Instagram / @jeanaturner
“It’s okay to be bald. Bald is beautiful.” Those were the words 25-year-old model Jeana Turner tearfully proclaimed—giving herself an emotional yet decisive pep talk—to millions of viewers who tuned in to the most recent season of Tyra Banks’s reality competition, America’s Next Top Model.
Turner braced herself in the salon chair as her fellow contestants stood nearby in support and watched the stylists slowly remove her dark brown wig.
The makeover episode at the beginning of each season of ANTM is always a dramatic one. Banks assigns each contestant a makeover—or “Ty-over,” as they are called on the show—meant to help them establish their signature style and propel their high-fashion careers forward. While some contestants adore their luscious hair extensions or daring new platinum blonde hair, others sit in tears at the sight of their new pixie cut or fiery red locks.
For Turner, a contestant in the most recent season of ANTM, the Ty-over required an even greater act of courage than just accepting a temporary hair style change. “Jeana, that wig that you have? You’re gonna have to say goodbye to her,” Banks announced, blowing her a kiss. As the camera cut to Turner, she became understandably emotional—but not for the reason you might expect.
Turner then revealed she had alopecia areata, a condition that causes patients to lose some or all of the hair on their scalp or body, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). After losing her hair and being diagnosed at age 10, Turner began to don wigs, noting that she became “attached” to them in both her personal and professional life. Going bald represented not just a change in her style, but a change in how she viewed her condition—and herself.
As the other models began their makeovers, Turner sat with her chin in her hands on the couch, preparing for her own pivotal transformation. “Knowing that the wig is going to come off … brings me back to stuff that happened at school—how mean people were, pulling my hair off in the bus, saying that I have cancer or that something’s wrong with me.” Turner closed her eyes, and her lips pulled together in a tight line. “I just start to remember everything that people said.”
Around 6.8 million Americans live with alopecia areata, according to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation ( NAAF). While many people casually refer to the condition as simply alopecia, this broad term refers to hair loss for any reason, such as chemotherapy; alopecia areata refers to an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the body’s own hair follicles and causes hair to fall out.
People with alopecia areata may experience embarrassment, grief, isolation, or anxiety that others will find out they are wearing a wig. A 2015 study in Dermatology Reports concluded that patients with alopecia areata were five times more likely to have symptoms of depression than people without the condition.
Even worse, many people with alopecia areata typically start having symptoms during childhood, a time when self-esteem and self-identity are still in formation (and bullying in schools is rampant). In a study from the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, seven out of 12 children with alopecia areata met the criteria for an anxiety disorder. (Learn more about anxiety disorders in children here.)
Instagram / @touchekvlt/Phillip Reardon
Supermodel and body image advocate Banks recognized this, and with one decision, she helped Turner transform into not just a top model, but a much-needed role model for others with alopecia.
ANTM has a long list of previous contestants who lost their confidence or resented the judges after receiving drastic haircuts, dyes, or shaves. Although Turner teared up as her wig was being removed, she quickly embraced the look.
“I’m a very strong person, and I’ve internalized a lot of really rough things [that] resulted in me losing my hair, but losing my hair was a symbol of strength,” said Turner. “I didn’t know that until now.”
For many people with alopecia areata, wigs, headscarves, and eyebrow products can improve confidence. A 2017 study found that 46 percent of participants with alopecia areata felt that wearing a wig had a positive impact on their health and quality of life.
But wigs aren’t a perfect solution. For some, a wig might even induce more anxiety for fear that others will notice their wig and it will draw attention to their condition. For others, they might just feel that the wig is covering up their true selves.
As Turner took her seat in the salon chair, eyes wet with tears, ANTM judges and hosts Drew Elliott and Law Roach came to her side to empower her through the transition. “I think it will be so freeing to you,” said Elliott, chief creative officer at Paper Magazine.
Roach, a stylist for celebrities like Zendaya and Ariana Grande, knelt in front of Turner. “You take your tragedy and you turn it into your platform. You are so brave,” Roach said, while Turner smiled sheepishly and shook her head. “This world is gonna look at you and say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’”
While Roach held her hand and the other models looked on curiously, the wig came off. After a moment of tears, Turner gave a hint of a smile and let out a heavy sigh. Roach took her face in his hands, overcome with tears himself. “Look at your face,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
Suddenly, Turner was all smiles—albeit through tears. “Removing the wig is really liberating. It’s freeing,” Turner said in the confession-style interview to the camera after her life-changing makeover. “I feel like the whole world can see me now.”
While taking a killer photo without any hair may not seem like a big deal in the high-fashion industry (where unconventional styles are the norm), Turner’s stunning and confident look could inspire and encourage millions of young people feeling isolated by their alopecia.
Instagram / @jeanaturner
In an Instagram post Turner added shortly after the makeover episode was televised, she addressed her “fellow Alopecians & baldies” directly, telling them, “The only way to defeat the darkness, is to become the light. YOU are the light. Your imperfection IS beautiful. YOU are beautiful.” And in true Instagram fashion, she closed out with one brilliant hashtag: #CheersToNoBadHairDays.Reviewed by: Preeti Parikh, MD . Review date: May 2, 2018