For 10 years, Stacy London has helped makeover the frumpy, sloppy and style-challenged on TLC’s hit TV show What Not to Wear. But as longtime fans of the show can attest, the transformations aren’t just physical. Viewers may have tuned in initially to learn how the right hemline can make you look 10 pounds lighter, but what has kept it running for a decade is surely the joy of watching women rediscover their self-confidence.
In her 2012 memoir, The Truth About Style, London shared a secret that shed some light on why she relates so easily to the show’s subjects: Since childhood, she has battled psoriasis, a chronic autoimmune disease that manifests on the skin. Now she’s teamed up with AbbVie, a biopharmaceutical company, for the Uncover Your Confidence campaign, to educate psoriasis sufferers about living with the condition.
“Psoriasis is one of those diseases that you don’t associate with beauty or confidence,” London says. “But I want sufferers to know: They can have style, they can have beauty, they can have comfort, and they can live with this disease.”
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Spry: You were diagnosed with psoriasis as a young girl at age 4. Did that inspire your interest in fashion and style in any way?
Stacy London: 100 percent. I spent most of my youth feeling like a monster—full of shame and totally embarrassed. I had an unhealthy attraction to all things perfect and sparkly and beautiful! And you know, my work life became a very stark intentional contrast to my self-confidence. That is the gift of being able to have worked on What Not to Wear. I got to use my experience of having low self-confidence to arrive at a place to make people feel beautiful. And that was why this campaign is also such a gift and incredibly organic out of what I have done so far.
Spry: Did the show help you with your own self-confidence?
SL: Yes. I had an incredible tai chi instructor once who said to me, “We teach what we need to learn.” So for me, that really rang true.
Spry: What is the most important lesson you want psoriasis sufferers to take from the Uncover Your Confidence campaign?
SL: Knowledge is power. We want people to be proactive, not just about having the disease, but about managing the disease, and feeling good about themselves. On the site, we put a dermatologist-finder tool. A lot of patients don’t really understand that not all dermatologists specialize in psoriasis and that it’s a very unique disorder, in that it’s an auto-immune disease and not just dermatologic. It took me years to understand the disease I had was much more complicated than, ‘My skin doesn’t look so great.’ There were more ramifications and things I needed to do to take care of my health. It’s all about feeling like you’re in control and being who you really are—being the person that you want to be.
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Spry: Since it’s summer, can you offer any tips on dressing to stay cool but still covered?
SL: This is a key point in our style guides on the site. We don’t want to say, “Cover up and wear a turtleneck even in July”—which is what I did basically when I was 12. We want people to feel like they are participating in the modern trends and covering up incidentally—and not making a big thing about it. Psoriasis sufferers feel so uncomfortable that they don’t want to show their skin at all. A three-quarter sleeve obviously offers more coverage than a spaghetti strap. Actually, some things that are on trend right now are going to offer more coverage. Instead of mini skirts, midi skirts are very big this season. The 1950s silhouette is something that defines your waist and adds more volume, but also provides more coverage to your bottom half. These are great ways to look modern and participate in trends just like people without psoriasis, but keeping in mind that your number-one priority is going to be to get more coverage of your skin.
We also talk about things that are more common sense and a bigger priority for psoriasis patients, like what kind of fabrics breathe better—things that are natural like cotton or silk. On the site, we talk about what colors are a better balance when your skin gets very ruddy from psoriasis.
Spry: Why do you think it’s important to empower psoriasis patients to feel stylish?
SL: I think it’s about feeling that you still do have control over something when you’re dealing with what can be a pretty aggressive disease. And this holds true for so many people that I worked with on What Not to Wear. Style was this amazingly easy visceral way to allow people to feel a sense of control that they may have lost in other areas in their life. It is a very quick way to get it back to them, and that’s why it’s such ideal way and form of language. Psoriasis is a very visual disease in a lot cases and style is a very visual sort of language that allows them to feel stronger about the disease. Whether it’s tips on literally dressing in a way that makes them feel more secure and more confident or just creating an environment at home that makes them feel less stressed out. All of those things play a huge part in accepting one’s disease, accepting one’s self, and learning to live alongside the disease rather than constantly trying to fight against having it.
Spry: What do you think is the most important thing you do to manage your condition these days?
SL: I stay as updated as possible on the latest treatments and what’s going on in terms of research. It took me a long time to understand that psoriasis wasn’t just dermatological—that, as an autoimmune disease, it has a much bigger effect. It means my body may do lots of different things over the course of my lifetime that are somehow related. There’s a chance that I may get psoriatic arthritis. So these are things that I have to manage. I have to take care of my body; I have to pay more attention to working out.
I would love to say that I try not to get stressed out, but I think it is in my DNA! And I do notice that there is a total difference in my psoriasis if I’m coasting, you know I’ve been on vacation and I’ve been chilling out and not doing six jobs at once. I try to stay aware of that stuff. The big thing for me was knowing that I had to stop hoping and wishing and praying that I would wake up one day and have super-beautiful, smooth, un-blotchy skin, that I could wear a bikini and not envy other girls. Sometimes I let it get the better of me, but on most days I’m able to be grateful for what I am and what I have. And certainly what the disease taught me, and what it has allowed me to parlay that into. Because without my life experience, I certainly wouldn’t be able to be an advocate like the kind that I wish I had when I was growing up. Ideally, I would like to offer hope to people who wouldn’t have somebody to look to otherwise.
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Spry: It’s also significant, I think, that you’re in the public eye, because sometimes people with psoriasis think they have to cover up and stay inside. But you’re so visible.
SL: Absolutely, because I do think the emotional ramifications of the disease are just as significant as the physical ones. I know what it’s like to feel that kind of shame, the kind of embarrassment, that kind of sadness, that kind of alienation, that kind of loneliness. And the only way to dispel that is to let people know that they’re not alone, and allow others to understand the weight of that disease and make people aware so that there can be more empathy and compassion.
Spry: When we interview people living with psoriasis they often have stories about terrible comments people have made about their skin. Does that ever happen to you, and if so, do you have a graceful way that you deflect those types of comments?
SL: I do feel like humor does a lot. In life, humor seems to alleviate a lot of situations. I wrote about one particular incident in my book because it was the one that hurt me the most. Once when I was having a severe bout of psoriasis, I went to Florida because I was trying to stay in the sun and go swimming every day and be in the ocean. At that point I was trying anything to make my skin better. My father came to visit me and we were walking on the beach and I was wearing a bathing suit. This woman looked at me like I was a sea monster, and looked at my father with just an absolute look of horror on her face and said to him, “I’m so sorry.” He was so mortified, and I remember all I could feel was how devastated I was because I thought I ruined his day. I remember thinking I couldn’t have been a worse daughter—like, how terrible for him to have to hold my hand and walk down the beach with me.
Now my psoriasis is not as severe as it was. I don’t get those kinds of comments. And a lot of times people say, “I didn’t even know you have it.” And sometimes I can’t even believe how complimentary people are to me, when I’m that same little girl who felt like a monster. But I always try to deflect with humor. I used to say things like, “I’m not infectious!” or “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” or “I’m from the planet Krypton!” There is always a way to deflect that at least allows for conversation and a little relief on all sides.