Disclaimer: This story contains details and mentions of sexual harassment and suicide that may be triggering to some.
“I never really told anyone this, but I was essentially offered a full ride to an acting conservatory college in New York. I turned it down for a boy. He doesn’t know this. I’m sure if he ever reads this or sees this, he’ll be utterly disturbed because it went against everything he believed in. I didn’t tell him the whole truth. I just told him I couldn’t afford it. I pretty much told everybody I couldn’t afford it, which was also a very real, yet very partial, truth.
The fact of the matter is at 19 years old, my identity was so wrapped up in one boy and whether he liked me I turned down my future to make someone else feel bad enough to want to be with me. I believed my worth was nothing more than being wanted for sympathy. I gave it all up, which was crazy because all I ever wanted to do was move to New York City. I wanted to be on Broadway. I wanted to be Tracy Turnblad, the plus-sized superstar, the young woman who took Broadway on by storm.
Back then I found my worth only in other people because I came from a father who never allowed me to believe I could ever be good enough for anyone or anything due to being ‘fat.’ It wasn’t until I got in an almost deadly car accident the summer of 2006 I finally woke up. If you’ve ever lived in Florida, you know you could be driving on a perfectly sunny road, and then all of a sudden, there’s a torrential downpour that hits you like a wall. As I was struggling with extremely limited visibility, I saw a single motorcycle light that looked like it was coming down my side of the road. I slammed on my brakes and the car spun out six or seven times only to be stopped by a tree. It wasn’t even my car. It was my best friend Elizabeth’s car she left behind when she moved. An ugly seafoam green Oldsmobile, which also happened to still be unregistered and untagged.
I walked the mile back to my boyfriend’s house in the storm—leaving the car alone at the scene. This was before we had cell phones, so walking was my only option. My boyfriend at the time was insistent we go back and get the car… but by the time we got there, it was surrounded by police officers. So we left it. We left the car. Never claimed it. It was unregistered, unmarked. Untagged. I knew I never wanted to drive again, and in NYC, I wouldn’t need a car. The very next morning, I called up the director of admissions for the college I had turned the scholarship down for and begged for it back. I was working at the time for a telemarketing room with my mom, selling credit consolidation. I spent 2 weeks earning every penny I could. I called a producer who I had met on a small film I had worked on knowing she had a rental property in Brooklyn.
2 weeks after the crash, 19 years old with two suitcases, $1,800, a hope and a dream, and my very first credit card, I was moving to New York City. I had met a girl on set, the same film where I met the producer. Her name was Amanda, and after knowing each other for maybe a month, she decided to move to New York on a whim with me. 10 days after arriving in New York, Amanda couldn’t hack it. She freaked out. She was scared every night by the gunshots and the sounds outside and the fighting. She packed up, moved, and left me there. Alone. I called my best friend, Elizabeth, and begged her to move up to NY. Being a really dumb kid, I took out two credit cards in my name, bought Liz a flight to NYC, and then maxed out the other card paying for eating out and cab rides.
I didn’t really understand the implications of credit at 19 years old. To be honest, I feel really failed by my schools and family for not teaching me before I made these life-altering poor choices. This is definitely something I hope to change as I work with my daughter on financial literacy. I was 30 years old when I finally paid off the debt Liz and I accrued in those first few years in New York City. No one ever taught me just because you have a credit card doesn’t mean you have money. I was a financially and emotionally illiterate teenager with no support system. This was how my journey to adulthood started. Debt, shame, and giving up my autonomy to make other people happy so I could feel worthy. In my first job in New York City, I was a singing and dancing waitress who wearing a poodle skirt at Ellen’s Stardust Diner on 51st Street—right underneath my agent’s office, Roger Paul, Inc.
Roger turned out to be someone who would change the entire direction of my life. When you grow up in a small town and you’re getting the leads in plays in high school, you think you’re this big deal, this hotshot. When you move to New York City from anywhere else, you get a very rude wake-up call. I realized quickly I may have been a big fish in Orlando, but I was a minnow, algae, more like microscopic plankton, in NYC. The world there is so much bigger than it is everywhere else, despite it only being a small 11-mile island. Waitressing wasn’t cutting it. After the fourth time I dropped something on a customer, I was fired. I desperately needed another job, so Roger took me on as his intern first, and then as his assistant, and then Junior Agent. As he began to trust me more, I began to trust myself.
