A woman is hoping to become the first alopecia sufferer to take the Miss GB crown.
Chloe Ashford-Smith, 27, from Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, lost 90% of her hair as a teenager and cruel taunts from classmates left her feeling ugly, prompting her to fork out more than £10k on wigs and extensions.
“It was really difficult, I was a teenage girl and I was trying to figure out who I wanted to be but I was losing my hair which was part of my identity," she explains.
Ashford-Smith says that every two years all of her hair would fall out and grow back in patches. Her eyebrows and eyelashes would also fall out.
In an attempt to try to hide her condition, she started to wear bandanas and hats before eventually turning to more expensive wigs.
Classmates continuously mocked her, dubbing her ‘baldly’ and ‘egg head’ throughout her teenager years.
“It’s hard to forget these things, they stay with you forever," she explains.
"My worst memory is during a school assembly when a teacher shouted across the hall asking me why I was wearing a hat.
“I was so humiliated and another teacher had to tell them that I could keep it on, it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Ashford-Smith said discovering the world of pageantry has changed her life, helping to give her confidence a boost.
Having always been interested in the world of beauty pageants, she decided to enter her first competition in Grimsby in 2017, after spotting an advert for it on Facebook.
“My mum [Sarah Bilenkyj, 48] was against me doing the pageants, but when she came to watch me she saw how happy it made me," Ashford-Smith explains.
“It was so good for my confidence.”
Watch: Man gives girlfriend with alopecia the sweetest surprise.
Now Ashford-Smith is hoping to inspire other young people who have the condition to feel confident about who they are.
“When I was younger, I never thought I could do something like a beauty pageant," she explains.
“But my alopecia has made me who am I today, it’s made me such a strong person. I feel like I can get through anything.
“People need to know it’s not how you look but how you treat people."
The beauty queen also hopes to encourage others to try to embrace who they are.
“I want everyone to know they are good enough," she says. "If you have scars, medical or health conditions, or anything that makes you different, it doesn’t define you.
“Growing up I was never good enough, I never fit in, and I felt ugly because of the bullying," she continues.
l“I know now that’s not the case, so I hope other young people can realise that too.
“My alopecia makes me unique.”
Ashford-Smith was crowned Miss Lincolnshire in April this year and she is hoping to become Miss Great Britain when the winners are announced in September.
What is alopecia?
Alopecia is a physical health condition that causes hair to fall out.
According to Alopecia UK, Alopecia Areata is thought to be an autoimmune condition, which often starts with isolated patches of hair loss on the scalp and/or across the body including the beard, eyebrows, eyelashes or body hair, including pubic hair.
"In Alopecia Areata, cells from the immune system (a specific type of T cell, known as NKG2D+ T cells) gather around the hair follicles," the site explains. "These cells attack the follicle, stopping it from producing more hair. The exact way in which this happens is not yet understood."
Sometimes Alopecia Areata can develop into either Alopecia Totalis (hair loss across the entire scalp) or Alopecia Universalis (hair loss across the entire body), but in most cases the hair loss remains patchy and eventually regrowth occurs.
While the condition is often associated with stress and anxiety, it still isn't fully understood what “triggers” the immune system to attack healthy hair follicles when people have Alopecia Areata.
Though there is no cure for the condition, treatments are available to slow down the loss of hair.
Common treatments for Alopecia Areata include corticosteroids (designed to dampen down the immune response) and topical immunotherapy (to distract the immune response).