Crown of Thorns

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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.

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.

Milchorena saw compulsive disorders from a different perspective when, by coincidence, she picked up a gig as a videographer for True Life. Since its initial episode in 1998, MTV's documentary series has told real-life stories of young people and the unusual subcultures they inhabit. The episode Milchorena was assigned to happened to be about people with nearly incapacitating mental disorders.

"Filming [OCD patients] makes me realize I have some of the same habits, like twitching in threes. The thing is, they can't function because they're too busy doing these things and they have to be medicated," she says.

Milchorena made a particularly deep connection while filming the castings for True Life, with Meredith Solotoff, a 23-year-old whose OCD was complicated by a recent car accident in which she lost her hand. Milchorena's ease with relating to her subject while filming was enough to convince Solotoff to join one of Milchorena's independent photo projects by portraying a bionic superhero.

"You're a hot 23-year-old amputee, and you don't think pretty people go through things like this. It's shocking," Milchorena told her as they packed up props after taking test photos.

Solotoff, whose disorder is suppressed by medication, begins to knock her knees together nervously as she talks about the possibility of never being able to put her hair in a ponytail again, relying instead on others to take care of one of her greatest fixations. "It's so subtle you wouldn't know I had [the disorder]. But it gets bad at night and it can take up a lot of time; like when I go on a date and I have to have my hair exactly right and I will spend hours trying to get the ponytail just perfect," she says.

Milchorena pipes up consolingly: "You don't have a hand, I don't have hair; we're meant to be, man! When we met, it was like too much. It was like, let's just get this out in the open because it's all good with me."

"I can't even sit on a chair that might seem dirty. Like even if it has one hair on it, I can't sit down," Solotoff adds.

"Dude, don't sit on any chair I've been in, or you'll have hairs up your ass!" Milchorena exclaims, sending the two into fits of laughter.

This past spring Milchorena agreed to return to the OCD Resource Center in Hollywood, where she had filmed another True Life patient, only this time she went to speak with therapist Bruce M. Hyman about whether she should be seeking treatment for her own condition. In addition to trichotillomania, she manifests other obsessive-compulsive traits such as junk-hoarding and obsessive note-taking.

Milchorena crossed her legs at the thigh and reclined stiffly in the therapist's office, taking a long look at each patient in the waiting room. One man was wildly tapping his belt; another woman stared ahead blankly as though on a heavy dose of lithium; and an attractive mother tensely pulled her baby in a stroller through the office door, a look of forced emotional control paralyzing her face.

Twirling a single strand of hair around her finger and yanking it out, Milchorena smirked as she asked, "I'm pulling my hair out, aren't I?

"I'm not a freak, man. I'm not. Oh my God, this is so funny," she said, her eyes wide as she slid a piece of hair between her lips.

"No camera today, Veronica?" asked Hyman.

"No, doctor. Here about me this time," said Milchorena, who has found that medication hasn't helped her trich. "This is weird. Very weird," she said.

"Do you want to talk about that?" Hyman asked.

"That I'm doing art with my disorders?" Milchorena responded.

"Do you think this is some way of coming to grips with yourself?" inquired Hyman.

"Well, I've been screaming it out for a while, depending on the conversation and who I meet. I'll talk about it," Milchorena said.

"What would happen if you didn't do those things?" asked Hyman.

"I know nothing would happen, but physically I would be anxious," she replied. "For example, I haven't missed a day without writing in seventeen years. It's like a documentary. If I lost my pen ..."

"That pen?" asked Hyman, as Milchorena pulled her pen from her bag.

"Well, yeah. I mean, it's a Pilot Precise V-5 extra-fine black pen," she responded, as though Hyman could totally agree that nobody would want to lose a pen like that. "When I was a kid, it was a Bic pen. It was like ecstasy, like my Prozac until I found this pen."

Panchi Sanfuentes, a 35-year-old Chilean industrial designer, says her relationship with Milchorena grew from neighbors to friends to artistic colleagues the day they went out to mail some letters and ended up stealing mangoes from the yard of a priest. From there, every encounter was an artistic brainstorm leading to crazy adventures for projects like the local movement Arte del Barrio.

