While an onstage altercation between Will Smith and Chris Rock at Sunday’s Academy Awards stole much of the attention, a registered Canadian charity is calling out the comments that sparked the incident.
“Chris Rock’s comments about Jada (Pinkett Smith) really hit home for the alopecia community,” Sara Teskey, a spokesperson for the Canadian Alopecia Areata Foundation, told CityNews in an interview Monday afternoon.
“It’s not an unusual event for someone to hear a comment or a joke like that, so I think it stung for the alopecia community to hear someone that has that much influence saying something like that on such a large stage.
“It really is devastating to hear something like that.”
Teskey said amid all the conversation going on about Sunday night’s events, there’s a message that needs to be underscored.
“Being bald is not a punchline and alopecia areata is a life-altering disease that can have a severe psycho-social impact on individuals and their families,” she said.
“Losing your hair, for many, is like losing part of your identity, and many people struggle to cope with that and go on living their lives.”
During the ceremony, Rock made a joke about Pinkett Smith — a long-time actress who is married to Smith.
“Jada, I love you. ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it,” he said, referencing the movie featuring Demi Moore, whose character’s head was shaved.
Pinkett Smith has previously spoke about being diagnosed with alopecia. The joke seemed to strike a nerve with Smith as he went onto the stage and slapped Rock across the face. Back in his seat, Smith twice shouted for Rock to “get my wife’s name out your (expletive) mouth.”
Teskey went on to praise Pinkett Smith for talking about her diagnosis in the past, saying it takes “a lot of courage” to share her story in the public eye.
“Simply as someone who looks different from someone else, who feels different from someone else, who defies society’s norms about what a woman should look like, it takes a lot of courage to step out and be yourself while you have such a visible condition,” she said.
“Just because someone is a comedian, it doesn’t give them the right to undermine someone’s health condition whether he knew about her alopecia or not — that’s the feeling of the community.”
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease and Teskey said the person’s immune system attacks their hair follicles, triggering an inflammatory response that stops the growth of hair. She said it’s believed two per cent of the population has alopecia, adding anyone can get it at any time.
“It’s very uncertain if your hair will ever grow back (or) if it will fall out more. Some people go their entire life with just small patches of hair missing while other people transition from a patch missing and lose all the hair on their head or their body. Sometimes it grows back, sometimes it doesn’t,” Teskey said.
“Alopecia areata is really unpredictable, that’s one of the things people with alopecia struggle with the most.”
Meanwhile, Teskey said there aren’t any Health Canada- or FDA-approved treatments for alopecia. She said topical creams, oral medications and steroid injections can be used, but noted it’s unpredictable as any of those might or might not work.
Teskey also said clinical trials are underway for the use of JAK inhibitors, leaving hope for long-term treatment.
Click here for a list of resources offered by the Canadian Alopecia Areata Foundation.