A Soprano’s Challenges with Total Body Hair Loss

More than any other time in history, access to videos of singers performing in operas, oratorios, and as recitalists, is readily available. Audiences also get a closer view of the singers due to the proximity of the filming. It is a competitive business, and smart singers strive to sound and look the best that they can. But what if you were a singer with no hair on your entire body – not even eyebrows or eyelashes? For many performers, this would be very uncomfortable and challenging while pursuing a future in the field of classical music performance.

For soprano Claire Ryterski, having no body hair is a normal part of her life but she doesn’t let her rare condition stand in her way.

Claire began noticing her hair loss in 6th grade. “My family was on vacation, and I went swimming in the hotel pool. When I got out and was running my hands through my hair, I discovered the first spot. It was about the size of a quarter. At that age, I had no idea what was in store for my hair loss. I was confused, but I wasn’t scared. I told my mom about the spot, and we scheduled a visit with my pediatrician right away. The loss didn’t affect my self-image much; the first patch was on the side of my scalp and was easily concealed by the rest of my hair.”

Shortly after her discovery of a bald patch, she met with the pediatrician and a dermatologist who diagnosed her with alopecia areataAlopecia areata is an autoimmune skin disease that causes hair loss. While in middle school Claire was able to regrow her hair by using topical solutions and ointments but later her condition worsened.

“I used them in middle school for the first onset of the condition and had total regrowth up until my junior year of high school when it came back stronger. The treatment solutions were ineffective that year, and I rapidly lost my hair over the course of a few months. In those days, I was more embarrassed. There was nothing I could do to cover up the loss. I hated the idea of wigs, so I wore hats all the time, junior prom was coming up— it was a high school girl’s nightmare.”

After she lost scalp hair she lost it all over her body.

“My eyebrows and eyelashes were the last things to fall out.”

By her senior year, Claire had alopecia universalis, the advanced and rarer form of alopecia areata that results in complete hair loss all over the body. It is not contagious, but there is no known cure.

When Claire started her freshman year at Western Illinois University in fall of 2015, she chose voice as her principal instrument to pursue her degree in Music Therapy. Although she had never had voice lessons, she did sing in choir in high school. It didn’t take long for the faculty and students to start to notice her talent as a singer. After beginning with simple art songs, she began exploring opera arias.

After her performance in the title role in the 2016 WIU Opera Theatre production of Iolanthe her sophomore year, she continued to grow and develop her artistry. In her junior year, she added a major in Vocal Performance to her busy schedule.

“I absolutely love performing, and I always have. I knew this in high school but wasn’t confident in my skills enough then to notice my potential. I love growing and learning and developing my skills as a performer.”

Since Claire has no hair on her body, she has discovered a morning routine to get ready for school that works for her. “I usually just swipe on some eyebrows and eyeliner. I use felt-tip eyeliner and an eyeliner pencil. My go-to look is just eyebrows and eyeliner. I love drawing my brows on now. It took lots and lots of learning! The wig is usually the hardest part. For school, I’ll wear more exciting colors and styles. My favorites right now, are a mid-length ombré black and grey wig and a blonde mid-length wig. I love buying fun wigs from Amazon just to mix it up!”

People’s reactions to her vary and is grateful for the support from those close to her. “I get lots of positive reactions from my drawn-on eyebrows, especially from other women! I have a great support system of friends and family that understand who I am beyond my appearance. At the end of the day, I try to reflect on those views rather than strangers’ reactions.”

Sometimes Claire ops for her natural look. “I get lots of stares when I don’t wear my wig and makeup. I used to be a lot more uncomfortable with it. Some days, I can handle the stares and oddly invasive questions. I sometimes get compliments, too. There will always be days where I feel frustrated or upset by my appearance and feel like I have to blend in with a wig and makeup. When I get reactions or questions like, ‘Do you have cancer?’ I try to take that opportunity to educate and advocate for people with alopecia.”

Claire began performing more in 2017 and 2018. For the WIU Opera Theatre, she performed the roles of Laetitia in The Old Maid and the Thief, both Gertrude and Hansel in Hansel and Gretel, Dinah in Trouble in Tahiti, and the Mother in Jack and the Beanstalk. She has also performed numerous excerpts of roles in Opera Workshop.

Ryterski as Hansel in “Hansel and Gretel

With the WIU Symphony and Chamber Orchestras, she performed arias from Un ballo in mascheraThe Old Maid and the Thief, and Handel’s Messiah. She was a first-place winner at the 2018 Illinois Central Region Vocal Competition (Upper College Independent Studio Women), and a first-place winner of the 2017 WIU Concerto/Aria Competition. Further, she was the recipient of two vocal scholarships at WIU.

She describes her wig and makeup routine to get ready for a performance as intense. “I usually prep my face for performance makeup and pull out all the stops… concealer, foundation, setting powder, eyeshadow, highlighter, blush, lipstick, eyeliner, brow pencil…everything. I use lots of setting powder and setting spray for performances because I don’t want my eyebrows to somehow get smudged! Wigs get damaged over time and sometimes don’t look great. When I perform, I usually choose something that can be styled easily. I’ve been performing with a curly mid-length brown bob lately and I think it frames my face well. It looks pretty close to my natural color.”

For her final opera role at WIU, she will perform Countess Almaviva in the WIU Opera Theatre production of Le Nozze di Figaro this spring 2019 and will also perform her senior recital. This January she will compete in the Metropolitan National Council Regional Auditions. She plans to then enter graduate school and audition for young artist programs.

Claire’s outlook on her condition and how it affects her life is inspiring. “Alopecia has definitely helped me in building my confidence. I feel very versatile in my appearance. It’s like I’m a blank canvas for creative ideas; I don’t have to conceal or change the shape of my eyebrows, and I can wear any color or style of wig depending on my role. I love that kind of versatility!”

Claire has advice for other singers facing physical challenges or adversity. “Building your support system is important. Sometimes that support must start with yourself. While that is daunting, the best thing you can do is take care of yourself each day. Dwelling on the challenges only gives them more power. Take that power and own it, not only because it makes you unique, but because you will feel better as you continue to develop your craft.”

Penelope Shumate

Penelope Shumate is a soprano and voice teacher. Her upcoming and recent engagements include performances with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, Peoria Symphony Orchestra, Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, and Opera on the James. She has also appeared with Opera Company of Philadelphia, Des Moines Metro Opera, and Utah Festival Opera. She has performed as a soloist numerous times at both Carnegie Hall and David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center in NYC. She currently serves as Assistant Professor of Voice at Western Illinois University where she teaches Applied Voice and Lyric Diction. www.penelopeshumate.com