BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – These days, Taylor Hicks says, there’s a spotlight on top of his head. It glows with the force of celebrity. It draws fans to him like a homing beacon.

It has made him a star on “American Idol,” the most popular TV series in the nation.

Hicks’ voice? Well, that’s important, too.

But prematurely gray hair – a look that would make most of young Hollywood shudder – was the gimmick that got Hicks noticed by the “Idol” producers at this year’s round of auditions.

And, from the second he appeared on camera, salt and pepper became the spice of Hicks’ life: loved, hated and intensely debated by the show’s approximately 30 million viewers.

“Without this hair, I’d be more obscure,” Hicks, 29, admits. “So I’m not changing it.”

That’s a different tune from the one he sang earlier this year, before making the “Idol” top 24. At that point, the Birmingham musician wasn’t sure if he’d be regarded as a silver fox or a fusty granddaddy.

If gray hair held him back, Hicks said then, he’d be more than happy to dye, tint, streak, highlight or lowlight – as long as the Fox TV show was paying the bill.

Money was a major concern for Hicks, a financially struggling nightclub performer. Also, he’d turned gray as a teenager and was used to looking like a 50-year-old.

“I remember there was one kid who’d walk up to Taylor and pull gray hairs out of his head,” says Hicks’ grandmother, Joni Hicks. “It didn’t bother him. And he’s really got a look going now.”

Travis Cash, Hicks’ hairstylist in Birmingham, agrees.

“I think he got to where he’s at with his voice,” Cash says, “but his hair keeps people talking.”

Cash, 34, works a chair at the Hair Group in suburban Homewood, where in recent years Hicks would sit and joke with his stylist – “every four weeks or so,” Cash estimates.

“I always said I would never change the gray,” Cash says. “It makes him different. He can get away with it.”

Maybe that’s why Hicks’ fans have created T-shirts that say “The gray must stay,” and why Web sites devoted to the soul singer often refer to him as Gray Charles. Some gray-crazed admirers have gone so far as to predict that Hicks will be chosen next year as People magazine’s “sexiest man alive.”

Before fame came his way, the Gray-Haired Dude wasn’t all that particular about his cut, Cash says, as long as it looked neat, felt comfortable and stayed close to his head.

“He would come in saying he wanted it to lay down better,” Cash recalls. “Gray hair is usually coarse, and his can get bushy.”

Cash says he’d use a dab of gel or texture glaze, but soon after leaving, the singer would end up with bangs that fell in a flat curtain across his forehead.

“That’s not how I style it,” Cash says. “But no matter how I cut it, he’d wear it the same way.”

Dean Banowetz, hairdresser for “American Idol,” says those bangs were the first thing to go when he put his hands on Hicks’ head.

“They were ridiculous, like Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber,”‘ Banowetz says. “They were so long, and they were not flattering on camera.”

Banowetz, known as the Hollywood Hair Guy, has tamed the locks of many a celebrity, including “Idol” host Ryan Seacrest and spiky-haired singer Clay Aiken.

In the early rounds, contestants on “Idol” are pretty much on their own where their hair is concerned. When the top 12 are chosen, however, Banowetz and his team take charge and take action, with the goal of making gradual changes.

“My job is to enhance the good and minimize the bad,” he says. “But I’m not going to do that overnight. I’ve got three months to fill, so everything I do is in little increments.”

According to Banowetz, Hicks has “good hair” for television, even if it’s coarse and thick.

That’s because studio lights are so bright and hot, hair appears thinner and more translucent.

“We’re doing a lot with the cut,” Banowetz says. “Before the show, I sneak a couple of pieces off here and there. The last thing I want to do is freak him out. … I don’t want to give him a conservative Harvard Law look.”

Banowetz says, “He’s a performer, so he should look hipper and trendier.”

Now for the million-dollar question: Is Gray Charles going to color his hair anytime soon?

Thus far, Banowetz says, Hicks’ response to that suggestion has been a uniform, “Nah, I can’t do that.”

But if the “Idol” hair guru had his way, some subtle black lowlights would be woven into that gray mop, emphasizing Hicks’ skin tone and his eyes. In Banowetz’s view, a darker ‘do would make Hicks appear younger, increase his demographic and up his publicity quotient.

“The quickest way to get press is to change your look,” Banowetz says. “I’m still working on Taylor about that. Every day I go to the show, I have my hair color in my bag, in case he has a weak moment.”