Miss Delaware Kayla Martell, wearing a wig. Courtesy Photo

It's no secret that beauty queens are known for sporting some big ol' Texas pageant hair on stage. So when 21 year-old Kayla Martell captured the Miss Delaware crown and then appeared bald on the CBS Early Show, people stopped and took notice.

Martell has alopecia areata, a condition that sparks hair loss and affects nearly 4.7 million Americans, according to studies conducted by the National Alopecia Areata Foundation.

Most alopecia patients experience patchy round spots of hair loss that may eventually progress into total baldness on the scalp and even body. Fall-out and regrowth cycles can happen at any time, though some patients never do go through regrowth.

While not contagious, doctors today think it may be an autoimmune disease, in which the body attacks its own hair follicles and slows down or stops hair growth.

Martell first began experiencing the symptoms of a receding part at the young age of ten, which then evolved into the more dramatic hair loss she sports today. But the pageant queen wants to make it clear that there is nothing 'wrong' with people who have alopecia.

"We're just normal people without hair! We are otherwise healthy human beings; our bodies are just allergic to our hair. But, it is also important to understand the stigma associated with baldness and the emotional stress that comes from the unpredictable nature of the hair loss," Martell tells StyleList.



Unwavered by the condition, Martell competed on the Miss Delaware stage five times before finally capturing the crown. Two of those times, the Marymount University senior even appeared without a wig.

We had to know: was it scary competing in front of judges on a beauty pageant stage, without the security blanket of wearing a wig?

"Not at all! The Miss American Organization puts emphasis on recognizing talented, dynamic and passionate women and encourages us to be ourselves. Hair or no hair, Miss America has the power to change someone's life forever. If I have changed a child's life already by being open about my hair loss, then I have been successful!" says Martell.

Martell's persistance in coming back multiple years to compete for the Miss Delaware title wasn't all her own doing, though. It was a special fellow alopecia friend who urged Martell to give the pageant one more go -- which ultimately led to victory.

"This past year, a five year-old girl named Liliana Hakim has inspired me more than any other person. Thinking about her just makes me smile. For a five year-old girl to walk around without a wig and disregard the stares and whispers with a huge grin says so much about her personality. Adults could learn a lot from her! She is a beautiful and strong girl, and I am blessed to be her mentor," says Martell.

Not surprisingly, Martell's pageant platform involves raising funds and spreading awareness for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, and we hear the talent she'll be showcasing at the national pageant in Las Vegas in January will involve some pretty smooth dance moves.

But the memory that sticks with Martell is not one of winning the crown, but rather the hope her experience has spread to other young patients.

"Just last week, I volunteered at NAAF's International Conference and spent time with children who have alopecia. They all tried on my crown and were able to see that it is possible for a bald woman to become Miss America!"

And for another story about a woman who refused to let a physical condition stop her from a successful career in beauty, read our feature on America's Next Top Model winner Caridee English's battle with severe psoriasis.