Once upon a time I was an actress. My final role was as Titania, Queen of the Faeries in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania is powerful, a veritable immortal goddess of strength and beauty. I savored speaking her superlative monologue commanding the power of nature, bending it to her will. As Titania, I felt powerful and beautiful and immortal.
Now that role is bittersweet to me: I was diagnosed with cancer a few months later. Cancer stripped me, for a time, of my strength, of my power, and of my beauty. Nothing was goddessy about me after cancer. Nothing. Even if I looked fine in public, my trust in my body, in myself, had taken a severe knock.
I auditioned only once after cancer treatment, sheathed in the protection of a gorgeous long wig. I was ridden with anxiety. What happens if I get a part? I will have to disclose the wig. I will have to disclose why I am wearing a wig. Will the wig be a problem? Auditioning is 100% confidence but I no longer HAD that confidence. Cancer had kicked it all right out of me. I was relieved not to get a callback. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the end of my acting career.
I replaced it with side modeling for a friend. Although I shared some of the photos, it was mostly private work. Creating in a photo studio can be intensely personal and the camera’s gaze in the hands of my friend felt safe. Instead of a liability, wigs were an asset, and photos could be deleted or augmented. It helped me heal.
Last year I walked in three fashion shows, two of them modeling breast cancer lingerie. Cancer has made me more emotionally guarded, but I also care less about modesty or other societal expectations.
“Cancer has made me more emotionally guarded, but I also care less about modesty or other societal expectations.”
A few months ago Champagne Joy*, the founder and sparkle behind the NYC-based breast cancer charity #Cancerland, asked me to participate in a fashion show benefitting Cancerland and modeling AnaOno lingerie. The show was called #EXPOSED, and the purpose was to raise awareness of metastatic breast cancer, and actions we can all take to garner more research funding and access to clinical trials.
#EXPOSED was an actual New York City Fashion Week event with all the bells and whistles and publicity. As Dana Donofree, the creator and designer of AnaOno, rattled off the list of attending media, I started to feel a few butterflies. Staring at myself in the mirror in my runway outfit, which consisted of a pair of AnaOno panties, thigh-high boots, and a daring draped, gossamer garment that completely exposed my rebuilt breast and its beautiful tattoo, I felt even more butterflies.
Two days later I arrived at the madhouse that was the Art Hearts Fashion show at Angel Orensanz Center on the lower east side of Manhattan.
I was itching for something super cool and amazing that utilized my long wavy hair. My hopes were dashed as I heard the hairdresser utter the word, “Mohawk.” I sat for almost forty-five minutes, tense, unhappy, as she teased and pulled at my hair. I bit my lip and stewed; the first rule of being a model is that you are at the mercy of the hair and makeup designers, so you better suck it up.
I was still stewing when I finally made it to makeup. I had only seen a cell phone view of a very scary mohawk on my head. Makeup did little to alleviate my fears of Freakdom. Without a mirror, I could only watch and listen to my makeup artist: Green lips? Check. Tribal white marks on the face? Check. Brown all over my eye area like a face mask? Check. Double eyelashes? Check and check. My eyes were wide with horror.
I was one of the last AnaOno models to leave makeup and I dashed (still not knowing what I looked like) to the changing room. Most of the other models were done and they were chatting and taking pictures. A few were like me, madcap scrambling to get into costume. Finally ready, I steeled myself to look in the lone mirror in the room, thinking, well, at least it will all be over soon.
Wowza! I barely recognized the fairy creature looking back at me. Sure, my hair and makeup were crazy…. But paired with my outfit and especially paired with my tribal mastectomy tattoo I looked like a Celtic goddess. (Mohawk clearly signified: Girl has high cheekbones).
The music was pounding, and as we waited for the show to start, I looked at the other fifteen models. They were an explosion of colors, glitter, lace, gauzy fabric, and fierce pride. Models with implants, without implants, with tattoos and without tattoos, with breasts and without breasts. All except one had gone through cancer (she is a previvor). Half of the models were metastatic and would forever be in treatment. Look at us their eyes spoke, shining with excitement, Look at these scars. This is who we are and we’re not ashamed of it. We’re not only proud of it, we’re rocking it!
Mira Sorvino and Champagne Joy took the stage and we stood backstage rapt and emotional, listening to their powerful words about metastatic breast cancer and #Cancerland. And then….. Boom! We were off! Cheers and clapping filled the space. Pretty blonde Candice was before me, and I got into position on stage as she walked back. The space was packed, the lights were super bright, and the energy was amazingly electric. As Candice ended we hugged and she walked off the stage. I held a powerful pose briefly, hands on hips, face fierce, breast exposed….
And then strut, strut, strut, strut, strut, strut, to the end of the runway annnnddddd HOLD. Look at the cameras, turn to the right, HOLD, one big smile, Look left, over the shoulder, annnnnnndd strut strut strut strut strut strut strut. I was feeling fierce and powerful! I held one more pose at the top of the runway, and exited.
From behind the curtain we watched the rest of the models bring down the house as Ericka Hart bared almost all and gave a black power salute at the end of the runway, and then as Aniela Tuchband slowly took off her AnaOno bra and exposed her glitter-encrusted, rebuilt breasts.
After the show, backstage was a crazy blur of more photos, more hugs, more smiles and tears, and then… it was over. The next show was already on stage and we were dusting off glitter and putting away our costumes.
Except it wasn’t over. The next morning the first media story came in: a full-length piece from Lingerietalk.com with pictures of all of the models. It was quickly followed by many of the major outlets: Refinery 29, Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, and Allure were just some of the websites that featured #Exposed. There were videos on SELF Magazine, the New York Times… this is only a partial list. We were even featured in articles in India and Europe…we had worldwide exposure! Clearly we had tapped into something huge.
The feedback from those affected by breast cancer was enormous. My head was spinning for a few days as I was wrapped in a strange, loving, and awe-filled cocoon for an entire week. I suspect we will be feeling the reverberations for quite some time thanks to an amazing production put on by Champagne Joy and Dana Donofree.
I still hold Titania in my heart — but she has been edged out by a different warrior goddess who is not bittersweet; one who storms the runway with a fierce Mohawk, killer boots, green lips, and a tattoo of power on her exposed breast. She runs with a cohort of other warrior goddesses. All fierce, all fabulous, all sparkling and all powerful. And behind the sixteen of us is an endless sea of other goddesses and gods, touched, burned, and scarred by cancer.
We were you up there on the runway, and you are us. I’m so proud and so thrilled to have been a part of something that not only sparked so much media exposure and conversation, but something that might help pave the way for others in our cancer tribe to embrace, accept, and even fiercely rock their cancer battle scars.
*Author’s note: Champagne Joy died suddenly on March 27, 2017 at the age of 49, just a few weeks after #EXPOSED. Up until the last she was a tireless and passionate advocate, doing what she loved. Champagne was a powerful voice for women with metastatic breast cancer and she will be deeply missed.