RALEIGH, N.C. - Every now and then, Deborah Holloway says, people ask where she gets her hair colored. "I say, the Lord does this."

Turns out the color they're admiring is the silvery, shimmering gray in the Raleigh woman's neat parted bob. Yes, gray hair, and Holloway is okay with it - now.

When she started graying, she dyed her hair blond, then black when she tired of blond. But "I got tired of the hassle, the frosting, the foiling," she says. "I decided to take what I've been blessed with."

Although Holloway's decision seems a matter of practicality, it's actually emblematic of a slow-building revolution. It's hard to track precise numbers, but, in the midst of a Botoxed, nip-and-tuck, youth-driven culture, more women are choosing to let their manes age gracefully. Some attribute the shift to the boomer generation's affinity to counter prevailing culture. Others see echoes of the trend toward "greener" living and concerns about chemicals used in hair dye.

Clairol doesn't have anything to worry about yet; Americans spend billions annually to color their hair. But women who embrace the gray say it's more than a cosmetic choice. The outward act is a reflection of inner change; a self-confidence and comfort in who they are and who they are becoming.

Diana Lewis Jewell heard some of those women's stories as she researched and wrote her book "Going Gray, Looking Great!" But when her publisher first asked if she would do a book on going gray, Jewell, a Charlotte resident, admits she was reluctant.

Then, she wasn't embracing the gray; she was a single-process blonde who got highlights four times a year. "I was a happy little blonde," she says, a sassy tone punctuating her memory. "I said, 'I don't think so.' I didn't think it was a beauty topic."

Jewell would later eat those words, and the first course was served after she relented and decided to write the book, then assembled a focus group made up of women who had transitioned to gray.

"The colors were fabulous - silver, pewter, snow, ice," she says. In that moment, gray didn't equal age or fading away. It was beautiful.

Soon after, she made the transition, too. "Mine came in white around my face and charcoal salt and pepper in the back," she says. "But that's okay. I believe you make the first impressions coming in. I don't care what people do when I turn around."

Two years ago, she launched goinggraylookinggreat.com, a Web site that serves as a gathering place for "Great Grays" and "Silver Sisters" from around the nation and in 110 countries. She's talked about the transition on "The Today Show" and, recently, on "The Nate Berkus Show."

High-profile examples

Indeed, TV isn't a bad place to look for high-profile women letting their gray show. There's actress/yogurt pitchwoman Jamie Lee Curtis, singer Annie Lennox, food maven Paula Deen, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Oscar winner Helen Mirren. And some younger celebrities such as Kelly Osbourne, Lady Gaga and supermodel Kate Moss have played with the look, giving it a nice dose of hipness.

Stacy London, co-host of "What Not to Wear" on TLC and a spokeswoman for Pantene hair products, has long brown locks with subtle gray streaks and a patch of gray near her hairline. "It's like a birthmark," she said during a recent appearance in North Carolina. "I didn't have it when I was born, but it started to develop when I was about 7. So it's a part of me."

London said she was distressed when people started to ask her about dyeing her hair dark.

"My gray streak has been associated with age," she said. "Some people really love it and they ask me about it. But other people are saying, 'You should dye it.'

"But the way I feel, I've earned all my scars and stripes. I really do try to embrace it. I try to embrace my imperfections. Because your imperfections are what make you an individual. So to embrace your imperfections is part of having great self-esteem."

She says she even has a "gray" clause in her Pantene contract that says the company can't ask her to dye her gray or change it in any way.

Celebrity buy-in, however, doesn't make it an easy transition for women living everyday lives.

Leigh Wells of Matthews, N.C., is 47 and wears her white-gray hair short and spiky; she went completely gray at 35. Her husband encouraged her to stop coloring her hair, telling her she was beautiful the way God made her. Still, strangers confused her for her children's grandmother. And she was barely 40 when a fast-food cashier asked if she qualified for a senior discount.

"There were several times when it brought me to tears," she says.

Embracing the unknown

"Amazing Grays" author Maggie Rose Crane says the process can be painful because it involves embracing the unknown. "It's about what it means to get old in a society that embraces youth. Women are finding that it's really inauthentic to pretend to be someone you aren't, so it's the discovery of the women they've become."

Crane said she thinks baby boomers, the generation that challenged the status quo in its youth, has made aging the new frontier. "Aging is not a number, it's a state of mind. I know that what's inside of me is more beautiful than the package could ever be."

Crane says that because embracing gray is "symbolic of a journey," it's just one path that women might choose. Some women might quit their jobs and pursue their true passions, others may end relationships.

"Not all women look good gray," she says.

London, too, said she doesn't begrudge any woman the right to dye her hair. It's up to the woman to decide.

"Do what you want to do, but don't let someone else talk you into dyeing your gray if you don't want to do it."

And not everyone struggles to embrace gray hair. Lynn Lyle, who lives in Raleigh, started graying at 20 and liked it right away. "I saw my mother and my grandmother with it, and I was looking forward to it."

She says she thought her gray was pretty and different. Lyle, now in her 40s, says that people tell her they want hair like hers. When asked why she's always been accepting of the look, the staff analyst answers matter-of-factly.

"I always associated it with wisdom, not age."

- News & Observer

News & Observer correspondents Sheon Ladson and Cristina Bolling contributed to this report.