'Skin condition turned me white'

  • 19 August 2009
  • From the section Health

A woman with a skin problem called vitiligo, the same condition Michael Jackson claimed to have, says she wants to raise awareness of the condition. The pigment in 23-year-old fashion designer Darcel De Vlugt's skin started changing colour when she was five. She says she had to put up with schoolground taunts after developing white spots all over her body and describes some of the bizarre treatments she was prescribed to try to stop it.

Darcel De Vlugt
Darcel De Vlugt started turning white when she was five years old

Explain what vitiligo is, how you get it and how it affects you?

Vitiligo is mostly visual. It is a condition where your immune system attacks the production of melanin, which is the Greek word for ink, and it's what makes the skin pigment, the skin colour.

So it attacks the cells that create that, therefore your body cannot produce cells rapidly enough and over time your skin colour changes to white patches, which have absolutely no pigment, therefore are vulnerable to the sun.

How did it start developing in you?

It started at the age of five. Mine was, we believe, caused by stress and grief because it can be caused by a traumatic experience. White spots appeared on my body and as they appeared on my body and started growing, it started happening more rapidly. Spots started joining and that was when I was five years old.

How did you feel when all this started happening?

Darcel De Vlugt (aged five)
Darcel said kids taunted her at school after she started changing colour

My father is black and Indian mixed and my mum is what we call a true mixed race woman. She can pass for almost any nationality in the world. So I came out with dark to brown skin.

As I got older I would have had black skin but the white patches were so intense that it was very obvious, the difference between the two colours. So, over time it just started looking very strange. I was called spot, I was called Dalmatian and to be honest, that is what it looked like. It looked a little strange.

That must have been really hard?

There are things that people say but I thank God every day. I have such a strong mother and she was there with me all the time and my dad as well, even though he was working away, was so supportive. I had friends, my brother defended me so strongly.

So I learned how to deal with it and my mum also sent me out to do a number of different activities. They included dance, volleyball, tennis, piano. I learned how to talk to people so that my skin didn't become the issue, it became more about my personality.

What sort of treatment have you had over the years?

The first treatment I was told to sunbathe like a spit roast, lie naked on the veranda every day for five minutes on each side, which was bumped up to 10 minutes. I took a concoction of syrup, along with an orange tablet, which had no affect on me. I don't know why I was prescribed it.

I was told old wive's tales. My parents were told to take me to the Dead Sea and rub the sand on my body. My parents tried rubbing boiled lamb fat on my body, which lasted no more than a week due to the mosquitos and flies it attracted.

Then when I reached 12 years old we tried the UV laser treatment, which before that age you're not allowed to do because of the conditions of the laser treatment. Because so much of my skin had changed white by that point, it didn't work. I did three treatments and it really didn't make sense to do that.

So that's when I was offered bleaching and as soon as I heard that it was irreversible, that's when I told my parents, 'I want to stop now', and they absolutely agreed and we just left it. That was at age 13.