I’ll never forget the first time I heard about Lizzie Velasquez and then watched her video from the December 2013, TEDxAustinWomen event . It’s an understatement to say that I was blown away by her. Lizzie has a rare medical condition that makes it impossible for her to gain weight, and she’s blind in one eye. I was shocked when I heard that she had once been dubbed “The World’s ugliest woman.” I’m strongly against bullying in any shape or form, and I couldn’t believe that anyone would even think to call her that.
I had the opportunity to interview Alexis Jones, who’s the executive producer of The Lizzie Project, and the one who found Lizzie for the TEDxAustinWomen event. She’s also the founder of a non-profit organization called “I Am That Girl” and also an author. During my interview with her I learned more about Lizzie, the Kickstarter campaign for the The Lizzie Project, and “I Am That Girl,” among other things. This is a can’t miss interview!
MC: When I first saw Lizzie Velasquez’s video “How Do YOU Define Yourself?” I had tears in my eyes as I was watching it. She was so inspiring and so strong and I then watched it a few times in a row. I was blown away by her. One of my favorite lines was when she said “Even though things are hard, I can’t let that define me.”
I know you are the executive producer of The Lizzie Project, which is a documentary based on her life. Can you tell me more about the documentary?
AJ: Absolutely. I think first off your reaction has been millions of people’s reactions. I live here in Austin with her and she has become one of my dear friends and she and I just went to lunch today. It’s shocking, Melanie, how many people stopped us to say just that. I mean just walking up and hugging and immediately crying. I joke with her that you make everybody cry. When I found her and asked her to speak because Sara Bordo who is also a producer and director on the documentary…all three of us… Sara, Lizzie, and myself are all from Austin…there’s something really special about the magic of three Austinite women. There are three powerhouse women coming together.
During that TED Talk…and this is something that a lot of people don’t know…but right before she got up on stage she walked over to me and said, “Alexis, I’ve changed up my entire talk and I think I’m going to go with something completely different.” We had been working on the talk for a couple of weeks now and she just had this glimmer in her eye and I couldn’t say anything other then “You’re gonna kill it.” Go from the heart and whatever this message is that you feel you want to share with this audience today.” We had very intentionally asked her to be the last speaker. A beautiful, authentic voice came out and resonated with so many people.
The documentary is so much more than a 12 minute talk. It’s about her life growing up…it’s about the adversities that aren’t just medical. There’s a lot of medical adversities…being blind in one eye, which is incredibly precarious… It’s more a story of the human spirit and it’s less about just her syndrome. It’s something that resonates with everyone. As you said, you who were not suffering from the syndrome can watch it and be in awe because it transcends her syndrome and it’s a message about overcoming the hardest thing you’ve ever dealt with in your life.
MC: It resonated with me and I was overcome with emotion as I was watching the video.
AJ: That’s kind of the magic of Lizzie. Another thing that a lot of people don’t know about her…I think when you see her you’re just like “Oh my gosh, she’s just the most adorable girl that anyone has ever seen or met.” But on top of it, which truly makes her a star in my eyes, is the fact that she has a wicked sense of humor. There is something really beautiful about that for me because she draws so much strength from her humor. And I think that’s something we’re really going to try and capture in the documentary… To me this a “how in the hell did this girl overcome her situation?” and through that grace and that determination she gives us all permission to follow suit. There is something so daring about that and to me I can’t imagine a real story that is as compelling and as inspiring and as jaw dropping as the one we’re about to create.
MC: Who came up with the idea to do this documentary?
AJ: Sara Bordo. Sara is one of my best friends and as I said she and I both grew up in Austin and we were both in LA for 10 years. We always talked about we can’t wait to do a project together…when is it gonna happen? Ironically enough, we both ended up moving back to Austin right about the same time. I called her and I said this is crazy, but would you humor producing my TED event? She said “sure.” When we finished the TED event…it was such a huge event…it was the most globally streamed TEDxWomen in the world for last year, which blew both of us away.
But more than that, we saw Lizzie’s story resonated with so many people and it just didn’t feel like we gave them enough of her. So, as we were brainstorming what’s gonna be our next project, Sara said “I really think there’s a documentary here.” “I’ll direct it, you executive produce it.” We were both like “we don’t have experience at all.” The incredible thing is then how many people have shown up to support this. When you have a dream team of people I truly think the world is never again the same. And getting to stand shoulder to shoulder with Lizzie and with Sara and saying “We have a story to change the world so why not us and why not know?”
MC: I know that the goal was to raise $180,000 and congratulations you’ve raised more than $200,000. Did you increase the goal once you reached that amount?
