Cyndi Lauper is known for her classic anthems "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and "True Colors," her outrageous hair, her LGBT activism, the smash soundtrack she wrote for the Broadway hit Kinky Boots and a wide-ranging career that has lasted more than four decades. Now for the first time, the pop icon is opening up about her struggle with psoriasis that forced her to cover up her body from the neck down and, at times, left her bedridden and covered in a rash.
"It was so bad, I felt like the Elephant Man," says Lauper, 62, who has partnered with the National Psoriasis Foundation and Novartis as part of their new information campaign More to Psoriasis.com to bring attention to a condition many people hide. "You don't have to suffer in silence or live in pain," says Lauper. "It's not just a rash. It's a disease."
For Lauper, it all started with an irritation on her scalp back in 2010. "First, I thought I just had a really bad bleach job," she says. "I am a suicide blonde, after all." Her dermatologist diagnosed her with psoriasis and gave her a special shampoo.
But that was just the beginning. Two years later, the rash flared up and "kicked into something scary," she says. "My whole entire body was covered in a rash and scaly skin. And then it just stared creeping up my neck. I felt swallowed by it."
"I tried every kind of natural cure I could," says Lauper, who at times was so weak she couldn't leave her bed. "It was like I Love Lucy. I felt like a mad scientist mixing this and that."
"My immune system got a little wacky, and it took my strength away," says Lauper. "My skin was so inflamed, it could not regulate hot and cold, so I had the chills all the time."
Lauper tried to cover up at first. "I just kept wearing higher-necked clothes, turtlenecks and long sleeves," she says. "I looked like a nun. It's not an attractive look. I like to wear tight clothes, so what am I gonna do, wear a potato sack? No."
She tried makeup – which made her skin "bumpy" – and self-tanner in an effort to "look normal."
She had stage costumes made using mesh netting to cover her flaking skin. "When I took it off, it was like, 'Ugh,' " she says. "The people I was working with would look at me and say, 'That looks like it hurts.' "
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Her wacky wigs helped deflect attention. "I dyed my hair red, put extensions in, and then I just wore a wig so I wouldn't have to mess with my scalp too much," she says. "It really started to hurt."
"I used to go to doctors who would say, 'You'd be perfect for a study because that's the worst thing we've seen in years,' " she says. "I'd think, 'Oh God, gee, that's great.' "
Lauper isn't sure what caused the flare-up. "Everybody says it's stress, but I've always had stress," says the singer-songwriter. "My whole job is stress."
But when it affected how her voice sounded, she says, "I lost it. I stopped singing for a while. I felt depressed and I felt horrible."
Rick Guidotti / I’m PsO Ready
In 2015, she started using a prescription medication designed to target the immune system. That, plus long Epsom salt baths and medicated creams, has helped her manage her condition.
As a precaution, she avoids drinking alcohol, strawberries ("they can inflame," she says) and anything with sugar. "I don't know how much diet plays into it," she says. "I've given up everything. I feel like a nun. I miss having a glass of wine with food, but for me personally, that can make me itchy." On the bright side, she adds, "I did lose weight."
"I'm not alone," says Lauper. "There are 7.5 million Americans with this. Find a doctor who specializes in psoriasis and find a treatment. Go to the website. The campaign is called 'I'm PsO ready.' Find what works for you. You gotta keep going, because if not, you'll end up on your butt like I was."
That remains her motto as she gears up for the Kinky Boots opening in London in August, and from there, Japan, Australia, Germany and Sweden in 2016. "I don't want anyone to be a silent psoriasis sufferer," she says. "You can't just lay in the dark and get depressed and feel like the disease has won. You can win, just get the information and get help – because suffering in silence really sucks."