Nicola Roberts looks back on her teen years with some sadness for the self-conscious girl she once was.
Desperate to fit in, she hated her pale skin and felt pressured to change it, often going to dangerous lengths to do so by heading to a tanning salon after school.
“I’d go in wearing my school uniform and no one ever stopped me,” says Nicola.
“No one told me it was dangerous. I’d do my nine minutes, pay and leave. It wasn’t against the law – there was a real lack of education back then. I didn’t know I was harming myself. I don’t think my parents should have allowed me to use a sunbed, but they weren’t aware of the dangers either. We need to teach young people about the risks, but we also need to educate parents and carers.”
Over the years, the 33-year-old singer has learned to embrace her naturally fair skin and is backing Fabulous’ new awareness campaign about the dangers of sunbeds and sunbathing without SPF, after a terrifying experience with sunburn on holiday proved to be the turning point.
“I’ve always been taunted about my skin,” she says. “I’m not ill, I’m just pale. It’s 2019 and I can’t believe we’re still having this conversation. Why are we still putting pressure on girls to have a tan even though it might cause cancer?”
With our Dying For A Tan campaign, we want to raise awareness about the devastating impact sunbeds can have. Using them before the age of 35 increases your chance of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, by 87%.
Meanwhile, the British Skin Foundation says skin cancer is now the most common form of cancer in the UK, with 100,000 people diagnosed annually – a figure that’s doubled since 2000, resulting in seven people dying every day.
Nicola believes that social media is one of the reasons young people feel the pressure to tan.
“I grew up with gossip mags commenting on how I looked. If I’d had social media as well, it scares me to think about how I would have coped and what my mental health would have been like. Anyone can go on to your profile and say something horrible about you. There’s so much abuse.”
As recently as June this year, Nicola was targeted by trolls after being photographed on holiday with band mate Kimberley Walsh in Sardinia. One commenter said: “That girl really need some sun on her skin, she must have a vitamin D deficiency being that pale [sic].”
Nicola recalls: “I read the comments and honestly, I was laughing out loud. It would have hurt me when I was 17, but those sorts of comments haven’t affected me for a long time. All these years later and skin tone is still being used to hurt people.
“We have different skin tones, just like we have different hair colours or bra sizes. We should celebrate our differences, that’s what makes the world great.”
As her awareness of the dangers increased, Nicola, who found fame at 16 in Girls Aloud, started to use fake tan instead of sunbeds. “I was in a dark place and really disliked my natural skin tone. I was listening to the wrong people who were judging my appearance,” she says.
“The other girls in the group were naturally more tanned than me, so it wasn’t an issue for them. They’d tell me: ‘Just be pale.’
When I look back at photos, I see someone who was trying her best to fit in and avoid the negativity. I was trying so hard not to be judged.”
Everything came to a head when Nicola was 18 and got so sunburnt on a holiday to Rhodes that she lay in bed crying in agony. “I fell asleep in the sun,” she says.
“It was so painful – my skin was blistering, I could barely bend, I couldn’t shower. I couldn’t even put cream on. It was a mistake I knew I’d never make again. I had to accept my pale skin.”
Instead of looking at tanned celebrities in showbiz magazines, Nicola started to look at fashion models for inspiration.
“I swapped gossip mags for fashion ones,” she says. “There was a lot more diversity – they weren’t the same copycat images I’d seen growing up. I loved looking at Vivienne Westwood campaigns. She used androgynous models and I felt able to identify with a few of those.
"I could see girls like me who were modelling for brands such as Gucci. I learned to love myself, and once I found myself in that, I felt free and I grew so much.”
Nicola was especially keen to back Fabulous’ campaign as her late grandma Eileen had skin cancer more than once.
“My nan’s cancer was on her nose, and she had to have growths removed a few times. I worry about my sister Frankie, 30, as well, as she has pale skin and lots of moles. Only recently she had them checked out.
“I do worry about getting diagnosed in the future. I just have to hope I didn’t cause any lasting damage and I try to make up for it now. I’m a factor 50 girl now all over, and especially on my face. I hope that by speaking out, other people will start to accept their skin, too.”
Ten years ago Nicola worked with then health secretary Andy Burnham and Cancer Research UK to change the law so that under-18s were no longer allowed to use sunbeds. She says the success of the campaign remains one of the biggest achievements of her life.
But although the law was passed, a new survey reveals that 90% of dermatologists believe they should be banned completely in the UK.
“I’d like to see sunbeds banned for everybody,” Nicola says. “I don’t see any reason why they should still exist – there are plenty of alternatives. You can use fake tan and you can get organic and paraben-free versions. Don’t use a sunbed.”
Nicola, who is working as a songwriter for artists including former band mate Cheryl, hopes people will see the dangers of sunbeds as a public health issue in the same way as cigarettes and alcohol. “You can [use sunbeds], but you might only live to 65. Don’t, and you might make it to 85.
"A tan is just for vanity, but it’s not like straightening your hair or curling your eyelashes. It could kill you. There are other ways to feel good. Enjoy life and spend time with people who don’t care how you look. Embrace your skin and look after it – you’ll be glad you did.”
Dying For A Tan
There are an estimated 7,000 tanning salons in Britain, with some offering sessions from as little as 50p a minute.
Kids as young as EIGHT are using sunbeds, with seemingly little understanding they are playing Russian Roulette with their health.
According to Cancer Research UK, Melanoma skin cancer risk is 16-25 per cent higher in people who have used a sunbed (at any age), compared to people who have never used sunbeds.
This is because sunbeds pelt the skin with such strong UV rays which increase the risk of developing malignant melanoma – the most serious form of skin cancer.
Just 20 minutes on one is comparable to four hours in the sun – with many stronger than Mediterranean rays at midday.
In many cases the damage is invisible until it’s too late, as it can take up to 20 years to become apparent.
Around 16,000 new melanoma skin cancer cases are diagnosed in the UK every year – that's 44 every day.
There are around 2,300 melanoma skin cancer deaths annually – that's more than six every day.
It’s part of the reason the World Health Organisation has deemed sunbeds are as dangerous as smoking.
This is why Fabulous says it is time to stop Dying For A Tan.
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