WHEN ZaraLena Jackson lost her first patch of hair last July, she had no idea what lay ahead.
A month later, the former Ex on the Beach star was completely bald – having shed all the hair on her head and body, including her eyebrows and lashes.
The 29-year-old clothing designer, from Preston, was left suicidal and dreading sex – then the trolls started targeting her.
Backing St Moriz's Be Kind Online campaign, in conjunction with Cybersmile, she tells Fabulous: "I started losing my hair in the second week of July 2020 and it was completely gone by August, my head and my body.
"You couldn’t touch it without it dropping from my head. It happened so aggressively, during a short period of time.
"If it was just the hair on my head, it would have been easier. When I lost my eyelashes and my eyebrows, I was suicidal.
"I went to the doctor’s and got put on antidepressants, I was in a very bad place for at least a month.
"It was horrific, I was very unstable. I’d be driving my car and thinking ‘do I just drive it off a bridge?’
"You think ‘am I ever going to be desirable? Am I ever going to be looked at by people?’
"It is crazy because it is just hair but when you’re going through such a big change and something you can’t control, you feel powerless.
It was horrific, I was very unstable. I’d be driving my car and thinking ‘do I just drive it off a bridge?’
"The suicide rate of alopecia in men is higher than it is in women, so that speaks volume of the affect it can have on both sexes.
"I was really scared for myself because I didn’t know how I was going to deal with it. I have lived a very shallow lifestyle based on my appearance, Instagram etc so it was really intense.
"Before the hair loss, I used to put about 300g of hair extensions into my head. I was that girl who wouldn’t answer the door to the postman after she took her extensions out.
"This really has put things into perspective; it’s been a big change but I’m slowly getting through it. In September, I embraced it and shaved my head, that's when it started to get easier."
ZaraLena appeared on Ex on the Beach in 2017, alongside Love Island's Josh Ritchie and Geordie Shore's Aaron Chalmers – who she hooked up with on the show.
She still has no idea what caused her hair loss. Covid meant delays in getting an appointment and, by the time she saw a dermatologist, she was already completely bald.
Doctors have said it's likely caused by stress, although ZaraLena insists she wasn't under any unusual pressure.
To rule out other causes – as she also had lymph nodes and rashes – she's had multiple blood tests, tried changing her diet and even had her implants checked for breast implant illness (BII).
Unfortunately no amount of words can convince me that isn’t going to affect our sex life. There are a lot of times when I will leave my wig on at night just to feel sexy, feminine and attractive
She says: "I’m still not ruling them out being a potential cause but the thought of losing my both boobs and my hair, that would be pretty upsetting.
"Especially when it costs £5,000 to get them out – just to find out if that’s the cause."
ZaraLena is in a relationship with fellow Ex on the Beach alumni Kurtis Hartman, 25, and admits her hair loss has affected their sex life.
She says: "These are very feminine features and, in regards to my relationship, that was the biggest thing for me.
"My boyfriend sees me at night when I’m all stripped back and intimacy normally happens at the end of the day when you get into bed – that’s when I take my wig off.
"I am sat there thinking ‘oh God let’s turn the lights off, I don’t feel like he wants to look at me’. It’s the opposite but there’s only so much he can do to reassure me.
"Unfortunately no amount of words can convince me that isn’t going to affect our sex life. There are a lot of times when I will leave my wig on at night just to feel sexy, feminine and attractive."
She adds: "When I first lost my hair, I pushed Kurtis away to the point of us nearly breaking up.
"But he's been fantastic. Unfortunately you do question ‘if I met you when I had alopecia, would you still be with me?’
"It sounds awful but I'll never be 100 per cent convinced – even though Kurtis loves me to pieces.
"I do sometimes wonder if it would be easier to have met him after this happened, rather than experiencing it with him, just because I’m constantly questioning myself."
Trolls say ‘imagine being her boyfriend, how’s he happy to wake up next to that every morning?’, 'look at that f***ing alien head' and 'why is everyone so fake? She looks like a plastic doll'
Earlier this year, ZaraLena started taking oral steroids to encourage hair growth and ended up re-experiencing puberty, just weeks before her 29th birthday.
