Navigating your teenage years is arduous work – the constant brooding, spot-concealing and occasional rebelling is exhausting, more than enough to make you rejoice upon hitting 20. It's emotionally demanding at the best of times, but model, actress and entrepreneur Amber Jean Rowan had it harder than most.
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When Amber was 15, her hair fell out. Within the space of a year she had lost it all, along with a huge part of her identity. At least for a while, anyway. "I won't sugar-coat it, at times it was really tough," she candidly explains. "But I knew I had a choice, to accept it as a life limiting condition, or to use it to my advantage."
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It's staggering to hear of such brave outlook from a girl who was still years away from adulthood, but for Amber, embracing her alopecia totalis was a means of survival.
READ: What is alopecia? The causes and treatment for the hair loss condition
She coped with her new condition by doing what teenagers do best - or second best, perhaps. Amber experimented with her appearance, preening in front of the mirror. Indulging in the thrilling rite of passage that many of us never grow out of, she began trying out new looks.
Amber played around with different wigs, weaves and hair pieces and eventually started to enjoy her new-found freedom. Not bad, for someone who feared her career would be over before it had even started.
Amber loves wearing different wig styles but is also happy not wearing one
Now Amber is a successful actress, model and entrepreneur, but that doesn't mean she is immune to the occasional bout of self-doubt. "I have had, and continue to have, anxiety and fears about how people perceive me as a woman with alopecia," she admits. "It’s taken me a long time to build my confidence and belief in myself."
And the recent Oscars incident, during which Will Smith slapped Chris Rock onstage following a clumsy crack about Jada Pinkett Smith’s cropped hairstyle, certainly hasn't helped. The episode was an uncomfortable reminder that for some, potentially hurtful jokes are simply fair game in the comedy world.
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"I don't like comedy based on disability or difference," Amber says. "Honestly I find it offensive, and I believe that as a society we should have moved on from that type of humour."
The model has come a long way on her hair journey
Like most, the model was shocked by the incident, but admits that part of her understood the actor's instant reaction. "I remember reading an extract from Will Smith's autobiography where he speaks about regretting not doing anything to protect his mother from his father’s abuse," Amber explains. "You never really know what deep feelings of anger people are carrying and what motivates their behaviour."
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Jada's visible upset, likely on account of the Hollywood actress' experience with alopecia, hit home - although Amber is clear about not condoning the Best Actor winner's behaviour. Rather she turned her thoughts to the butt of Chris Rock's joke, saying: "I'm wondering how Jada is thinking and feeling about what happened and what impact the whole episode has had on her."
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Amber's alopecia has permanently changed her outlook on the world in many ways, but one area she is particularly passionate about is widening the options available to people who experience hair loss. She became exasperated with the lack of choice, personally finding the wig market deficient in both modern styles and colours.
"I just got fed up with the whole experience of buying a wig," Amber explains. "It feels very medicalised, and there's a lot of confusion. It's hard even finding a good place to go. You're paying a lot of money and yet it still always feels like you're compromising. The customer service is never great – they were never willing to go that extra mile."
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Fuelled by her own frustration, she set about creating her own brand, Amber Jean, which aims to offer quality, ethically-sourced hair pieces. Considering that eight million women in the UK suffer from hair loss, Amber thinks more attention should be paid to the consumer experience of buying a wig, which she describes as a potentially "daunting process".
"You buy your first wig and it's like 'how the hell do I put this thing on? Can I kiss in it? Can I swim in it? Can I have sex in it?'" she explains. "I've learned so many little styling tricks from being on fashion shoots that I want to pass them all on."
All Amber Jean hair pieces are ethically sourced
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Amber Jean's first collection of six modern hair pieces is available now, all of which are ethically and sustainably produced. The brand has also recently launched a line of specialised hair and scalp care products, designed for people with hair loss who wear wigs on a daily basis.
"Wearing a wig and discovering new colours and styles can and should be uplifting," says Amber. "Whether you are buying a wig as a result of hair loss or just because you want to try something new and invest in a new version of you, the experience should be inspiring and joyful!"
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