It has become a bit of a cliché to reflect on what your “July 2019 self” would never have believed about the state of the world 12 months later. So much of what has happened this year – the global shutdown, the cancelled events, the demonstrations, the ‘new normal’ – is unprecedented that the observation feels trite, even if it is true.
But I’ll make an exception for myself, because the next sentence is one I really never thought I’d write. At this moment, the United Kingdom can be divided into two distinct camps: those who are for BBC weatherman Tomasz Schafernaker’s lockdown hair, and those who are against BBC weatherman Tomasz Schafernaker’s lockdown hair.
“I think ‘divided the nation’ is a slight exaggeration,” says the man in the eye of that storm, before admitting: “It’s… weird – my hair as never been any point of discussion before, ever, because there was nothing spectacular about it, and all of a sudden all these messages started coming in.”
That was mid-May. At the start of lockdown, in March, the 41-year-old had his usual closely cropped, unfussy helmet – a style he’d worn since he was about 6 years old. Then the salons closed, along with everything else, but the weather continued, as it tends to, leaving Schafernaker with a three options: let it grow, join the clipper race and have a hack at it himself, or find a kind of bootleg barber.
The latter was out of the question: Schafernaker may be cool by the standards of TV weathermen, but he is not about to break the law. He ruled out buying clippers, too. “I absolutely was not going to do that. I’d rather have a really bushy haircut than a bad DIY job. Because on TV by the weather map, the green screen and bright lights pick everything up. I’d have been trolled more,” he says.
And so he went for it, and for once couldn’t forecast anything that would happen. Initially, it grew out and up, meaning he needed to gel his swelling mop down (this being lockdown, of course, hair and makeup experts at the BBC couldn’t touch him either) for broadcasts. At that point, gentle ribbing via Twitter started. Then, when it grew past his ears, people began telling him they quite liked it longer. “So I thought… OK, maybe this could work? Maybe it’s time for a change? Why not?”
It turned out to be Schafernaker’s most controversial moment since the BBC had to apologise for him putting his middle finger up at Simon McCoy live on air. As lockdown yawned on into summer, the Barnet grew into a 60s moptop, the moptop curled into a kind of hippy 70s thing – and viewers had firm opinions about every stage.
I personally don’t own a television, meaning I wasn’t quite au fait with the level of debate that the evolution of Schafernaker’s follicle situation had caused. But my mother does, so I texted her yesterday morning. Describe Tomasz Schafernaker’s hair in one word, I wrote.
“Toupee,” was her one-word reply. Wow – I knew she might go through a conspiracy theory phase at some point, but not yet, and this wasn’t one I’d heard before. She cannot really think it’s a wig, can she?
“No, but it just looks like something plonked on his head,” she explained. I informed her Schafernaker was keeping it. “Ha,” she wrote, damningly.
Normally, Schafernaker only gets a few messages a day from viewers on Twitter. “Things like, ‘Thanks for arranging the sunshine!’, or ‘You lied!’, that kind of thing. Or on Countryfile, people complaining that I’m wearing jeans.” A few weeks ago, he counted 200 messages within minutes of a broadcast. None was about the weather. It was all about the mop.
“There were some very personal messages at the beginning,” he says, not meaning my mother, though she is on Twitter so you never know. “Back in April or May, people were really quite nasty, every swear word under the sun – Cs, Fs… – but I just sort of laughed it off. Now, I come back at them.”
For some viewers, it began to be a kind of lockdown clock. “Anyone else keeping track of the duration of lockdown based on the length of Tomasz Schafernaker’s hair?” one person tweeted. “Tomasz Schafernaker’s hair continues to be iconic,” TV critic Scott Bryan wrote.
Others weren’t so kind. A Change.org petition – “Allow Tomasz Schafernaker a lockdown exception to get his hair cut” – was launched. It has three signatures.
With varying degrees of earnestness, people pleaded he cut it (“No,” he usually replies), and compared the new, hirsute ‘Schaf’ to Kristoff from Frozen, Mrs Brown, Bob Geldof, Shaggy from Scooby Doo, and the comedy character ‘Charity Shop Sue’. I’d say it’s more ‘Owen Wilson cast as Angela Merkel in confusing new Channel 5 biopic’. But I like it.
I wonder if all those personal comments have given him an insight into what women on television have to put up with every day. His BBC Weather colleague, Carol Kirkwood, is critiqued in the tabloids almost daily.
“Do you know what, that has been brought up in the office. I think ladies sometimes get comments about their hair, their dress, their makeup. In the past, I just sort of waved that off, knowing that we’re in the media industry and it’s one of those things. But it is a big deal. And the comments about me were a joke at first, but I did think, ‘Hang on a minute, give me a break.’ And I guess women have had that more than men in the past,” he says.
“With the same token, the tides have turned a little bit now and people are a little more cautious about what they say. And I kind of thought, you’re having a go at my mop or whatever, but would they say that about a female newsreader? Some people probably wouldn’t now because they wouldn’t think it was PC, but because it’s a bloke, they think it’s OK.”
Still, he has ignored the trolls and enjoys having long hair so much that when it was announced barbers could reopen, he didn’t go.
“I’m delighted for anyone having a haircut, but I’m not planning a short back and sides anytime soon,” Schafernaker tweeted, with an accompanying picture of him with floppy hair, clutching an empty Nespresso cup, and in front of a barbell. 6,000 people liked it.
Instead, last week, he had it thinned out and styled a bit, but the length is still there. It has been a second education for the meteorologist. He has recently learned what a blow-dry is, and a hairdresser recommended he use sea salt spray to enhance his natural waves. “I never knew any of this stuff!”
Schafernaker is single and lives alone – “I spend a tremendous amount of time by myself” – in west London, where his main hobbies are going to the gym and painting.
He is prodigiously good at both: the former once got him a six-pack-ripping Attitude magazine cover (his popularity in the gay community is such that Urban Dictionary lists the “Schafernaker scale – “a cult scale to assess the cuteness of a potentially attractive man. The scale is named after [Schafernaker] because his cuteness is commonly considered to be beyond 10”); the latter has seen him present art documentaries for the BBC, exhibit in London and sell works for thousands.
Lockdown, then, has been relatively easy. He has missed his family and friends, all of whom approve of the accidental new look – especially his mother, who says he looks like his father at that age – but is otherwise happy to simply paint, exercise, and go to work. There, his BBC have no fixed standards for presenters these days, so he needn’t worry they’ll sheer him. They aren’t allowed within a metre of him at the moment, anyway.
So we have the hairy Schaf for a while yet. And if there’s another lockdown, he could get even hairier. It’s a hell of an outlook. Would the nation even be ready for a second wave of the Schafernaker waves? We’ve barely recovered from the first.
“Oh, crikey, no I hope that doesn’t happen,” he says. “I don’t really want to think about that.”