow have utilized this shade to underscore their command of a situation. Not all weapons have to be deadly. In some cases, it just takes the right shade to get the job done.

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