Lloyd Robertson and the bad hair day

The veteran national news anchor reported on many controversies, but none as strange as his own hair colour

On Sept. 1 last year, Lloyd Robertson stepped down as CTV news anchor, ending a record-breaking 41-year run—six at CBC and the final 35 at CTV—at the helm of a national network’s main news broadcast. Robertson, now 78, hasn’t exactly been taking it easy since. He’s currently a co-host of CTV’s weekly magazine series, W5, and is now publishing his autobiography, The Kind of Life It’s Been, a reference to his signature conclusion to every broadcast, “And that’s the kind of day it’s been.” In it he recalls the great stories he covered, from Terry Fox to Princess Di, and the personal bonds he forged with viewers along the way. In this excerpt from the book, Robertson recalls how viewers were never shy to express their real opinions.

*Exclusive excerpt*

In the mid-1990s, our gains in the ratings happened in spite of a controversy that began to circle my head—literally—at the same time. It revolved around my hair—that’s right: my hair! There had been some adjustments made to our set that put me at a desk on a wooden riser on the studio floor. The result was to put my head in the direct path of some strong lighting from above—what we call “top light” in TV. Since I was beginning to sprout a sizable amount of grey hair, it began to shine like the peaks of the Rockies and made me look much greyer than was actually the case. Some of my friends and colleagues started to gently suggest that maybe I should “do something about it.”

Given all the jokes through the years about the Harry Hairspray and Linda Lacquer anchor types on TV, you will know by now that hair, makeup, ties, suits, shirts or blouses are the cosmetic factors that often overwhelm the presentation of information. I have had many phone calls and much correspondence over the years from viewers expressing their preferences for certain ties or suits over others, and, in a few cases, requests for the names of my tailor or shirt maker.

It was the dapper Arthur Weinthal, CTV vice-president of entertainment programming, who suggested I start putting a handkerchief in my breast pocket as “a mark of distinction.” This seemed to be working fine until a woman in Ontario decided to take on a mission to ensure that tie and pocket puff matched every night. She said, “I’m surprised that the people around you don’t give better direction on your wardrobe—what you wore last night was appalling.” Although I wrote back only to thank her for her interest, every morning she would send a thumbs up or down on the previous night’s choice. Finally, she wrote to tell me that I was probably busier with urgent news matters and that she was sorry if she had taken up too much time, but still, she thought she had noticed an improvement in my wardrobe coordination based on her interventions.

I’ve missed putting the tiny but distinctive Order of Canada pin in my suit lapel only a couple of times since being presented with the honour in 1998. Recipients are expected to wear the pin regularly, and one night when it was missing, an R. McAdam from Calgary wrote, “It is not only slothful but disloyal of you to ignore your pin.” When I wrote back and explained I had simply forgotten, he accepted my explanation and apologized for his “intemperate language.” Nevertheless, since then I always kept a spare pin at the ready in my newsroom desk drawer.

But it is the hair that always evokes the most buzz, so I made the fateful decision to try to get rid of some of the grey that the TV lights were accentuating. I was not, after all, employed in a medium where growing old gracefully was part of an accepted norm. I spoke to Joseph de Francesco, my excellent barber (they’re all hairstylists now), who had a shop in the Sheraton Centre in downtown Toronto. He advised I use his “colour specialist,” a young woman who seemed sympathetic to my plight as I explained the problems with the lights and said that I was not looking for too much change—just enough to wash out some of the grey.

The next Monday afternoon, I showed up in the newsroom with a full head of dark brown hair. I felt self-conscious about it, but thought it might look all right on television. There were sideways glances from some of the staff, and a few suppressed giggles from the women, but I soldiered on as though nothing had changed. When I hit the makeup room in my daily late-afternoon routine, there were some audible gasps and a few who shouted, “What the hell have you done, Lloyd?!” My long-time makeup artist, Elaine Saunders, whom I had first met in Winnipeg in 1957 and had worked with intermittently through the years, started to say, “Oh Lloyd . . . ” before trailing off and deciding it was better to ignore the new look. The makeup department hairdresser, our cool and ever-discreet Bruno Malfara, winced slightly when he saw me, but made no comment.

It was after the newscast that the proverbial hit the fan. The hair looked completely different—indeed, it looked black. The desk was flooded with calls about “Lloyd’s look.” There were emails from across the country the next morning, with some expressing “shock and horror” at the sudden change. I was back to the colour specialist a few days later, asking whether she could bring a little more balance. The result was even more unsettling: my hair began to develop blue streaks, it was orange/copper-coloured for a while and then, after another attempt, I began to turn blond. TV Guide commented that “hitting the hair-dye bottle is not a crime in itself,” but wondered whether Robertson “was having more fun now that he’s a blond.”

The internal and external fuss had some of us joking that the time we were spending on this silly problem was as much as we’d use up in a major news crisis. To some, it was indeed a crisis. The vice-president of CTV News, Eric Morrison, quietly called Craig Oliver to plead with him to intervene with his friend to get me to clear up the mess over my hair. Craig roared with laughter. “How the hell can I do that? I’m putting stuff in myself.” Craig was colouring the fringe around his mostly bald pate, and the columnists were having a field day in referring to him as “Ginger.” He would joke it was just “prematurely orange.” When Craig and I finally had a mock-serious discussion about our mutual hair problems, he made the point that “women have been colouring their hair for years and nobody gives a damn. It should be the guys’ turn now.” We both acknowledged that the very idea of hair colouring for news people probably distracted from the image of steadiness of character and decorum that we were supposed to present. Growing old was an accepted reality; why were we, as trusted guardians of truth, trying to change that? It was all a little too much, but it was a testament to the way cosmetics can dominate in television.

Finally, I knew I had to put an end to the ridiculous uproar, and our very own Bruno, who inhabited the makeup room every day, came to the rescue. He is a soft-spoken, handsome Italian who adopts a conspiratorial Sicilian tone when dealing with certain hair dilemmas. Bruno is probably the quintessential hairdresser. He has a subtle and unthreatening way of coaxing his clients to reveal their secrets, which is why he always walks in a sure-footed manner that tells us all that he knows what’s really going on at the network. He is truly the model for the old advertising tag line, “Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” In his muted, semi-conspiratorial manner, Bruno assured me, “I can fix your problem, Lloyd.” He insisted I didn’t have to let my hair go back to the way it had been, with the lights accentuating the grey; rather he would simply find the right combination to tone it down, to make it look “perfectly natural.”

Voilà! After just one session with his unique and still-secret formula, my hair returned to normal and the furor began to die away. That’s why I dubbed Bruno “the King,” and we had a close relationship that always brought lots of fun and teasing on every trip to the makeup department.

Excerpted from: The Kind of Life It’s Been by Lloyd Robertson. © 2012 L&N Roberston & Associates Inc. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.