A woman’s hair often feels like her literal crowning glory — especially in an image-obsessed profession like acting. So when theater performer Lauren Marcus suddenly started losing her hair last fall at age 32, she was terrified for her health and her career. She says her diagnosis of alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that manifests in severe hair loss for approximately 6.8 million people in the U.S., has affected every aspect of her life at a time when she’s gearing up for her highest-profile role to date, in Be More Chill. A Dear Evan Hansen-style YA musical with an online fandom so massive that the New York Times published an article about it, the show opens this month in New York City for a nine-week run that’s nearly sold out. In an exclusive interview with Yahoo Lifestyle, Marcus talks about the challenges — and triumphs — of revealing her new reality.
The first time I noticed something was wrong was last year when I was doing a show out of town. I was getting my hair ready, and I noticed a bald spot on the left side of my head, which I’d never seen before. I could laugh now at the amount I cried over that tiny bald spot! It was really scary because I didn’t know what it was or why it was happening. I did some research and found out that type of bald spot is actually really common. So I tried to forget about it. Then toward the end of September my hair started coming out in clumps. Every time I showered, it would just fall out.
I probably saw about five dermatologists. The first one diagnosed my alopecia, but it was one of the worst experiences with a doctor that I’ve ever had. He told me there was nothing I could do and it would just be easier if I went bald. I sought out other opinions. I saw my main doctor and had a lot of tests done. I saw a gynecologist, just in case. I started seeing some holistic doctors and having acupuncture done. I went on an autoimmune diet. But I kept losing hair.
I got a pixie cut, and wore hats and scarves, but finally, when I was doing a show in St. Louis in January, I decided to shave my head. Luckily, one of my very best friends from college was living downstairs from me, so he helped. Then I put out a post on Instagram, and that was the craziest day. Only my close friends and family knew about my hair loss before that, so I was shaking putting the post out there. The reaction was insane, especially from the Be More Chill fans. People were so sweet. Some even started sending me bald fan art.
When I came back to New York this spring, I was raring to go. My first night back, I went bald to a joint birthday party for two of my closest friends: Will Roland, who’s in Be More Chill, and Jennifer Ashley Tepper, who’s one of the producers. No one had seen me like that in real life yet. I was nervous, but everyone was really nice.
I wrote the song “Funeral” about my hair loss, and I was like, I’m going to come back! I’m going to make the best of this! It’s totally fine. But as I tried to get back into my daily routine, it got harder and harder. I didn’t realize how much this would impact my life.
Sometimes people tell me that I’m courageous and look beautiful. The worst was when someone told me I was a freak who belonged in Coney Island. A lot of times I’ll be out and if I’m not wearing something around my head, I’ll hear little kids ask their parents, “Why does that girl have no hair?” And they’ll tell their kids to shut up and walk away, and I want to try to explain. Often people assume I have cancer. They’ll come up to me and tell me their stories, and when I say I have alopecia, they’ll say something like “Thank your lucky stars you don’t have cancer!” Of course I’m grateful that I don’t have cancer. But I’m still allowed to be upset that all my hair fell out.
I have hope that it will grow back. I still have my eyelashes, and it’s patchy all over the rest of my body. There’s a little patch on the side of my head, and I swear to God, there is one bright, white-like-the-sun hair on the top of my head that grows straight up at the rate of five times anything else, and it just won’t quit. So I have to cut it every couple of weeks.
A lot of people think, what’s the big deal? Just throw on a wig! But I am not there yet. Wearing a wig is easier in front of strangers. It’s hard for me in front of people who know what I used to look like. Be More Chill fans have asked if I’m doing the show with or without a wig. When I did the show three years ago at its world premiere at Two River Theater in New Jersey, I had long blond hair. My character, Brooke, does have hair, so I’ll be wearing a wig onstage. Rehearsing her big song “Do You Wanna Ride?” I didn’t think about what it would feel like to flip back my head and not have hair. It’s brought up a lot of memories that have been hard.
It’s very weird being so in the public eye right now and not looking the way I wish I looked. But I’m trying to find the best in it, and that’s been the fans telling me that it’s helping them in some way. I’ve had high school girls reach out and tell me they’re losing their hair, and how do they tell their boyfriends? I didn’t want to be the spokesperson for this, but it makes me happy because even a few months ago I was frantically Googling, looking for somebody, some other actor, who’d had this and was open about it so I wouldn’t feel so alone. If there’s some 14-year-old going through this, it makes me feel better that there’s somebody they can look at now.
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