Her Kind of Beauty

updated 08/11/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/11/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

CARI BICKLEY REMEMBERS THE day in January 1990 when she gave up the masquerade. She was teaching a class at her mother's dance studio in Spokane, Wash., and, as usual, was nervous that her wig would fly off. Says Bickley: "I decided, 'This is crazy' " The next day she substituted a baseball cap for the wig, then, in response to a request from one astonished student, even took off the cap. "She looked at me and said, 'Wow, cool!' " says Bickley, 35. "From that moment on, I knew I would be okay. I thought, 'This is me.' "

Seven years later, Bickley, who has permanently lost every hair on her body to a little-understood disease called alopecia universalis, is more than just okay. She is the reigning Mrs. Washington International. Though she wore a wig during the pageant, she doesn't feel that compromised her message, which was, she told the judges, that her disease had helped her discover "the value of self-worth" regardless of appearance. Since then she has become a role model to women who feel that conventional notions of beauty are burdensome. "I'm as bald as a billiard ball," says Bickley, who will be competing in Tyler, Texas, on Aug. 23 for the Mrs. International title, "but that's no reason to hide."

Which is not to say that Bickley never hid. When all her hair fell out shortly after she gave birth to her third child in 1989, she wouldn't let even her children see her without a wig on. "All of my security," she says, "was based on what I saw in the mirror. It took me a while to figure out that the only part of Cari Bickley that was lost was her hair."

Growing up with four brothers in Spokane, Bickley developed an early love for performing. She started dancing lessons—in mother Carol's dance studio—at age 3 (her father, Lew, is a food broker) and, with her mother's encouragement, entered a kiddie pageant at 8. "I was second runner-up to Our Little Miss," she says.

As a cheerleader for four years at Mead Senior High School, Bickley felt that nothing was more important than having the right clothes, the right makeup, the right hair. "Isn't it unfortunate," she says, "that appearance is 90 percent of acceptance at school?"

At 18, in 1980, she began showing early signs of her disease. "I remember getting ready for my senior prom and having to draw in my eyebrows," she says. "I thought I'd done a bad job plucking them and they'd just fallen out. Looking back now, I know it was a gradual thing, related to alopecia."

Shortly after graduation, Bickley, who'd gone to Reno to dance as an MGM Grand showgirl, noticed a large bald spot at the front of her head. "We wore headpieces for every number, and they were incredibly heavy," says Bickley. "So I thought, 'Wow, these headpieces are pulling my hair out.' "

Returning to Spokane six months later, she saw a dermatologist, who diagnosed alopecia. "They gave me cortisone injections in each spot that had hair loss, and my hair grew back," says Bickley. "It worked really well for about 10 years that way." In 1982, Cari married Rick Bickley, whom she had known from church—both are Mormons—since she was 8. Rick knew about her hair problem, but says, "It didn't bother me. With or without hair, I love her."

Yet the problem intensified with the arrival of each child: Danielle, now 12, Kyle, 10, and Nick, 8. "When I had Nick in June 1989, I had a full head of hair," says Bickley, but in six months it was gone. "I'd get up first thing in the morning, and my wig went on immediately." But once she got rid of it, she learned that she needn't have worried. "We think she looks neat bald," says Kyle, who adds that his friends think she's "awesome."

It was in 1994, after buying an elegant evening gown, that Bickley got the idea to try pageants again. "I wanted a reason to wear it," she says. Her mother suggested the Mrs. Washington competition. "Because the pageant focuses on family and marriage, not appearance," says Bickley, "I decided to give it a shot."

She came close to winning, appearing both with and without her wig, in 1994 and in '95. She was going to compete wigless this year too, but friends convinced her the judges would get to know her better if their attention wasn't immediately drawn to her baldness. "Although everybody knew I didn't have any hair," says Bickley, "I didn't want a sympathy vote." Still, she made no secret of her disease and made sure the judges understood its significance. "Pageants have changed," says Bickley. "They're an opportunity for women to stand up and be a voice in their community." And for this, Bickley has a no-longer-secret weapon. "When I pull that wig off," she says, "people sit up and take notice."

CATHY FREE in Spokane

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