With his trademark funky eyeglasses and charming, effervescent personality, Daniel Boey, a.k.a. “The Godfather of Singapore Fashion,” is one of the most highly sought-after fashion show choreographers and producers in the world. His appearance as a judge on “Asia’s Next Top Model” helped make him a household name, and with two hilarious tell-all books under his belt, the busy fashion guru shows no signs of slowing down.
Boey’s latest book “Behind Every *itch is a Back Story: The Struggles of Growing Up with Rash” reveals how living with eczema has influenced his personality and relationships with other people, particularly in a cut-throat industry like the fashion world where people aren’t always kind. Boey was not shy about his experiences with eczema in his book and took a similarly candid approach during a recent interview with NEA.
National Eczema Association: How long have you been living with eczema?
Daniel Boey: I began to take notice of it in primary school, when classmates would point out (and sometimes laugh at) the red patches on my joints after physical education classes. I guess I never noticed them before, and it started to make me really self-conscious. As I grew older, the rash started to spread—to the palms of my hands and fingers, my toes, my neck and my scalp and face—which were the most severe. I went through much of my late 20s, through my 30s and 40s with a flushed, red tinge and a flaky complexion because of this.
NEA: What treatments or methods have you tried?
DB: I was willing to try everything from scientific and medical procedures to traditional Chinese medicine to old wives’ tales. Some worked, while most of the others were just pure hocus pocus. However, the day I finally accepted the fact that eczema cannot be cured, but it can be controlled, was the day I stopped panicking and rational thinking took over. Stress is a huge factor, and once you learn to deal with that, you take a huge step in controlling the breakouts. All the spiritual jaunts resulted in me discovering the merits of meditating, which has been wonderful in helping me cope with stress.
NEA: Any advice for managing symptoms?
DB: Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. I have found that scented moisturizers don’t work for me, as it sets off my sinuses, so I always go for the unscented versions. I carry a pouch filled with antihistamines, travel-sized moisturizers and hand creams everywhere I go so that I am always within reach of relief. And drink plenty of water. It’s important to hydrate both internally and externally. And try not to stress unnecessarily.
“I’ve been told before that there is no place in fashion for someone like me, but that made me even more determined to prove everyone wrong.”
NEA: What are some challenges you’ve encountered in terms of feeling socially stigmatized or bullied because of your skin?
DB: Apart from being called “lobster” and other nicknames? Hahaha. Sometimes, it’s not just the words that are used, but the intent behind them. Words can be mild, but the tone can be cutting. It hurts when you know you’ve sometimes been excluded from activities or jobs because of the rash and not your personality or abilities. And it took me many years to get over that psychological trauma.
NEA: What advice would you have for people who are bullied or misunderstood?
DB: I realized from as early as school that people will judge you based on your looks first, abilities second. And I went through life pretty much feeling miserable, then angry, then defensive. I’ve been told before that there is no place in fashion for someone like me, but that made me even more determined to prove everyone wrong. Thanks to an early mentor, who told me to create my own legacy, I was determined to do just that.
I’ve grown a thick skin along the way and learned how to bulldoze my way through the fashion industry. I realized that you can’t buy respect and friendship. And if people choose not to associate with me because they are embarrassed to be seen with “the rashy one with sinus,” then these shallow specimens are not people I really want in my life anyway! So I have chosen to surround myself with honest, down-to-earth folks who will not hesitate to take me down a few notches if I start becoming an unreasonable diva.
NEA: What is your advice for people with eczema who are currently hiding their condition?
DB: Life is what you make of it and you alone are responsible for how happy you want to feel. Find your own support system and your own coping mechanism. Couple that with a sensible lifestyle. Know what the triggers are and what forms of relief are out there. Knowledge is power, and the more knowledge you have of your condition, the better equipped you are to fight it. Having the right mindset is half the battle won already.
NEA: Do you think your decision to go public with your eczema might influence others to look at themselves, each other and the industry differently?
DB: It never occurred to me at the onset that having eczema or sinus could be a stumbling block in fashion. If I had known, I might have taken a different path. I discovered it quickly, however. But by the time I realized the true nature of the industry, I was having so much fun that I decided to fight for my place in it. If people were fixated on my red, rashy face, then I would make my shows so fantastic that they would see beyond that.
NEA: Have you met others in the fashion world who have eczema or other skin conditions?
DB: The industry has most definitely changed since the 1980s and 1990s. We are seeing models with skin pigment conditions, plus-sized models, transgender models, people with tattoos and piercings, etc., all being embraced today. The advent of the internet has given people who do not traditionally fit into the preconceived ideas of fashion and beauty an avenue to stand out. Hopefully, the same chance can be given to people with eczema, both backstage and front.
NEA: Do you have any fashion advice for people with eczema?
DB: Do your research and know your fabrics. Know what triggers your breakouts and what fabrics you can wear without a massive reaction. You can still look fashionable and subscribe to the latest trends even if the trends come in fabrics you can’t wear. For instance, wool sets me scratching like a rabid monkey, so my “wool” jumpers are actually Supima cotton knits. If I need to wear a wool coat in winter, I wear a layer inside to protect my skin from coming into contact with the wool. Likewise, with wool trousers, I always wear leggings underneath to prevent my legs from flaring up. I also use a quilt with a soft cotton cover instead of a wool blanket.
NEA: Considering you’re in the public spotlight these days, is there one thing about you that no one else knows?
DB: I actually have a fear of public speaking! Quite unexpected, huh? Hahaha! People think I lead a flashy, fabulous life, but in reality, I really am no different from anybody else. I have personal issues, work issues, financial woes and insecurities just like most people. But I put on my pants one leg at a time, just like most people. I have learned to walk proud and not hide, even when I am having the most severe breakout. When people look at me or call me names, I have grown the courage to just keep on walking.