Peyton Hemann Isn’t Letting Anything Hold Her Back—Not Even Alopecia.
She’s reaching for the stars.
Written byKaren Young
Photographed byMonica Orozco
Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “Occupy Mars,” Peyton Hemann greets me one Sunday morning at her Chatsworth home with a big smile. It doesn’t take long before she shares her dream: to become a NASA engineer and be among the first to walk on the mysterious red planet.
Speaking with engaging candor, her brown eyes sparkle under wire-rim glasses, as she talks about her love of space.
Peyton, who is in sixth grade at nearby Sierra Canyon School, counts the award-winning film Hidden Figures among her greatest inspirations. “Women did math and changed the course of history, and that’s what I want to do, except I want to be the one to go into space with the math.
“Last summer I went to the space camp in Huntsville, Alabama,” she shares. “Suffice it to say, I was in heaven.”
With a sense of introspection and maturity that belies her 11 ½ years and an infectious sense of humor, Peyton lightly touches her small blue earrings, perfectly visible against her completely hairless head.
“Other than our hair, nothing about us changes. We can do great things just like everyone else, and that’s what I aspire to do…like walking on Mars.”
At age 8 she was diagnosed with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system mistakenly attacks its own hair, or as Peyton puts it, “I say I’m allergic to my hair.”
Within a year and a half, Peyton was completely bald. In a tone that hints she’s done this before, she patiently explains alopecia is not contagious or painful—nor is she sick. There is no cure, yet it is unpredictable because hair can come and go.
Initially she lost small patches that grew back with the help of Rogaine. But later her shoulder-length brunette locks began falling out quickly in large clumps.
“It was really crazy. I’d wake up and see a big hairball on my pillow. I was just like, holy cow, is that all my hair?”
Peyton’s diagnosis had quickly progressed to alopecia universalis, which causes a complete loss of body hair.
Taking immediate action, Peyton and her parents, Jamie Hemann and Monica Kim, visited doctors and searched for a custom wig. Meanwhile lower school principal, Kristine Theodoratos, coordinated a school assembly to educate students about alopecia, in preparation for Peyton’s return.
After wearing the hairpiece for two months, Peyton, who was in fourth grade at the time, decided she wanted to go bald.
“The wig made me really hot … the wind creates a greenhouse effect where it’s actually warmer than having normal hair, and it got itchy and sweaty and I was just like, no, I’m done.”
Another school assembly was organized—this time to introduce Peyton sans wig. Jamie, who at the time worked with the NFL, reached out to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who has battled alopecia since age 5. He agreed to fly out to help Peyton share her “new normal.”
In a letter to the faculty, Kristine wrote: “As is customary of our dear Peyton, she marches to the beat of her own drum and will turn her autoimmune disorder into her own advocacy.”
Peyton walked on stage completely bald, amidst applause, and proudly held court in conversation with Ryan “talking alopecia.”
She brightly grins recalling how her big reveal evoked the same emotion as winning the lower school Spelling Bee four months earlier. “It was that elated feeling of … YES … the world is in alignment. It was one of the best moments in my life. Just being out there on the stage, spreading alopecia awareness. It’s the kind of stuff you really want to live for, and it was fun!”
This is not Peyton’s first encounter with adversity. From infancy through pre-kindergarten, she battled aggressive eczema. “It was so itchy and red, I always had to wear long sleeves and long pants.”
Monica believes Peyton’s resilience evolved from dealing with eczema and ice-skating daily from age 3 to 8. “If she fell she’d get right back up.”
Of their daughter’s confidence, Jamie says, “She’s owned it from the very beginning. She is comfortable in her skin and knows who she is.”
Over her 25 years of working in education, Kristine says she has never been more impressed with any child than she has been with Peyton, whom she describes as “an inquisitive student and vested learner who pursues knowledge for its own sake but who’s also calm, courageous and optimistic.”
Peyton plays the piano and sings, competes on a math team and two swim teams, and of course, studies the solar system through her telescope.
With a mission to help other kids with alopecia, Peyton created a blog (peytonpecia.com), which is branded with a turtle logo. “I love turtles and tortoises, so it’s a metaphor for my motto—‘Helping kids with alopecia come out of their shell,’” she explains. It is filled with her haikus, poems, advice and coding—all with empowering thoughts. She is also a top fundraiser for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation.
“For most people seeing a bald kid is a universally weird experience. People think you have cancer. Little kids stare, so then kids with alopecia often feel secluded,” Peyton says. “Other than our hair, nothing about us changes. We can do great things just like everyone else, and that’s what I aspire to do … like walking on Mars.”
Tacos from the heart.