Gail Porter was working as a successful TV presenter filming Dead Famous in Las Vegas when her hair fell out overnight. The year was 2005 and the then 34-year-old had taken a shower when she became aware of water rising around her ankles.
“I looked down and realised it wasn’t the water, but all of my hair,” she tells Relax Ya Self To Health. “It was pretty much instantaneous.” The former lads’ mag favourite was diagnosed with a form of alopecia – a condition thought to be sparked by an immune disorder that causes the body to view hair follicles as the enemy and mistakenly attack them resulting in hair loss.
Understandably, the experience “crushed” Gail’s self-esteem and when her eyebrows and lashes disappeared too she was left feeling “rubbed out”. As part of Alopecia Awareness Month, the Scot, who is mum to Honey, 14, talks us through how she has dealt with the diagnosis, the stoic attitude of her family and how her semi-permanent tattooed eyebrows have helped restore her confidence.
WHAT TYPE OF ALOPECIA DO YOU HAVE?
I have alopecia totalis. Even my lashes and brows are affected, which I don’t think people realise. You feel as though you’ve been rubbed out when those features disappear. I have no hair anywhere on my body apart from a couple of baby lashes that come and go sporadically.
HOW DID YOU TAKE THE NEWS?
It was overwhelming at first. Telling my daughter I’d be coming home from America with no hair was hard. I thought she wouldn’t recognise me, she was only three at the time. I try to be strong, but obviously, it’s still hard. My self-esteem was crushed…you know, as a woman without hair. It is so difficult.
WERE YOU TOLD WHAT TRIGGERED YOUR ALOPECIA?
Well, it’s an autoimmune disease…I don’t know what caused me to lose my hair, I really don’t. Perhaps stress, but I’ve never really thought it was. I always say everyone in London would be bald if it was just down to stress. Some cases of alopecia are hereditary, which again, wasn’t true in my case. That’s quite frustrating in itself, the not knowing. I think it’s simply bad luck, and I pulled the short straw.
DID YOUR BIPOLAR DIAGNOSIS COME AFTER THE ALOPECIA?
I was diagnosed as bipolar years before my hair loss. It didn’t come as too much of a surprise as I was always suffering from manic highs and lows. I was sectioned in 2011 after a manic episode. I was feeling very low and my boyfriend at the time was worried I would do something silly. Instead of talking to me, he called the police and they turned up when I was out having lunch. I didn’t react kindly and was rather abusive. They took me to the hospital and put me in a room, where I stayed for hours. By the time the doctor turned up, I was very unhelpful and angry. They asked for my boyfriend to sign a form to section me, which he did. I had no say in the matter. I didn’t see a doctor for days and once they eventually arrived, they let me out as they didn’t believe I should have been sectioned. While I was sectioned, I was just pumped full of drugs and had no one to talk to. No help at all.
HOW SUPPORTIVE WERE YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY ABOUT YOUR ALOPECIA DIAGNOSIS?
My family were very typically Scottish! Very stoic. My mum was pretty upset but tried not to show it. I think she felt like I had been through such a lot and she felt that losing my hair was another blow. She used to put her hand over my forehead and say “now there’s my Gail”. My brother pointed out that my dad had more hair than me. I know mum was upset as I did a documentary about my condition and when she was interviewed without me there, she cried. My dad didn’t say much. They just needed time to get used to it.
WHY DO YOU REFRAIN FROM WEARING WIGS OR HEADSCARVES?
Look, you’ve got to do whatever makes you feel comfortable in your own skin. I never really liked wigs…they were uncomfortable to wear, it just didn’t feel right. The thing that made such a huge difference for me was getting my brows back through microblading! You don’t realise how much of a difference brows make to a person’s face.
WHAT DID YOU HAVE DONE EXACTLY?
The procedure took about an hour. A tool which has up to 11 hair-fine ink-dipped microblades was brushed over my brow area and these penetrated the lower layers of the skin to create semi-permanent marks resembling eyebrows. I first had them done a year ago and recently had them topped up. I was always dubious about someone going near my face…but Karen Betts (a leading permanent cosmetic and microblading expert) is incredible. I trusted her. My eyebrows look so natural, I love them so much. I burst into tears of joy when I first saw them.
HOW ARE YOU DOING NOW AND HOW HAS YOUR LIFE CHANGED SINCE BEING DIAGNOSED?
You know what I’m doing okay – my life has changed massively. Of course, it has. My career changed overnight. But I always say, people are in worse situations than me. People everywhere have it hard, or they’re going through something terrible. You just have to be kind to everyone.
WHERE ARE YOU AT YOUR HAPPIEST?
In Scotland. Home always makes me happy.
HOW DO YOU RELAX?
Nowadays I’m very into my fitness – I love running, I always try to drink loads of water. I’m writing my book right now so that’s been an incredibly cathartic experience for me. I don’t go on holiday much but I remember going to the Maldives and feeling so incredibly relaxed. I slept well, loved the peace and quiet and could have stayed there forever. But to be honest, I’m happy on any holiday. The west coast of Scotland is always a total joy.
ALOPECIA AWARENESS MONTH: HELP SPREAD THE WORD
According to Alopecia UK, 1.3million people in the UK today will have had, currently have or will experience alopecia areata – a condition which causes patchy hair loss and affects both genders equally. (Alopeica totalis is a more advanced form which results in total loss of hair on the scalp). The charity is seeking to tackle the stigma and embarrassment attached to hair loss and is urging people to use the #GetTalking hashtag in the hope, it will encourage those that would benefit from some peer support to reach out and start the conversation.
“We want to help give those who are affected the confidence to know that hair loss isn’t something they should feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about,” says Amy Johnson, Alopecia UK’s communications and fundraising manager. “We hope that the more alopecia is discussed, and the more awareness raised, the easier it will be for those diagnosed.
“If the idea of talking to family and friends about your hair loss makes you feel anxious, consider talking to others with alopecia first. Peer support can make such a difference and can really help to boost self-esteem and confidence, perhaps allowing you to talk more widely about your alopecia at a later stage.”
For more information on microblading and semi-permanent make up with Karen Betts visit www.karenbetts.co.uk
For information about alopecia, including details of how to find support visit alopecia.org.uk