Get To Know: Michelle Lee
Bodewell Editor | September 9, 2020
After getting diagnosed with psoriasis at the age of 20, Michelle Lee’s life spiraled. She lost her career in the modeling industry as well as her self-confidence, and struggled deeply with accepting her new reality. Eventually, she found relief by experimenting with different treatment options and by reframing both her career goals and view of herself. Though she doesn’t yet have all the answers, Michelle’s quest for clear skin hasn’t been for naught. It’s taught her the importance of self-love and that she should never give up on herself, even when all hope seems lost.
When Michelle Lee noticed three bumps on her legs in September of 2018, she didn’t give it much thought. The 20-year-old had long suffered from skin problems, particularly cystic acne which she’d already treated twice with Accutane. The three tiny spots were nothing compared to the lifetime of clogged pores and moles she’d already grown accustomed to. She made a conscious decision not to think about them, telling herself that with time, the bumps would eventually clear up. But that didn’t happen. In fact, they started to get worse.
Michelle Lee: It wasn't a gradual thing how it grew all over my body — it was almost like it happened overnight. I went to sleep and then one morning I woke up with small bumps everywhere. They weren’t big, but they were everywhere.
Eventually, I went to the emergency room thinking I was having an allergic reaction. They told me it was pityriasis rosea and gave me steroid creams, telling me it would go away in a week, that I was fine.
But the bumps on my body did not go away in a week. In fact, they were getting worse: bigger and more itchy and spreading out even further around my entire body.
As if struggling with itchy bumps wasn’t hard enough, none of the three doctors Michelle saw over the next few weeks seemed to take her case seriously. They all dismissed it as pityriasis rosea, a common rash-like skin condition that often clears up on its own. But Michelle’s bumps weren’t going away, and she realized she had to take matters into her own hands.
Michelle: Even though I was telling myself not to freak out, that there was nothing wrong with me, that the doctors said I’d be fine, I had doubts. By then, the bumps were getting a lot worse. I was feeling shitty and I itched everywhere. But I didn't give up.
On my fourth visit to a dermatologist, they finally lasered off a piece of my skin and sent it to the biopsy center. It surprised me that it took so long for them to do this because I feel like there's enough research out in the world right now that tells you that psoriasis mostly appears in your mid-20s or late 40s. After the biopsy came back, they finally told me that I did, in fact, have psoriasis.
When Michelle got the news, she took it hard. Not only did she feel like she had just received a life sentence for something she never wanted or asked for, but she couldn’t understand why she had it in the first place. Psoriasis is considered a hereditary condition, yet she doesn’t know of anyone in her family who has it, other than herself. What’s more, Michelle has an identical twin sister who not only doesn’t have psoriasis, but who’s had amazing skin her whole life — the other 50% of lucky Americans.
Michelle: Growing up, I’d already gone through acne and the most insane skin problems. My sister, however, was the opposite. So I was always looking at my twin who looks exactly like me but without all the skin issues.
And I don’t think that helped me. I mean, obviously I had her support and her love, but the comparisons would always come into my mind and were definitely a negative factor.
So when the doctor called with results, deep down inside, I think I already knew it was psoriasis, but hearing it from them made it real and I immediately thought: ‘Oh my god, I’m going to have this forever.’
Doctors prescribed her steroid creams and pills, including Otezla and Tremfya, which Michelle dutifully took at first. But though they filled her with hope, the medications ultimately didn’t seem to be doing much to improve her skin. They also came with nasty side effects such as stiff and swollen joints and regular diarrhea, which caused her to lose 12 pounds in six months. This was no way to live — a realization that became even more clear when her career goals started being affected by her psoriasis, too.
Michelle: At that point in my profession, I was working to be a model. But the second my psoriasis popped up, I got one rejection because of my skin and that just hit me so hard.
It was for season 1 of the U.S. version of “Love Island.” I’d finished all of the additions, and had made it to the final of everything, and then my psoriasis flared worse than it had been in my initial audition.
Obviously, for “Love Island,” you have to be in a bikini every day, all day, for nearly two months. At the time, I thought, ‘They’re going to actually love it because it's going to be a platform for them. They're going to make the news because of it because they actually put in a girl that has skin problems and are helping her embrace herself.’
Instead, it was a big fat ‘no.’
In a way, I understand their decision. My psoriasis was all over my face and my neck. But their rejection also put me on a roller coaster ride that I didn't need to be on. Looking back, I took the rejection a lot harder and worse than I probably should have.
For a long time, Michelle hated her psoriasis — and tried to hide it. A prolific Instagrammer before her diagnosis, she struggled with whether to go public about her new health issue or to keep it under wraps, namely by using Photoshop to edit and even-out her skin.
