Lizzie Velásquez found life beyond being known for looking different

It’s an interesting quandary. Lizzie Velásquez, 28, rose to fame because of her appearance.

Eleven years ago, when she was 17, a person posted a video of her on YouTube and labeled it “The World’s Ugliest Woman.” She became recognizable around the world.

Velásquez has neonatal progeroid syndrome and Marfan syndrome. She has trouble gaining weight and is blind in one eye. At 5 feet 2 inches, she weighs 72 pounds, up from 64 pounds three years ago. “Somehow, I gained weight,” she says with a laugh.

That “ugly” video led to her giving a TEDxAustinWomen talk in 2013 that reached millions of people around the world. She’s written four books, including her newest, “Dare to Be Kind,” which came out this summer, and she was the focus of a documentary, “A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velásquez Story,” which won audience awards at the 2015 South by Southwest. She’s now part of a national anti-bullying ad campaign by the Ad Council, “I Am a Witness.”

Velásquez comes off as very confident. She’s created her own path as an author, speaker and YouTube star, but behind all of it are her own worries: Is she where she is today because of the way she looks? If she didn’t have the syndromes she has, would she be making a living as a speaker? Would people know who she is?

She has to remind herself: “I don’t have to depend on my looks,” she says. “People will listen to me.”

They will, and they do. Velásquez will be the featured speaker at the Girls Empowerment Network’s We Are Girls conference in November, which will be attended by more than 2,000 girls and their parents, and the Texas Teen Book Festival on Oct. 7.

Life on YouTube

Today’s teens and even those younger want to know how she became a YouTube star. It’s what some of them even aspire to do as a career.

Velásquez created and grew her brand when there weren’t really how-tos and numerous examples of people who had done it. She was a pioneer.

As a teen, shortly after the “ugly” video, she sat in her bedroom and said, “I have a crazy idea to be a speaker. How can I make it happen?”

She offered to speak to groups for free. She launched a website while learning how to build one. She started making her own videos about positivity and built up her own brand. YouTube, that very vehicle that had crushed her at age 17, launched her to another level.

Now, she makes a living speaking at schools about bullying and growing up looking different, but she also speaks to businesses and adult conferences about entrepreneurship. She partners with businesses including AT&T and Secret.

YouTube brought her fame. She cannot just go to the mall. She has to plan for double the amount of time. “There are so many people who will come up to me and hug me,” she says. “It’s emotional. It feels so good, but your mindset is, ‘I’m just going to the mall.’”

Her family members, who have appeared on her videos and in the documentary, also get recognized. “They now have fans,” she says. “They think my dad is the funniest person in the world.”

Her family, though, keeps her grounded. “I never feel like it’s going to my head,” she says. “I will always be just Lizzie at home,” she says.

But now, she’s Lizzie at her own home, having recently bought a house and moved in with her two dogs, Ollie and Olivia. “I’m that crazy dog mom,” she says. “I now have a ton of clothes for them.”

The cover of the book

YouTube also brought her insecurities about her appearance that she didn’t have before. Her parents didn’t treat her differently, so much so that she didn’t know until kindergarten that she was different. “They never put a sense of fear in me,” she says. “They sent me in with such positivity and happiness.”

She never felt that her outward appearance told who she was inside.

Yet, at 17, she became acutely aware of her outward appearance, and in this decade since, she says she’s gone from people telling her she was ugly to people telling her she’s pretty. Still it’s all about the outward appearance.

One of her goals was to have her photo on the cover of one of her books. For “Dare to Be Kind,” she was sure it was going to happen.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to see my picture,” she says, but she also thought of it as a marketing strategy. “That will grab them.”

“I always thought a picture would help,” she says. “They will read my book if they see my photo.”

Yet she was getting pushback from the publishing company, which ultimately decided against putting her on the cover. That frustrated her. “This is what I wanted,” she says.

For the girl who has never felt like the outsides matched the insides, this was an important lesson.

