Until recently, anyone who saw Zara Hartshorn would be certain she was a middle-aged woman.
But, incredibly, she is aged only 16 – and has just flown to America for pioneering plastic surgery to improve her confidence after years of being teased for looking prematurely aged.
Zara, from Thurnscoe, Rotherham, inherited the condition cutis laxa – which makes her skin look wrinkled and twisted – from her mum Tracey Gibson, who also looks much older than her age of 43.
A top surgeon in the US offered to give the teenager a facelift for free after hearing about her condition, and the results will be shown in a television programme at 9pm tomorrow on Channel Five called Help - I’m 16 But Look 60.
Zara says the treatment has been successful and she has felt able to begin a relationship with new boyfriend Ricky Andrews, 22. She is even keen to study at college with the hope of realising her dream of opening her own beauty salon.
Zara showed the first signs of her condition as a youngster, developing excess skin around her jawline, and by the age of 12 was regularly being mistaken for a fully-grown woman, or even her 17-year-old sister Chloe’s mother.
Doctors told Zara she had inherited an illness from her mum called lipodystrophy, which decays bones and destroys fat.
Zara said: “Mum explained I had an illness like she did, but that I was beautiful and shouldn’t pay any attention to what anyone said.
“The bullying was at its worst between the ages of eight and 10. Kids used to call me ‘monkey’ and ‘granny’ and I was even beaten up just because of how I looked. It got so bad I stopped going to school for a while.
“I lived in fear of being asked how old I was. I was even mistaken for a teacher in school on a couple of occasions, which was just mortifying.”
After hearing about her case, Texas-based expert Dr Abhimanyu Garg asked to carry out tests on Tracey and Zara.
He found they were actually suffering from cutis laxa, a much rarer disease which only affects 30 people in Britain and can cause heart and lung problems.
Zara was later presented with the offer of a facelift and free nose augmentation.
“It was an amazing opportunity I could never have dreamed of before,” she said.
“When I saw myself in the mirror after the bandages all came off, it was mixture of surprise and happiness. I used to hate my nose, but now I love it. I feel much more confident and just happier in general.
“Before I had surgery I was picked on for looking different, now I look the same as other girls my age.”
Zara said she is prepared to ‘forgive and forget’ the taunts aimed at her for her unusual looks over the years, adding: “Although I look younger, I still feel older than my years because of everything I have been through.”
What is Cutis Laxa?
Cutis laxa - Latin for loose skin - is a genetic disorder of connective tissue, which forms the body’s supportive framework, providing structure and strength to the muscles joints, organs and skin. The condition is characterised by skin that is sagging and lacking in elasticity, giving an aged appearance.
The condition can also affect connective tissue in the heart, blood vessels, joints, intestines and lungs. Symptoms vary from mild to life-threatening, such as tearing of critical arteries.
Five different genes are known to develop the mutation that causes cutis laxa. The genes are involved in the formation of elastic fibres in the body which allow skin to stretch, lungs to expand and arteries to carry blood at high pressure.
The condition affects about one in every two milion babies worldwide.