When Lizzie Velasquez, 26, was born, she was four weeks premature and two pounds, 11 ounces. Born with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight, Lizzie was tormented by peers as early as kindergarten for looking different. By the time she was in high school she felt she had triumphed the bullies, until — at age 17 — she stumbled on a YouTube video of herself that labeled her, “The World’s Ugliest Woman.”
In the documentary, A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story — from first-time director Sara Bordo — Velasquez recounts when she found the video and how she masochistically read painfully cruel YouTube comments like, “Kill it with fire.” She knew she had to face the cyberbullies, so she created a vlog to show that she is more than her syndrome. The vlog’s sizable readership led to her TEDx Talk that garnered over 10 million views and inspired people around the world. A Brave Heart chronicles her journey from bully victim to motivational speaker and anti-bullying activist, and her Capitol Hill lobbying for the first federal anti-bullying bill.
I spoke with Lizzie Velasquez and director Sara Bordo about the making of the documentary and the future for bullies and their victims.
Sara Bordo: Lizzie and I first met when I was invited to produce the first TEDxAustinWomen event in December 2013. My friend Alexis Jones — an EP on A Brave Heart — was co-organizing the event and we had learned of Lizzie’s story.
Lizzie Velasquez: I was the last speaker of the day so I was able to soak up all of the inspiration and life lessons the other speakers shared that day. In many aspects of my life I like to go with my gut. That’s exactly what I did that day. Every time I walk on a stage I tell myself two things: Speak from my heart and speak as though I’m talking to my best friend.
Bordo: It was so clear that her story and her experience was as rare as the syndrome she was born with. We were drawn to the choices she made and her bravery. It wasn’t until after she spoke on stage, we realized just how universal her story was.
Velasquez: When Sara approached me about doing a documentary I right away knew it was something we were meant to do together. I didn’t have any reservations about working on the film because I knew it was something that we were meant to work on.
Facing The Bullies
Velasquez: Bullying has been around for as long as we can remember. My hope is to one day be able to turn bullying stories into stories of triumph.
Bordo: I faced bullying most when I got into the workplace. I named my company Women Rising after an experience I had, where I was told by a female boss that I belonged more in an apron than an office. It was that moment when I knew women had to champion other women if we had any chance of reaching where we hope to go.
Velasquez: I recently spoke at a large event with teens from all around the world. One young man raised his hand and in front of everyone admitted that he had once made fun of me online. He sincerely apologized and said he wasn’t going to make fun of anyone else. His bravery to speak up in front of so many of his peers was incredible.
Bordo: The argument [that bullying makes you stronger] was heard more from our parents, and our grandparents. Saying it makes you stronger or puts hair on your chest. Cruelty and meanness has never come from a position of strength, only insecurity and pain. What we hope with the High Road campaign we started, that people choose not to bully the bully back, but rather to Take the High Road and leave the bullies alone.
Making Of A Vlog
Bordo: I think sometimes bullies in pop culture are the ones that make the most noise and that often time get more air time or page views. I’d like to say that just because they have the visibility doesn’t mean that visibility translates into contagion. I’m also hoping that the glorification of Lizzie and her story of hope and survival to the other side of bullying can replace just a bit of it… I would love for when people watch the film, for them to be inspired and angry at the same time. I would like people to go to ImWithLizzie.com and send a message to their members of Congress to join Lizzie in supporting the first anti-bullying bill.
Velasquez: When I started posting videos online I always hoped they would have a positive impact. It warms my heart to know that I’m able to upload a video that could help someone who might need a positive light in their life.
Bordo: My favorite moment of the film is when Lizzie and [her father] Lupe shoot a YouTube video for the first time. Because they are such a tight-knit family, their family rarely splits up to do things. This was one of the first times Lizzie and Lupe had spent a day just the two of them. I love this scene because it shows a glimpse into the father/daughter love story which is theirs. Shows perfectly how Lizzie became Lizzie, how warm and funny Lupe is, how much they love each other. How Lupe’s love for Lizzie has helped establish her self-worth which is one of the reasons she’s never given up.
(A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story opens nationwide on Sept. 25)