I’m bald and beau­ti­ful

Her shiny blonde hair had kept Ge­or­gia Van Cuylen­burg happy and strong as she bat­tled se­vere anorexia, but af­ter be­com­ing a hair model she pan­icked when her locks started fall­ing out

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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 getmy 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

BE­FORE Ge­or­gia at 18, above, looks happy but just one year ear­lier she al­most died from anorexia and was soon to suf­fer from alope­cia as a re­sult. It has taken sev­eral years, but Ge­or­gia has ac­cepted her con­di­tion. This photo, right, was taken last year

AF­TER

Ge­or­gia is an avid run­ner and loves to keep fit. She says of her alope­cia: “There are days when I don’t feel pretty but... I’m not sick. I have alope­cia. There’s no cure… but I’m OK with that.

Ge­or­gia went through painful treat­ments in 2007 to try to get her hair back

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