Lizzie Velásquez became an overnight sensation when she delivered a rousing TED Talk that inspired millions. But years before that moment, she’d been working tirelessly to make the world a happier, kinder place.
Velásquez was born with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight. As a kid, she was relentlessly bullied for her appearance, and reached a turning point when she came across a YouTube video calling her “the world’s ugliest woman.” She refused to let this devastating discovery define her life, and instead used it as fuel to create a beautiful movement that has changed the lives of people worldwide.
Now, she gives motivational speeches across the globe, runs her own YouTube channel, has written several books, and has recently undertaken one of her greatest ventures yet: lobbying for the first federal anti-bullying bill. The upcoming film “A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velásquez Story” documents her journey as she fights for the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would require public schools to enforce an anti-bullying policy, and faces many personal joys and challenges along the way.
Velásquez’s kind, open heart and determined spirit throughout the film serve as a reminder of just how much each and every one of us are capable of. Velásquez took some time to chat with YouBeauty about the film, her triumphs, and the power we have to define our own lives.
YouBeauty: “A Brave Heart” is so intimate. Was it nerve-wracking at first to have a camera crew so involved in your life?
Lizzie Velásquez: Not at all. Our crew was very small. We spent so much time together and they created such a safe environment for me to feel comfortable that filming became more like I was spending time with family.
The thing that sticks out to me most about you in both the film and your TED talks is how open your heart is and how that seems to make others feel instantly connected to you. How do you maintain that openness?
I am only comfortable being the truest version of myself. If I were to ever hide my feelings or not fully express what I’m feeling or thinking, it wouldn’t be genuine. Before I walk onto the stage to speak, I always remind myself to speak as though I’m talking to my best friend. I had my TED speech planned for over three weeks prior to the event. I walked up on the stage that day and told Alexis Jones, one of the Executive Producers for the film, “Don’t freak out but I’m going to throw out everything we planned and I’m just going to speak from my heart.”
I find it really powerful when you say in the film that we’re all put on this earth for a reason. What advice would you give to others who are struggling through a rough part of their lives?
You have to remind yourself that once you decide that you will never let any bad decision become your reality, you will always find a way to make it through to the other side. Anything is possible as long as you are willing to fight through any storm.
How do you recommend people turn frustrations into triumphs like you have?
I won’t sugarcoat it and say that turning my frustrations into triumphs was easy, because it definitely wasn’t. It was never an easy thing where I woke up one morning and everything was better. Being able to turn things around is a process. Each of us has our own stories of struggle but how we get to the other side is what will teach you that finding your triumph might be easier than you think.
Do you think the anonymity of the internet makes people more likely to bully?
I believe the anonymity of the internet is a good and bad thing. Good in the sense that people might feel more comfortable to be themselves or share their stories of struggle because of the fact that they are able to be anonymous. On the other hand, the anonymity does make it easier for people to bully other people online.
How can people help support the Safe Schools Improvement Act and work to make the world a place with less bullying?
I’ve learned many things while lobbying for the Safe Schools Improvement Act. One of the biggest things that I learned is that awareness is so crucial. We have an incredible website where you can go and find your representatives and be able to tell if they have co-signed to the bill or not. You will then have the option to get ahold of your representative to either thank them for supporting the bill, or asking why they haven’t supported it.
What was the biggest thing you’ve learned from meeting with so many different fans and audiences around the world?
The biggest thing I’ve learned from meeting with so many different audiences from around the world is that bullying does not discriminate. No matter where you are from or what language you speak, bullying is universal.
You have such a free-spirited, cheerful sense of style. Do you have any fashion tips for readers who are still trying to carve out their own personal style?
To be completely honest with you, I am 26 and still often have to get some items of clothes in the kids section. I’ve had to deal with that my whole life. In a way I was almost forced to find a way to mix my kids sized clothes with my extra small things and somehow make them look age appropriate. Find a style that inspires you and then be willing to experiment with different things until you’re able to find whatever works best for you. Even if it’s something that is way out there, your confidence will always be your best accessory!
READ MORE: Confidence Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
The film highlights the fact that your career can sometimes be an emotional roller coaster. How do you stay so centered?
During the time when I was finishing college and stepping into a new chapter in my life, I was so focused on how I could help people. I didn’t realize I was sweeping all of my personal emotions under the rug. I was doing that so often that it was draining. Sara Bordo, our director for the film, once told me that I can’t help other people unless I help myself. Ever since then I make it a point to take a day off and have a “sad day.” I will cry my eyes out, watch sad movies, listen to sad music, and let all of the negativity out. When the sun comes up the next day, it’s back to looking at the bright side of things.
Out of the many, many things you’ve accomplished these past few years, do you have any singular moment that stands out to you as your proudest?
It’s so hard for me to pick just one moment. I start thinking of one and instantly a ton of other memories come flooding to my mind. I think overall I’m so proud of the fact that my story of struggle is being used to help change peoples lives. At the end of each day when I put my head on my pillow, I can go to sleep knowing that someone out there in the world is making the best of their life that they can.
“A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velásquez Story” releases in theaters on September 25.