By Josh Saunders
A woman who hid her vitiligo for 15 years after bullies cruelly called her ‘cow’ and ‘Dalmatian’ has become a model and bared her skin.
Carlene John, 26, from Brooklyn in New York, USA, was 11-years-old when she developed white spots and patches on her face, hands and elbows.
Vitiligo, a condition made famous by Michael Jackson, is an autoimmune disorder that occurs when cells stop producing pigment and affects 1% of the world’s population.
At school, Carlene was called ‘cow’ and ‘Dalmatian’ by bullies but refused to let it stop her dream of being a model.
When she was picked up by a modelling agency, she covered her skin with make-up.
But now, for the first time in over a decade, the part-time model is confidently showing her skin off on the catwalk and in public.
Carlene said: “My vitiligo goes around my eyes, a little on my nose and my little moustache on my upper lip.
“My whole one hand is almost white, both hands have a little bit on and there are two spots on my elbows.
“At school I was called a lot of names like a cow and a Dalmatian dog – those words hit me hard.
“One time I was made fun of, I took a black pen and coloured in all of my vitiligo spots, sat there and cried.
“But I knew crying wouldn’t make anything better, so I took my mum’s heels, looked into the mirror and told myself I was beautiful.
“As a model, I never thought I would be able to show my patches on my face, I thought I would have to cover my vitiligo all the time, until a friend told me I should embrace it instead.
“I remember him saying, ‘Why do you wear make-up, you’re too beautiful to wear it?’ since that day I rarely covered my skin.
“I owned the runway and embraced it for the first time, before I thought I looked ugly because of my vitiligo, but people thought I was the most beautiful thing on earth during that show.
“Before I always worried that people would look at me and judge me, but they loved who I was, how I presented myself and the confidence I showed, I haven’t looked back since.”
Carlene is inspired by models like Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell, as well as her mother Agnes who used to model in the West Indies.
After her first rejection from a casting call in 2007, she was motivated to become successful and began to empower herself by telling herself she was ‘beautiful’ in a mirror.
Carlene said: “I always had heels so would copy my mum and try to walk around the house as a child, that’s how I got the love for modelling.
“But after my first rejection, I told myself every day that I would become successful with my vitiligo, I would be a motivational speaker and I would help everyone to be who they are.
“I looked at myself and practiced different poses, from happy to sad facial expressions, when I went back to another call I was picked.
“My confidence went from a zero to 100 percent and I’ve been modelling ever since.”
But as a model, Carlene struggled to accept her physical appearance and would cover her vitiligo patches for fear others would judge her.
She added: “Most people who hired me didn’t know I had vitiligo because they only saw a little on my hands and arms.
“I would cover everything up because I didn’t love myself at the time.
Designers would be upset, they liked my look and confidence but at that point I wasn’t ready to show my vitiligo.”
But after bravely revealing her skin condition for a show in 2014, she found the courage to discard her make-up in her everyday life.
Carlene said: “Now I only wear make-up occasionally, so I walk on the street barefaced showing my vitiligo.
“The first day I went out without hiding was nerve-wracking.
“I got a lot of compliments on the street, people were telling me my skin was ‘beautiful’, then when I got to work it was the same.
“It was the complete opposite of what I always imagined would happen, I couldn’t believe it.”
Now she acts as an advocate for people with vitiligo and says others with the condition need to educate themselves so they can oppose ignorance.
Carlene said: “I want to show others we are regular and like everyone else, but with a hint of difference and that’s fine.
“While growing up, a lot of people used to ask me if I got burned and because I didn’t know enough about the condition I couldn’t stand up for myself.
“You have to gain knowledge about vitiligo to help yourself and others so they’re aware too.
“I’m not burned, I don’t have a disease, you can’t catch it, it’s just genetics.”
Now she counsels others online to help them love their vitiligo too after battling depression in her youth.
Carlene added: “I used to feel down and went through a depression stage, where I would feel like I had no worth and I didn’t know what to do.
“But over time, I realised to help yourself you have to, ‘love you, for who you are’.
“You have to let it motivate you to be better. If you tell yourself you’re ugly then you’ll never love yourself.
“The more I loved myself the more confident I became.
“Besides, who wants to be the same? You should be happy you’re different.”
The American Vitiligo Research Fund provides information and support to people with the condition, as well as raising funds for treatment.
Stella Pavlides, AVRF founder and president, said: “You are not born with vitiligo, it is an acquired skin disorder that anyone at any time of his or her life can get it.
“Vitiligo does not discriminate and it strikes all ethnicities.”
“Challenges people face include: embarrassment of the disease and not being accepted by society for looking different.
“As well as, frustration that there is not enough awareness and education, people thinking that we are contagious and rejection.
“For kids bullying, peer pressure alienation, not being accepted by their friends, stared at and whispered about.
“In 2017 most of society has no idea about this life altering disease.”
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