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Appearing on TV changed my life for the better

Between 1 to 2% of the world’s population has vitiligo. I’m one of those people.


I developed vitiligo, an autoimmune condition where the melanocytes which are responsible for skin colour are destroyed causing white patches, when I was 3 years old. It started as a tiny patch on the back of my hand which rapidly spread to my arms, legs, parts of my body, and my face. By the time I was five years old, I was completely covered, and officially diagnosed with vitiligo. My parents were devastated, especially as it wasn’t curable.

 

Soon after diagnosis, my parents started exploring treatment options with my dermatologist. They were willing to try anything but by being so young, my options were limited. A potent steroid cream was the first thing I tried which didn’t work. What followed was years of failed attempts at different treatments ranging from tablets to creams that simply didn’t work. Trips to Great Ormond Street hospital felt frequent and I never really understood why I was there. For all I knew, this was somewhere that all kids went to. 

 

My parents refused to disguise my skin because they wanted to instil me with confidence. This meant my patchy skin was very visible, making me a target for occasional name-calling at school. There were times when kids didn’t want to touch me in case they "caught my skin" or they would compare my skin to that of a cow or zebra. I was even asked if I’d been burnt in a fire. I wasn’t hugely affected by their comments. I had a lovely set of friends and it didn’t make me want to hide my skin away. My parents were always telling me I was beautiful and I was okay with that.


Challenging Teenage Years

The little confidence I’d gained during my childhood years was lost when I turned thirteen, because it dawned on me that my skin wasn’t desirable. I spent most of my secondary school years feeling self-conscious, paranoid, and unattractive. It was hard to shake off those feelings. Vitiligo affected everything how I dressed, who I was comfortable around, and sporting activities at school. 

 

Tops with long sleeves, jeans, and trousers became my uniform during every season. I loved sport but having to wear a PE skirt made me feel anxious and swimming lessons were even worse. It was during those classes that I felt the most fragile and exposed. Often, I would forge notes from my Mum excusing me from the lesson because I was "too sick to take part". This wasn’t the case; I just couldn’t face the discomfort of being around friends in a swimsuit. It saddens me that I had to go through all of that.

 

Explaining what had happened to my skin was always a struggle as I didn’t understand the medical side of vitiligo. If anyone asked me what it was, I’d stumble over my words and blurt out that "my skin suddenly started turning white when I was 3". I could feel myself turning embarrassingly red as I eagerly tried to change the subject in case one question led to another.

 

Very little changed as I transitioned from school to college. I did, however, get better at hiding it. I discovered fake tan and became obsessed with buying bottles from different brands because finally there was something that could disguise my patches. I also started wearing makeup which helped hide the patches on my face. It was the only way I was able to feel somewhat normal in front of my pretty friends.


Just before my 30th birthday, I decided to try treatment one last time because my skin was making me so unhappy. UVB Narrowband was a type of treatment often recommended to people with severe vitiligo. It was intense, time-consuming, and there was a small risk of skin cancer. But I was desperate and my GP didn’t hesitate in referring me. Within a matter of months, I’d started the treatment. Twice a week, I’d travel to hospital for a 7 a.m. appointment that took 20 minutes. It was that quick. I’d stand inside a large booth filtered with UV light. In the first few months, there was little change, but after twelve months my skin had re-pigmented significantly. It was a miracle.


Going Public 

In 2013, I was invited to appear on London Live to talk about what life was like with vitiligo. The thought of going on national TV to talk about my skin was frightening. What if people judged me and what would my friends and family think, given that they had no idea what was going on for me behind closed doors. I was petrified about what this could mean for me if I appeared on the show.

 

With encouragement from my Mum, I agreed to go on the show. Sitting under the bright studio lights and hearing the countdown from five to one before we were about to go live was nerve-wracking. I’ll never forget that moment. Suddenly, we were live and my life with vitiligo was being played out to the nation. 

 

After the interview, I felt increasingly paranoid. I questioned what people would say when they found out. The last thing I wanted was for people to pity me. However, the response was incredibly positive. People started reaching out on social media, not just in the UK but from other parts of the world, telling me they had vitiligo and that they related to my story. It was also the first time I was able to admit to myself "I have vitiligo and I’m going to be okay with it".


Natalie Ambersley by Andrew Mhango

The interest in vitiligo grew when Winnie Harlow appeared on America’s Next Top Model. The media were fascinated by her skin. It meant that the media had a growing interest in people like myself with the condition. Since sharing my story, I have appeared in popular lifestyle magazines and newspapers such as Cosmopolitan, Stylist, and the Metro and have taken part in several photography projects. Last year, I appeared on the BBC News, sharing my views on a potential new treatment available in the UK, and also appeared on Channel 4’s Naked Education educating teens about vitiligo. I work very closely with The Vitiligo Society and Changing Faces as a way of helping to raise awareness about visible differences.

 

My life is completely different now. I still have vitiligo in very visible places, but I have learned to love and appreciate that it’s part of who I am. Why would I want to change who I am? And after so many years of hiding, I can live an authentic life that has created so many new opportunities for me.

 

Being able to connect with an incredible community with vitiligo has been the biggest blessing and, in all that I’ve done publicly and the work I’ve done on myself, I’m mostly grateful for becoming part of a community that empowers each other and reminds us of the beauty in our skin.

 

Instagram: @gifted_skin.

Linktree: @Gifted_Skin

If you have vitiligo and are looking for support visit The Vitiligo Society

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