The Hairstylist Without Hair: Accepting Alopecia

Isabelle O'Donnell, now 22, has had alopecia totalis all of her life. Photo courtesy of Hair Club

Isabelle O’Donnell was one year old when her mom noticed that her hair wasn’t growing. Doctors quickly dismissed her worries and reassured her that it was common for babies’ hair to come in slowly. Two years later, those same doctors agreed to do a scalp biopsy, which resulted in a startling diagnosis: Alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks the hair follicles and results in little to no hair growth on the scalp and body. 

Growing up, O’Donnell knew she was different. When she started kindergarten, her parents bought her first wig. O’Donnell remembers the kids in school being wide-eyed with curiosity when she pulled off her wig to reveal her baldhead. “At that age, it was so cool to be different,” O’Donnell says. “I was proud.”

O’Donnell vividly remembers when that overwhelming sense of pride turned to embarrassment and insecurity. Over the next few years, there were a number of instances where her wig flew off unintentionally. “It happened at a roller-skating rink when I was about eight, and then again while I was on a roller coaster at an amusement park,” O’Donnell says. “Oh, and my wig flew off when I stuck my head out the sunroof of a limo on my 11th birthday,” O’Donnell says with a hint of embarrassment, even 11 years after the fact. 

YOUR WEEKLY NEWSLETTER - FREE

Enjoying this story? Subscribe to Hello! Gorgeous

Hello! Gorgeous is your weekly guide for inspirational trends, techniques, tips, education and the latest beauty news. To read on the go, sign up today to get beauty news and updates delivered right to your inbox!

Hair Club for Kids (HCFK) came up as a recommendation to O’Donnell’s mother when her daughter was a pre-teen. HCFK, a non-profit division of Hair Club, is a hair restoration and hair replacement company for children between the ages of six and 17 who suffer from any type of hair loss. The program provides children with non-surgical hair replacement services, completely free of charge. 

“At one of my earliest visits to HCFK, I remember looking at all the different styles and colors of wigs I could choose from and I felt so free—like I could have whatever I wanted.”  O’Donnell spent all of her teenage years at HCFK and recalls feeling lucky for being able to experiment with any cut and color she could dream up.  “During my last year at HCFK, I had a life-altering moment. I looked at myself in the mirror during one of my pampering appointments and said, ‘I should do this for other people,’” O’Donnell says. “It hit me like a ton of bricks. I wanted to make others feel beautiful.” And so, O’Donnell decided to attend cosmetology school when she was 17 years old. 

On her first day of cosmetology school, O’Donnell stood in front of her class and addressed the elephant in the room. “I said ‘Hi I’m Isabelle. Ironically, I want to be a hairdresser, but I have no hair,’ she recalls. “I felt that a traditional salon wouldn’t benefit from what I’d endured with my hair loss. I knew early on that Hair Club was meant for me.”

22 years later, O’Donnell uses the word “thankful” to sum up her experience with alopecia. “I’m thankful for the path alopecia has led me down. I’m thankful for all of the individuals I’ve met on my journey. And, I’m especially thankful for HCFK, who taught me to accept my inner and outer beauty. I’m thankful that I’m able to be a spokesperson in the alopecia community,” she says. “I love sharing my story to inspire a sense of self-confidence in someone who may have thought it was unattainable.” 

Alopecia areata affects 6.8 million people in the United States and 147 million people worldwide. In honor of National Alopecia Areata Awareness Month in September, the national Alopecia Areata Foundation is holding the “HearUS! Challenge” (#NAAFHearUs), a four-week fundraising program launched to raise awareness for those suffering from the autoimmune condition. For more information, click here

Founded in 1976, Hair Club is North America’s number one provider of proven hair loss solutions. For more than forty years, Hair Club has helped hundreds of thousands restore their hair and transform their lives. Today, Hair Club has nearly 120 locations throughout the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico and is a wholly owned subsidiary of Tokyo-based Aderans Co. Ltd., the world’s leading provider of total hair loss solutions. Aderans brands in the U.S. include Bosley Medical Group. Professional hair transplantation services are provided by the affiliated physicians of Bosley Medical Group. Please note that no procedures are performed at Bosley® until the patient has been examined, diagnosed and accepted for treatment by a Bosley physician. 

Suggested Articles

We're fueling up on hair inspo for the cooler months. See some of our fave shades here.

The beauty world is abuzz with CBD-infused products, but there's much more to the ingredient than meets the eye.

The singer trademarks her name, Ulta Beauty's SPARKED program and more