Most teenagers who head for university expect their social lives to take off. But when Heart FM presenter James Stewart started at Bristol University a decade ago he quickly became “a hermit”.
“I was in my first year at uni and suddenly, out of nowhere, I started suffering with really aggressive acne,” he explains.
“I was 18 and I’d left home expecting the happiest time of my life – ready to meet people and have the most fun – when suddenly these spots appeared from nowhere.
“It was tough, especially as I was at an age when you are trying to figure yourself out.”
The 29-year-old, who has just taken over Heart FM’s early breakfast show from Jenni Falconer, says developing the condition felt like an out-of-body experience.
“It was like I was living my life but it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my skin,” he says. “The acne was mostly on my cheeks and forehead – it felt like it was someone else’s face.
“I know there are far more terrible things to go through but when it’s happening to you it feels like it is the worst thing in the world. It’s not life threatening or going to drastically impact the rest of your life, but to me it was such a big deal. I was incredibly depressed.
“Blokes are terrible at talking about mental health, but we really need to open up about it. I felt lost at a time when I should have been trying to find myself.”
James stopped going out completely after turning to Dr Google for advice.
“If you look online you get so many different solutions,” he says. “Stop eating chocolate, change your pillow, use a different detergent, give up milk. I would go to bed with manuka honey on my face because it was supposed to reduce redness – and, of course, wake up with it all over my sheets.
"None of it made any difference but you’re so desperate for it to go that you will try anything. I read that going out and drinking alcohol made acne worse so I just didn’t go out or drink at all.
“I literally stayed in my room and watched the Entourage box set eight times back-to-back. I wish I’d been a bit stronger and realised no one really cares as much as you do because I definitely missed out on my university experience.”
While he didn’t admit it at the time, James says he spent huge amounts of his student loan “on laser skin treatments and sun beds, light therapies and chemical peels – sorry Mum and Dad! – without success.
“None of them worked and if anything, the problem became more aggressive because the more you do to your face, the more your skin flares up.”
After six months taking the oral antibiotic Minocycline failed to sort the problem, James was finally persuaded by his mother to consider the acne drug Roaccutane.
“I had Googled it and all I found were reports about it causing suicide, depression and problems with kidney and liver function. I thought there was no way in hell I was going to take it. But I had spent three years with pretty severe acne and it had penetrated quite a few layers of skin, so anything topical wouldn’t touch it. You basically have to blitz it from the inside, which is what Roaccutane does.
“I knew I wanted to go into a career in the media, where you need confidence in front of a camera and, let’s be honest, how you look matters. It felt like a last resort but the dermatologist I saw had prescribed it for her own son and that helped make my mind up for me.”
The treatment itself was
even more brutal than James had anticipated.
“It’s really intensive and cures the problem from the inside out, so you’re like a snake shedding its skin. It dries your lips and skin horrifically, to the point that you live off Carmex and non-comedogenic moisturisers [which are designed to not block pores]. I needed regular blood tests to check it hadn’t caused any damage to my organs and got styes in my eye all the time because it made my tear ducts dry out.
“Basically, it’s like your face is a desert for months, but it’s probably the best thing I ever did. I remember my skin starting to clear and it was such a relief. Finally I got my confidence back.”
These days James wears a beard most of the time to hide the small amount of scarring he’s left with.
“Having acne changed my life quite a lot,” he adds. “Before I developed it I had always imagined I would go to drama school and become an actor but my skin meant I just couldn’t make myself stand in front of a room of people to perform.
“But it has perhaps worked out all right in the end. I went in a different direction and started presenting and that seems to be going pretty well right now.”
*Early Breakfast with James Stewart, weekdays from 4am to 6.30am on Heart FM.
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