LOS ANGELES – Christie Valdiserri believed she had it all.
Then one day, hours before a birthday celebration trip following her college graduation, the dance and fitness maven made a discovery that changed the course of her life. The now-26-year-old Penn State University alum had alopecia, an autoimmune condition that causes hair loss on some or all areas of the body.
Fast-forward to today, as a finalist of the Sports Illustrated’s legendary swimsuit issue cover, Valdiserri is letting the world in on her story and spoke with Fox News about how she lives to inspire those to be comfortable in themselves regardless of life’s setbacks.
Fox News: Tell us about your "SI: Swimsuit" finalist journey.
Valdiserri: So about three years ago, I found like a little tiny bald patch on top of my head and had just graduated college. And I was like, what is this? I thought it was from pulling my hair up to tight or from the sun. I didn't really think anything of it. And then pushed forward and my hair's falling out and falling out and falling out.
So I went to see a dermatologist and got steroid injections, and it started to grow in. And I was just entering the professional world as a dancer and a model. And my look is being taken from me. So my dream was to book a cruise as a dancer. So I booked a cruise. I'm like, I'm going to set aside my hair loss and just put my energy into booking a cruise job, booked a cruise job. And my hair's kind of growing in kind of falling out, but I could cover it up – like no one really knew I could hide it.
And within six weeks, I was fired from the cruise, for – I was told I stood out and I pulled attention and the only thing I could come to terms with was because of my hair loss.
So within three weeks of that I had no job, no apartment. And in three weeks, I looked like this. It was completely gone in three weeks from like the trauma and the stress of being fired. And then I booked a one-way flight to L.A., I glued a wig on my head and booked a flight here. I'm from Philly, Pennsylvania. And I was like, I'm just gonna do it.
I'm not going to let this stop me. And I hid for a little over a year under a blonde wig and just tried to pretend and hold onto the blonde girl that I knew myself as. And then I was like, I can't keep hiding. And I felt like it was destroying me. And I was so sad. And it was like consuming me. And my hair was growing underneath. So I was like if I can share my story and let this go, maybe my hair will completely grow back in and I can put it in the past.
Fox News: What happened after that moment?
Valdiserri: [Then] a year and a half ago, I held an event, invited everybody I knew in L.A. to come, spoke about all the things that got me to that point. I posted a video on Instagram and from that moment, everybody knew that I had lost my hair. And then it's growing in and it's growing in. And I changed my diet and was free from it. I had shared my story, so I was like, it's growing in like, this is why it's growing in. Because I'm I feel liberated in myself again. And then in April, it's all over my pillow. It's all over my sweatshirt. It's all over the shower. So it like, relapsed and I have no idea why. And I was like, OK, I guess I got to shave my head and own the look. And then my eyebrows completely fell out and my eyelashes are half gone.
And then I made a video for SI and was like, OK, this is I'm going to do this. This is my look as hard as it is to like look at my own eyes in the mirror. It's been extremely hard to, like, confront what I look like. I don't want to look this way. So sometimes I feel that way. It's hard for me to look at myself in the mirror. And then I made a video for SI. And somehow here I am.
Fox News: What was your first introduction into Sports Illustrated?
Valdiserri: Well, growing up, my uncle would always call me Christie Brinkley because my name's Christie and it felt the same way as her. So I remember every Thanksgiving he'd be like, 'Christie Brinkley, Christie Brinkley,' calling me it, and I'm like, 'Who is Christie Brinkley?' to my parents. And then they showed me her, they showed me her on the cover. And I'm like, 'I want to be her. I want to be that someday.' And first off, I love her name because it's my name, and then she was an icon, a beautiful blonde and I identified as a blonde when I had hair. So I just, that was my first interaction with SI, back in the day. Yeah. I'm like, I gotta be her.
Fox News: Where did you work up the confidence to submit yourself for the open casting?
Valdiserri: So I made a video. That was how they did it: You make a video, you put it on Instagram and tag them and whatnot. And I made a video walking on the beach, removing my wig. And I feel like I got the confidence because I knew I needed a bigger life and I needed to inspire one girl who cries herself to sleep every night to realize that it's OK to have this look.
And I feel like I'm inspired by the people I've met, so many little girls, so many people all different ages who have reached out to me that on social media, that can relate to it. And I want to be a face that's like, 'It's OK to be bald.' It's not – doesn't need to be looked at as a sickness or a condition. It's a look, you know.
