Model was dropped for having acne – now she's an acne positivity activist
Model Lou Northcote felt anxious as she broached a new frontier of the body positivity movement by revealing her acne on social media.
It was a difficult decision for the 24-year-old, who had previously been dropped by her modelling agency for having issues with her skin. Before publishing the makeup-free snap, she felt nervous and was preparing herself for a tirade of abuse.
However, the post – which was hashtagged 'Free the Pimple' – then went viral for all the right reasons because, as Lou explains, "no one was really speaking or posting pictures of acne back then."
Acne and Britain's Next Top Model
When Lou was 16-years-old she was abruptly dropped from her modelling agency. "Suddenly I'd lost something that I'd had for six years," she tells me of being pushed out of the industry. "They told me to clear my skin, and then come back. But I wasn't hired again."
The toll this had on the then-teenager was to be expected, especially as it coincided with moving back to England after growing up in Dubai. "I literally stayed in my room for four days after arriving [at boarding school]. I wasn't going to class, and I was just a shell of a person because all my confidence was gone."
In 2017, following the help of dermatologists and a good skincare regimen, Lou's skin started to clear up. It was then that she stumbled across a casting call for the upcoming season of Britain's Next Top Model. She applied in secret - thinking nothing of it - until six months later, when she was offered a place as a contestant.
'My skin was painful'
A return to modelling appeared to be on the cards.
"But on the very first day on set, my skin broke out again," Lou recounts matter-of-factly. "I look like an absolute b*tch on the show, and I don't blame people for thinking that, because they couldn't see behind the scenes.
"What was supposed to be a nice experience turned into a horrible one. I went back into my shell again, because no one understood what I was feeling, or that my skin was painful.
"When you got back to the house you weren't allowed to go to your room. All I wanted to do was take off my makeup, and cry."
'Free the Pimple'
Lou was terrified before she posted her initial Free the Pimple post, but she knew she had to take control of her narrative after the first episode of Britain's Next Top model aired.
"I had never shown my bare skin, and no one had really seen bad acne on national television. At that time, it was all about the body positivity movement and Free the Nipple. I wondered: 'Where's the acne - is that not body positivity as well?'"
The response Lou received was staggering. No abuse materialised, and instead, she was greeted with messages of support and solidarity from other acne sufferers. And it's this that she credits for bringing her to a path of self-acceptance.
"What I realised from that post is that every single person has been affected by their skin at some point. No one has perfect skin - we've all had a breakout - even if it's not acne. I'd felt so alone for so much of my life, and then, suddenly, I realised that so many other people have the same story," she says, adding: "I always joke that I didn't invent acne, I was just one of the first people to speak about it."
Three years later, the model said that she "doesn't care" about her skin anymore. "I will now post really high-definition images of my acne with a closeup lens, so you can see every pore, line and vein."
Acne products for acne sufferers
In recent years, the Free the Pimple hashtag and Skinstagram movement have helped revolutionise skincare and the way it's marketed.
When the model started posting pictures of her spots back in 2017, she explains that there was a dearth of models with acne. Even in advertisements for acne products, it was incredibly rare to see a model with so much as a blemish. This landscape, however, looks decidedly different in 2021.
"The fact that there are actual brands that have been created from the acne positivity movement is insane," Lou says, citing the likes of Glossier, Starface and Zitsticka. "They genuinely create products for people with acne and they use real people from the movement to advertise them."
Indeed, transparency has always been at the core of Lou's brand. She recently decided to go on Roaccutane, and has documented everything from the year-long wait to the medication's side effects.
"I didn't go on Accutane to change my skin," she states. "What people don't understand is that acne can be really painful, and I was sick and tired of waking up in pain. People have said that I've contradicted myself by going on it, but I don't see the difference or feel like a different person. I'd already accepted my skin."
Acne amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic
Still, for the Free the Pimple creator, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has again shone a light on how ubiquitous imperfect skin is.
"The amount of press that acne got from the pandemic was amazing. It's made it more of a conversation," she explains, referring to 'maskne' and recycled air as possible culprits. "So many people have been messaging me about their skin during the pandemic. That includes people who have never experienced acne before. People feel like it's abnormal, but it's just the human body - it's not bad, we're just told it is."
This, however, doesn't make Lou exempt from the odd "bad skin day". But she has a firm strategy in place for dealing with them - that we could all take note of. "Don't freak out, use skincare that works, moisturise, and chill," she laughs. "It'll go away in a few days, it always does."