Walking past the mirror, I tried not to look. Too late. I’d already spotted my reflection and immediately winced. My eyes were too close together, my nose pointy, and my lips were too thin. I hated looking at my face or my body. Everyone had always told me I was pretty and slim, but I didn’t think so. That’s why I starved myself, making up excuses not to eat. “I had lunch out,” I’d lie to Mum, or “I’m not hungry, I’ll eat later.” I would go as long as possible between meals and then I’d only nibble on carrots. Lots of people said I was skinny, but I didn’t believe them. I needed to get thinner. Luckily, I had one thing I loved – my hair. Long, thick and glossy, my natural blonde highlights were my literal crowning glory.
“It’s beautiful, where do you get your hair done?,” everyone would ask, and I’d take time styling it and brushing it until it shone. It was my way of coping when my stomach growled, desperate for food. I was 12 and spent the next few years hungry. I was sporty and still pushed myself to play tennis, swim, dance and even appear in shows in the local theatre in Melbourne, Australia. Even though the scales went down and down, I hardly ate, surviving on three carrots a day, desperate to shrink away.
I was the typical overachiever, who, on the one hand loved to be the centre of attention and on the other didn’t want anyone to scrutinise me unless I was perfect. At 1.7 metres, and a little over 34 kilos, deep inside I knew I had severe anorexia. My family, too, could clearly see what I was doing to myself as I was so thin I couldn’t hide it from them. My mother knew there was something wrong when she found yogurts hidden in odd places in my room, or slices of bread in the trash. At that point I knew that only I could help myself and what I was doing was insane but I just didn’t know how to stop. I once left a leaflet about the warning signs of anorexia on my mother’s bed as a cry for help and she took me to a psychiatrist as she was very worried for me. But that didn’t help as I continued to be obsessed with my weight.
And then one day when I was 16, I almost collapsed. My family immediately called for help. I will never forget the fear I felt just before the ambulance came to take me away to be admitted to hospital. I clung on to the door and my mum had to pry my fingers from it.
When I woke up in the hospital bed, I had a nasal-gastric tube stuck in my nose. I was told that I had been resuscitated as my vitals had dropped far below what was considered to be safe. Those two weeks in the hospital represented the worst time of my life as the hospital staff did everything possible to scare me off anorexia as they didn’t want me coming back. I soon realised that I’d just had a wake-up call and I had to get better if I wanted to make my life worthwhile.
I also knew that it was not going to be easy. I had to force myself to eat. I started with small meals with plenty of vegetables as my stomach had shrunk and couldn’t take too much food. Gradually over a period of time I began to sit at a dinner table and eat with my family and I became a healthy weight.
It took me about seven months to get to that healthy weight and put anorexia behind me. I threw myself into acting, doing theatre and kids’ radio. I also decided to focus on one of my best features and became a hair model for a famous salon. I was the face of the salon. I was on its posters as well as its print campaigns. My hair became the thing that identified me. I was officially ‘the girl with the great hair’.
As I knew Hollywood was where I wanted to be, when I was just 18 years old I jumped on a plane to make a new life in Los Angeles, California, after having saved enough working as a model and on the radio. Once in LA, I got in touch with a friend who helped me find an apartment, an agent and some work to get me started.
Living the dream
For a while it went really well – I was modelling and landing TV work. I covered the Oscars on the red carpet for 24k Music Network, had my own children’s TV show, My Magical World for a channel called Cleargate Kids, and did voice-overs for major video games. I was making great money, had made a lot of friends and was the happiest I had ever been. The days of eating three carrots for dinner were behind me and I was truly living the dream.
Then one morning, when I was 21, I stood in the shower washing my hair and I noticed strands of it coming away in my hands. I glanced down and there was more on the floor. I started to feel panicky. So I rushed to the mirror and began checking my hair. It definitely looked thinner. “It’s normal,” I tried to console myself. But every day after that more and more came away in the shower. It was falling out as though it was never attached. Hundreds of strands of ‘my great hair’ were washing down my body and clumps were falling out in my hands.