It worked but when she had to reduce her dosage, her hair fell out again – leaving ZaraLena to accept there is no cure, unless her hair comes back naturally.
Just as she started to embrace her new look, posting a series of bald selfies online to encourage other women going through alopecia and cancer related hair loss, ZaraLena faced a new demon – trolls.
She says: "When I started posting my journey, it was incredible. I didn’t have any trolling, less than before I lost my hair.
"Recently I’ve worked with a few profiles on Instagram who have a million followers each.
"They’ve been so amazing at supporting me and sharing my videos, but I have really been challenged with trolls and awful comments as a result.
“One of them was ‘imagine being her boyfriend, how’s he happy to wake up next to that every morning?’
"Another was ‘look at that f***ing alien head, how many wigs does she need to cover that?’
I have lived a very shallow lifestyle based on my appearance, Instagram etc. I was that girl who wouldn’t answer the door to the postman after she took her extensions out
"Another was ‘God why is everyone so fake these days? She looks like a plastic doll. How much make-up does she need to wear, Christ?'
"Just really negative, horrible, gut-wrenching things. When you have alopecia, you can’t be natural.
"You could embrace not having hair and eyebrows but unfortunately, the way society is, that is frowned upon and judgemental comments are made.
"I would rather feel comfortable in my skin and look how I used to look, which is with eyebrows and hair, which is why Ido wear products and my wigs.
"The morning after the comment about Kurtis, I wouldn't even let him look at me.
"It’s a mixture of men and women (who troll). I wouldn’t mind, but they’re hardly oil paintings themselves, it’s quite insulting actually.
"Sometimes I think ‘God you are so insecure as a person, you’ve got to troll someone who’s got a health issue’.
"It’s absolutely mind blowing. God help them if they ever lost their hair, because they’re ugly on the inside too.
What is alopecia?
Alopecia totalis is a skin condition that causes hair loss and complete baldness of the scalp.
It isn’t the same as localised alopecia areata – which causes patches of hair loss – although it may start in that way.
Doctors don't know what causes alopecia – but it's the result of your immune system erroneously attacking your hair follicles.
It's more common in adults under 40 and has been linked to chronic stress.
It can be a temporary condition, although in some cases it is permanent.
"The trolling has affected me. It’s impossible to not let comments like that get in your head.
"When you lose your hair, you do question what people around you think about you, so it’s hard enough without those comments.
"In the morning, the first thing I do is rush to put my beanie hat on. It’s not because I’ve not accepted myself bald, but I’m not completely comfortable yet.
"Pictures and videos are different, I’m more comfortable on social media than I am in my own home, it’s absolutely crazy."
Despite the trolling, ZaraLena is determined not to stop sharing her message, as she can see the good it's doing.
She says: "The good outweighs the bad by far. I had one girl who messaged me because she found a patch on her head. She said ‘what should I do?’
"I told her what I say to everyone ‘go to the doctor’s, get these tests done and make sure everything's OK’.
"She messaged me back a month later and said ‘I wouldn't have gone to the doctors if it wasn’t for you and they found a tumour where the bald patch is. If I had left it any longer, it would have been too far gone to be treated’.
"That to me is a reason to keep on doing what I’m doing. If I can help people with guidance, what to do and not to hide hair loss then that's worth getting trolled over."
ZaraLena is backing St Moriz's campaign, to raise awareness of online abuse and discourage trolling.
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Senior brand manager Belinda Parkinson says: “Here at St Moriz we are passionate about encouraging body positivity and positive self-image.
"Cyberbullying is on the increase and we have heard first-hand the effect that it can have on people's self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.
"We want to demonstrate to our customers that we don’t just say, we do.
"Therefore, we are thrilled to announce our new partnership with Cybersmile and we hope that we can be a part of preventing Cyberbullying and can encourage people to Be Kind Online.”
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