Aljaz Skorjanec: ‘Psoriasis affected my mental health’
When it comes to feeling your best, Aljaz Skorjanec knows there’s nothing more important than good sleep.
“The first thing I did that really helped me change my sleep pattern for the better, was changing when and how I eat,” says the dancer, who tries to leave a good “couple of hours” between eating and going to bed.
“And I like to sleep when it’s not too hot. Sadly, Janette is completely different to me. So that’s a hard balance!” he adds with a laugh.
His wife – Cuban-American presenter and fellow professional dancer Janette Manrara – may prefer a toastier sleeping environment, but judging by Skorjanec’s glowing energy while we chat via video call, something is working for him.
The couple – who met back in 2010, when Manrara performed alongside the Strictly pros in live dance show Burn The Floor, and tied the knot in 2017 – are currently touring the UK together in Remembering The Oscars, which runs until May 7.
At the end of March, Skorjanec announced that after nine years, he was leaving Strictly Come Dancing – and while “forever grateful” for the BBC show which made him a household name, he has “lots of exciting things planned”. We’ve already seen him release a cookbook with his sister Lara, filled with family-friendly recipes and memories from growing up in Slovenia.
The 32-year-old also recently started opening up about his experiences with psoriasis – the chronic skin condition that causes red, crusty patches, which can become painful and itchy. Experts believe it’s an autoimmune disorder, meaning a person’s own immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells. So it’s not contagious, but it does sometimes run in families.
“I was always aware psoriasis was in my family,” Skorjanec recalls – but it wasn’t until he was 18 and had moved to Australia for his first job, that he started to get patches on his elbows and knees. “The good thing was, because I was in the Gold Coast, surfers’ paradise, I was able to go in the ocean and the salt water is really helpful, it calmed it down.”
He eventually left Australia and, as time went by, his psoriasis got worse. Skorjanec remembers trying all sorts of different creams, hunting down different treatments on his travels: “At one point I had about 50 different creams from different countries. I was kind of testing what works best.
“When I started doing Strictly, my stress levels increased a bit because of the workload and schedule – I’m not complaining, it was just significantly more responsibility that comes with the job – and that’s when my psoriasis started flaring up way more,” he adds. “It wasn’t just a couple of little patches, it started appearing more in different parts of my body.”
It wasn’t just a visual thing – the psoriasis was physically uncomfortable and sore, too. At this point, Skorjanec started using steroid treatments, even getting it injected during a severe flare-up. Eventually though, he found himself in a vicious cycle. While often effective in the short-term, long-term use of strong steroid treatments can be associated with side-effects, and some people report that it leaves them with worse skin problems.
“Steroid creams work – it got rid of it for a couple of days or weeks, then more than likely it came back with a vengeance. So I was in this vicious cycle,” he explains. “It was frustrating, and that was going on for a long time. There was one year on Strictly [when he was partnered with Daisy Lowe in 2016] when I could only pretty much wear turtlenecks, because my psoriasis was so bad.”
Deciding to speak up about his health battle on BBC One’s Morning Live a year-and-a-half ago proved a turning point. Skorjanec was contacted by Medovie, a skincare range producing creams and capsules targeting dry, irritated skin issues.
Now, he says his skin is in “the most manageable and best condition” it’s been for years – and breaking free from the “vicious cycle” he was in with treatment has been a “massive relief”. He’s so pleased with the results he’s personally experienced, he’s now become an ambassador for the brand.
Talking publicly about his psoriasis has been an eye-opener in other ways, too. “The response from people – how many people contacted me and sent me photos – touched me quite a bit. That’s when I decided I want to relate myself to something I truly believe in,” he explains. “Being a teenager and then in your 20s, especially how the world is – it’s all about your appearance, the way you look. And on television and the dance industry, it’s all about expressing yourself through your body. And then if your body is covered in psoriasis… I’m not going to lie, it was tough. It was hard on my mental health, and I was really self-conscious.
“I still don’t wear shorts, that’s kind of stayed with me,” Skorjanec admits. “T-shirts, I’m OK with now. I feel I’m very much at peace with who I am and what I look like, but when you’re growing up, and God forbid you’re in an environment where no one has any knowledge about psoriasis and people think it’s contagious – they’re going to get it if they touch you. I’ve gone through so many moments like that and it’s not pleasant.”
Skincare aside, for the dancer, managing his psoriasis is about his overall lifestyle too, avoiding his individual triggers and taking steps to de-stress – hence those steps to improve his sleep. He also avoids too much of certain foods after discovering he was intolerant to them, including dairy – “and the worst thing for my skin is spicy chilli, then grapes” – and uses a UV light machine for a few minutes a day while at home. “And what really works for me as well, is those bags of Dead Sea salt, or non-fragranced bath salt,” he adds.
He says he’s “too scatter-brained” to meditate but likes to switch off watching movies and TV with Manrara whenever they can. “We’ve always had that outlet,” he says. “And we go for a walk or just go into nature. Where I grew up in Slovenia was so beautiful, so I missed that tremendously living in a big city like London.
“But you need to find your roots again, even if that’s five minutes standing outside on your balcony or in your garden,” says Skorjanec. “Just to give yourself a little peace.”