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Bob Herbert  /  The News Journal via AP file
Recently crowned Miss Delaware Kayla Martell has alopecia areata, which causes her baldness.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 1/11/2011 2:30:09 PM ET 2011-01-11T19:30:09

Beauty pageants evoke images of flawless women in amazing shape, perfectly made-up and coifed, right?

Yet one beauty queen vying for the Miss America title in Las Vegas this Saturday night has barely any hair on her head.

Kayla Martell, Miss Delaware, has been bald for half of her 22 years — she has alopecia areata, a rare condition that results in unexplained hair loss. But that’s not stopping her from competing for her lifelong dream. 

Martell, who competed in her first pageant when she was 13, has always competed while wearing a wig, though she prefers to go bare in her personal life.

“When I’m home with my family, I’m always without my wig — that’s who I am,” Martell told TODAYshow.com. “If I’m practicing dance or at the gym, I don’t wear it.

Slideshow: Beauty queen scandals

“By the time I was 13, my hair was out completely,” she explained. “The thought of getting a wig never crossed my mind at all. My mother first brought up the suggestion and brought home this awful brown wig. I don’t know why, because I’m naturally blond and everyone in my family is blond.

“I wore it to school, but took it off in the middle of the day, put it in my backpack and never looked back.”

However, when she’s on the pageant circuit or making appearances as Miss Delaware, it’s a different story. “As Miss Delaware, I wear it 98 percent of the time. It’s important that people recognize you, so I wear the same hairstyle each time,” she explained. “I don’t want it to be about my hair.” Or lack thereof.

Wearing a wig comes with challenges, like styling it. “I didn’t have hair for half my life; I didn’t have the first idea about how to style hair,” Martell admitted. “My first curling iron was given to me at Christmas.”

Ms. Senior America pageant celebrates women over 60

Still, with wig or without, “I am confident and comfortable.” And there are advantages: “I can take my hair off like I did in rehearsal today so it wouldn’t get messy.

“I’m lucky, I can style my hair the night before,” Martell added. “It’s great for traveling, and so simple. I wear one wig to travel and keep one styled.” Other contestants have to take the time to wash and style their hair.

Kayla Martell
Bob Herbert  /  The News Journal via AP file
Kayla Martell, recently crowned Miss Delaware, is seen styling her wig at home in Wyoming.

Martell likens her wigs to false eyelashes or hair weaves, items other contestants use. “There’s nothing wrong with embellishing what you have. I want a great hairstyle,” she said, adding, “I try not to think about the difference. I strive to be confident and work with what I’ve got.”

Martell will compete against 52 other Miss America pageant contestants in Las Vegas, Nevada — in the pageant’s 90th year — on Saturday. “The View" host Joy Behar, actress Marilu Henner and country singer Mark Wills are among seven judges who will decide the next Miss America, a title currently held by Caressa Cameron of Virginia. The pageant airs on ABC at 9 ET.

Like all Miss America contestants, Martell has a platform, an issue she champions. Unsurprisingly, hers is the National Alopecia Areata Foundation.

Miss America winners: Where are they now?
“Over 5 million people have alopecia areata,” she pointed out. “I hope we’ve gotten past the point of seeing someone without hair and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope they’re OK.’

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“Hair loss is generally associated with sickness, but there are millions of people like me,” she added. “I run, I’m healthy, I eat well; I’m just allergic to my hair. With unexplained hair loss, there’s not one trigger for every person and there’s not one treatment for every person.”

But how’s this for ironic: Competing for the Miss America pageant is probably the most pressure Martell’s ever been under, yet her alopecia seems to be getting better.

“I can’t explain it, but it’s growing back,” Martell said of her natural hair. “It looks like a buzz cut right now. I’m going to have to shave it so I can tape down my wigs.”

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Miss America 2011

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  1. Miss America 2011

    For the Miss America pageant's 90th year, 53 contestants competed in dazzling gowns and bathing suits in Las Vegas, Nevada on Jan. 15, 2011. “The View" host Joy Behar, actress Marilu Henner and country singer Mark Wills were among the seven judges.

