In less than two weeks (August 18th), America’s Next Top Model, hosted by Tyra Banks, will begin its 21st cycle to determine the winner of the reality show focused on identifying fashion models through a reality competition. This is the second time both men and women will compete for the title of Top Model but, maybe more importantly, this is the first time a model with vitiligo, or any skin disease for that matter, will appear as a contestant. Contestant Chantelle Brown-Young (who also goes by Winnie Harlow) has vitiligo all over her body, which is particularly visible on her face as symmetrical white spots that surround her eyes, nose, lips and chin.
This is important for a number of reasons, both related to vitiligo and also to the idea of beauty in general. First, it will literally increase the visibility of vitiligo to the public eye, maybe for the first time since Lee Thomas revealed his struggle with vitiligo on national television. Before that, Michael Jackson reluctantly mentioned his painful struggle with vitiligo in an interview with Oprah. Prior to their public announcements, both of them spent significant time and energy covering their disease with makeup, and it is likely that Michael Jackson eventually used the depigmenting cream monobenzone to remove his remaining pigment to even the color of his skin.
Second, Chantelle at one time contemplated suicide because of her vitiligo, but now her approach is different – she is broadcasting her appearance to the world. She and the show may even make the case that, rather than disfiguring, vitiligo is beautiful. It will certainly promote discussion about what beauty is – is it a “flawless” appearance, is it simply symmetry of facial features, or does being unique also play an important role? Cindy Crawford has a birthmark (nevus or mole) on her face that became a trademark of her beauty. I remember, because my mother had a similar birthmark that bothered her, and I always told her that she looked like the famous supermodel.
Chantelle’s vitiligo certainly makes her unique and, personally, I believe it adds to her beauty as well. One of the things I love about taking care of patients with vitiligo, in addition to getting to know and developing important relationships with them, is seeing all the different forms that vitiligo takes. The spots may be symmetric, or for those with segmental vitiligo, NOT symmetric by definition, existing only on one side. However it is important to recognize that many people with vitiligo do not feel beautiful or even comfortable about their appearance.
While Chantelle will hopefully attack the stage with the confidence that we expect from a professional model, we must remember the struggle that many millions of people with vitiligo suffer around the world, continue to work toward finding new treatments, and even a cure, for this disease. I certainly hope that Chantelle makes it far in the competition, and that she wins the whole thing! But win or lose, her appearance on the show should reignite a discussion about vitiligo and its many implications for those who have it.