June 10, 2009 at 4:32 PM ET
By Diane Mapes
It’s hard enough for anybody to find love, but what do you do if you have a genetic disorder that leaves you completely covered with hair?
In the case of circus star Larry Ramos Gomez, better known as “Wolfboy,” you get your own reality dating show. At least that’s the plan hatched by Zoo Productions, creators of such reality TV fare as “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” and “Girls Behaving Badly.”
Recently divorced, the 31-year-old Mexican, who performs daredevil acrobat acts with his brother Danny, suffers from an extremely rare form of hypertrichosis, a genetic disorder that causes excessive hair growth in places you wouldn’t normally expect it, such as the face. The reality show, tentatively titled “Wolfboy: Divorced and Looking for Love,” will document Gomez’ search for a girlfriend and his quest to find acceptance as a normal guy.
|Mary Altaffer / AP|
Excessive hairiness and hirsutism, which affects women, can be relatively common and brought on by either family history or secondary factors like polycystic ovary syndrome. But the form of hypertrichosis Gomez suffers from is extremely rare, with only 50 described cases on record since the Middle Ages.
The condition, which Dr. Aires, director of the division of dermatology at the University of Kansas Hospital, characterizes as a “genetic puzzle that has not yet been solved,” can be inherited. But not always. Gomez’s son, for instance, is not excessively hairy. However, should he have a daughter, she would, based on recent genetic research, likely inherit the disorder since it appears that his particular form of hypertrichosis is “X-linked,” Aires says.
In the Gomez brothers, who have generalized congenital hypertrichosis, all of the normally invisible vellus hairs are replaced with thick coarse terminal hairs.
Hypertrichosis is a complex disorder, but it’s easier to understand if you first realize that all human beings are essentially covered in hair, Aires says.
“All of us are sort of wolf people, but the hair we’re covered with is invisible; it’s vellus hair,” he says. “After puberty, the hair on men’s faces and their chest transforms into the thicker terminal hair. But there are a very small number of people in whom all the areas of the body that would have vellus hair, have terminal hair.”
Another disorder known as congenital hypertrichosis lanuginosa (CHL), results in hair that is long and silky and stems not from vellus hair but from the lanugo hair that covers all infants in the womb.
“Everyone has lanugo hair and you’ll often see babies born with hairy shoulders and hairy backs and parents panic, but that hair comes out and it doesn’t mean anything,” says Dr. Aires. “There are some conditions, though, where the lanugo hair persists. That’s extremely rare.”
Not all hypertrichosis is as severe as that of “Wolfboy.”
Localized hypertrichosis, as the name suggests, is where people will experience abnormal hair growth in one or two odd places on their body, such as their elbows (known as hairy elbows syndrome or hypertrichosis cubiti), their ears (hairy pinna) or their tailbone, referred to as faun tail deformity. These forms can be associated with bone abnormalities.
Of course, that doesn’t explain sudden growths of ear and nose hairs which can be common among aging men.
There are also cases of acquired hypertrichosis, either due to some type of body trauma (an injury or inflammation) or certain medications.
“Acquired hypertrichosis is not generally going to give you the werewolf appearance but a lot of people will just look hairier than they should,” says Dr. Aires. For example, children taking immunosupressive medications for organ transplants will develop dark peach fuzz.
If Gomez gets his own reality dating show, he could become as legendary as Jo Jo, the Dog-faced Boy or The Bearded Lady. Jo-Jo, born Fedor Jeftichejev, was an extremely popular sideshow performer who toured the world with Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth in the early 20th century. The woolly Julia Pastrana, also known as “The Marvelous Hybrid or Bear Woman” was widely exhibited in the U.S. and Europe before her death in childbirth in 1860. Her body was then mummified, along with that of her infant, and put on display by her husband-manager.
Then there was the Gonzales family — consisting of a hairy father, a “normal” mother and five excessively hairy children — who became the bewhiskered “Jon and Kate” of the 16th century and were celebrated throughout Europe.
Unfortunately, others with this rare condition did not fare as well. Ruthlessly exploited, they were labeled as monsters or “wild men” or “human terriers” and said to be the result of a sexual union between human and ape.
As for treatment, Dr. Aires says that while there are a number of hair removal options available — shaving, waxing, electrolysis, laser, and depilatories — there is no hypertrichosis cure.
A spokesperson for Zoo Productions says Gomez does trim the hair on his face, but he doesn’t attempt to shave it off anymore since it “just grows back.”
“Obviously, people with skin conditions are not monsters,” Aires says. “Maybe the show will be good and will serve to humanize someone with this unusual condition.”