"I once tried to slap her hand when I saw her pulling, and she got upset. She told me never to do that again because she doesn't know what she's done wrong and it puts her in a horrible mood," Sanfuentes says.

In an effort to better understand the behavior, Sanfuentes once agreed to try the art of pulling. "It was this really complex process. I had to grab the hair between two fingers and then yank it out. I asked Veronica how I'd know which was the right hair, and she said, 'You want a good, thick root.' I hated the taste, and the next day my head hurt because I had to try pulling several of them to get the procedure down right," said Sanfuentes. "It's disgusting."

The hair-pulling was not at all amusing to Milchorena's mother either, or to her aunt, who would call home to El Salvador in hysterics to say Veronica's bald patch was growing.

"My mom freaked, man. She was so embarrassed. Whenever people would start looking at my head, she'd say no, no, it's not a fungus. She was so afraid people wouldn't want to approach me," Milchorena explains. "But I was more paranoid about the way people were reacting to my head than to how I was reacting to it."

Milchorena's wit and genuine interest in others has compensated well for her hyperactive and obsessive tendencies. She practically never misses a Sunday with her family in Pinecrest, holds vigils for the tsunami victims, checks in regularly when friends are sick or in the hospital, and is almost never without a steady boyfriend.

Not until now, that is. The day at the doctor's office in late May marked the end of a six-year relationship with her 47-year-old Chilean boyfriend and fellow cameraman Augusto Gallardo. The breakup was amicable, and they remain friends. Milchorena felt she needed to be on her own, concerned that too much worry for another individual increases her present anxiety.

"I always tell her she's like a twelve-year-old kid. She has that rare combination of being wise without really knowing why -- like a kid," Gallardo reflects. "There was something about her soul that made me always want to be around her."

Twelve marked the age at which Milchorena's mother and grandmother resolved to stop her hair-pulling by sending her to a hypnotist in El Salvador.

"The guy was like this 300-year-old man who would lay me down and make me apologize to my grandmother for pulling my hair. It was like a guilt trip. I'd be there laughing and looking at her trying to say I'm sorry. But I was petrified because he would tell me, 'If you don't stop pulling your hair, we're going to shave your head.' They thought it was some kind of rebellion," says Milchorena on another evening, as she lays across her bed in a fuchsia silk bathrobe and brushes her mane in long strokes down to her hip.

Christina Pearson, executive director of the Trichotillomania Learning Center in Santa Cruz, California, says trichotillomaniacs are often "highly intelligent, high functioning, highly creative, and hypersensitive." Many of them are artists or overachievers who excel precisely because they are sensitive and perceptive in addition to obsessively organized.

Experts like Hyman who have heard Milchorena's story say it wouldn't be surprising if some of her behavioral disorders were set off or exacerbated by difficult childhood experiences. Born in Paris, she was sent back and forth to live with relatives in San Salvador, Oneida, Mexico City, San Francisco, and Miami, often in attempts to shield her from family strife and the civil war raging in El Salvador throughout the Eighties. Then when Milchorena was seventeen, her favorite uncle and role model, Salvadoran cinematographer Baltazar Polio, who was dying of an AIDS-related illness, revealed to her that her mother's ex-husband was not her biological father. Months later, another relative revealed that her birth father was a Spaniard who had since moved to Miami. The hair-pulling reached new heights over the next couple of years as she tracked the man down twice, only to be bitterly rejected.

"Sometimes we didn't even know if we should consider it a problem, because when Veronica has any kind of problem, she covers it up. While some of us cry and complain, she just pulls her hair," her aunt Marta Kennedy says.

Lounging in her living room this past spring in South Beach, Milchorena twirls the baby-soft hairs that frame her forehead between her long fingernails, now grown out and painted for the first time in years in celebration of kicking her nail-biting habit. She twitches nervously, aware that at any moment she might feel the urge to wrap one of those hairs around her finger and yank it out.

"It's a trance, it's like a project, man. You become very selective about what you're looking for, and then when you find the one you like -- which tends to be a real thick one, a real stubby one -- then your life changes for that one moment and you pull it out and you say, öGod, I hope it's got a good root,'" she explains. "It's a texture thing. You play with the root and you slide it between your teeth and you bite it. You can do that sometimes until you start noticing this itching in the back of your throat where all these hair roots have comfortably settled."