The first year or two working with him he would constantly tell me, ‘You need to pay your dues. You’re 19 years old. You have a lot to learn. You have a lot of life to live. You need to sit back and listen to those who have lived before you, so you don’t have to make the same mistakes.’ I believe this is the biggest way Roger shaped me. He helped me to frame myself in the scope of the world, and allowed me to become a person who was okay with learning, who was okay with accepting they weren’t knowledgeable enough (yet), who was okay with accepting potential, and who grew to learn there was no other option other than to figure it out one way or another and make it happen.
When they say, ‘If you can make it in New York City, then you can make it anywhere,’ it’s not a saying that just comes for no reason. It is the hardest place to live and succeed because there are constant challenges thrown at you, from the cost of rent to the dangers of just walking from the train home to the predators and the men out there who would lead me to believe I was safe and then take advantage of me.
New York City is a scary place to be, but it molded me and it showed me the truth. This truth is evident in everything I do and in everything I believe, and this is if you want something bad enough, you can do it. If you want anything bad enough, you can get it. I had some hard times with this at first. I’m not going to lie. There was one point where I was working with Roger and I had met a woman through working on the phones. She was another agent and she really hated the agency she was working with so I suggested she come over and work from our offices. I thought she and Roger would be a great fit. Well, she took this advice. She came in and she took over my desk the first week she was there. She convinced Roger I wasn’t needed anymore, and she took my job completely. I really learned the fragility of anything through this experience. How quickly what you have can be taken away. I had to get a job working with temp agencies. I couldn’t get another talent agency job quickly enough. The bills pile up so fast in New York City, even a week’s lapse in pay can destroy you and throw you into spiraling debt.
At this point, I had already spent everything I had moved with and more. I was teetering. I remember trying to kill myself. I felt worthless. I felt like if the one thing that finally made me feel like I was worth something could be ripped away from me this easily, then life just wasn’t a safe place to be. I went down to Brooklyn. I walked the few blocks from the subway to the bridge in Brooklyn Heights where you can look over the city. There I stood, taking one step at a time, over the edge of the bridge. I was about to jump. I was about to end it all… and then my friend Adam called as I had one foot off the ledge and told me he would pay for my ticket and fly me home. I remember still being so messed up from the bridge when I got home I tried again. This time I tried to take all of my roommates’ expired pills. I still didn’t believe I was worthy. She and my other roommate had to hold me down and grab the pills out of my hand while I was curled in a ball, convulsively crying, because I felt that worthless. I felt unneeded, unimportant, unbeautiful, unloved, alone.
I left New York City for 6 months. I moved home to my parents and got a job working for a company that sold pink sheets to stockbrokers. I needed to make money to escape my mentally abusive family… again. I knew I could sell things. I knew how to talk. If there was anything I still believed I had, it was the gift of gab, the gift of being able to communicate with someone else why something is valuable. It took the first month for me to just learn and to understand the language of the market. It’s an entirely different language working in the stock market than working in the theater and film industry. I was good at it. I was really, really good. In no time at all, I was the top salesperson in the room. Sadly at the time, my worth as a female was also being diminished, because what this office told us as women was the only way we could make sales was by sexualizing ourselves to men. Here I was, this brilliant, then 20-something-year-old girl, who sold a part of herself each time she was on the phone.
I remember they would tell us to say really disgusting things to the brokers. Like, ‘I’m going to sit and watch the screen while you shoot your liquidity all over my stock.’ Sure, it’s a pun, and sure it’s funny, but they liked it. The sound of their heavy breathing and their voices on the other end of the phone while I was selling myself out is still something I can hear. It’s still something I can feel. One of my co-workers I had befriended had left the office to go to a similar company down the road. He knew what was happening and suggested I follow him to this new office—where I would happen to be the only female on the floor. This is when I had my best manager ever, Dan. Dan saw me. Dan didn’t just see a woman who could use her sexy voice to make a man do something, just to hear her talk. Dan saw a girl with potential. He saw me as one of the boys. It was the first time I felt my own power as a woman because it wasn’t built around my sexuality, my breasts, my butt, or my legs. It was built solely from who I was and the potential I had to influence people.
