Gabrielle Johnson is comfortable in her own skin.
There was, however, a time when that wasn’t the case. Since the age of 5, Johnson has lived with vitiligo, a condition characterized by patches of skin losing their pigmentation that sometimes attracted unwanted stares, comments and even bullying.
But for at least the past four years, Johnson, a freshman guard for the Morgan State women’s basketball team, has celebrated the pale portions of skin on her eyelids, ears, elbows, knuckles, palms, abdomen, knees, ankles and feet soles. What she once viewed as a curse has become a revelation.
“It was like, ‘Wow, why do I have to be different?’” the Baltimore native recalled. “Now I realize it was a blessing, and I’ve accepted it.”
About 1% of the global population has vitiligo, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Some studies suggest vitiligo is a result of an autoimmune disorder. Family history can play a role, and an incident such as extreme sunburn or skin trauma can trigger the condition.
In Johnson’s case, she is the only member of her family of five to be diagnosed with vitiligo. She said at the age of 5, “a little speck” showed up on her left eyelid.
Pamela Johnson, Gabrielle’s mother, initially thought the pale spot was simply new skin that formed after a scab had fallen off. But when the spot grew paler and larger, she took her daughter to a dermatologist, who confirmed the vitiligo diagnosis.
“When we first found out that she had vitiligo, it was devastating,” Pamela Johnson said. “Just being a child and being different was hard.”
Gabrielle Johnson said middle school was the toughest stage. Classmates called her “cow,” “giraffe” and “panda.” Some refused to shake her hand or touch her because they feared the vitiligo was contagious.
“As it was spreading, people used to ask me if I got burned, if an incident happened,” she said. “That really affected me and my mental health at the time.”
Johnson underwent laser treatment to regain pigmentation, but it was painful, and the vitiligo returned after a six-month remission. She eventually abandoned the treatment.
Pamela Johnson and her husband, Gary, did what they could to shield their daughter from unwanted scrutiny. When they heard parents in the stands comment on Gabrielle’s skin during basketball games, the couple tried explaining what vitiligo was. But the toll on their daughter was obvious.
“It’s hard to say, ‘Don’t listen to them,’ or ‘Words don’t hurt,’ because they do hurt,” Pamela Johnson said. “We just tried to embrace her. Every day when I would drop her off at school, I would say, ‘You are kind, you are smart, you are beautiful.’ … It was just to let her know that no matter what they say, this is how we feel.”
As a freshman at Western High, Johnson found a group of friends who commented on her skin’s beauty. And around that time, Winnie Harlow, a Canadian fashion model with vitiligo who competed on “America’s Next Top Model,” began to grow in popularity. Those factors and a natural maturation emboldened Johnson to embrace her condition.
“After I checked myself and said, ‘This is me,’ I felt like a great burden had been lifted off of me,” she said. “I could finally be myself.”
Pamela Johnson said she began to notice the change in her daughter when she ditched the pants and jackets she wore during the summer to hide her spots for shorts and T-shirts. She said Gabrielle even refused to wear cosmetics for her senior prom.
“She said, ‘No, I want my spots to show,’” Pamela Johnson said. “So I think she has really embraced it and really accepted it now.”
Gabrielle Johnson said basketball has also helped bolster her morale. Her prowess on the court earned her the nickname “Showtime” from her Amateur Athletic Union coach, and opponents who dared to make a comment on her skin learned the hard way like the time she dropped 30 points, seven assists and four rebounds in an AAU game.
“Basketball helped me a lot to feel free,” she said. “During eighth grade, that’s when I really started getting good and getting recognition. During that time, all I was thinking about was, how many points did you score? How good was your play? I felt better about myself because of my basketball.”
At Morgan State, which is 13-6 overall and leads the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference with a 6-0 mark entering Monday’s home game against South Carolina State, the 5-foot-8 Johnson has developed into the first player off the bench. She is averaging 4.4 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals as of Monday, and has earned coach Edward Davis Jr.’s trust.
“I have a lot of confidence in her,” he said. “I know she’s going to make a mistake here and there because she is a freshman, and I’ve got to live with that. But I told her that she does not have to make the same mistake again, and she really locks into that. I just don’t have any problems with her.”
Johnson said she hopes to be a role model for other youth who are battling self-esteem issues caused by vitiligo.
“Sometimes I see kids with vitiligo, and they have their heads down,” she said. “I was in their shoes, and I know the steps it takes to accept yourself.”
Johnson’s success on and off the court has delighted her parents and her older siblings Roland and Shaniece. Pamela Johnson said they aren’t sure where she gets her basketball skills from because her husband swam and she admitted she stunk at basketball.
“We’re just excited for her,” she said. “We pray for her often. We just embrace and enjoy her journey.”
Morgan State at North Carolina Central
Saturday, 2 p.m.