Raising awareness of this misunderstood skin condition is not part of a celebrity's job description but it can be a big help.
Most sources of information on the subject estimate that the percentage of the general population worldwide that has #vitiligo is somewhere between 0.5% and 2%. Whilst this does not exactly make it a common condition (like eczema, for example, which reportedly affects approximately 10 – 20% of the population) it does mean that approximately one person in every hundred we meet has it. So the fact that many people have still never even heard the terms vitiligo or #leukoderma is surprising. I believe that the main reason for this widespread ignorance is that – unlike more common skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis or eczema – vitiligo tends to undermine a person’s sense of ethnic identity, and even their sense of being a normal human being in a way that the more widely known skin conditions don’t. The loss of skin colour, for various psychological, historical and cultural reasons, is still (unbelievable though it may seem in the 21st century) a source of shame, embarrassment and stigmatisation for some and is therefore something they often prefer to keep, literally, under wraps.
The incidence of vitiligo is not thought to vary according to race or gender and the only known environmental factor that can sometimes skew the expected statistics relates to individuals whose work brings them into regular or prolonged contact with certain chemicals that can cause pigment loss (known as occupational vitiligo or chemical leukoderma). Other than that, vitiligo affects doctors, salespeople, teachers, gardeners, road sweepers, executives and shopkeepers alike. So it should come as no surprise that celebrities are afflicted by it just the same as us every-day folk! I suppose the reason it comes as a slight surprise all the same is because the cult of the celebrity has us half-believing that famous people lead charmed lives and that their wealth and influence are enough to fix most problems that come their way. Of course the all too frequent news that this or that household name has succumbed to cancer or heart disease reminds us that this is not the case. But we rarely get to hear about the non-life-threatening diseases that plague the glitterati.
#MichaelJackson is the first – and almost only - famous name that springs to mind in the context of vitiligo (and what better example could there be of the fact that this skin condition is no respecter of wealth or fame?). But I still found myself saying aloud “well, who’d have thought?!” when I read recently that other famous vitiligo sufferers reputedly include Dudley Moore (like M.J., much loved and sadly missed), Richard Hammond (of Top Gear fame) and legendary American comedy actor Steve Martin (perhaps this explains his trademark combination of dark eyebrows and startlingly white hair?). Of course, there is absolutely no reason why I should be surprised by these revelations, except in so much as all these individuals chose a profession that put them firmly in the public eye and all of them present an unselfconscious and extrovert image which can seem foreign to those of us who have lived our lives hiding our white patches from the gaze of others.
Of course, there are many thousands of #celebrities out there in Tinsel-Land (many millions, if you include those who are no longer with us) so – based on the known percentages - a considerable number of them must be vitiligo sufferers. But, like most of us with this condition, they either conceal it or simply don’t consider it to be relevant to their work, which is fair enough.
No one to date has done more to raise awareness of vitiligo than the King of Pop himself. But I have always believed that Michael Jackson’s quirky behaviours, obsessive preoccupation with privacy and his progressive shyness, when not actually performing on stage, were all a result of his changing appearance from black to white. I can only imagine the psychological impact that trying to hide this progressive pigment loss must have had on someone whose iconic public image must have become increasingly impossible to live up to. The impression I am left with when I look at his interviews and comments on the subject is that of a reluctant vitiligo ambassador, forced into the open by the misguided and hurtful accusations of critics who claimed that he was deliberately bleaching his skin because he was ashamed of his Afro-American heritage.
I certainly do not blame M.J. for his reluctance. Anyone who has suffered from any type of disfigurement will know the sense of indignation and, dare I say, violation even, that you feel when another human being stares at you, judges you or makes unkind remarks about your appearance. And, just because a person whose occupation places them in a position of influence happens to have vitiligo – or any other condition – does not mean that they are morally obligated to take up a banner to champion that cause. I believe it took great courage for Michael Jackson to confront his vitiligo in public but my guess is that he only did so because it was the lesser of two evils, the other one being to allow malicious and defamatory rumours about him to go unchallenged.
However, there are other public figures who have deliberately (and no less courageously) used their celebrity to raise awareness of vitiligo in a much more proactive and positive way. For example, I seem to remember that Mike Grady (“Barry” in Last of the Summer Wine) was happy to talk about his vitiligo some years ago and became a patron of the Vitiligo Society in the UK. TV personality Yvette Fielding (of Most Haunted fame) bravely bared all on Blue Peter when she was a 17 year old presenter on the children’s TV show in order to show audiences what vitiligo looked like. Not only that, but she recently gave an interview in which she talks about how she inherited the condition from her mother and was later also diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune thyroid condition sometimes associated with vitiligo. She talks about her loss of skin pigment (which was 100% by the age of 21) and the challenges that this, and her other symptoms, present in her daily life. Given that her chosen career is one which demands such high standards of personal appearance and stamina in the face of often tiring and stressful schedules, her candour and courage are inspiring.
The American newscaster Lee Thomas is another example of someone in the public eye who was brave enough to show his white patches to the world.
He first revealed to TV audiences in 2005 that he had widespread vitiligo and went on to tell his story in a memoir entitled Turning White. This led to his becoming a willing advocate for vitiligo patients, starting a support group and becoming a motivational speaker and sharing his story around the world. Happily, he has enjoyed some significant re-pigmentation but I know from my own personal experience of recovery that, although this will have been cause for great celebration, it will not have lessened his desire to help others who have not been so fortunate.
In today’s airbrushed, over-produced, celebrity-hyped world of glossy unreality, it is a breath of fresh air whenever a member of that untouchable establishment openly shares their vulnerabilities with the public. Like it or not (and I confess I don’t particularly) celebrity equals influence in this age of instant communication. I’m not saying that this baring of body and soul should be compulsory: famous people are entitled to privacy just like the rest of us. But perhaps, if more of the one in every hundred celebrities that have vitiligo were to make the fact known, this not-so-very-rare skin condition might no longer be so misunderstood and under-represented.
My name is Caroline.