Celebrity News

The Dilmah family’s secret struggle

Courage is more than skin deep for this familiar face.

When Dilhan Fernando decided to finally bare his face to the world last year, his family couldn’t have been happier.

For more than 15 years, he’d appeared on television and met thousands of people around the world while representing global tea brand Dilmah, all the time hiding the fact he had vitiligo, an auto-immune condition.

Looking dapper on a visit to Napier, far away from his home in Sri Lanka, the 47-year-old feels liberated. Accompanied by his lovely wife Serena (45), father and Dilmah founder Merrill, brother Malik and his sister-in-law Kimarli, he reveals how it was family, in particular his three children, that gave him strength.

“I made the decision to stop wearing my camouflage in July last year, but I was still struggling with my decision when I told my children,“ Dilhan reveals. “But my daughter was ecstatic. The first thing she said was, ’I can kiss you all the time now!’”

The Dilmah marketing manager’s wife Serena and their children supported his brave decision.

For Dilhan, his children’s delight confirmed he was making the right decision. All their lives Amrit (15), Amaya (11) and Devon (8) couldn’t touch their father’s face for fear they’d wipe off his make-up.

There is no exact cause and no cure for vitiligo, which is a loss of pigment in the skin, due to destruction of pigment-forming cells known as melanocytes. While it poses no health risks, the diagnosis at 27 was a huge blow to Dilhan’s self-esteem.

Living in Sri Lanka, where marriage prospects can depend on appearances, he thought it was only fair to offer his new wife Serena an out.

“I I told her, ’We have been married for just over a year, but you’re free to do as you wish,’“ Dilhan recalls. “My wife told me, ‘No, we’re in it together’, and that was awesome because

it gave me so much strength.”

The couple recently celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. Serena says she is happy she could support her husband through the tough times.

“I never looked at Dilhan any other way and his skin condition has never made a difference to me,“ she says softly. “He’s a fair, honest man and vitiligo has taught him something. It taught us all that it doesn’t matter what you have, it’s who you are.”

The Fernando family (from left): Malik, Kimarli, Merril, Serena and Dihan visited Napier for the recent Art Deco Weekend.

But watching her husband take extreme measures to hide his condition from the public was heartbreaking. Over the years, Dilhan tried every possible treatment, from steroids to acupuncture. Selena recalls having to feed him soup when he couldn’t open his mouth because he had blisters caused by a Sri Lankan ayurvedic treatment.

Dilhan used to apply an alcohol-based liquid make-up to his raw skin, which caused him pain for at least 40 minutes every morning. But when he later found a waterproof concealer, Serena says he

was still on edge.

“When we travelled, it was so hard for him to fall asleep on a plane because he was worried the cabin crew would brush past him and wipe the make-up off. But now we can touch and hug him. It has liberated his life,” she explains.

Dilhan was touched when his eldest son gave up a planned holiday to be with his dad during his first public event without make-up. It was a high tea in Australia, and while marketing manager Dilhan has walked into rooms full of people many times before, on this occasion, he was nervous.

“There were two or three hundred women all dressed in their best. I had Serena on one side and my son on the other, and it was good,” Dilhan recalls smiling. “If I had known all those years ago what I know now. It’s just strength of mind and state of mind – it would have saved me an awful lot of agony.”

Having vitiligo has also had powerful repercussions for the businessman when it comes to his work for the MJF Charitable Foundation, which his father set up to deliver aid to those who need it most. Dilhan has met children who have suffered horrendous abuse, as well as youngsters with Down syndrome, who have been ostracised by their communities because their parents continue to hold to their old values.

“I met one child with Down syndrome who was kept chained in a room,“ Dilhan tells. “The parents were the problem, but I can talk to them about stigma and say, ‘Look at me’.”

Dilhan knows all too well that the stigma comes from a fear that is only in their heads.

“If you don’t step out of the boat, you don’t get a chance to walk on water,” he explains. “I get so many people coming up to me and saying that I have helped them overcome this or that, and that’s what it’s about. If I can help one person rise above the stigma or overcome their fears, it’s worth it.”

“I I told her, ’We have been married for just over a year, but you’re free to do as you wish,’“ Dilhan recalls. “My wife told me, ‘No, we’re in it together’, and that was awesome because

it gave me so much strength.”

The couple recently celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. Serena says she is happy she could support her husband through the tough times.

“I never looked at Dilhan any other way and his skin condition has never made a difference to me,“ she says softly. “He’s a fair, honest man and vitiligo has taught him something. It taught us all that it doesn’t matter what you have, it’s who you are.”

But watching her husband take extreme measures to hide his condition from the public was heartbreaking. Over the years, Dilhan tried every possible treatment, from steroids to acupuncture.

Selena recalls having to feed him soup when he couldn’t open his mouth because he had blisters caused by a Sri Lankan ayurvedic treatment.

Dilhan used to apply an alcohol-based liquid make-up to his raw skin, which caused him pain for at least 40 minutes every morning. But when he later found a waterproof concealer, Serena says he

was still on edge.

“When we travelled, it was so hard for him to fall asleep on a plane because he was worried the cabin crew would brush past him and wipe the make-up off. But now we can touch and hug him. It has liberated his life,” she explains.

Dilhan was touched when his eldest son gave up a planned holiday to be with his dad during his first public event without make-up. It was a high tea in Australia, and while marketing manager Dilhan has walked into rooms full of people many times before, on this occasion, he was nervous.

“There were two or three hundred women all dressed in their best. I had Serena on one side and my son on the other, and it was good,” Dilhan recalls smiling. “If I had known all those years ago what I know now. It’s just strength of mind and state of mind – it would have saved me an awful lot of agony.”

Having vitiligo has also had powerful repercussions for the businessman when it comes to his work for the MJF Charitable Foundation, which his father set up to deliver aid to those who need it most. Dilhan has met children who have suffered horrendous abuse, as well as youngsters with Down syndrome, who have been ostracised by their communities because their parents continue to hold to their old values.

“I met one child with Down syndrome who was kept chained in a room,“ Dilhan tells. “The parents were the problem, but I can talk to them about stigma and say, ‘Look at me’.”

Dilhan knows all too well that the stigma comes from a fear that is only in their heads.

“If you don’t step out of the boat, you don’t get a chance to walk on water,” he explains. “I get so many people coming up to me and saying that I have helped them overcome this or that, and that’s what it’s about. If I can help one person rise above the stigma or overcome their fears, it’s worth it.”

Words: Anastasia Hedge

Get NZ Woman’s Weekly home delivered!  

Subscribe and save up to 29% on a magazine subscription.

Related stories