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Lizzie Velasquez: From Victim to Inspiration

Photograph by Getty Images

To call Lizzie Velasquez an inspiration is really putting it mildly. Lizzie, born with a rare disease that doesn't allow her body to maintain any weight, fell victim to an online attack when at the age of 17, she found a video of herself on YouTube titled "The World's Ugliest Woman." As if the video wasn't horrifying enough, the comment section was filled with anonymous commenters leaving cruel remarks like "why didn't her parents abort her," and "why don't you just kill yourself?" With the support of her parents, Lizzie chose to fight back and started her own YouTube channel, where she hoped to spread some positivity to the online world and fight back against online bullying.

Now, at 26, Lizzie has become one of the most popular motivational speakers against online bullying and a shining example of confidence to her many young fans all over the world. From YouTuber to TEDx Talk viral sensation, Lizzie is now embarking on a new journey: becoming a filmmaker.

"A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story" made it's world premiere to SXSW audiences in March 2015 and has been generating rave reviews ever since. The film, which was released in theaters on September 25, is the story of Lizzie and her family's journey from her birth to her mission to get Congress behind the Safe Schools Improvement Act. We had a chance to speak with Lizzie about the film, her family and her powerful journey to the film debut.

RELATED: How to Keep Your Kid From Being an Online Bully

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Q&A With Lizzie Velasquez of "A Brave Heart"

So I have to say, I just finished watching the movie and wow! I am in such awe of you, and feel like I already know you. The buzz on the film is incredible, but I know this journey pretty much began around the time of your TEDx Talk. What has it been like for you, from TEDx to SXSW?

Lizzie Velasquez: It's been absolutely crazy. I think since January of last year, right after TED went viral, everything just sped up and was everywhere. At the beginning, I think, I was just trying to figure out what do I do with this, how do I go from here? It's funny, after my TED talk, that was my last one for 2013, my plan was to take 6 months off. Just kinda take a break and relax, that definitely didn't happen. I don't know, it's one of those things where I thought, I'm just going to have to take advantage if everything that is coming my way and use it to the best of my abilities and hopefully just help a whole bunch of people. I had no idea that it would be through a movie, or that it would be in theaters so soon!

I know you were a YouTuber before TED. How did you get into speaking or did you jump right from vlogging to a TED talk?

Lizzie Velasquez: I actually was a motivational speaker for many years prior to the TED talk. I did my first talk when I was, honestly, maybe a junior in high school. I didn't even know [motivational speaking] was a thing. My assistant principal at the time had asked me to speak to 400 ninth graders and tell them my story, and I thought, "you are insane, I am not doing that." At the time, I had such a passion for computers, so my head was always in computers — that's what I wanted to go to college for — and to have this whole new thing was kind of crazy. She told me to talk to my parents and get back to her, and of course they were very supportive and encouraged me to do it.

My friend made signs for me, and they were all in the front row supporting me. I did my first speech; I wrote it word for word, put it in a folder. When I was reading my speech, I was looking down at my folder, and about halfway down, I realized it was so quiet. When I looked up, everyone was so into what I was saying, you could hear a pin drop in the room. That's when I realized that they could relate to me, in a way. It was the first time I felt comfortable in my own skin.

So, I went home, and typed into google "how to be a motivational speaker." I just studied speakers on YouTube. I was so set on it. This is where my computer skills came in handy and I created my first website and my first professional email address. It just had my name and didn't have the words like "cheer" or "baby" in it. I emailed a bunch of places, like churches and schools, and said basically if you need a speaker, I'm your girl. By the time I was in college, I was going to school full-time Monday through Thursday, I would get on a plane Friday through Sunday to go speak wherever, and I would do my homework on the plane and work on my book in hotels, and then go back and do it all over again.

That's amazing! You're so ambitious and driven, and your parents play such a big role for you. In the film, we see how supportive your parents are of you and your goals. But not just them — your whole family is very close and very supportive of you. Do you think your culture has had an impact on your life and your goals?

Lizzie Velasquez: Absolutely. I mean, my culture plays a huge role because of my family and it's who we are. I think it's why we're so close. I have always been surrounded by my family, lots of people around, and food, and celebrations. I think that's a big part why they are so supportive of me and they are a the reason I can do what I do.

You and your family also have to revisit some painful memories from the past. How was it reliving those moments for all of you?

Lizzie Velasquez: It was different for [each of] us. I think that it's also because I never went to anyone else's interviews. So, I didn't see any of them until I was watching some of the edits and the rough cuts; that's when I was able to hear everyone's true emotions which were very surprising to me. Especially my parents, I mean, I grew up with them, but around me, I guess they all had an agreement — and by all, I mean my parents, my aunts, my uncles and my cousins, my whole entire family. Everyone just had such a positive energy around me, even when I was really upset, they just always had something encouraging to say. So I think it was very good for them to able to express how they truly felt, and share all those things. But for me, to go back to those memories, it's very second nature. But it took a lot to share a lot of stuff I never shared before like, well now I do, but before, I wouldn't post videos or tell people when I'm crying or feeling upset about something. That was a really, really huge deal for me to overcome while we were filming.

You are such a strong person but in the film you also touch on still having moments of self-doubt. How do you work your way past that?

Lizzie Velasquez: Sometimes my speaking events are, in a way, like therapy for me. The self-doubt thing is something I have always battled with, even now, and I think it's something that I will keep having to work on. But one of the biggest things I learned is that having self-doubt is OK. I used to think that it ruined my mind or I would compare myself to people. Over time, I realized doing that would set me down a negative path. As soon as I did that, I would feel bad so I had to make an effort to say, "I have to stop." But it wasn't easy; it's still not always easy but I make myself do it.

I just wanted to say that I am a huge fan, and as a mom and someone who has been bullied, and going through it now with my own daughter, thank you. We need more people like you. I am so happy that she has someone like you to look up to.

Lizzie Velasquez: Thank you! See that's why I do it; these stories of both mothers and daughters, and I love helping people. Thank you, I love hearing that because that's why I love what I do.

A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story opens September 25 and is rated PG.

Watch Lizzie's TEDx Talk:

RELATED: Children's Online Safety

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