Beauty queen's struggle with hair loss, depression

Marion Nicole Teo writes book to tell how she battled health woes and insecurity

Former Miss Singapore Universe-turned-image consultant Marion Nicole Teo – seen with her two sons, Jared (left) and Jordan – shares her healing journey through her self-help book. -- ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Former Miss Singapore Universe-turned-image consultant Marion Nicole Teo – seen with her two sons, Jared (left) and Jordan – shares her healing journey through her self-help book. -- ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

With her svelte figure and job as general manager of a training and consulting company, one would think former Miss Singapore Universe Marion Nicole Teo is confident of her beauty and success.

Ironically, the 46-year-old single mother tells Life! that until recently, she was plagued by negativity, insecurity and hair loss. The year she turned 40, she became completely bald, and doctors could not identify what was wrong with her.

Having overcome her demons, she recently launched her self-help book, Happy Once Again. The 124-page, self- published book reveals her struggles and gives tips on finding purpose, staying optimistic and building relationships.

She says: "In Singapore, we like to project the image that we're doing very well. We don't want people to see our vulnerability and weaknesses.

"That's what I once believed too. I was always seeking approval and acceptance from people. I put up a perfect picture of myself to the world."

The youngest of three children born to two teachers, she recalls having a "happy and carefree" childhood.

Insecurity took root in her, however, when she made it to the semi-finals of the Miss Universe pageant in 1987, when Singapore hosted the beauty contest.

Naysayers said she would not have made it into the international pageant's top 10 if it had been held elsewhere. "I started to believe it was true," she recalls.

She managed to push aside the self-doubt and public rejection, and "just moved on". In 1994, she married an insurance agent. They have two sons - Jordan, now 19, and Jared, now 17.

In 1998, she set up her own image consultancy company, The Leading Image.

All seemed well, but she and her husband began drifting apart a year later. They tried for two years to work things out, but divorced in 2003.

She says: "I masked my true feelings under an image of confidence. I felt I had to appear strong because my friends turned to me for advice and support. I feared that if they saw me being weak, they would not do so any more."

Post-divorce, she threw herself into her career and raising her sons. "I did not deal with the pain. I suppressed all emotions and unknown to me then, it was all building up," she now says.

The year she turned 40 - 2008 - was "one of the lowest points in my life".

Her hair began falling out in clumps. "I didn't lose just the hair on my head. I also lost my body hair, my eyelashes and my eyebrows," she says.

She also lost a lot of weight, and became tired and ill easily. Doctors diagnosed it as alopecia universalis - a medical condition related to the dysfunction of the immune system. Yet, after various tests, doctors could not find anything wrong with her immune system, she says.

One doctor gently suggested that her condition was the physical fallout from the emotional stress of her divorce.

"That did not make sense to me then," she says. Years later, with hindsight, she realised that he was right.

But back then, she only felt ugly, lousy and ashamed and did not want to be seen by anyone. She stopped going to work, asked her company's trainers to cover her image-training classes and cooped herself up at home.

A few months later, she says, she received a wake-up call when younger son Jared, then 12, asked if she really believed in God. "He told me that if I did, then I should have faith in God and accept whatever challenge life offered," says Ms Teo, who is Catholic.

Heartened, she started to pick herself up. She went for hair treatments and tried "very painful" steroid injections to her scalp.

But things did not improve.

She finally mustered up courage to buy a wig and went back to work. However, three years and three wigs later, her clientele was still dwindling and her health, problematic. She finally closed her business in 2011, determined to start from scratch.

In 2012, she met Dr Granville D'Souza, a Singaporean emotional intelligence facilitator.

She told him she was going "to retire" from image consulting and look for a new job. He gave her advice on handling her emotions and urged her to write in a journal and re-visit key incidents in her life.

She re-examined her doubts stemming from the Miss Universe pageant and her divorce, and it dawned on her that the doctor had been astute about the psychosomatic nature of her illness. By ignoring her emotional issues, she had neglected her overall well-being.

"I went back to the depths of my pain, cried over things all over again and then I truly let them go," she says.

With this new self-awareness, she decided last year to write a self-help book to share her healing journey with others.

She finished writing the book last November and invested $6,000 of her own money to print 1,000 copies. The books arrived at her doorstep in July.

Seeing the books, however, flooded her with insecurity again.

"It's such a personal story, that having people see me vulnerable just filled me with fear. What if people felt I was weak?" she says.

"I had to remind myself that I was not writing this book for attention or to make money. I was writing to help others."

She finally launched the book in September and her ex-husband attended the launch. She says they are on good terms now and that he is "an involved father" who sees their sons at least twice a month.

More than 500 copies of the book have been sold. Ms Teo, who is single and not dating anyone, says of the title: "I'm much happier now. Happy even when I'm alone and happy with who I am."

Since January last year, she has been working with Dr D'Souza at EQ Asia, a training and consulting company where she is the general manager. He is the company's owner and managing director.

Her sons say their mother is definitely an "Energizer bunny" again, those dark years behind her.

Says Jordan, with a grin: "She always tells us not to suppress negative thoughts and to be thankful every day. This has helped me in life."

She is no longer shy about the fact that she wears a wig. She gets a new one every year as a "fashion statement to myself", she says with a smile.

"I don't worry so much now," she says. "I'm passionate about what I do and I know that I'm making a difference in people's lives. I've got my mojo back."

Happy Once Again retails for $15 (without GST) at Kinokuniya and some Popular bookstore outlets.

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