“I was born in New York but grew up between Switzerland, where my mom is from, and Tunisia, where my dad is from. Now I live in the East Village in New York, in the same building where my parents lived when I was born, so I’ve come full circle in my life. It’s Halloween every day here. People wear crazy outfits. I feel like I’m walking through a hip-hop music video every day.
After college, I moved to Paris to work as a paralegal. I hadn’t been feeling well throughout most of my senior year of college, but I chalked it up to burning the candle at both ends. After I started my job, I began feeling more and more tired. I would find myself thinking, ‘Where can I go in this building to take a 5-minute nap?’ I started drinking two espressos a day and then four and then six. I went to see a doctor, not for the check-up that I probably needed, but for the reason that any 21-year-old girl goes to a doctor—for birth control. The doctor noticed that I was anemic but told me not to worry about it and gave me some iron pills. I took them for two months, but I was feeling worse and worse. Finally, I was hospitalized for a week. They ran every single test on me besides a bone marrow biopsy because they decided that wasn’t necessary for someone my age. I was diagnosed with burnout syndrome. I didn’t know anything about medicine at the time, but that didn’t sound quite right to me. It sounded like something that celebrities claim to have when they are going to rehab. I started to get scared and felt that nobody was really taking me seriously. A few weeks later, my blood count had plummeted. I flew home to New York, and when my parents picked me up at JFK, I couldn’t walk. They knew something was wrong. And a few weeks later, I was diagnosed with leukemia.
Getting diagnosed with cancer at 22 really magnified the in-betweenness that I felt. All of my friends were starting careers and going to parties and dating, and I was stuck—literally—in this one hospital bed for weeks on end. At that point, I started to write about everything from my experiences with cancer to women’s health to sex on a blog, and it got a lot of traffic. So, I went to The New York Times and pitched a column. I felt like there was just so much pretending going on in New York City—how much you like your job, how much money you make, and how happy you are. I was tired of it, and I wanted to call bullshit. It felt like 10 years, but I was actually in treatment for three-and-a-half years. I finally finished in April. Two years ago, I had a bone marrow transplant from my brother, which saved my life, so I feel really grateful.
The first thing that I asked when I was diagnosed, which seemed ridiculous later on, was 'Am I going to lose my hair?' Not because of the vanity of the situation, but because I needed a visual understanding of what was going on in my bones, since it’s such an invisible disease. I didn’t realize that it doesn’t just all fall out. It falls out in patches. I’ve never felt so small and unattractive in my life. The second time I lost my hair, I decided I wanted to make a move before the chemo made its own move. I went to Astor Place Hairstylists because I’d heard of this guy, Miguel Lora, who did hair tattoos. I was a little freaked out because I was thinking like gang symbols, but in reality, it’s just buzzing a design into your hair. It was interesting because the second I walked out of there, a construction worker was like, ‘Cool hair! Where’d you get that done?’ It was the first time since my diagnosis that a stranger had made a comment on my appearance that wasn’t cancer-related.
My hair was curly before, but now it’s growing back straight. I’m trying to grow my hair out, but it’s in that incessant cut-off-the-mullet stage right now. I don’t understand how you get from this to long. My friend has to come over to trim the back every week. In the process, I’ve been trying to figure out how to style it without looking like a little boy. Shailene Woodley has been great hair inspiration for me. I recently got this hair treatment called Kama Ayurveda's Bringadi Intensive Hair Treatment Oil that I’m obsessed with. The product says, 'This product is meant to prevent hair loss, dandruff, and premature graying,' so I’m like, 'Great, all of that please!' It’s a great conditioner, and I think it has made my hair a lot healthier in just a few weeks. Sometimes, I put it in my hair, put a hat on, and sleep with it on, or other times I just do it as a pre-conditioner before I shower. I don’t use conditioner regularly because I feel like it weighs my short hair down, so it’s nice to have this to condition every week or two.
I started taking a lot of baths during treatment. I use apple cider vinegar, which is a great detoxifier. I put about a cup or a little more into my bath, and I really feel myself sweating. I actually use apple cider vinegar for everything. I take shots of it with warm water, lemon, and honey in the morning. If I feel myself getting a blemish, I dab it on the spot. I wash my hair with it when I feel shampoo or product build-up. Your hair is really shiny and clean afterward. Water, sunscreen, and apple cider vinegar are honestly my favorite beauty products. I wear La Roche-Posay's Anthelios 50 Mineral Tinted Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid on my face.
