Crown of Thorns

A photographer's obsession with obsession is a study of exquisite pain and profoundly weird pleasure

It began with a single stray strand of sun-streaked brown hair. At the age of nine, Veronica Milchorena -- who would become a curvaceous, beautiful multimedia star as an adult -- was a confused Salvadoran expatriate living with her aunt in tiny Oneida, Tennessee.

"I remember this girl telling me, 'If you pull one hair from your head and it comes out curly, then it means you're jealous.' And that's it, man. That's where it all started," Milchorena recalls. "I remember showing my friends my bald spot and saying, 'Look what I did. You got one too?'"

As an artist, poet, photographer, and filmmaker, Milchorena remains fixated on this kind of shock value, and she identifies well with subjects who are willing to put the most vulnerable aspects of their image on the line. The hairless patch, expanded to palm size, is the result of trichotillomania, a compulsive disorder Milchorena both nurtures and battles to this day.

Jonathan Postal
Jonathan Postal

Milchorena's idiosyncrasy has not stopped her from succeeding in Miami's cutthroat entertainment industry. Upon graduating from Coral Gables Senior High School in 1991, she picked up a video camera, taught herself to shoot, and began charging South Beach club owners for footage of their exclusive celebrity parties. By 1994 she was collaborating with MTV Latino. In 2002 she directed and produced Chilean pop singer Nicole's video for the song "Viaje Infinito," which was nominated for an MTV Latino People's Choice Award. A year later, with her hair stylishly bound up in a turban, she broke into television as host of the Travel Channel program Get Packing. For the past two years, Milchorena has presented multimedia exhibits at Miami's Glass Haus and Helix galleries. In recent years, she has also harnessed her habit of obsessive journaling to write verse published by Spain's Center for Poetic Studies.

Today the Salvadoran press celebrates Milchorena as an entertainment superstar, recording her many achievements on the covers of newspapers El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Gráfica with headlines such as "Veronica Milchorena: A Salvadoran in the Big Time."

This past March, Milchorena created a photography exhibit of self-portraits showing how she pulls her hair and eats the roots. The exhibit, "The Art of Pulling," is mounted on the outside wall of the Helix Gallery in the Design District, with an adjoining text offering a satirical explanation of the physical and psychological pleasure she receives from pulling out each strand of hair and savoring its texture and flavor in her mouth.

The following is an excerpt from the text:

"The Art of Pulling" is a popular art form done by many who live ashamed of their talent while secretly creating well-designed hairless spots. The fear of rejection, criticism, and unoriginal tasteless jokes can lead these artists into a lonely and secluded picking environment. This art is also performed anywhere on the body where hair is grown and found. Yes, including there."

The installation certainly had an impact. One bicyclist ran smack into a parked car while gawking at the grotesque photos of the bald patch and a closeup of a hair-covered face stuffing mounds of mane between slathering lips. During the exhibit's opening, another observer broke down in tears, confiding to Milchorena that she also pulled her hair and had hidden it from everyone except her boyfriend.

"I like to take pictures of my head just to see what it looks like, because I can't see it from the front," is Milchorena's simple explanation of the need to chronicle her compulsion.

Until recently, trichotillomania (trick-oh-till-oh-mania) was classified by psychiatrists and psychologists as an impulse control disorder lumped into the same group with kleptomania, pyromania, and compulsive gambling. Now some experts think it's closer to an anxiety disorder -- a cousin of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or Tourette's syndrome. Other research suggests "trich" falls into a new, recently identified syndrome set called body-focused repetitive disorders, such as nail-biting and some types of self-mutilation.

Dosing trich sufferers with antidepressants shows mixed results in suppressing the behavior. The current standard treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy that centers on exercises to stop the hair-pulling, such as wearing gloves, twirling rubber bands, or squeezing a stress ball.

But Milchorena has a complicated relationship with her trich. She chose boldness over the humiliation of baldness by finding ways to work around her disorder with fashion sense and humor, traits that have also proven to be great attributes for her career in arts and entertainment.

On most days, the attractive, curvy brunette is decorated in giant silver rings on her fingers and big beads around her neck in Frida Kahlo fashion. A trademark are the many turbans, hats, and flashily colored wigs she uses to camouflage her bald spot and promote rather than hide her unique appearance. During her giant birthday bash at Miami Beach's Art Temple in 2004, she showed up in a slinky black dress, fake eyelashes, and a Twenties feather-plumed cap with fake fruit at its base.

"I'm lucky hats look good on me, but if people really knew that it all started so far from being fashion-oriented," reflects Milchorena. Ask any of her friends to describe her, and words like eccentric, hyperactive, and extroverted shoot out of their mouths. One never knows what "La Milcho," as they call her, will be up to next.

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