I didn’t want to face what was going to be looking at me in the mirror. When I did, I hardly recognised the woman staring back at me. There were huge patches of bald scalp and as I dried and brushed what was left, I would watch as my sink filled up with hair.
I desperately fought to hold back the tears. Too scared to face my problem, I didn’t go to the doctor straight away, hoping that whatever I was suffering from would soon cure itself. But I soon realised that it was not going to be so.
I plucked up the courage, put on a hat to cover my scalp and went to see my doctor.
He told me that I was suffering from alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease where the body rejects all the hair, and often the disease was the result of an eating disorder.
When the doctor told me that there was no cure for the disease, I refused to believe him. I was convinced that I would uncover a cure that no one had worked out yet and decided that I’d do everything possible to get my hair back.
Coming to terms with it all
Soon, however, I plunged into despair. I thought no one would find me attractive and my career would be in tatters. And so – on the advice of a couple of people in the business – I hid my condition under a terrible blonde wig and a hat for a year. Underneath the wig my hair was extremely patchy and ugly. I went through every treatment possible to try to get it back, including acupuncture and steroid and cortisone injections that left my head blistered and weeping.
I spent about $6,000 (Dh22,000) on treatment alone. As for the amount my wigs have cost me – I hate to think.
I couldn’t work in front of the camera and my hair modelling days were over too. While I was lucky enough to have a boyfriend who supported me at the time, when the relationship crumbled I blamed myself. I was different now, completely obsessed with my hair and how bad I looked. I became introverted and drained of confidence.
I tried to still go out with my friends with my wig on but I was always worried people were staring at me. So when I did venture out I would generally just go to dark comedy clubs, where I could hide in the shadows. Over the next year I became exhausted from lying to everyone about my condition.
When people asked me why I wasn’t auditioning for work any more I would tell them I was working on other things.
Meanwhile I’d begun working with children at a non-profit organisation helping kids in poor areas. I soon realised that while I was encouraging them to love themselves just the way they were, I was hiding who I really was.
I knew I had to change. I had lost myself and was avoiding the truth. I had travelled half way around the globe to live my dream, not to hide away, I told myself.
It was the realisation that I was hiding the truth from the kids I had come to love that changed everything for me. I had always wanted them to feel that I really understood when they spoke about being alone or different. Now I could have a signpost on my head that read ‘I get it’. I started sharing my story with the kids and I could feel an amazing change in the way they responded to me.
I decided to stop seeing my alopecia as a burden but rather as an amazing gift.
I didn’t take my wig off straight away because I didn’t want to take the attention away from them and what they were achieving. But I wanted them to know I was different too. So I told them I had no hair. They didn’t believe me at first but I promised them I was telling the truth. I showed them Baby Let Your Hair Hang Down, a documentary that I had recently made capturing my battle with the condition.
It was the first time that these amazing kids as well as my family saw me bald.
My family was sad at first but my brothers later thought it was cool. They had supported me through anorexia, one of my darkest times, so they thought that alopecia was nothing in comparison.
My documentary was shown at numerous film festivals around the world in 2011 and 2012 and won Best Human Interest Story at the Monaco Film Festival in 2012 too. The encouraging response that I got from people across the globe spurred me to start my own production company called I Am Spartacus Entertainment and continue to work with not-so-fortunate kids.
I do a little other work in the entertainment industry too, but it’s mainly voice-overs and hosting gigs, which I wear a wig for.
I’m toying with the idea of trying to act again – but bald this time. A big exciting decision!
I’m really concentrating on mentoring young children and on my production company. It creates children’s content that puts smiles on faces. I’m committed to getting children to believe in their magic no matter what struggles they endure.
Over the years my hair has come and gone. Sometimes I have it and sometimes I don’t. I have a cabinet full of wigs, some blonde, some brunette, some long and some short.
But most of the time I prefer leaving my scalp the way it is.
I finally know I’m good enough just the way I am and I am happier than I have ever been. Of course there are days when I don’t feel pretty but I don’t have cancer and I’m not sick. I have alopecia. There’s no cure and I can’t control it, but I’m OK with that.
Georgia Van Cuylenburg, 26, lives in Los Angeles