MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. U.K. sensation Emeli Sande took the world by storm with her appearance at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Now we can find out about the music that makes her feel like a champion. That's coming up a little later. First, though, we want to tell you more about a pioneer in the field of design. These days, it's common for reality TV to make stars out of people who do everything from restore old toys to cavort in mud bogs, but that wasn't the case when Sheila Bridges started out. She became a superstar interior designer after graduating from Brown University in Parsons.
Her clients have ranged from entertainers to successful professionals and a former president. Her talents brought her one of the first TV shows about design. But after all those years helping others beautify their homes and offices, she had to come up with a new definition of beauty for herself after she began losing her signature curly hair because of an autoimmune disorder called alopecia. But Sheila Bridges managed not only survive, but to thrive. She tells us how she did it in her new memoir "The Bald Mermaid." And she's with us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.
SHEILA BRIDGES: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: It's such a fascinating story. I mean, all of it. First of all, your life in interior design and then this whole question of kind of beauty and how you think about beauty. So I just want to start at the very beginning and ask you how you fell in love with interior design.
BRIDGES: I always loved the arts and, you know, I don't know if I really knew what interior design was. But when I was at Brown, actually my junior year, I studied abroad in Italy. And I think that's the first time that I was actually exposed to the profession.
And then, after college, I ended up getting a job through a classified ad in the New York Times for an administrative assistant working in an architectural firm. Once I took that job, everything sort of clicked for me and I felt like, wow, this is something that I could actually see myself doing.
MARTIN: I know that as a - obviously - as a person that works with private clients that you're not going to bandy their names up out there, but it is known that you designed former President Bill Clinton's Harlem offices.
BRIDGES: Yes. That's true. That is true.
MARTIN: What was that like to get that commission?
BRIDGES: A lot of times, clients sort of waffle between, you know, making decisions. It's very tough. You know, I want to see ten chandeliers and can I see another 20 fabrics. First, I like this color way, but maybe now I like that. And there was none of that with him. And I assume that, you know, having been president, he was able to quickly come to an understanding about something and make a quick decision about it. So that part of it was certainly a pleasure.
MARTIN: And then, you had the flagship show for the Fine Living Network. It was called "Sheila Bridges Designer Living." By all accounts, it was doing well and then, in the fourth season, what happened?
BRIDGES: I started to lose my hair. I was diagnosed with alopecia areata. And I actually - I guess I had been diagnosed a little earlier. But my hair really hadn't started to fall out yet. But I think during the fourth season, my hair started to fall out. And I remember one day, specifically, I was supposed to be taping an episode of my show and when I washed my hair in the morning, the front section kind of came out in my hand. And it was, you know, by my forehead. And it was one of those things that there was going to be no way that we could disguise it.
Something that was very, very private was sort of happening to me in a very public way. And while I used, you know, wigs and hair pieces, you know, during that timeframe because of the continuity of the show, which I had to do, it wasn't something I really wanted to do. And everyone who knew me, knew that when I was done taping, the wig came off and I had shaved my head. And underneath it, you know, I was experiencing tremendous sense of shame and of loss and it was just a very, very challenging, you know, time for me personally.
MARTIN: You had a major head of hair. I mean...
MARTIN: ...Let's just get real about it. You had a major head of hair.
BRIDGES: That's true. That's true.
MARTIN: I mean, you had this big, thick, curly...
BRIDGES: Right. Right.
MARTIN: ... Mane that some might argue was kind of a feature of your - a signature style for you.
BRIDGES: Visually, part of what was recognizable about me on television was kind of, you know, this signature head of very, very curly, thick hair. And so to suddenly lose that when I'm supposed to be on television, I mean, was kind of ironic, so.
MARTIN: Do think the reason you no longer have your show is that you don't have your hair?
BRIDGES: It seemed kind of odd that when I did lose my hair and I did make a decision that I didn't want to wear a wig anymore, I could never get back on television again. So it just - again, the timing of it seemed a little odd. Obviously, I can't say for sure, but I think that there is an idea that's put forth in the media about what we should look like as women.
And certainly, rarely do you see women who have shaved their heads, women who are bald in the media, unless, of course, they have undergone chemo or they're sick or, you know, like, I think when Britney Spears shaved her head - you know, then we're sort of, you know, certifiably crazy or something in order to do something like that.
MARTIN: Why not wear a wig?
BRIDGES: I just found it uncomfortable. I really felt like I was wearing an itchy, scratchy wool sweater on my head. You know, for me, I just didn't feel connected to it. You know, it wasn't mine. It didn't come out of my body. I didn't grow it and I just felt confined in it. But I guess, you know, the most important thing for me was the healing process. And so I felt as though, if I could look in the mirror every day and feel comfortable with myself without any hair, without a wig, then I would be fine.
The part that became difficult was that everyone - not everyone, but a lot of people - you know, wanted to tell me what to do. A lot of people said, you know, it would be so much easier and then maybe you can be on TV, just kind of suck it up and wear a wig. And it's just something that I didn't want to do. I felt as though the more people who are exposed to women who don't have hair, you know, the less of a stigma there is attached to it.
MARTIN: And if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Sheila Bridges. She is a well-known interior designer. We're talking about her new memoir, "The Bald Mermaid" where she talks both about her career in the design world and then having to cope with hair loss due to this autoimmune disorder that she's described called alopecia. I was curious about what the most interesting reactions to you have been since you decided to not wear wigs.
