Ask any woman to describe George Clooney, Richard Gere or Pierce Brosnan and they'll probably reply “dapper” or “distinguished”. Whether it's a sprinkling of salt and pepper throughout dark hair or the all-out Silver Fox look epitomised by Philip Schofield, men who go grey are considered sexy and handsome.
Yet there are still negative perceptions surrounding women who opt to ditch the dye and let nature takes its course. Grey hair is associated, all too often, with little old grannies or women who have let themselves go.
But the backlash has started. There's a new ‘50 Shades of Grey’ generation of women who have decided to forego home colouring kits or expensive trips to the hair salon in favour of growing old gracefully — women like Dame Judi Dench, Jamie Lee Curtis, Emmylou Harris, Caryn Franklin and Tamsin Greig. Even younger women are getting in on the act, showing grey can be trendy and fun.
Supermodel Kate Moss turned heads when she debuted grey/silver streaks in her blonde locks while Kelly Osbourne and Pixie Geldof have both rocked silver hues in the past.
One local woman who is determined to prove that grey is gorgeous is Lisburn mother-of-two Denise O'Neill. The 50-year-old, who looks younger than her years, made the life-changing decision at the age of 45 to go grey.
And she says it has been, well, life-changing. After overcoming the challenges of the first year, when she had to grow her unnatural colour out, she says her confidence improved, she felt happier with her appearance and she experienced a sense of liberation.
Now the part-time administrative assistant at St Mary's University College, Belfast, is on a mission to dispel existing myths that grey equals old and to promote the fact it's just another colour, like blonde, black, brown or red.
“I once read a comment on an internet forum posted by someone who said ‘when men go grey, they are distinguished, when women go grey, they are extinguished’,” she says. “That's so true, but very sad and is just another example of the inequality between men and women.
“So many women are afraid of going grey because they worry it will look like they're just not bothered about their appearance and have let themselves go or that they'll look like little old ladies.
“But I've always looked after myself and taken great pride in my appearance. And I'm proud to be grey. I'm not ‘over the hill grey’ but ‘chic grey’. It's quite a funky trend at the moment. But I'd love to see more women take the plunge.
“We all know celebrities like George Clooney and Richard Gere who are considered ‘distinguished’ but there are women who look amazing, like the models Yasmina Rossi and Cindy Joseph, Dame Judi Dench, Julie Walters, who looked lovely when she had grey hair, and Pamela Ballantine, who I think is beautiful.
“It's just a pity that there is a difference of opinion about men and women. Why should we be treated differently? It's just another form of sexism.”
Denise was inspired to go grey five years ago after seeing a photograph of herself with dark brown hair, courtesy of a leading brand home colouring kit. The darkness, she felt, was too harsh against her peaches and cream complexion. It aged her and wasn't “harmonious” with her colouring or features. Also, at the front of her hairline, the hair was thinning and the scalp showing through — a victim of middle age hormones.
“There were a few reasons why I decided to give grey a go,” she explains. “Apart from thinking the dyed colour too ageing and stark against my skin, the roots were starting to come through every two or three weeks, which meant I had to keep dyeing it. I also didn't like the idea of putting all those chemicals on to my scalp.
“So I made the decision to give it a go to see what it was like.
“The way I see it, the beauty of grey hair is one of nature's best-kept secrets and is only revealed if you give it a try. If you don't like it, you can always dye it again.”
But Denise admits that first year of going grey was a torturous process.
For six months she had to grow the dye out. Her bobbed hair was cut short as she took the cold turkey approach.
“The transitional journey was horrible,” she says. “My hair just looked like a mess of my natural colour, the dyed colour and grey. The demarcation line was very obvious and I just felt I looked awful.
“No-one said anything to me but I felt it myself. And I was worried that people would just think I had let myself go. But that wasn't true.
“There were a few times I felt like giving up but when I saw the white hair coming through like a halo at the front, I must admit, I though it looked better against my complexion, more harmonious. And I wanted to look natural. So I decided to see it through.”
Denise's husband Gerry and two children, Claire (21) and Mark (18), were supportive of her decision.
“They were all for it,” she says.
“As long as I was happy, that's all that mattered to them. I got no negative comments from them at all. From talking to other women who have gone grey, I think some did worry that their families and friends would think it made them look older.
“But the truth is, every time I've seen before and after pictures of women who've stopped colouring their hair, they've looked better grey.”
It took another six months to grow her hair back into a bob — Denise's preferred style. But her new hair colour threw up fresh challenges.
Her wardrobe, clothes, even jewellery all had to be reconsidered to showcase the grey in the most flattering light. And Denise is adamant that grey hair has to be properly showcased.
