Now that we’ve all had time to process it, it’s clear that the big winner at this year’s Academy Awards was Alopecia Areata. No, that’s not the name of an Italian actress. It’s the name of a disease hundreds of thousands of Americans currently live with — including me.
“Slappygate 2022” was especially sad to watch because I’m the Roastmaster General, a comic who makes fun of people to their faces for a living—which suddenly seems more dangerous. However, that heartbreaking moment did have one silver lining (other than the one sewn into Jon Hamm’s tuxedo) in that it got everyone talking about alopecia. We Alopecians are coming out from under our hats. It’s about time. Spring is here and my head is shaped like an Easter egg.
Alopecia is not life threatening, but it is life changing. When it first hits you it can affect your will to live — kinda like a slap in the face in front of 17 million people.
One summer I was out in public when I noticed a clump of hair coming out in my hand. I thought I was dying. Within a couple of weeks I was completely bald. I hoped it was temporary and everything would miraculously grow back. But then my eyebrows fell out. Then my eyelashes. I was too embarrassed to tell people what was happening. Suddenly losing my beautiful Jewfro was demoralizing, and I can’t imagine the despair women must feel when it all falls out. I bought a fedora and played off my Breaking Bad look as an impromptu summer fashion choice. With no eyebrows to accentuate my jokes, I didn’t feel as funny. More than one specialist suggested tattooing them on to fool people. With no lashes, my eyes burned from sweat and I worried about my future as a comedian. Who could possibly laugh at someone who looks sick? And who would date a guy who looks like Uncle Fester’s accountant?
There are no FDA-approved treatments for alopecia areata and there is no cure. Research funding is scarce because it is often perceived to be a cosmetic issue and, in part, because high profile people rarely admit they have it. For years I wasn’t ready to talk publicly about it either. When it happened, I hadn’t felt so alone since I was a teenager and both my folks died. I learned to keep moving forward. I’m a fighter, so I dived into my work again, even performing in a jail where I nicely blended in with the skinheads.
One of the reasons I love being a comedian is that it gives me the ability to make laughter out of pain. At my shows, disabled people eagerly raise their good hands to volunteer to be roasted onstage. The crowds give them so much support, you can feel the stigma drain out of the room for everyone. My high school buddy Mark walks with crutches. The only time he’s offended is if I don’t pretend to yell at him in front of strangers for walking too slow.
My dermatologist, Dr. Brett King at Yale, tells me stories about young patients of his who are teased, bullied, and have had wigs pulled off at school. (This happened to one twelve year old girl in Indiana whose family reported she killed herself last month.) Holding back tears, Dr. King explained to me that people with alopecia are told to “own” and “embrace” their new look — but that’s easier said than done. He dedicates his life to helping these patients with innovative approaches to lessen their symptoms. There is hope.
It took some time, but I’m mostly okay with my newfound Shrek-ness. Sometimes loved ones rub my head and that feels good. My eyebrows seem to come and go, but I have learned to accept myself for the rock star I think I am inside. Starting now, I’ll encourage other Alopecians to try to do the same.
As I watched the Oscars, I was inspired to see a Hollywood star in all her alopecia glory. Head shaved. Skin glowing. Dress flowing. Proudly supporting her partner in the front row on the world’s biggest stage. I admired her for previously telling her fans about her condition. That couldn’t have been easy to do.
Then my idol Chris Rock came out to present an award and work the room. The audience seemed delighted when he lightly skewered celebrity couple Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem over their dual nominations – who both cracked up. Then Chris improvised a shout out to Will and Jada . Having written awards shows with Chris over the years – I know he is a class act and a thoughtful performer who is never trying to hurt feelings. Besides, when Rock takes the time to mention you, most consider it an honor because it means you’re one of the biggest stars in the room. After he got slugged, Chris should have gotten a Nobel Peace Prize for de-escalating the situation and going on with the show. His joke wasn’t about alopecia. When he said to Jada, “I love you…. and I can’t wait for G.I. Jane 2” – he was comparing her to Demi Moore, another beautiful person who once played a role with the same iconic look. Before you accuse me of baldsplaining, keep in mind that most folks simply took the joke as a funny reference and a compliment to both women.
Jada shook her head and rolled her eyes, showing the world she isn’t ready for her sleek look being singled out. I get it. Sometimes jokes sting us and we don’t even know why. That’s why as an insult comic, I only roast volunteers. But just in case, I also know karate.
I’ve written for the Oscars, and sitting in the front row is a choice. There’s a great showbiz tradition of Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen Degeneres, Billy Crystal and so many great comics teasing the perfectly coiffed superstars to break the inherent tension of Hollywood’s biggest night.
Like Chris, most people had no knowledge of Jada’s condition. I feel her pain. I’ve been there. I hope someday she will see the strength in joking about it. Not just because it could be healing like it has been for me — but because so many young people around the world would feel normalized to see a glamorous superstar laughing away the stigma.
Hey, even the Oscar statue looks great bald.
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