Star Interior Designer Redefines Beauty After Hair Loss Sheila Bridges earned degrees from top universities and became a wildly successful interior designer. But then while competing in a world where image is everything, she lost her hair due to alopecia. In her new memoir, The Bald Mermaid, she explains how she came to terms with it all. Bridges speaks with host Michel Martin.
Sheila Bridges seemed to have it all. She became a superstar interior designer after graduating from Brown University and Parsons. Her clients ranged from entertainers to doctors, lawyers, even a former President. And her talents brought her magazine spreads, a store in upstate New York, and a television show. But after all those years of helping other people beautify their homes and offices, she had to learn to find beauty within herself.
In 2004, Sheila Bridges began losing her big, signature curly hair. It was because of an autoimmune disorder called alopecia. She joined Tell Me More host Michel Martin to share her story, which she writes about in her new The Bald Mermaid.
Losing her hair amid her TV show Sheila Bridges: Designer Living
"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 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 during that time frame — 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."
Whether she lost her show because she lost her hair
"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 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 certifiably crazy or something in order to do something like that."
Sheila Bridges with her signature curly hair.
Sheila Bridges with her signature curly hair.
"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 a person or a woman, I am now sort of outer worldly because I don't have hair on my head. And at the end of the day, I don't really want to be compared to aliens.
"I think the majority of commentary that I get, of course, has to do with this assumption that I have cancer. ... A lot of people 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, it's almost as though I've said something offense, you know, that I'm a part of this 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 haven't been able to figure out why that is, as if almost I'm tricking people.
"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. It creates this new set of issues that I never thought would be created. There have been instances when people have just literally walked up to me and touched my head, which I'm not happy about. ... 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."
How her romantic life changed after she shaved her head
"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. ... 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, sort of attracted a very different group of men than when my hair was long, or if I wore it straight."
Why she titled the book The Bald Mermaid
"I've 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. ... And throughout sort of folklore and literature and history, mermaids are these beautiful, mysterious, sort of aquatic sirens of the sea who 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 sort of powerful, interesting creatures and multilayered – you know, is it still possible to be those things even if you're bald."