    Left: Teresa Scanlan, Miss Nebraska waves to the audience after being crowned Miss America 2011 during the Miss America pageant. (Julie Jacobson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Crowning moment

    Teresa Scanlan, Miss Nebraska, is crowned Miss America 2011 during the Miss America pageant. Scanlan won a $50,000 scholarship and a yearlong run with the crown at the competition at the Planet Hollywood casino-resort in Las Vegas, giving the Cornhusker State its first-ever win at the pageant.

    "And I never passed up a cookie on my journey here," Scanlan said. (Julie Jacobson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Taken by surprise

    Miss Nebraska Teresa Scanlan (R), 17, reacts after being announced Miss America 2011 during the Miss America pageant. Miss America 2010 Caressa Cameron (L) prepares to crown her.

    Scanlan plans to study American politics at Patrick Henry College in Virginia after her reign as Miss America. She said she also hoped to attend law school, become a judge and eventually a politician. (Steve Marcus / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Embracing the competition

    Miss Nebraska Teresa Scanlan, 17, is mobbed by other contestants after being crowned Miss America 2011. Scanlan is youngest winner ever in the pageant's history after a night of being judged for poise, talent, fitness and knowledge.

    During the interview portion of the competition, Scanlan told the audience that when it comes to the website Wikileaks, security should come before public access to government information.

    "When it comes to the security of our nation, we have to focus on security first and then people's right to know, because it's so important that everybody who's in our borders is safe and so we can't let things like that happen, and they must be handled properly," she said. (Steve Marcus / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Puppet master

    Alyse Eady, Miss Arkansas, performs a ventriloquist act to "I Wanna Be a Cowboy Sweetheart" in the talent competition during the Miss America pageant.

    "It's a lot easier to do than it looks," Eady said of ventriloquism in an interview with the Southwest Times Record. "You put your teeth together, but P is a hard letter, and so are B, W and M, because people move their lips on those letters. You have to mix sounds, sometimes, to get those letters and words." (Julie Jacobson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Strutting it

    Miss Texas, Ashley Melnick, walks on stage during the swimsuit competition during the 2011 Miss America pageant. Melnick introduced herself as being from "the home of Superbowl XLV, where everything's super in my state." (Julie Jacobson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Struck a chord

    Miss Nebraska Teresa Scanlan, 17, plays "White Water Chopped Sticks" on the piano during the talent portion of the Miss America pageant in the Theatre for the Performing Arts at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Steve Marcus / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Walking the runway

    Teresa Scanlan, Miss Nebraska, is filmed as she competes in the swimsuit competition during the 2011 Miss America pageant. Scanlan went on to be crowned the new Miss America. She's the youngest Miss America since the pageant implemented age limits in 1938. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Glowing in a gown

    Miss New York, Claire Buffie, walks on stage during the evening gown competition during the Miss America pageant. Buffie competed with her "Straight for Equality: Let's Talk" platform, championing for gay rights. (Julie Jacobson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The long stretch

    From left: Emoly Wes, Miss Oklahoma, Kayla Martell, Miss Delaware, Djuan Keila Trent, Miss Kentucky and Jalee Fuselier, Miss Hawaii, wait for their turn to perform in the talent competition during the 2011 Miss America pageant. (Julie Jacobson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Holding tight

    The five finalists, from left, Jalee Fuselier, Miss Hawaii, Jacquie Brown, Miss Washington, Teresa Scanlan, Miss Nebraska, Emoly West, Miss Oklahoma and Alyse Eady, MIss Arkansas, stand together during the Miss America pageant, Jan. 15, 2011 in Las Vegas.

    Miss Arkansas Alyse Eady won $25,000 as first runner-up, while Miss Hawaii Jalee Fuselier won $20,000 for third place. (Julie Jacobson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Shaking it up

    From left: Miss Louisiana, Kelsi Crain, Miss Oregon, Stephanie Denise Steers, Miss Ohio, Becky Minger and Miss Kansas, Lauren Werhan, dance during the opening number of the 2011 Miss America pageant. (Julie Jacobson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Heartfelt

    Miss North Carolina, Adrienne Leigh Core, left, waits for the start of the Miss America pageant, on Jan. 15, 2011, in Las Vegas. (Julie Jacobson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Gallery: Miss America: Where are they now?

Find out what happened after they've passed on the crown and the baton.

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