Heart FM radio presenter James Stewart hasn’t always been full of confidence. Developing acne in his late teens severely knocked his self-esteem, but reaching out for professional help was the best decision he ever made
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always struggled a bit with my appearance. I remember when I was about 13, seeing some of the kids at school developing acne as puberty kicked it. It was something I never really understood, and I just assumed it was because they weren’t washing properly or something else ignorant – there’s a general lack of understanding about acne, even now.
I managed to glide through secondary school with just the odd spot, and aside from being a slightly gangly, awkward drama kid, things were fine. But when I was about 16 everything changed, quite drastically, in terms of my skin. It seemed like overnight these little pimples popped up all over my face. At first they weren’t red, or angry – just lumps in the road at that stage. At that time though, it was my worst nightmare. All I wanted to do was present “tele”, and in my head I needed perfect skin to make that a reality. Now, I know that couldn’t be further from reality!
I (stupidly) did what I thought was the best thing, and googled the hell out of it – “How to get rid of acne.” Of course, there’s a few options that pop up, and I tried them all. I spent my entire student loan on expensive chemical peels, I bought every product on the planet, I would cover my face in manuka honey and leave it overnight, but after a year or so, nothing did the trick. In fact, with all the stuff I’d been putting on my skin, it turned out it had got an awful lot worse.
At that point, I did what I should have done from the start and went to see my GP. I guess I refused to accept it was a medical condition, and I thought it was down to lifestyle. Maybe I drank too much milk, maybe my bed linen wasn’t right; you go through all these options just to prove to yourself that it’s not something you may need to see a doctor about. Spoiler alert: it was none of the above. I was prescribed a course of antibiotics for six months and was delighted I’d finally found a solution. Or so I thought...
The six months passed, I was now about 19 and at university, and while I should have been having the time of my life, I was deeply uncomfortable in my own skin. I was covered in aggressive acne on both sides of my face, forehead, and back. It affected my desire to go out, to make friends, and – most upsetting to me at the time – to get girls.
I spent my entire student loan on expensive chemical peels, I bought every product on the planet, but with all the stuff I’d been putting on my skin, it had gotten an awful lot worse
Long story short, for me, the antibiotics didn’t work, and I was eventually referred to a dermatologist by my GP. Ultimately, I think I always knew this would have to the case, but it seemed like such a dramatic thing when it happened. By now though, I’d accepted this wasn’t in my control, it was purely hormonal, and mine had decided acne was the way to go.
When googling acne, there is a final step to treat it, once and for all, and there are a million message boards and threads dedicated to it, because it comes with a few notable costs – and not just financially. ROACCUTANE. Depression, suicide, mood alterations are all buzzwords associated with this, and it really isn’t for everyone, but after three years, I was willing to do whatever it took.
I was nervous. I was apprehensive. I chatted for hours with the consultant and my parents, and eventually decided we would go for it. With this drug you have to have regular blood checks to monitor its effects, which I had under the supervision of a dermatologist who had recently prescribed it for her own son.
Knowing this made me realise that with the right aftercare, it couldn’t be as bad as I thought. It works by shutting down your skin’s oil production, so it dries the shit out of your body – oh, and most annoyingly, you can’t drink!
I stuck it out for a further six months, took two large pills every day, dealt with the dry skin, lived off Carmex, became (unintentionally) teetotal, and the “miracle drug” did its thing. It gets worse in the first three months, and then BOOM, the little shits vanish as quickly as they came, and I was acne-free by the time I was 20. Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. My skin had never looked better, I was free of the entrapment of my own skin, and I finally felt like I was back. It was the kickstarter for me to go off and pursue my dreams. I gradually began to develop confidence again, I got back into performing, and went to London, where I took the first steps in my career – a career I love with all my heart.
Although what happened to me wasn’t a life-threatening illness, and in that respect I was and am very lucky, it did affect my mental state and confidence in a way that made me lose all sense of who I was and what I stood for. I had the support of my family, and our brilliant medical system here in the UK, and that’s all I needed. Whatever you might be dealing with – acne, depression, anxiety – there is always a solution. If you remember that, you can conquer anything. Never give up.
James’ acne is more than a physical problem, and far from skin-deep. It undermines his self-confidence, leaving him feeling withdrawn and alone. He attempts self-treatment, before finally deciding to get medical help. Although there are anxious moments in choosing his treatment, by getting the right help from family and doctors, he sees a huge improvement. His confidence returns and he goes on to pursue his dreams.