One little girl with alopecia's journey to embrace her bald, fabulous self: 'Just Airlee, with less hair'

Picture: Supplied
Picture: Supplied 

Airlee Podmore is kicking goals and living her best, Year Four student life.

The bright, bubbly girl recently won a dance scholarship and took out a public speaking and writing award. She has even starred in her own YouTube clip.

But if you had told her mum Jeniveve this last year, she wouldn't have believed you. A year ago, as the alopecia her daughter was diagnosed with at four-years-old took away Airlee's hair, then eyelashes, her little girl was in a very different place. 

While treatment when she was first diagnosed - using a cream designed to treat warts - initially worked to help her hair regrow, they were unable to continue using it as Airlee developed an allergic reaction to it. 

Immune suppressants were also not recommended, due to the then emerging COVID-19 situation. 

Picture: Airlee struggled to accept her hairloss at first

Picture: Airlee struggled to accept her hair loss at first.

"Airlee was losing all her hair, we'd just started home schooling and during that time she lost all of her hair, it fell out rapidly. She'd wake up in morning and there would be hair all over pillow," Jeniveve told Essential Kids.

"Everywhere you went in the house there was hair all over the place. I'd always try and pick it up hide that she was losing it. I became really creative with hairstyles to hide the bald patches." 

For Jeniveve, who is also mum to Layla, three, it was the the toll this took on Airlee that was hardest to cope with.

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"She became so upset she didn't want to look in the mirror, because she didn't like what she looked like. Every time she walked past a mirror she put head down," she said.

"She wouldn't even walk to the mail box 'in case someone sees me mum'." 

When school opened back up, she also told her parents she didn't want to go back. A huge change for a girl who used to cry during school holidays because she missed it and her friends. She'd also asked to no longer keep up dance classes, which she'd always loved.

Airlee's school came up with the idea of filming a YouTube clip to send to her classmates before school returned, explaining what alopecia is and why she no longer had hair. To tell them she wasn't sick, she was still 'Airlee, just with less hair'. 

​Jeniveve had also ordered her a wig, which arrived two days before school started. But it wasn't ideal, with Airlee getting overheated when wearing it, and feeling too self-conscious to play sport in case it fell off. 

Soon her eyebrow hair and eyelashes also began falling out. 

"That was just rock bottom for her, she just kept looking at herself in the mirror and balling her eyes out. She couldn't stand it," Jeniveve said.

"Before then I'd always held it together, but I remember that day just weeping with her, we just sat and cried." 

The family realised they'd put too much focus on her hair, and not her mental wellbeing. Jeniveve sat down with Airlee and they looked up role models with alopecia and also found a girl with alopecia, Violet, who lived nearby and arranged a playdate. 

Picture: Airlee recently won a dance scholarship, after refusing to go to classes when her hair was falling out

Picture: Airlee recently won a dance scholarship.

"That day Airlee was looking in the mirror and said 'I'm OK with how I look'. They were only together two hours but struck a strong bond, Violet said 'You're my best alopecia friend'."

After that Airlee decided to ditch the wig, working up her confidence slowly at school, spending short spurts without it. The school also showed the YouTube clip to everyone, to stop any playground stares. 

But it hasn't stopped a few awkward moments with strangers, who often assume Airlee is undergoing chemotherapy. One night, they were approached by someone who was crying, telling them they'd lost a friend to cancer and knew what they were going through.

They had also arranged a collection, and gave Airlee $130. Even after the family explained and tried to give the money back, they insisted she keep it. Airlee instead used the money to buy a book about a girl who loses her hair for her school library, donating the rest to an alopecia foundation.

Today, she's confident and happy to be herself - hair or no hair. 

"Now she's really taken on life, she's become a dare devil. And she recently won a scholarship for dancing - and this is a girl who refused to do dancing before, but she went up on stage with no wig. She's really taken on things."

Picture: She was also happy to ditch her wig halfway through a large public speaking event

Picture: Airlee was happy to ditch her wig halfway through a large public speaking event.

"She won a public speaking competition - and took her wig off midway through in front of 250 people. When I saw that I had tears running." 

Jeniveve said she wishes people would be less judgmental of people based on appearance, saying there's no way to know what someone may be going through. 

"It's about just being kind. Airlee's public speaking was on being the same but different. She said everyone is special in their own way and if we all concentrate on having one thing in common - which was kindness,  what a beautiful world it would be."

"I think she is an inspiration, I couldn't be prouder of her." 

Airlee's story will air on Tuesday night's episode of SBS Insight, Bald Truths - Why is hair loss so challenging, and how can it be managed?