Milchorena's closet is also stuffed -- with memories. Her scrapbook holds the wrapper from her first maxi pad; the home videos she made with Uncle Baltazar have been catalogued and stored on DVDs; and her shelves are stocked with boxes of the diary/daily planners she can't quit filling.

"I keep telling Augusto it's a good thing he's moving out and not me, because the house would be empty if I left," she notes.

"I'm fearful of what I think, because the shit hits the fan and then I gotta have another project," she told Hyman, the therapist.

That's how she ended up being a one-woman show in last fall's Miami Short Film Festival, Milchorena said. Before she knew it, she went from assisting the executive director to designing the logo and Website, taking photos, handling publicity, collecting movies from around the world -- organizing practically the entire event without her making a dime.

"Nobody notices I'm a control freak because I have everything done before they realize it," she said.

"What happens to your hair-pulling when you have projects?" asked Hyman.

"I pull with the left hand and keep moving with the right," responded Milchorena, later adding, "I don't know what's come over me in the last few years. I can't relate to people who take this to a dark level."

"I suppose that's one of the silver linings," said Hyman. "If you didn't have trich, you'd probably still be successful, but you have more resonance with people because it gives you more compassion."

That's precisely one of the reasons she's sought after for helping people center themselves onstage and in front of the camera. No insecurity or social faux pas is too great or too superficial to be taken for anything other than a reason to find an amusing way around it. A knockout blond singer from New York traveled to Miami several weeks ago to have Milchorena take her publicity shots, confessing that Milchorena is the only one who makes her feel at ease with her "body-image issues."

Milchorena took her out to a swamp in the middle of Key Biscayne, mounted angel wings on her back, and soon had the singer posing contentedly even though she was knee-deep in a gooey abyss and squashing crabs under her bare feet.

"I am conscious of my bald spot. I don't feel as pretty if it's exposed. I think my hair is one of my best attributes," Milchorena confesses one morning while pinning up her hair for a day of filming.

Ironically she is more self-conscious about her weight than her bald spot, but when it's covered up, and her clothes are sleekly skimming her voluptuous figure, no guys are complaining about either of those issues, because she gets plenty of catcalls on a night out on the town.

"I think she finds it cool that she has this condition. When you have the kind of exciting personality Veronica has, it has to come at a little cost," Gallardo says. "But she'd much rather voluntarily show her bald spot to 20,000 people than to be caught with it."

The hair-pulling just "comes with the package," Gallardo adds. "They say the greatest achievements of men have been created in absolute loneliness. Veronica was always surrounded by people, but she had a lonely childhood. She's like a true gifted person in a package with strange behaviors. We all have them, but she just lets it all go. She's pure, like 100 percent cotton."

By the end of her visit with Hyman, Milchorena was laughing.

One would have expected Hyman to offer her a round of antianxiety drugs, to suggest she come back and delve deeper into her tragic childhood. Instead he was smiling serenely and laughing along with her.

He told her she was luckier than suburban patients with these kinds of disorders whose world is limited to small-town friends and strip-mall entertainment.

"Your life space was really big, so maybe you don't focus so much on your disorder because you have a lot more going on.... I would love to bottle up what you have and give it to my other patients."

An hour and a half had gone by before Hyman glanced at his watch. It was past 5:30; the office should be closing down soon. He sat up in his chair, smiled calmly, and told Milchorena, "Maybe it's safer if you don't stop pulling your hair. You're too accustomed, too acclimated. It seems like it works for you."

It was only a one-hour session, but Milchorena seemed convinced she had received the answer she had hoped for. "Did you hear that?" she asked on the car ride home. "He said, 'It seems like it works for you!'"

Back in South Beach, Milchorena holds Meredith Solotoff's stump up to her cheek and exclaims, "Do it, Meredith! Wave to me!"

Solotoff's stump doesn't appear to be moving, but Milchorena suddenly grins. She has felt a small twitch in her friend's arm, a biological memory of where the hand once reached out.

"That's a gift, Meredith. Seriously, I don't want to get too weird on you, but that's a gift," she says.

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