They saw ME. They taught me everything I needed to know about sales. Through working in this office, and through getting my butt kicked emotionally by ‘the boys,’ I earned the money I needed to move back to NYC. I got back on a plane, November 13th of 2009. Again, with just a suitcase and the money in my hands and a wish. I got on the plane with the plan to move in with a ‘friend’ who had told me she had a room for me in Amsterdam, New York. It would come to be this ‘friend’ never told her roommates our arrangement—the ‘room’ was the living room sofa, and she was collecting rent from me… when they found out, there was a huge blowout and I was AGAIN homeless in New York, with just my handy dandy suitcase. Let me tell you, it doesn’t matter where you live in the city, it is brutally expensive. I found one of those rooms-for-rent sublet places you go in to get paired with strangers. I was paired in an awful living situation in a three-bedroom apartment. In one room was me, the next room over was an entire family—husband, wife, and an infant… there was one bathroom, a roach-infested kitchen, a living room, and the back area that was locked off where an older woman lived and never came out of her space.
I was starting to contemplate leaving NY again when I met Krishnar Lewis. May he rest in peace. He introduced me to the RAINN Organization. He was the reason I got to go to the Oscars and present on the red carpet. He was the reason I got to go to the BET Awards, to travel to Los Angeles, to travel to Vegas. He believed in me in a way only my theater teachers and Dan had before him. He opened door after door after door for me. Despite the opportunities while I was working with Krishnar, I still could barely pay my bills, so I took on a second job with Mediaplanet, a small publishing company that did inserts for major newspapers. These inserts would be advertising-focused, but educational. I produced and funded a report on COPD, which was in the New York Daily News. I produced a Valentine’s Day report for USA Today, and I was building up clout for myself while FINALLY getting out of debt. This is when I started to get sick all the time. I would go to the bathroom and there would be blood in the toilet. I thought I was slowly dying.
I lost my publishing job because I had to go to the hospital multiple times to get tested. Each time I got tested, they could come up with nothing. They would just tell me it’s stress, it’s stress, it’s stress. But how could stress make you go to the bathroom and bleed, and then show nothing on a sonogram? But that’s what was happening. My emotional trauma had such an impact on my life living in New York City I was getting physically sick. I was lucky because by this point I had met my now ex-husband who was close to graduating college and had the time to be with me while I was ill. I don’t know if I would have made another attempt on my life without him. I think I would have. It was really, really, really dark back then. We bonded over the darkness. We bonded over our depression, over our sh*tty fathers… this trauma bond is what would dictate the next 10 years of my life. Until I found photography. I found the magic wand to my happiness, the magic camera that would slowly give me back my power, my sanity, my finances, and my freedom.
My ex-husband, friends, and family didn’t believe in me. Nobody did. They all said, ‘It’d be a good hobby.’ Yet here I sit. Last year, Self Love Experience brought in $675,000. That’s three-quarters of a million dollars sold from my own art and vision. However, the money isn’t what I consider the sum of my success—not even close. I help women who struggle to find self-worth to re-discover it in themselves—I found MY power in reaching down to pull women up to the surface with me. I help my clients realize beauty is NOT only one thing and release them from societal burdens of ‘pretty’ to be able to truly like themselves as they are.
You see, all of my journeys have led me to the realization it’s the relationship I have with myself that sets the tone for all of the other relationships in my life. It’s the foundation to who I am as a boss, a friend, a wife, an executive, a sister, a mom. Let’s face it, as women, loving ourselves can be a challenge. Our bodies come in all these shapes, and, sizes and colors, and we’re often told we need to fit into this teeny, narrow-minded mold of what is considered worthy.
It’s a tough stigma to fight, but it’s not impossible. It is certainly not something we need to pass on to the next generation. It ends with me. Not my daughter. My clients tell me after it’s this transformative experience. They’ve never seen themselves or felt beautiful, or have been empowered to accept and love themselves. It’s exceptional and it changes how they approach themselves and how they approach others. As profound as this might seem, it’s not just about having the art today—these photos are a gift for future generations. They’re a testament to our feminine courage and grace, and they are a timeless memento of who we are in our absolutely most beautiful form. This is not just about taking pictures. This is about my legacy—it is about determination and not quitting, and it is about giving us all permission to feel beautiful and worthy, today and always.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Lindsay Rae D’Ottavio of Troy, New York. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Facebook. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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