AJ: One of the great things about Kickstarter is they allow you to do a stretch goal once you’ve reached your goal. And there were definitely moments two weeks in where we were kind of like “oh my gosh”…given that we’ve never done a Kickstarter campaign before…given that we’ve never raised money for a documentary before…given that this is all new to us…we were thinking did we mess up? Did we set the goal too high? So much of this documentary is about Lizzie’s faith and the incredible thing is it’s really tested all of our faith and certainly these past 28 days.
I don’t know why or how, Melanie, but I went on this impassioned rant about like faith and believing in something that hasn’t existed and God is going to show up and it’s going to be amazing. And in 48 hours we raised $42,000. We’d been doing a ton of press and pushing it out through all of our influencers and something just clicked. Lizzie and I were both in separate weddings…I was in one in New York and she was in one in Texas. We were both giggling because we had been texting every two minutes and being like “Oh my God.” We had a donor donate $10,000 anonymously. People are coming out of the woodwork, so it’s really a blessing to witness the magic of all this.
MC: I know a few people who’ve been bullied. Why do you think people feel the need to bully other people?
AJ: Some of my background was starting a non-profit called “I Am That Girl,” which is an empowerment non-profit for girls. A lot of my work [is] in that and working in the entertainment industry for the past 10 years. I think it’s a really complex problem, actually. I think first off is the fact that we live in an epidemic of insecurity right now. When you look at the consumption of media…the youths are consuming 10.3 hours of media in a day. And on average we’re seeing 3,o00 brand images a day of completely photoshopped, incredibly thin, perfect girls who don’t exist. And I’ll speak specifically to girls for a second. But the reality is that girls don’t feel good about themselves. So to me, the problem is not how do we prevent bullies from bullying…it is how to create a society and a country that is empowering our youth to feel good about themselves. There really is a symbiotic relationship of the way in which you treat people is practice for how you treat yourself and the way in which you treat yourself is practice for how you treat people.
I get called in to speak on panels all the time about bullying specifically. Every time I sit down with a bully, sure enough there is a huge crisis going on in their life. With bullies, they’re hurting more than anyone else. They’re certainly hurting more than the people that they’re hurting. There’s this short saying that I hear when I go to middle schools and high schools: hurt people hurt people. For me, I think that when you integrate technology into that equation and you have this cloaked veil of anonymity…cowards are able to be more ruthless and more mean because they don’t actually have to see the facial expressions and the damage that they’re doing to another person. I think it’s a tough situation that we’re in right now. I think a big key to that is vulnerability and inspiring people to be honest about how they feel and how much it hurts.
MC: I love that you started a non-profit organization that translates self doubt to self love. How can people stand up and make a difference in the world?
AJ: I think it comes in so many different ways. For me, I want people to be the good kind of selfish. I think the better people are taking care of themselves, the more quick they are to take care of other people. Within the context of “I Am That Girl,” I always say the greatest thing someone can do is just be that girl, which we define as the most bada** version of any girl. That’s the first thing…living an inconvenient life. Where you take time to really see other people and have compassion to turn your phone off when you’re in the Starbucks line and you’re checking out and to acknowledge the person in front of you. It’s like getting back to the roots of simplicity…the fruits of the spirit…kindness, compassion, and love. I think we really complicated life and it’s really not that hard.
MC: So, you would say that living in the moment is really important?
AJ: Not only living in the moment. I would say having compassion for ourselves and compassion for others. When someone has a bad day recognizing we’ve all be there. In those moments the last thing someone needs is to be judged. I also don’t think there’s anything more greater than being vulnerable. Just taking the time to share with people about how you really feel about them and voicing things that are important to you to be heard. The other thing is taking the time to figure out what you’re passionate about. We’re pushing students through an educational system and no one is stopping for a second and saying “wait a second.” Why don’t we actually help these students find what makes them tick and what lights them up. I want to live in a country where we have students who are hungry to be the next dreamers…the next innovators…the next authors. Figure out what you’re passionate about…pursue it at all costs…have compassion for others as much as you have compassion for yourself…and be brave enough to be authentic.
The interview soon came to a close after that, and I was choked up by the end of it. I can’t thank Alexis enough for telling me more about the beautiful spirit of Lizzie and also about her very own non-profit organization “I Am That Girl.” I truly believe that anyone who has Alexis and/or Lizzie in their life is a very lucky person. I’m actually getting choked up again as I’m writing this.
Lizzie, you are a very inspiring person, and I can’t wait to see your documentary.
In case you haven’t seen Lizzie’s really amazing “How Do YOU Define Yourself” video, here it is: