The rare beauty of Anna Fitzpatrick
When Anna Fitzpatrick lost all her hair at the age of seven, she was ostracised by the girls at school, and the boys teased her. Today she's a sought-after model and TV host - and the boys who once taunted now hit on her. She talks to Felicity Monk
It started with one eyebrow falling off. Then one eye's lashes. Then bare patches on her head where seven-year-old Anna Fitzpatrick's hair should have been. Her mum thought she was cutting her own hair like she did with her Barbie dolls and took her off to the hairdressers to have it evened up. By the next morning it had all fallen out, along with every other hair on Fitzpatrick's body.
The diagnosis was alopecia universalis, an autoimmune skin disease resulting in total body-hair loss. Now 21, Fitzpatrick says that in 14 years her hair has never grown back; not a wisp, not a whisker, not a one. Some alopecia sufferers can and do experience re-growth, but she doesn't think she will be one of them. What's more, she says she doesn't care if it doesn't grow back on her head but she'd dearly love eyebrows and eyelashes. Then she could wear a wig without a fringe, and her forehead wouldn't look so "bland".
"Ridiculously beautiful" was the reaction of 62 Model Management's director Sara Tetro when she clapped eyes on the shy, willowy girl with the cocoa-coloured eyes. But at 13, she was just too young and Tetro told her to come back in a year's time. When Fitzpatrick returned (during which time she had been approached by a number of other model scouts), she was certain that when the agency saw her without hair, they were going to change their minds. But off came the wig and they all gasped at the girl with the magnificently shaped head. "She looked incredible," says Tetro. "Extraordinary," says Barney MacDonald, editor of the former Pavement magazine, in which her photos first appeared. "I had never seen a girl like her before. With Pavement we always loved celebrating quirky beauty and she definitely had that in spades. Without the hair she just looked like this perfect human being-slash-alien, which made her really, really unusual and really interesting."
Fitzpatrick was in demand, appearing in Fashion Week shows both here and in Australia, shooting television commercials, working with top Kiwi designers, and being one of a select few to walk in both Christian Dior's and Burberry's New Zealand shows. She went to London to try her luck there but, to the surprise of Tetro, MacDonald and others, her career didn't take off. "The whole bald thing freaked them out a little bit," says Fitzpatrick. "I did okay over there but nothing great. You are competing with the rest of Europe. I'd be at castings looking around thinking, ‘I am not going to get this.' There were these stunning Russian dolls and they are all 6ft tall and this thin," she holds her hands out the width of a pencil apart.
She returned home after six months. "I never wanted to be a model," she shrugs, and you believe her when she says it. But for Fitzpatrick, being discovered as a model and the attention that comes with it was so much more than a happy accident - it was something that would change her life profoundly more than it would the lives of her leggy peers in the modelling fraternity. "I don't think I would be what I am today without it. It definitely boosted my self-esteem. Once people think you are a model, they are like ‘Oh wow', and so that helped. And once people saw my photos, everyone was like, ‘You look stunning.' A lot of my guy friends saw them and it just sort of changed their perspective because maybe they pitied me before, but I showed that I could do something with it and that I was fine."
Fitzpatrick is still modelling and on the 62 Models' website she has two profiles; with hair and without. Initially, everyone wanted to use her bald, now she is mostly requested with her wig on. Tetro wonders whether this might be because without her hair, people focus on her instead of the designer's clothes she is modelling. Fitzpatrick thinks it might be more a case of "the bald thing got a bit overused". At the beginning, she admits, it was her drawcard; made her different from the others. "I wouldn't have done as well as I did if I had hair. With hair on, to be honest, modelling-wise, I am just very commercial; I'm not extraordinary at all."