The other thing I always kept around was coconut oil. I would buy Skinny & Co. Coconut Oil and just lather it on my skin. I always had a tendency toward dry skin, but it was especially bad during treatment, so this felt amazing. I take a bath, lather this on, and wrap myself in a clean sheet.
I also really love this oil that my mom gets for me in Switzerland, though you can get it here, too. It’s called Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse, and it makes my skin feel so great. It has a light fragrance, so I use it like a perfume, too, because the smell reminds me of my mom.
MAKEUP & SKINCARE
I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup for two or three years because my skin was too sensitive. Weirdly, it had also never looked better. Cancer patients joke that they get a radioactive glow from chemotherapy. I used to wear really heavy makeup in college—I was all about eyeliner and too much of that Maybelline Great Lash Mascara. I had total spider lashes. Now when I wear makeup, I use it to look as healthy and natural as possible.
Every few days I exfoliate with this Peter Thomas Roth Laser-Free Retexturizer Exfoliating Scrub. I got it in a gift bag after an event, which is how I find a lot of my beauty products. I use the Clarisonic every couple of days, too. Then, I’ll use a serum like this one from Ole Henriksen called Truth Serum Collagen Booster. I let that soak in and then do a moisturizer like Juice Beauty's Nutrient Moisturizer. I just use a little because it’s quite heavy. For day, I use their SPF 30 Tinted Mineral Moisturizer or Laura Mercier's Tinted Moisturizer in Nude that I just discovered and love. It goes on like silk and makes me glow. After looking pale for so many years, it is one of my main goals to look healthy.
When I was sick, Tarte sent me a really beautiful care package of their products. They have great blushes and this amazing Lipsurgence Skintuitive Lip Gloss in Energy that changes colors when you put it on. It’s super gentle and just enhances your natural lip color. Next, I use Tarte's Smooth Operator Amazonian Clay Finishing Powder. I just do my T-zone or wherever I need it. For me, this is one of my must-have products. Then I use a bit of bronzer. I like Dior's Diorskin Nude Tan Healthy Glow Enhancing Powder in 004 Sunset. I just apply it in the shape of the number three—from forehead to cheeks to chin, on both sides. I play around with blush sometimes, too. Right now I'm using Tarte Cheek Stainin Flush, but I also have a couple of their Amazonian Clay 12-Hour Blushes that I like to play around with, too. A makeup artist once taught me that you should never put blush closer than 2 inches to your nose.
I feel like my eyelashes are longer now than ever before because I actually remove all my makeup at night. I play around with different mascaras all the time, but I currently really like Roller Lash from Benefit. It really lifts your eyelashes up. If you do need an eyelash curler, I learned that you should put some heat from your hair dryer onto the curler before you use it to hold the curl. I use little clean mascara brushes, like the kind you get to try mascara at the makeup counter, to separate my lashes after I apply mascara because I hate the look of clumped lashes. After that, I just apply a little of this MAC Eye Kohl in Fascinating on the inside of my bottom lid to get a clean, wide-eyed look.
For lips, I either use Tarte Lipsurgence, again, or this Yves Saint Laurent Rouge Pur Couture Vernis À Lèvres Glossy Stain in 5 Rouge Vintage. It’s a berry color that looks natural on the lips. For me, I can either do lips or eyes, never both. I have big features, so it’s important to pick and choose. When I had really short hair, I loved wearing bold red lipstick because it helped me feel more feminine and sexy.
I used to have a unibrow, so eyebrows are really important to me. I never do them myself. I only let other Middle Eastern women do them because they know how to deal with this big, full brow. I get them threaded every three weeks. I did lose my eyebrows and my eyelashes twice. And during that time, I never did fake lashes or anything. I just wanted to feel comfortable. I didn’t want to pretend to look like my old self when I clearly didn’t. I decided to just hold my head up high and rock it.”
—as told to ITG
Suleika Jaouad interviewed by Victoria Lewis and photographed by Tom Newton on March 23, 2015.
Donna Karan talks about putting care back in healthcare through her Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program in her Top Shelf.
Read about Ana Kraš' multiple uses for coconut oil in her Top Shelf.
Samira Nasr found a new way to use Maybelline Great Lash.