Michelle: In the beginning, I think it was hard for me because I tried even harder to be the ideal Instagram persona where I have the perfect everything. I was afraid to show it off because I thought I would lose followers, lose love, or lose the persona that I thought I was happy to be.
Pretty soon, though, it started making me just hate myself more. People would like my Photoshopped pictures and comment ‘You’re so beautiful,’ and it wouldn't make me feel good. That wasn't who I really was.
Michelle’s turning point came after she started delving deep into the online psoriasis community, poring over Instagram accounts of people showing off their worst psoriasis flare-ups yet still practicing unconditional self-love for both themselves and their blemishes.
Michelle: I thought: ‘You know what? If they’re brave enough to do it, then I should be brave enough to do it, too.’
So the first photo I posted of my psoriasis was one of me with it all over my chest. I had already created a secondary Instagram account for my psoriasis that was separate from my main one. I was trying to keep it private so that I could use it to follow people and see tips and advice and post to my own story.
But on that day, I decided to post the photo showing my psoriasis on my main account. It was a big deal for me. I was just so depressed, crying constantly, and just not in a good place. So I think for me, posting that photo was kind of like me reaching out and saying ‘I’m not in a good place and I want my people to know that and I want those that are in the same place as me to know they are not alone.’
I got such a great reaction from that one photo and it made me so incredibly happy that I think that's when it started motivating me to do more and share more about what I was going through.
More than two years after she was first diagnosed, Michelle’s psoriasis is almost 85% clear, except for spots in her ears and on her scalp. She’s relied on trial and error in finding products and practices that work for her, and estimates that she’s spent hundreds of dollars testing them out. She’s still searching for solutions, but at least now she has a handful of tools she can rely on to help with both relief and prevention.
Michelle: A lot of it has been hit or miss. I’ve tried so many different products meant for psoriasis that didn't work for me at all or in fact made my skin a little more irritated. And sometimes, I've used skincare products that aren't meant for psoriasis — like ones for sensitive skin or that help with collagen, wrinkles, or discoloration — and those have worked well, too. I’ve even lathered tumeric on my body and stained myself orange. It looked like a really bad spray tan.
Whenever I can, I spend time in the sun because it helps relieve itching. Hopping into the ocean is also an incredible feeling on my skin. I use coconut oil to both moisturize my skin and help with scarring, and I love CBD-based products because I think they have a faster response time.
I’ve even changed my whole regiment for my hair. I used to take a shower every day, but now I try to wash it as little as possible.
The thing that still tends to bother me the most are my ears. Psoriasis in your ears is actually one of the hardest places to treat, especially if it's in your ear canal.
What’s helped me with that has been the Bodewell Light Serum. I haven't found help like that for my ears ever.
The first thing I actually do when I wake up is grab two Q-tips, put the serum on them, and then put them in between my ears. Sometimes I even keep the serum on my bed stand, I won't lie. Because if I don't use it, I will scratch it to the point where my ears bleed and then it gets really uncomfortable and hard to deal with.
Just as she’s done through her own personal journey, Michelle believes that keeping an open mind is vital to finding relief from psoriasis. In fact, even if a product doesn’t work for her personally, she makes it a point not to knock others who might be using it because she knows that everyone’s skin is different.
Michelle: Especially online I see this. When people post stuff about how they’re using steroid creams or biologic drugs to treat their psoriasis, there are usually some people who are like, ‘That’s bad for you. You shouldn't be doing that.’
I don’t agree with that. Everyone’s skin is different. There is not one person’s skin that is alike. So if someone has found something that works for them, I think that's beautiful and they should just keep doing them.
If anything, Michelle’s journey has taught her the importance of being open-minded and experimental in one’s approach to finding relief. There might not be a lifelong cure for psoriasis, but there are resources that can help, so long as you have the gumption and desire to try them out. It’s this message that Michelle hopes to impart to her followers and fellow sufferers: that by not giving up on yourself, you’re not letting your psoriasis win.
Michelle: When you’re continuously testing products and looking for release, you are not giving up. Because there are so many people who do give up. They just say, ‘I’m done. This is who I am and I’m just going to be depressed forever.’
My heart goes out to those who still force themselves to wear turtlenecks and long sleeves in the summer because they're too afraid to show their skin or the amount of pain they must be in every day.
But when you’re actively searching for and testing new products and telling yourself that you’re not going to give up, that you’re going to find something that works for you, you’re one step closer to a happy ending.
Because even if that product you’re trying doesn’t clear your skin up, at least it might help with itching or give you peace of mind in some other way because in the end you know you didn’t just write it — or yourself — off.