It took around three weeks for all her daughter's hair to fall out, says Mary Fitzpatrick. "I would comb her hair, or even just touch it, and it would fall out in clumps in my hand; it was very rapid from then." Her husband Michael, a pilot, was away on a trip at the time and Mary was so flustered with what was happening that she hadn't got around to warning him. "He came to the door and Anna had virtually no hair left. He just burst into tears he got such a shock." In the years following, the Fitzpatrick family flew around the world trying to find cures. "You know what men do, they tend to try and solve everything and because we could travel cheaply, we were off to America and England - we did a lot of research on it and tried a lot of things." Not the fondest of memories for young Anna. She remembers rubbing topical creams into her scalp, which would cause an allergic reaction, in an attempt to stimulate growth. There were pills she took which meant she had to wear sunglasses outside to protect her light-sensitive eyes. But it was when she was told she was going to have steroids injected into her head, she said "Enough". She was 10.
"I knew that steroids were a bad thing and I was like, ‘Nah, not happening.' It got to the stage where I said, ‘If it is going to grow back, Mum and Dad, it will grow back,' and I think they were relieved to have me accepting it and to not be running around looking for this cure. I think I just got over it. It just got so tiresome, especially as a little kid - I didn't want to have to sit down for five minutes every day rubbing this electricity thing into my head. I wanted to play."
Fitzpatrick wore hats, and later wigs, to cover her baldness, but they were heavy, pouffy acrylic ones, and she couldn't swing on the monkey bars or participate in swimming sports. She tells a story of starting at a new school six months after being diagnosed with alopecia. None of the kids knew for sure, but many had their suspicions. It was school camp, and as she went down the waterslide her wig, which she was starting to outgrow, flew off. "I was holding my breath underwater not wanting to come up - I knew everyone was around the waterslide. Finally I had to come up. I found it, chucked it on my head, ran off and started crying; everyone knew and everyone had seen it." Her mum drove up to the camp to be with her. Says Mary: "She didn't come home; she was really brave. She stayed and confronted it."
Her first two years at Auckland's Diocesan School for Girls were hard. "Girls were bitchy and cliquey; they didn't necessarily say things, but they would leave me out of things. I think the main problem was they didn't understand, they didn't know what it was, they didn't ask questions, and you know, the unknown is scary. Some of those girls turned around and were nice and apologised and some of them are my best friends now. So I think there is always a chance to be forgiven."
The nonchalant way in which Fitzpatrick talks about these events in her life makes you forget how emotionally crippling they must have been. She is astonishingly optimistic, utterly confident and for someone who could be carrying a huge chip on her shoulder, entirely lacking in self-pity. And there have been moments of sweet revenge. In recent years when she's been out in nightclubs, she has been hit on by the very boys who used to tease her at school. "They didn't recognise me, but I'd recognise them and I'd say, ‘Do you remember me?', and they'd say, ‘No', and I'd say, ‘I'm Anna Fitzpatrick' and their faces would just drop. I'm like ‘Bye'. She flashes a sassy little smile and sing-songs, "Should have been nice to me."
Fitzpatrick's favourite wig is long, straight and the colour of caramel with a blunt fringe which skims where her eyelashes would be. It's one of seven she owns. "Sometimes, if I feel like being a bit different, I will chuck on another one and Murray [Bevan, her boyfriend] will come home and go, ‘Oh, you've changed.'" She'll wash her wigs every three weeks, and sometimes gets them cut and dyed by her understandably nervous hairdresser. Wigs looked after carefully can last for up to two or three years and, at $5000 a pop, you'd want to be careful.
"I'm really naughty with mine. I don't wash them out properly, I put them in a box all together, I chuck them in my suitcase when I travel - my shoes probably clobber them." She buys them all from Dunedin company Freedom Wigs. Each one is custom-made using human hair that has never been dyed or treated and is designed to fit a person's individual scalp, staying on with suction.
Her wigs are a huge part of her life. "As a woman your hair is your identity and what makes you feel beautiful and sexy, so when it is gone it is a completely different thing. Murray is really the first boyfriend that I have ever really trusted with it [the wig] off. I've had some bad experiences in the past so it took me a while to get to that stage. But I still prefer it with my hair on. On my wedding day when I want to feel my most beautiful I will wear my wig."