“It has to be shown to its best advantage so it doesn't look drab,” she says. “That meant giving my whole image an overhaul. For a start, I can't wear autumnal colours any more, shades like yellow or beige. I have to wear ‘cool’ colours instead. Black is lovely with my grey hair and jewel colours like pink or blue.
“I went through my wardrobe and gave loads of clothes away to charity shops. I had a dark colour suede jacket that I loved, but it had to go. It looked horrible with my hair. There was a sense of mourning my old image — I said goodbye to the old and hello to the new.
“I also had to rethink my make-up. I still have to wear foundation so I don't look washed out but I wear a lighter one now.
“And I tend to wear silvers or greys on my eyes and pink lipstick. I'll never have that tangoed look. I have always cared about skin ageing anyway, I don't actually tan.
“Of course, I'm aware that skin changes as you get older but since going grey, I've actually had a lot more compliments about my complexion. I really do think that's because the natural colour is more harmonious with my own skin tone.
“And finally, I can't wear gold jewellery any more. I even had to go out and buy a new wedding ring! I just stick to silver now, or nice coloured beads, but definitely no gold.”
It took a couple of years before Denise felt totally comfortable and confident with her new look.
Facebook groups like the American-initiated Gray and Proud and Going Gray Guide, providing professional information on everything about going grey, helped with the practicalities and more importantly, opened her up to a world of like-minded women.
In December, she will travel to London for a night out with a group of women she's met via the internet, while earlier this year, during a family break to France, she met up with two other grey-haired women she'd befriended on Facebook in the town of Carcassone.
“That was actually quite emotional,” she says. “I'd been talking to these women all the time on Facebook, then when we met up, it was like we'd been friends all our lives.”
Denise says she is still very much in the minority among the women she works and socialises with and is intrigued every time she spies another woman who has opted to give up the hair dye and go gracefully grey.
“If I'm walking down the street or in a shop and I see another woman in her 40s, 50s or beyond, with grey hair, I can't help but notice,” she laughs. “There's a bit of a revolution going on. I call it the grey tsunami. But I'd love to see more women ditch
ing the dye and becoming trailblazers for grey.
“I have nothing against women who want to dye their hair. For me, it's all about choice. And I've chosen to go grey.”
Denise admits grey hair has to be properly maintained to ensure it doesn't look dried out or lifeless.
To this end, she has starting using products from a UK company called White Hot Hair, which she says are ‘amazing’.
But she would love to see the fashion and beauty industries waking up to the growing trend for grey and advertising companies employing more grey-haired women in campaigns.
“Advertising campaigns tend to be negative, focusing on how to banish grey hair. We need to get the message out there that it's just another colour,” she explains.
“There is a market for products for caring for grey hair, fashion, make-up, jewellery and accessories. Grey-haired women are ready to spend their money on these things — money they save from expensive hair colouring.”
In September 2011, Denise created her own blog, describing her journey from brunette to grey.
To date her blogspot, ‘grey is ok’ (http://greyisok-.blogspot.co.uk/.), has attracted almost 14,000 views from the UK and Ireland to US, Russia to Australia.
She has also made three videos, featuring women from the Gray and Proud group, to inspire other women to take the bold step.
She has also signed up to a local modelling agency and joined Extras NI, securing her first role as a police chief in BBC2 crime thriller Line of Duty.
“I think the grey hair helped,” she laughs.
“They wanted someone who looked the business in a uniform, a woman who looked like she'd climbed the career ladder. I fitted the bill. And I loved it. I'd loved to do more work like that.”
Denise says she feels empowered and liberated by her life-changing decision and has absolutely no regrets.
At the moment, her hair is mostly grey/white at the front and darker at the back but she's looking forward to the next leg of her journey and can't wait until she is entirely grey.
“I can't lie, there were times during the transitional period when I felt ugly and my confidence took a knock but I'm glad I stuck with it,” she says.
“There is definitely a growing trend for grey, but we still have to change the media's perception of it.
“We need to get away from the idea of the little old lady.
“These negative perceptions don't apply to men and that imbalance needs to be addressed.”
Denise adds: “We are grey and we're proud. And we deserve to see the beauty of grey celebrated — because we're worth it too.”
‘I was worried people would think I had let myself go’
For most people, going grey is simply an result of the ravages of aging. After the age of 30 the likely hood of developing grey hair increases by 10% - 20% each decade. Skin conditions such as vitiligo — depigmention of patches of skin — can also cause patches of grey or white hair. Going grey is genetic. The younger your parents were when they started going grey, the younger you are likely to follow suit. Stress really does cause grey hairs, a study revealed earlier this year. It destroys cells at the hair follicle. Smoking and untreated thyroid conditions are known factors in increasing the rate at which an individual goes grey.