“Photos or the reflection you see in the mirror, that’s a reflection of outside appearance,” she says. “I want to be more of a reflection of my inward appearance.”

She realized her fight to get her photo on the front of the book was really about confidence. She was leaning on her appearance, being known for that “ugly” video. “I would really like to get past that,” she says. “I don’t want it to be a crutch.”

Now she says of that time and how she got to where she is today, “This is my story; here’s what happened, but here I am now.”

“I’m more confident than ever in my work,” she says.

She tries to be real. She recently recorded a video about how she’s never had a serious boyfriend.

“I was embarrassed that I haven’t had a serious boyfriend,” she says. “I poured my heart out. The response I got was overwhelming.”

Even this girl with all this confidence says, “I thought I had to have a boyfriend to feel happy.”

She realizes that she hasn’t found that perfect person yet, and “my life isn’t ‘normal.’ It’s different. People know who I am, and that could be frustrating and scary.”

There will always be the looks. She won’t know if it’s because people know who she is or are staring at her because they don’t know who she is and cannot figure out why she looks the way she does.

She’s been traveling a lot more on her own recently, and she’s more aware of it. “It’s funny to see people’s reaction,” she says. “I feel like everyone’s looking at me.”

No one ever asks her to her face why she looks the way she does, yet she’ll hear children ask their parents, “Why does she look like that?”

“I’m really big on awareness,” she says. “Kids have a sense of curiosity. They also have no filter … don’t just shush them. Take that moment. Say, ‘That’s a person. It’s OK to say hi.’”

Standing up against bullying

When Velásquez was asked to be part of the Ad Council “I Am a Witness” campaign, the creators asked her and other YouTubers to read mean comments that had been posted to their videos. She didn’t want to. It would be reliving that time when she was 17, and she’s really tried to move past that.

She recorded those mean comments, but in the end, the Ad Council didn’t use that part for the commercial. 

“I Am a Witness” means that if you see something, you say something. You attach an eye emoji to a mean comment to let the commenter know that you saw them being mean. You didn’t ignore it.

Velásquez herself has turned from ignoring mean comments or trying to block them to confronting the commenters. She calls them on their actions by saying things like, “That was really mean.”

Usually they will say things like, “Oh, my gosh, I was just joking,” or, “I just wanted to see if you would reply,” she says.

RELATED: Lizzie Velásquez choosese happiness, fights bullying

Yes, she’ll reply, but her followers also will reply.

“On my YouTube channel specifically, I feel like such a proud mom,” she says. “I used to have to police comments if someone says something rude.”

Commenters now police themselves. They stand up for her and for one another. “It’s really refreshing to see that’s still possible, especially in the world we live in.”

She and other YouTubers also have helped change YouTube’s policies. Two years ago, YouTube brought her to California to talk to executives there. You now can add people to your accounts to monitor comments and you can now filter certain worlds, like “ugly,” in comments.

“It’s full circle for me,” she says of her ability to help create a change in the platform that tore her down and she then used to help build herself back up.

She’s developed tougher skin in these 11 years, but she’s human. Mean comments still bother her, but she tries to turn it around into something positive.

“For every person that says something mean, I do something to make myself better,” she says.

When she talks to kids at conferences, she reminds them: “You’re in control of how you feel about yourself.”

That was hard for her as a 17-year-old and even harder for kids today. “I can’t even think about being in high school and social media,” she says.

Yet she doesn’t think it’s realistic for parents to try to avoid their kids experiencing the bad of social media. “Even as an adult, if someone told me, ‘Don’t push that button,’ all I would want to do is push the button,” she says. “Instead, tell them what to do if people online say something not nice to you or your friends.”

It’s about standing up, calling them on it. And yes, even attaching the eye emoji to it.

She wants kids who are being bullied to know “you’re not alone — as cliche as it sounds. There’s always hope. There’s always a light on the other side. As long as you can take that path, it’s going to be OK.”

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