From the Archives: Spring 2007 Lupus Now magazine
by Melanie D.G. Kaplan
Whether she is in Starbucks or Sephora, New York City or Los Angeles, Mercedes Yvette gets noticed. And, thanks to her runner-up status on the second season of America’s Next Top Model in 2004, plus her modeling work since then, she also gets recognized.
But what is really surprising about this 25-year-old, 5-foot, 9-inch beauty, who inspires young women nationwide with her confidence and poise, is that she gets her inspiration from a 13-year-old boy -- who just happens to be her kid brother.
"When I am suffering one way or another from the effects lupus has on my life, he tells me, 'Every setback is a setup to a comeback.' I carry that with me every day," she says, "because times can be hard, but there will always be something brighter just around the corner."
Since her diagnosis in January 2003, Mercedes has created a life that accepts -- rather than denies -- her illness, which does indeed help bring something brighter to her life. She has made it a priority to educate others and raise consciousness about lupus, and has found a way to dive into a career that she loves while understanding her own limitations. Most important, she has carefully surrounded herself with friends, family, and physicians who support her and help her stay on track.
"I consider myself extremely blessed," says Mercedes. "As long as one has great friends and family to share his or her disease with, life can be a little easier."
On the outside, Mercedes looks like she’s led a charmed few years since she entered the UPN (now CW) reality series on a dare from a friend, and then soared to the top tier of contestants. That exposure -- plus her announcement to the viewing audience that she was suffering from lupus -- catapulted her into a string of modeling and acting gigs and also led to her position as a spokesperson for the Lupus Foundation of America (LFA). She has modeled for catalogues, print ads, and national commercials, and she has appeared in two sitcoms -- All of Us and One on One.
After the show, she couldn’t even go out for a slice of pizza without being recognized and asked for autographs. Now, she draws slightly less attention, but she always welcomes the chance to talk about lupus. Plus, she’s used to people staring and whispering. After all, she was always tall and lanky, and she grew up in an interracial family. "My mom has blond hair and blue eyes," she says, "so people were always looking at me."
Currently, the New Jersey native is living in L.A. and taking sitcom and drama classes because she loves to entertain and would like to do more acting work. The whole industry, she says, is "up and down, so you have to be good with money management." In 2006, she started working part time to make ends meet after her modeling gigs slowed down. "You have no control over it," she says, "so you have to just keep taking classes and perfecting your craft."
But since her diagnosis, Mercedes has learned that she does have a bit of control over her life with lupus. Rather than fighting her limitations, she has made changes in her life to accommodate the illness. She loves the sun, but when she went to the beach with her friends last summer, for example, she brought a foldable cabana to protect herself from its harmful rays.
She also finally has what she says is a great team of doctors, including one of the top lupus specialists in the country, Daniel J. Wallace, M.D. He got Mercedes involved in a year-long clinical trial for Rituxan, which is a biologic, or targeted therapy, that kills only cells that cause lupus activity. The drug has been on the market for a decade to treat other illnesses, but is now being tested to treat lupus. As part of the trial, Mercedes says she gets more attention and medical care because she has to see her doctor frequently for checkups. She says being part of the study can be scary, but she feels good about doing something that may help people in the future. Plus, the meds seem to be working -- she’s now on her lowest dose of Plaquenil. "She’s doing better than she ever has," Wallace says.
Although her case of lupus is mild, she still deals with fatigue, joint pain, hair loss, and flare-ups. "It’s not great for modeling," she says, "because when I have a flare-up, a bad butterfly rash shows up on my face, and the prednisone makes me chunky." But the hair loss bothers her less. "Weaves and hairpieces are my best friend," she laughs. "In modeling, even people with decent hair wear extensions, and I like playing with that kind of stuff anyway." She says she is in a good place now with her illness, but she still has fears every day and has gotten depressed after flare-ups. "Is my lupus going to get worse? I do worry about it," she says. "But every time it pulls you down, you just have your crying spurts and pull yourself back up."
Mary Scelba, Mercedes’ mother, says living with lupus has made her daughter even more compassionate than she once was. "She’s had a lot of people reach out to her," she says. "After America’s Next Top Model, she got a ton of calls from people with different diseases, and she talks to young girls who have just been diagnosed."
It’s common for women in their 20s to approach Mercedes to tell her they have lupus, and she understands their issues -- fear, embarrassment, and denial -- because she’s been there. At one point, she would tell them to stay positive, yet she would go home and ignore her own advice, beating herself up because she couldn’t do everything she wanted and because she had to give in to her fatigue, her mother says. Now she has opened up more, accepted her illness, and feels confident in her role as a spokesperson.
Mercedes often tells young women that finding the right support -- from family and other lupus sufferers their own age -- is critical. She has had overwhelming support: Her mother raised $10,000 to further lupus research, and her best friend distributed 250 LFA bracelets as party favors at her wedding (with cards explaining the disease and how it has affected Mercedes). Her boyfriend, Corey (whose grandmother used to be a hair stylist), helped her take out her first weave and often does her hair, she says. He’s also a wonderful part of her support system.
"Taking care of myself is all about finding the right balance," she says. "In all areas, you need to find that formula -- the right doctors, the right meds, the right people, and the right workout." To stay in shape and keep her stress in check, Mercedes practices yoga and does some strength training. She also loves to hike in a canyon near her house. "I walk up it every three days," she says. "It has a high incline, and I need to be careful, because [once] I pulled a hamstring."
Mercedes says she has heard people say that those who suffer from lupus are blessed and cursed at the same time, and she believes it. "God gave us this [illness] because he or she knows we’re strong individuals and can handle it," she says. "So it’s a lot of fighting through to your dream, but then stepping back because your muscles are sore."