BRIDGES: I had a very in-depth conversation with someone who - she told me how I looked just like an alien on "Star Trek." And, you know, again, I thought, wow, this is incredible. No longer am I actually, you know, a person or a woman. I am now sort of outer worldly because I don't, you know, have hair on my head. And at the end of the day, I just - I don't really want to be compared to aliens. I think the majority of commentary that I get, of course, is - has to do with this assumption that I have cancer. And...
MARTIN: So people are very sympathetic?
BRIDGES: Not necessarily. I mean, that's the thing that's sort of been very odd. A lot of people, you know, assume. They launch into things about chemotherapy or treatment or how I'm doing. And when I tell people that I actually am not undergoing treatment, you know, it's almost as though I've said something offensive. You know, that I'm a part of this sort of cancer club and that I'm denying the fact that I'm undergoing treatment. And so that, for me, has just been a little bit twisted. I never - haven't been able to sort of figure out sort of why that is, as if, almost, I'm tricking people.
MARTIN: Is the idea, somehow, that you're doing something to other people by not wearing a wig? Like your being bald or choosing to be bald is somehow provocative to other people? That's kind of funny. What do you think that's about?
BRIDGES: My baldness is a trigger for other peoples' fears, for their insecurities, for some of their feelings, possibly, about cancer. Maybe they've lost someone to cancer or it just - it creates this new set of issues that I never thought would be created. There have been instances where people have just literally walked up to me and touched my head, which I'm, you know, not happy about. You know, it's as though there's this sort of - when you have hair, there's sort of this natural boundary that we have and somehow without it, I've become kind of more vulnerable.
MARTIN: One of the things that's fascinating about this book as a memoir, both of your work in the design business and with your hair loss, is that you talk a lot in personal terms about relationships and encounters you've had with men. And so I think a lot of people might be wondering whether your romantic life changed and whether the way your dating life changed once you lost your hair.
BRIDGES: After I shaved my head, most of those men kind of ran for the hills. And, you know, very rarely now do I ever get approached by African-American men, which is a little surprising and kind of disturbing on another level, for me. But...
MARTIN: Are you approached by other men?
BRIDGES: I am approached by other men, but like I said, rarely is it ever African-American men, which is just so odd.
MARTIN: What do you think that's about?
BRIDGES: Well, I mean, I think that we have major hair issues. I think black men and black women have hair issues. And I've worn my hair very differently over the years. And I found that when I had my hair really, really short, you know, sort of attracted a very different group of men than when my hair was long or, you know, if I wore it straight. So that's, unfortunately, part of the way that we are caught up into this whole sort of European kind of standard of beauty and the media reinforces it and it is what it is.
MARTIN: There's one more thing I have to ask you about because you write about it in the book. And I think people are going to think this is totally out of the blue. We've talked about your career in interior design, we talked about the loss of your hair, which is kind of the organizing principle around the book. You also point out, in the book, that you are a gun owner, that you have a concealed weapons card and gun carrying permits in a number of states. You own multiple guns.
BRIDGES: That's true.
MARTIN: What is your goal and your purpose in putting this in this particular memoir, which is so candid and so interesting. Well, it takes us in so many different places. I mean, is it in part to sort of let people know that you're a black - like, a black girl with no hair, celebrity interior designer. I mean, do you just want people to know that you're flipping the script in every area?
BRIDGES: No, well, I think that as women - you know, it's kind of why I called the book "The Bald Mermaid" - we are, you know, highly complex and we have all these different layers to us. And so I put that in there because it's actually, you know, a part of my life. Meaning that, you know, it's something that's a hobby.
It is a chapter that is about, you know, upstate New York. And also, my own naivety about gun culture in the United States, but becoming, you know, a gun owner. And I just don't think, you know, people associate, you know, African-American woman with...
MARTIN: Yeah. Bald, black celebrity interior designer, gun owner.
BRIDGES: ...With. Right. Right. With, you know, with a 12 gauge shotgun.
MARTIN: What's your favorite weapon?
BRIDGES: I would say my go-to gun is my .22 - my long rifle - my .22 Ruger.
MARTIN: Yeah, .22. Ruger.
BRIDGES: Yeah. So.
MARTIN: Oh, OK.
BRIDGES: All right.
MARTIN: Point taken. Why do you call it "The Bald Mermaid," by the way?
BRIDGES: I always had this fascination with sort of all things aquatic when I was growing up. But "The Bald Mermaid" is about the notion of beauty. You know, when you mention a mermaid to anyone, they have this idea of what a mermaid looks like. And throughout sort of folklore and literature and history, you know, mermaids are these beautiful, mysterious sort of aquatic sirens of the sea who, you know, kind of can lure people in and bring them to safety, but also, you know, kind of create destruction as well.
And I kind of wanted to play with the idea that if women are these, you know, sort of powerful, interesting creatures and multilayered, you know, is it still possible to be those things even if you're bald? And so I think it makes people stop and think, you know, for a moment - huh, bald mermaid. You know, mermaids aren't bald or you've never seen an image, you know, of a mermaid who's bald. So.
MARTIN: Bald mermaid, celebrity interior designer, gun owner. Yeah. You can't judge a book by its cover.
BRIDGES: It's true.
MARTIN: Sheila Bridges is author of the new memoir "The Bald Mermaid." We caught up with her in New York. Sheila Bridges, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BRIDGES: Thank you so much for having me.