Fox News: With alopecia being so common today, did you do any photoshoots without your wig before submitting yourself to SI?
Valdiserri: Over 23 years of my life, I knew myself all through college [and] a little bit after college, I knew myself as this, bright, bubbly blonde and that's how I identified as and when something so shocking happens to you – and then I had [gone] through a horrible breakup, I lost my job, I moved across the country. I'm like, OK, I just need to push forward and I need to hide.
So after going through those things, I'm like, I can't see all this right now. I just need to be the blonde that I knew myself as. So, no, I never did a photoshoot. I got headshots done with my blonde wig, but I never have done a photoshoot or – like I just booked my first job a month ago as a bald girl. This is all so new to me and I'm starting now to finally feel comfortable and confident in it. But it's been quite a journey to get here.
Fox News: Who do you lean on for support in a situation like that?
Valdiserri: Definitely my mom and my dad, for sure. My mom has ridden this out with me completely and I can't even imagine what it's like for her as a mom to see your daughter going through what I had gone through. My brother, I'm really close with and he has really seen the ups and downs, too. And he's just like such a constant in my life.
My roommate, she's my best friend. I have four best friends. So the four of them are my tight, tight squad. They have been there. I mean, my roommate sees it all, like when I come home and unleash or I'm having a great day, like she sees the highs and lows. And then really, I really feel like I have my own back. Like, I just feel I'm so sure of myself and feel like I really have my own back, in a sense.
Fox News: What are the values that push you every day?
Valdiserri: The backbones and values would probably be that I want a bigger life. I want to create a life that I want to live. I just turned 26, but from 21 through 24, it was not the best. And I just know that so much stuff can suck in life, circumstances are gonna happen to you and if so much can suck, [then] the stuff that you can control, I really believe that you have to have a life that you love because stuff is going to happen to you.
And I really, I know as my career is taking off a little bit, I know what it's like to go through something really horrible. That keeps me grounded to know what I had gone through to get to this point of doing a photoshoot for SI. It hasn't been rainbows and butterflies to get here and I'm so grateful and I never want to forget the journey.
Fox News: What lesson can we take from SI’s approach to the swimsuit issue regarding inclusivity and diversity?
Valdiserri: Acceptance, accepting people. I can't tell you how many more comments or looks I get when I go out bald compared to when I go out with my blonde wig. It's like night and day. And sometimes there are beautiful comments and sometimes I can feel a look or double look or people ask if I have cancer.
And I think that everybody in their day-to-day lives just needs to have more acceptance and understand that there's not one way to look. There's not one way to live. There's not one way to be. There's countless ways. And I think people need to understand that you do not need to fit into a box. You can be whoever you want to be.
"For so long, I said when I was in college, I feel like I had it all. I didn't understand what it was like to lose something."
Fox News: What experiences have you had in walking this journey that will stay with you forever?
Valdiserri: When I first removed my – took my wig off and shared my story, I ran and dove into the ocean. And I hadn't gone in the ocean or underwater or a pool – and I jumped in a pool – in almost two years because I didn't want my eyebrows to come off, didn't want my wig to come off like, the whole thing. So that was something that we take for granted. I ran and did a huge cannonball into the pool because I felt so free and like, it didn't matter. You know? So liberating.
Fox News: What have you learned about yourself through all of this?
Valdiserri: I think I've learned a lot about, of course, who I am, but what I'm capable of and if you tell yourself that you can do whatever you wanted to – you can, regardless of the circumstance, regardless of the situation, regardless of anything. If you believe actually that deep down in your core, believe that you can, you can. And maybe it's not in a month, in a year or with the way you look, right then, you know.
I felt like I kind of believed it when I was in college. Push forward four or five years and it's taken me that long. So I just think that I've learned so much about strength and we are all human. We're all human. Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, they're human. From the people who are less fortunate in different countries, we're all united as humans. And stuff happens in life. Stuff happens, it's about how you handle it.
But for so long, I said when I was in college, I feel like I had it all. I didn't understand what it was like to lose something or like, a negative or something that broke me. But that is going to happen in the course of your life. So if you can accept that now and believe that you're gonna be OK and to live your life in the areas that you have control over – do it.