Looking through recent Fitzpatrick photos I had noticed a significant change and wondered whether she might have had a breast augmentation. I approached the topic with the delicacy of an elephant. As I feebly stumbled over my words - "Er... I see in your photos that... er..." - she graciously put me out of my misery with, "My boobs look bigger?" She went on to say that the reason she did it was to feel more feminine. "With my wig, I can put it on and I can feel girly, but then there is the process of taking it off every night so it is not always there. It [her breast augmentation] just helps; it is always there and it does make me feel more womanly - it is a permanent thing."
Last month the Princess Charlotte Alopecia Foundation was launched in Australia and Fitzpatrick was announced as one of the official ambassadors. The foundation was established by Australian former rugby league star Matt Adamson, after discovering that his daughter Charlotte suffered from alopecia. Its mission is to create greater awareness of alopecia and to raise money to help sufferers buy quality wigs, like the Freedom ones. Says Adamson down the line from Australia, "Anna sent us some photos of herself from when we first made contact with her 10 months ago and Charlotte has had those on her wall since day one. You couldn't have asked for a more perfect role model for a seven-year-old, someone like Anna."
In addition to completing her final year of a communications degree at AUT, where she is majoring in public relations, every Tuesday night on Alt TV Fitzpatrick presents a live fashion show called The Seen. Last Christmas she threw a huge party to celebrate the show's first birthday. Her guests included Cybèle Wiren, Juliette Hogan, Sera Lilly, the Stolen Girlfriends' Club lads and one of the Zambesi crew. Pretty good pulling power for a 21-year-old, who, only a year earlier, had been just another model walking down the runway wearing their clothes. At Air New Zealand Fashion Week last October, Fitzpatrick proved herself by providing extensive, and mostly exclusive, coverage of just about every show. Says Alt TV's creative director Oliver Driver, "She just worked and worked and worked. It was really us going down there to prove we could do that sort of thing and we've a really great relationship with Fashion Week now, and that is in no small part to Anna."
At one point Driver arranged an interview with the prime minister and gave Fitzpatrick five minutes' notice. "All of a sudden we whack her in and away she goes. She was there; she was a pro. We hold up a few shows as models of where we want the station to be and that's one of them."
When Driver joined Alt six months ago, he asked his contacts in each of Alt TV shows' respective industries if the right person was presenting the show. In Fitzpatrick's case, the fashion industry responded with a resounding ‘Yes'. Karen Walker, who sponsors The Seen by providing Fitzpatrick with a new outfit to wear each week, emails: "We like Anna and we like the show. We've worked with Anna for many years, from when she first started modelling. She's grown up in fashion, has a passion for it and really knows her stuff."
Boyfriend Murray Bevan, owner of fashion public relations consultancy Showroom 22, works as an informal producer on The Seen. Between the two of them they know just about everyone in the industry. "She does have a knack for making people feel comfortable on screen," says Bevan. "Ninety percent of the people who come up to see us are very, very nervous and by the end of their eight- minute little interview they don't want to leave. You sort of have to tell them to shut up. I can see she has got a lot better in the past year or so; she has become a lot more relaxed herself and she is also becoming confident because people are seeing her in a more influential role. And now, not that she is the go-to authority person, she is becoming very well known and well respected. And she hasn't pissed anyone off - and within this little small industry that means quite a lot."
Ask Fitzpatrick how she thinks life might have turned out if she didn't have alopecia and you get the impression she wouldn't trade her condition if given the chance. "My life would be completely different; so different. I can't even imagine what it would be like, or what I would be like. There are aspects in everyone's lives that make them who they are and this is part of mine. People say they are a blonde, brunette. I am a bald girl; this is part of me. It's not something I have now, it's just me. Alopecia is me."
Sunday Star Times