Lizzie Velasquez won't soon forget the day she came across a YouTube clip called The World's Ugliest Woman. The video had gone viral, attracting four million views and thousands of anonymous posts along the lines of "what a monster", "kill it with fire" and "Lizzie, please, please do the world a favour. Put a gun to your head and kill yourself."
Velasquez, who was 17 at the time, says there are no words to describe how it felt watching herself on the eight-second silent video. Born with a rare condition that makes it impossible for her to gain weight, she'd never thought herself a great beauty, but being the subject of a stranger's hatred and ridicule was at once overwhelming and frightening.
The tears when they came coursed fast and freely. But so did the indignation. And in between bouts of violent sobbing and cursing the screen, Velasquez came to a strange awareness. Despite the initial shock (and the fact that the person in question later refused to take down the video) she realised-with a jolt-that she didn't want to get even.
Now that she'd been "outed" as ugly Velasquez knew she had two options. She could go along with her gut instincts and run and hide (and therefore corroborate the video) or she could try something radical. She could embrace the moment.
After all, accepting reality had always been Lizzie Velasquez's unique selling point.
Born four weeks premature in 1989 with a condition so rare that only two other people are known to have it, now 25, Velasquez remains tiny and weighs less than 30kg. She has no sight in her right eye and only limited vision in the other.
But buoyed by supportive and loving parents, her mysterious syndrome absorbed into the bosom of the family, her home life was as normal and chaotic as the next person's. Velasquez's introduction to the outside world, via kindergarten at the age of five, was simply one of many rude awakenings. And the first time she was called a monster.
"After it happened, I just went and played with the blocks and waited for the day to get better," Velasquez says during her TED talk, a short motivational video which has attracted more than 5.7 million views on YouTube. "It didn't."
High school simply added an element of drama to the trauma. "I thought I looked disgusting," she says. "I'd wake up in the morning and think, 'Can I just rub this syndrome off?...' I wanted to look different. It's what I wanted every single day, and every single day I was disappointed."
But then, as now, Velasquez says she was struck by the question: "What do I want to define me?"
"Would I let being called a monster define me? No," she says. "I'm going to let my goals, my success and my accomplishments define me. Not my outer appearance or that I'm visually impaired, nor that I have a syndrome that nobody understands. I had to use those negative things and turn them upside down. And I did. I used them as a ladder to climb towards my goals."
And see how she climbs. Velasquez has since graduated from college, penned three self-help books (her latest Choosing Happiness to come out later this year) and floated into the orbit of US celebrity interviewers Katie Couric, Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg.
Bettering herself is only half the story. Next on the list is world domination. If Velasquez's legion of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube followers are anything to go by, she's already half-way there. Currently, she's also raising funds for her "don't bully the bully" documentary, tentatively titled The Lizzie Project ("I want to leave the online community better off than I found it... or it found me", she says in an accompanying video).
When asked if she was hoping for a cure for her syndrome Velasquez replied: "No, there is no way, I wouldn't even consider it.
"If you had asked me that question when I was 13, I'd probably have said yes. I'd be all for it, I'd do the trial, whatever. But if you ask me that now, I've learned and I've come such a long way to be able to accept who I am and own who I am that, if I changed anything about me I wouldn't be Lizzie, I wouldn't be true to myself."
And, in the process, Lizzie Velasquez is well on her way to becoming unforgettable. Only this time, it's on her own terms.
Lizzie's TED talk:
- Daily Life