When Anne Morgan began working as the head of the hair department on the new film Bombshell — about the accounts of sexual harassment that helped bring down Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes — she hung an image on the wall of her trailer for inspiration. Really, it was several images of actual female Fox News anchors assembled side-by-side, forming a grid. They all looked nearly identical: white, thin, and blonde.
Morgan wasn’t the only one who spent time dissecting how the typical Fox News anchor looked. Back in 2014, media outlets, including this one, pointed out the overwhelming blondeness (and whiteness) of the women at Fox News at the time. But the favoring of blonde hair extended far beyond the network. That year, Jennifer Berdahl, sociology professor at the University of British Columbia, started conducting extensive research on the disproportionate percentage of blonde women in high-level positions. Her research, which was released the same year that Bombshell takes place, showed that 48 percent of female chief executives at S&P 500 companies and 35 percent of female senators were blonde.
But at Fox News, where a little more than half of the anchors at the time were blonde, it made particular sense. In 2017 – the year after Ailes stepped down and also the year that he died — Amy Larocca defined the Fox News blonde in New York Magazine: “The Fox blonde is, in the end, conspicuously unnatural,” she wrote. “She is less blonde as sexy and more blonde as safe. This blonde is a matronly blonde, a suburban soccer mom who makes sure everyone buckles up in the backseat of the minivan.”
Bombshell centers on the stories of three of these blonde women, each at a different place in her career at Fox News. Two are based on real people: Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who is preparing to sue Ailes (John Lithgow) after years of documenting her experiences with sexual harassment, and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), who is being attacked by Donald Trump after confronting him during a 2015 Republican presidential primary debate. The third woman is fictional: Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), an evangelical millennial from Florida who starts out working on Carlson’s show but has dreams of becoming an anchor. There is also another fictional blonde, but one who wants to stay behind the camera: Jess (Kate McKinnon), a producer who isn’t out at work, both as a lesbian and as a liberal.
In the film, blonde hair does not exist just to satisfy the proverbial conservative viewer; it exists as part of Ailes’ reported vision for Fox’s female on-air talent: sex appeal. The real-life Ailes allegedly preferred his anchors to have long legs meant to be ogled on-air through translucent desks, large breasts, and very often, blonde hair — though Fox did and does have successful non-blonde anchors, too.
On top of this, Ailes was known for allegedly pitting female hosts against one another — the implication being that if you won’t fall in line, another stiletto-wearing woman would. While a spokesperson for Fox News told CNN Business this past October that the company no longer functions the way it did under Ailes, saying that it has worked to change company culture, grow the HR department, and implemented a zero tolerance misconduct policy, the network portrayed in the film is in serious need of reform.
That’s why, when Morgan began designing how the film’s female anchors would look on-camera, the Ailes effect was top of mind: “The directive I gave my team is that the women of Fox look like dolls,” Morgan said over the phone from Los Angeles. “[They are Roger Ailes’] version of dolls, his slowly curated and cultured view of what these women should look like.” The film’s script nods to this, too. When Robbie’s Kayla begins a new on-air role, she arrives at her desk with pageant queen hair, garish stage makeup, and a black-and-white bodycon dress. “Wow! It’s Anchor Barbie,” quips Jess (McKinnon) from across their shared cubicle.
Morgan and her team of five stylists worked with 20 wigs, plus extensions, to bring these blondes to life. Robbie and Kidman wore one wig each, Theron wore four, and the rest were worn by supporting characters (excluding McKinnon, who appears with her natural hair dyed). The goal was to have each character’s hair help illustrate a generational shift at Fox: “Gretchen came before Megyn, and in our story, Kayla comes after Megyn,” said Morgan. “The passing of the baton, if you will.”
Morgan explained that Carlson, a former Miss America winner who joined Fox in 2005, “comes out of an era when the hair would have to be in a very helmeted, perfect, everything-in-place style on camera. That’s how newscasters looked for years. Her color [blonde] is a little more dated, a little more yellowy-golden.” To perfect this look, she used Philip B Jet Set and Thickening hairspray.
Megyn Kelly, who is four years younger than Carlson, had a more contemporary hue: “[Her color] had a little bit of a root, it was a brighter blonde. She looks a little bit more like she’s looking at magazines. Woman 30 to 50 are going to think she looks great and relate to her. And a guy is going to think she looks hot,” said Morgan, who used Philip B rejuvenating oil to give the hair a sleek, natural sheen and cocktailed Virtue Restorative Treatment Mask with the brand’s 6-in-1 Styling Creme for piecey definition.
When it came to the fictional Kayla, Morgan had a clean slate. However, she did look to a real person for visual help: 27-year-old conservative political commentator and Fox News host Tomi Lahren. In the film, Kayla’s blonde is sleek and icy like Lahren’s, the color of a towheaded child’s. “My inspiration of Kayla’s color was inspired by Lahren but was strictly visual,” said Morgan, who kept the wig looking fresh and cool-toned with Tressa Watercolors, a line of color-depositing and toning shampoos. “I liked [Lahren’s] modernity and the white blonde was so striking.”
Berdahl, the sociology professor, posits that this type of nubile white-blonde can signify an obsession with youth. “It’s extremely child-like,” she told Refinery 29 over the phone. “You never find that in an adult woman naturally.”
There is one character who provides a contrast to the light shades of the other women in the film: Jess (McKinnon), the producer. Originally, Morgan explains, Jess was imagined as a brunette, but the team eventually settled on a darker blonde. “It needed to be obvious that she wasn’t gunning for an on-camera [role],” ” said Morgan. “Once we found a way to make her blonde different, her style — a very lived-in, kind of messy look with lots and lots of lowlights — worked beautifully, so we went with it.”
McKinnon’s hair serves as a marker for the other ways her character has to perform at Fox; during a surprisingly intimate scene with Kayla, Jess says she feels pressure to remain closeted about both her sexuality and her politics at the network. And while she desperately wants to leave Fox, none of the more liberal networks will hire her because she works at Fox.
Ultimately, in the world of Bombshell, blonde hair is an opting-in to Fox’s culture, a signal of loyalty to Ailes that you want to climb the career ladder at the network — the danger being that the higher you want to go, the more likely it becomes that you’ll be subjected to the culture of sexual harassment.
Although the film ends on a relative high note — Carlson receives a $20 million settlement and a public apology from Fox — the tone is far from feel-good. In the last scene, she signs a nondisclosure agreement, which, in real life, has prevented her from speaking about her experiences and also from participating in Bombshell; before the film’s credits roll, we learn that Ailes received $40 million as part of his severance package.
Even still, the most striking thing we’re left with might be that each protagonist has either known about or experienced harassment at the hands of Ailes, but they all grapple with it in almost complete isolation. In the film, there is no real solidarity, no sorority-like sisterhood, among the sea of blondes at Fox News — only rows of smiling headshots, side by side, alone.
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