I was 5 years old when I looked down at my legs and saw a couple of red spots. "Mom, what's this?" I asked. To this day, I remember the look on her face. It was almost like heartbreak. She knew exactly what it was because she had it, too.
Psoriasis is a hereditary condition that causes the skin to form red, scaly patches called plaques. My mom only had it on her knees and elbows, but by the time I was 12, plaques covered 70% of my body. Ointments relieved the itching and inflammation only temporarily. To hide it, I avoided short-sleeve shirts, skirts, and shorts. I wore nylons to public pools. But even then a lifeguard once kicked me out.
In spite of my disease, I always dreamed of being a model. I loved being able to be something beautiful, to escape into someone you're not. At 17, I joined a modeling agency, hiding my psoriasis behind layers and layers of makeup all over my body. But during one photo shoot by the ocean, the makeup washed off. The agency fired me. When I got the call, I went into a closet for some privacy from my roommates, fell to my knees, and started bawling. For a second, I thought maybe modeling wasn't what I should be doing. But something in me knew this was still my path.
There were days I hated my psoriasis. Then my boyfriend Nick changed my perspective. One night when I was having a hard time, he kissed all of my plaques. I was like, "Ew, what are you doing? That's gross!" But he didn't see it that way. He said, "Because I love it. It makes you you." That was my biggest fear in showing anyone my psoriasis: that they wouldn't accept me. And he just said, "Look, it's you." He helped me embrace it.
I was a modern-day Cinderella
I was 21 when I first watched America's Next Top Model. I could watch for only five minutes before I'd get frustrated, knowing I could go on that show and be great, only my psoriasis was stopping me. So I researched my disease, read about a new treatment, and brought it up with my dermatologist. To get health insurance to cover these injections, I became a janitor at a hospital. I was a modern-day Cinderella. Once you want something bad, the mechanics don't matter!
Soon after starting my new treatment, I attended a casting call for Top Model. There were 6,000 girls there. I knew I literally had a second to be memorable. So I took my number off my shirt and plastered it on my forehead. I said, "Hey, I'm CariDee and I'm way too fabulous to stand here and answer your questions." Because of my psoriasis, I'd obtained this bigger-than-life personality so people wouldn't notice my skin. It's just my self-defense mechanism. But it made me a natural actor in front of a lens.
Three months later, I'd made it to Top Model's semifinals. By then my medication had cleared my psoriasis. I could wear a skirtand shave my legsfor the very first time. While shaving, I saw this bump on my knee. "What is it?" I asked Nick, who said, "Honey, those are your kneecaps." Because my psoriasis was so thick, I'd never noticed the structure of my legs! At the Top Model semifinals, I got naked and posed on the rooftop of a hotel. It was such a beautiful moment. All those years as a janitor and getting kicked out of the pool were finally behind me.
After winning Top Model, I became a spokesperson for the National Psoriasis Foundation to advocate for the 7.5 million Americans living with the disease. I also lobbied Congress to enact the Psoriasis and Psoriatic Arthritis Research, Cure, and Care Act to get more funding to research this condition. But even then I wanted to take my involvement further and let people in on a higher level.
My hands were covered in plaques
In early 2009, when the FDA deemed that it was no longer safe for patients to take the treatment I was on, called Raptiva, I decided to let my psoriasis flare up. In October, I agreed to do a paid photo shoot for the maker of Stelara (a new injectable drug for psoriasis that was approved by the FDA in September 2009) to document how bad my plaques were.
Having my psoriasis flare up again was a humbling experience. It was hard going back to a state of mind that I'd been in for so long and was free of for two years. The thing that affected me the most was my hands. In my teens, my hands weren't that bad, but now they were covered in plaques. Once when I exchanged money with a gas station attendant, he backed away and asked, "What is that?" Thank God Lady Gaga made those little half gloves trendy, because they got me through a lot of last year.
For six months I stayed out of the media. I stayed out of a lot of things. I knew I didn't want anyone capturing my psoriasis in a way that wasn't empowering. I didn't want to see pictures of myself blasted on the Internet. There were already some red-carpet pictures of my scars with comments like "CariDee's legs are beat!" That hurt.
But then I'd see a comment from someoneI call them my psoriasis brothers and sisterswho'd say, "She has psoriasis. Back off!" When I read that comment versus another hundred comments saying, "Ew, why did she win Top Model?" I'm like boom, there's my support. It just takes that one person.
A new treatment helped
After five months without treatment, when my body was covered in red scaly plaques, I stepped in front of the camera. There were moments during that photo shoot where I felt confident, standing as the woman I was, and then there were points where I looked down, and I was wearing a skirt, and my legs were covered, and I didn't feel beautiful, and I started crying.
Ten years of bad memories came flooding back. I felt completely vulnerable and wanted to run and hide. But I didn't. I looked at the camera and said, "Keep rolling." I just kept picturing all the men and women who'd see these pictures and hopefully gain some motivation from this. These people were more important than my feelings of insecurity. That's what kept me going through that day.
After that photo shoot, I started taking Stelara. (English became a paid spokesperson for Stelara three months after she started taking it.) It's the first medication of its kind designed specifically for psoriasis. Maybe it's just because I knew it was going to work, but literally the next day I saw results. It was great to get back on that runway, to have the old CariDee come back. But now I had so much more knowledge within me.
I've learned that whatever you have, you've got to embrace it. That doesn't mean you've got to like it, but you've got to accept that it's just part of you. Next, find something that's greater than the power you put on your psoriasis and put your power on that. For me, it happened to be modeling, but for someone else, it could be writing a book, or being a coach.
Whatever the thing is that you want, let that be more powerful than your disease. I know what it's like to want something badly and not live your dream. There will be days or moments that you feel the disease is controlling you. But rely on your support network and fight back. I can truthfully say it's a fight worth fighting.