By Samantha Sciarrotta
Mid-photo shoot, Curtis McDaniel is being filmed by MTV.
He’s working with a photographer in New York City, building his portfolio as he pursues a professional modeling career. He’s already appeared in Complex Magazine, The Sun and Crave Magazine, and he has a shoot for Alpha Man Magazine in Houston planned for this month.
McDaniel was a subject on MTV’s True Life in June, joining a woman who wears a beard due to a hormone imbalance in an episode that focused on redefining beauty standards. McDaniel has vitiligo, a condition that causes the skin to lose pigment in patches and blotches. Vitiligo has no known cause.
McDaniel, 22, has spent a lot of time in front of the camera over the last few years. He’s come a long way for someone who used to be afraid of the lens.
“If someone was looking at me the wrong way, I would think that they were looking at my skin, and it made me very angry inside,” he said. “I didn’t want people looking at me. I didn’t want to be on camera. I didn’t want to do certain things. I would get hostile and think that they were coming at the way I looked.”
The first time McDaniel, who lives in Bordentown, noticed a lightened patch of skin, he was 11 years old. He thought the faint blotch on his left wrist was just dry skin, so he applied lotion, but nothing changed. His mother, Nancy, took him to the dermatologist, where he was diagnosed with vitiligo. McDaniel recognized it as the same condition Michael Jackson had.
“I didn’t like it too much,” he said. “He showed me pictures of people that had it, and I was scared.”
It continued to spread sporadically, he said. It went from his wrist to his hand, and then to the center of his nose and around his lips.
He spent many angry years trying to process the vitiligo, he said. McDaniel faced a lot of bullying and often got into fights because of it. He was defensive, and so was his family—maybe even more than he was.
“They get more aggravated if they see somebody staring at me,” he said. “They’re very supportive. With the MTV thing, they were calling everybody. Cousins that I never met were reaching out. They’re very supportive. My mother’s always bringing up my vitiligo. She’s super sensitive about it. If anybody says anything, she’s the first one on it.”
A Bordentown Regional High School alum, McDaniel attended Mercer County Community College and was accepted into both Rutgers University and Temple University for the fall. He plans to study urban planning and design.
It was during his time at Mercer that his confidence started to bloom. For awhile, he wore Dermablend foundation to cover up the blotches. That only made him more insecure, though, until he decided to wipe it off for the last time.
“I didn’t want people to find out that I wore it,” he said. “I was more self-conscious about that than my actual skin color. When I got to college, I was like, ‘I’m not wearing this anymore.’ I took it off, and that’s where my confidence began.”
A model named Sean Rose, he said, reached out to McDaniel via Instagram in 2014. McDaniel’s pictures started circulating around the internet, which is how a number of photographers and then MTV found him. Now, he has more than 16,000 followers on Instagram (@__curtismac).
Modeling, though, is just a side job, he says. McDaniel is focused on summer classes and full time school in the fall, as well as going to church and working full time as an aide for vulnerable adults, children and familes at Oaks Integrated Care in Mount Holly.
Filming True Life took place on weekends spread out over two months. The episode followed McDaniel as he spoke to students about growing up with vitiligo, to his church, while spending time with a few of his 10 siblings and to a meeting with a talent agent.
“They came with the whole camera crew,” he said. “It was pretty cool at first, but after awhile, I was like, ‘Man, these guys are still here? I’m kind of tired of this.’”
McDaniel also spoke a lot about his father, James, in the episode. James died due to complications from pneumonia a few years ago, and that was hard on Curtis. The two were close and spent time together often.
“He had his struggles,” McDaniel said. “There were times when I rebelled against him completely. Before he died, he actually told me that he was going to die, and he gave me some prophetic words. He told me never to smoke, drink, hit a woman, and to always put God first. Everything he told me to do, I kept it. It was like he wanted me to be a better man than he was and learn from his mistakes. It blessed me as a man. Me and my father were very close, and I hope that I can live out his legacy and be even better.”
McDaniel is doing all of that and more, said Victor Hudson. Hudson is the pastor at The Room Church on West Park Street, where McDaniel attends services every Sunday, hosts youth Bible studies and is in charge of the college ministry. McDaniel will also be ordained in October, and he preached his first-ever sermon last month.
Discovering God when he was 16 changed his life, McDaniel said. Church is what taught him how to be confident, how to be bold and even things like how to speak in public.
“We’re talking about a leader,” Hudson said. “I tell him often that he’s an old soul. I know that he’s seeing life from a different perspective. He can share his faith, share how he’s pushed through his own insecurities.”
McDaniel has overcome his insecurities in a big way. He says “it would have blown my mind” to have seen someone with vitiligo in a magazine or on television when he was growing up and struggling to come into his own.
“It would have given me a lot more confidence,” he said. “‘If this guy has vitiligo, and he’s so confident, I can do the same thing, too.’ I’m pretty sure when kids see [me], they know that they’re not alone in their struggle. They have somebody they can talk to. It feels horrible when you feel like the only person who is dealing with something. The hardest part about vitiligo is that you can’t control it. It’s learning how to cope with things that are out of our control.”
That’s what Hudson sees when McDaniel gets in front of a crowd at church or during a youth session.
Hudson has watched as McDaniel—who Hudson says has a beautiful singing voice—went from being reticent to get onstage to preaching his own sermons, running his own youth groups and heading up the youth praise team at The Room Church. The transition, Hudson says, has been a pleasure to witness.
“It’s encouragement,” Hudson said. “You can see the vitiligo from a distance. If you’re sitting in the front or the back, if you’re young or old, you can see his courage. ‘If he can stand before all of these people, what can I do?’ He’s really doing amazing things. You know how much vitiligo robbed him of emotional security. He didn’t want to look at people [as a child] because they had questions, but he still did, too.”
McDaniel recently spoke with a group of fifth graders about growing up with vitiligo. They had a lot of questions he said—they wanted to touch his skin, they wanted to know if he was muddy or if he had been burned. But they listened as he explained what vitiligo was and how he overcame intense anger. And many of them approached him to talk about their own insecurities.
Despite how far he’s come, McDaniel says he wouldn’t change anything about his own childhood. The only thing he would tell the younger version of himself is to “just keep going.” What he went through as a kid made him who he his today, he said. That’s what he tries to impress on children with vitiligo when they ask him for advice.
“I don’t want them to find the confidence in their skin alone,” he said. “I want them to find confidence in who they are. I do talk about the skin, but I talk more about who they are as a person, rather than what they look like. People are always going to have negative comments. You can’t shut people up. You can stop a bully, but there might be another one that comes. As long as you know who you are, you’ll be okay.”