With his rippling muscles and classic good looks, this aspiring male model should have no problem finding a date.
But shy Darius Vernon has spent the past 14 years avoiding the opposite sex after a chronic skin condition left his self-esteem in tatters.
Darius, from Willesden, north London, suffers from vitiligo – a condition that causes the skin to lose its pigmentation, creating white patches on the body.
As a teenager, Darius experienced cruel taunts and jeers from girls, and at one point even considered taking his own life.
Darius spent years trying to hide his condition, but after being noticed by modelling scouts on Instagram, the 30-year-old is hoping to show that diversity is beautiful.
And now the chiselled hunk is hoping to find a partner who will love him as he is.
‘I was handed this physical difference and there were no instructions to go with it – you don’t know how to deal with vitiligo,’ says Darius.
‘I spent years hating myself and the way I looked because of the ignorance of other people – but now I’m proud of who I am.’
Darius first showed symptoms of vitiligo when he was just 12 years old.
The condition can be caused by stress and it was after the death of his grandmother that Darius started losing the pigmentation in his hands.
‘I went to the doctor’s in 2000 and they diagnosed me with vitiligo,’ recalls Darius. ‘I remember holding my mum’s hands and squeezing them because the name just sounded so scary.’
Darius was offered creams and make-up to cover the incurable condition but instead he tried to cover the white patches with his clothes.
As Darius entered his teens, the condition worsened, and eventually he developed patches on his face, torso and arms.
On bus rides Darius would avoid holding on in an attempt to hide his hands, one of the areas of his body where the vitiligo is most visible.
Girls at school began to scorn him, leaving him feeling ‘ugly’ and isolated.
‘One day I was walking down the street and three girls started heckling me and saying how ugly I was,’ says Darius. ‘They were shouting “Look at him, look at his hands, he’s so ugly”.
‘I remember going home and soaking the pillow with tears.
‘The psychological aspect is far greater than the physical. Sometimes you feel broken inside.’
Despite his low confidence, Darius met his first – and only – serious girlfriend in college.
‘I couldn’t believe a girl would like me,’ he says. ‘Right at the beginning she took my hands and kissed them.’
The relationship lasted two years but the pair drifted apart as they grew up and since then Darius has remained single.
Darius continued to struggle with the stigma and in his mid 20s he fell into a deep depression.
At his lowest point Darius planned to take an overdose and left a suicide note for his mum.
‘I fell into a very desperate place. There was just a dense lack of energy and life – there was no hope,’ he admits candidly. ‘I just reached the point where I couldn’t do it anymore. It’s so difficult to wake up and find the strength.
‘It was something that was definitely on my mind for ages. I thought the least I could do was write and explain things – along the lines of “I don’t know if I have the physical, mental and emotional strength to continue being pummeled daily by people’s nonsense and ignorance.”’
It was a chance visit from his brother that stopped Darius going ahead with his plan.
And shortly after, an encounter with a stranger changed his outlook on his appearance and the reaction of people around him.
‘I was at a party and this random mystery man walked up to me with his hands up and I thought this is a bit strange.
‘I saw he had the same skin condition as me. We shook hands and he just said, “I hope you realise you’re not the one with the problem.”
‘It wasn’t until I left the party it really hit me – other people might have a problem with me but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me.’
Two years ago Darius decided to post some pictures displaying his vitiligo on Instagram – and has worked part-time as a model ever since.
Now he aims to use his position to put a spotlight on vitiligo and hopes he can be an example that beauty comes in many different guises.
‘I feel like I found myself. The place I’m in now I can advocate for people with this condition.
‘I used to hate my skin but now I’m proud of it – it’s part of who I am.’
Dealing with people’s reactions can still be a struggle, but now Darius has a more positive outlook on life.
‘You wake up to a fresh batch of ignorance daily because you’re going to meet new people every day.
‘The typical reaction I get is mostly shyness. I can see people’s body language is really closed off and they are backing away – it feels like nobody wants to go near you.’
Although Darius is saddened by the way the condition has affected him in the past, he hopes that in the future he can fall in love and start a family.
But years of hiding away have made it difficult for him to approach women.
‘It’s held me back, the biggest thing is not being able to speak to women,’ he admits. ‘It’s only in the past year or so I’ve really tried to push myself out of my comfort zone.
‘I have so much love to give and I hope to get married and have children in the future. Finally it’s starting to seem like that might be possible.’