British rapper and actress Paige Meade—better known as Paigey Cakey—first realized she was losing her hair in junior high. “It was just thinning of the hair at the front,” sh says. “After a while it disappeared as I started to wear a weave… It was more the last three years from now where it’s been really bad.”
Cakey suffers from traction alopecia, a condition that causes hair loss from prolonged tension and pulling on roots in the scalp. According to Rodney Sinclair, the head of the Epworth Dermatology Research Centre at the University of Melbourne, women of African descent are more susceptible to the condition as their hair tends to be prone to breakage due to its tight, curly nature. Weaves, braids, chemicals, and styling processes can also exacerbate the problem. In 2016, data from the American Academy of Dermatology showed that almost half of African-American women experience hair loss—but over 80 percent of women had sought medical diagnosis or treatment.
The 24-year-old “Boogie” rapper and Waterloo Road actress says she hid her hair loss from friends and family for years. “I was young, I thought, this doesn’t happen to young people. None of my friends were going through it. You can’t really get advice from someone if they’ve never been through something. I felt embarrassed to tell my friends.”
In November 2017, Cakey finally had enough of hiding her condition. She was going through four to five eyelash mascaras a month, using them to brush over her thinning hair to give the illusion of fullness. After deciding to get a hair transplant, she went public with her experience to her 199,000 Instagram followers and began vlogging the transplant process to raise awareness of alopecia.
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In her first YouTube video, Cakey shared the severity of her alopecia with her viewers—bald patches the size of “two golf balls” on the side of her head. Cakey knew that revealing her alopecia would surprise fans, saying in her video: “A lot of people are going to be so shocked because I hide it so well.” Despite her concerns, Cakey’s vlogs have clocked up thousands of views—her first video alone has over 190,000 views. “It takes a lot to come on here and show your hair at its lowest point,” one commenter said.
Cakey also discovered she wasn’t alone. “Just from putting my story out there, I noticed a lot of people are going through this and have gone through this,” she says. “It’s been all different races, it’s been white, black—but I would say it’s been a bigger proportion of Afro-Caribbean women…A lot of it was because of tight cornrows and hairstyles that we do.”
She believes it was her love of cornrows and liberal gel use that caused her alopecia. “My pride and joy was gel and doing slicks, or doing cornrows and doing the slicks at the front.” She grew up emulating the hairstyles she saw on television. “At school everyone wanted to have hair— even people who had short hair, they’d either wear extensions or weave.”
Black women, she says, are often pressured to style their hair in specific ways. “There’s a certain look that society likes and a lot of it’s to do with straight hair and long hair. I feel like it’s a pressure for black women to get their hair done to fit in and look nice.”
Men, she points out, can go out “looking as messy as you want. [But] as a female, it’s like, ‘Oh you don’t take care of yourself.’”
As an entertainer, Cakey also felt the added stress of maintaining her appearance. “Being a rapper, it’s hard because you got to have an image. Hair is a big thing of image [sic], and when you’re in the public eye people are always going to have opinions.”
Following some research, Cakey travelled to Istanbul, Turkey in November to visit a cosmetic procedure clinic with a track record of happy hair transplant clients. Describing it as “the worst day of her life,” in her vlog, the transplant lasted seven excruciating hours. “The hardest part,” she told viewers, was needing to shave off all her hair for the procedure. “I feel like a man,” she said, showing off her sore scalp after the 25 to 30 painful anesthesia injections necessary to prep the affected areas for the implantation of healthy hair follicles.
Cakey chose to undergo the procedure to make her daily life easier. “I could have continued my rap career putting mascara on my hair, that would have been fine,” she explains. “It was for little things like sleepovers and just wanting to go to the shop in the morning and putting my hair in a messy bun—I couldn’t do that.”
Approximately eight weeks on from her hair transplant, it’s easy to tell that Cakey is ecstatic with the results. “I’m extremely happy, 11 out of ten happy!”
Choosing to go public with her alopecia—right down to posting footage of shaving her head ahead of her transplant—has massively boosted her self-esteem. “I feel a crazy sense of power,” Cakey says. “I feel like now I actually know myself and love myself.”
The rapper says she’s proud of the fact that she’s helping to remedy the lack of awareness around alopecia. “I put myself out there, and I didn’t know what the reaction was going to be like. But I actually got an amazing reaction and so much support. It was definitely the best thing I’ve done all year and probably one of the biggest and best things I’ve done in my entire life.”