Contributed by Laura Ashley Cliff:
It has been one whole year of Still She Rose. Laura Clark approached me last year after the tragic loss of Cheslie Kryst and asked me what a program for the pageant community involving mental health could look like. This was my moment, I have been waiting my entire pageant career for someone to ask me this question and didn’t hesitate to send her my idea map.
In the tarot, death signals a transformation, and I can indubitably exclaim with every fiber of my existence that what we have collectively created will transform pageant history for the better, change perspectives of the future, and give a voice to those struggling with their mental health, while normalizing its place on every stage. This legacy is something I will always be proud to be a part of. In retrospect, it was the mission of this program and that I was the person selected to create it, that forced me to brutally face head on the challenges that were my biggest barriers to mental wellness.
What I didn’t know when Laura (Clark) approached me, was that I would also have my most transformative year, one that I have yet to see the end result of, but can already see that I am not the same version of the freshly broken girl who thought she had just lost everything, who catastrophically needed to prove herself, and had just been handed her dream project (doesn’t sound like a winning combo, does it?). Just writing these words, I question how it’s possible, as I have transformed many times in my life, each into a better version of myself, but never as volatile and destructive as this.
My favorite theorist, Viktor Frankl, once said, ‘One who has a ‘why’ can endure any ‘how’.” This year, what kept pushing me forward was the commitments that I made to Still She Rose and the people who held me accountable. It became my why and my how, and although I felt like I failed a hundred times over, it’s the place where I found the version of myself that I like the best. Around February of last year, I had begun to question painful childhood memories. Seeking accountability from my family was met with brute force. When I had told my parents about Still She Rose, the response was, “We don’t want to know you, see you, hear from you, or know anything going on in your life until you forget the past.” An emotional cut off. Abuse until I opt to invalidate my own experience and feelings and ignore the abuse from childhood that I was seeking accountability for. That wasn’t an option for me. And because when it rains it pours, my relationship with my partner and best friend had also ended. The three most significant people in my life, at the same time, all in different ways, had betrayed me. It was exactly like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line from my favorite book, The Great Gatsby , “The loneliest moment in someone's life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” Outside appearance has always been of huge importance in my family. “What will people think?” Personally, it’s never been anything that I cared to pay attention to. My drive has always come more from a place of “If it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it” and largely guided by my morals. But, as if driven by a motor in those moments after what felt like my world had collapsed, all I could do, really all I knew how to do, was put on the show that I had practiced for. To look the part, act the part, play the part, because when I differentiated, even the people who I thought were friends were making me feel like I was too much, that I needed to “just get over it”, shaming me and not allowing me to feel the very valid and vulgarly palpable feelings of loss that were overcoming me, and I felt it wasn’t “acceptable” to acknowledge, and therefore had no place in Still She Rose. No one could know this was how I felt or was my reality. As leaders, directors, titleholders, or anyone in the spotlight, we often feel like we have to conceal the reality of what we’re facing because it’s not “appropriate” for the public to see. Our “image” or ego really, is prioritized over our emotions and our healing process and it’s detrimental to not only our authenticity and recovery, but to the people we serve who can and will benefit from our powerful journey. Shame is the most destructive of the emotions, but it’s also man-made. If no one ever pointed a finger and said “you are bad,” the feeling of shame would not exist. When I was interviewing Jordyn Goddard on grief, I was not ready to acknowledge that I too was grieving the ambiguous loss of my parents, who every day were choosing to not be in my life. I wasn’t able to accept it, nor did I feel it was “appropriate” to share. Jordyn was one of the only people who vocalized an understanding of that loss, actually before I had. I don’t remember her exact words, but it was something like, “It must be really hard grieving for people who are still alive and making a choice to not be here.”
I felt seen, and I think her empathy did two things for me, one allowed me to acknowledge my grief, but also release accountability. As the scapegoat in a narcissistic family system, I was so used to having the finger pointed at me and being told all of the reasons why I was bad, but this wasn’t one of them. I didn’t deserve this, and it was nice to hear that from someone who understood the loss of a parent. Still, I thought if I could just prove my worth, create an amazing package of healing my broken heart through travel, making Still She Rose a wild success, wearing a rhinestone freaking bikini, and winning International Ms, my parents would HAVE to talk to me, right? Then they would be proud of me, that would be enough, then they would love me, right? Travel didn’t heal my broken heart. Still She Rose is a success. I rocked that bikini, and I didn’t win International Ms… but none of that ever mattered. It never mattered. The moment that sunk in, was the moment, on a rainy Monday in New York City, that I felt the most violent surge of rage surface. I missed my bus home, and sitting in the rain, like a cliche movie, I radically accepted that the only way my parents were ever going to love me was if they could abuse me, and that still wasn’t an option. I was on my own, fully and entirely alone in this world. I might as well start living it my way. The moment a girl cuts her hair off, you know two things could potentially be happening. The first is a major break through, and the second is a major break down. Thankfully, chopping over a foot of hair off in my bathroom at midnight was the beginning of a new era - One where I listened to my instincts more, where I started to question authority instead of accepting answers. I began to clean up the financial mess I had gotten myself into trying to escape my pain by boarding a flight, and I began to feel safe. I was really proud of how I chose to spend the holidays, particularly Christmas, using the money I had budgeted on presents for everyone else and buying myself filet mignon at a Manhattan steakhouse before seeing the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular front row on Christmas Day. It was the greatest gift of self-love I could have ever given on a day that otherwise could have destroyed me. Walking back to my Times Square hotel that night, I just knew that I was going to be ok. However, there was one more hurdle for me to jump over. I was fortunate to come home from NYC with the flu and still sick, boarded a flight to Orlando for Miss Earth USA where I was going to be implementing Still She Rose. That week, the hits just kept on coming, an unexpected $0 paycheck, vasovagal responses, migraines, and more, all kept me in highly stressed-out state. The reality is, I was in a state of fight or flight from the moment my plane landed in Orlando. I was 20 minutes away from my parents during the biggest moment of my career, with people constantly telling me how proud I should be, and my own parents didn’t even care. In fact, because of the way they reacted, I couldn’t even be proud of myself. All I felt was shame, like an imposter that didn’t deserve to be there, a giant mess of a human, it was laughable that people looked to me to guide them as I was falling apart. It took me a really long time after the Still She Rose gala to see that while I thought I was a broken mess of a human and questioned my ability to lead, it simultaneously was the exact reason that it needed to be me to create this program, but also, I really needed it. Through Still She Rose, I found more ways to turn pain into purpose. I learned to stop fighting the difficult emotions and make space for them, because they are valid and have earned their rightful place. There will always be people, close people, family even, who will dismiss or invalidate you, but that’s why having a sense of community is so important. I learned that you can think you’re doing everything right, and that will not mean that you will win or even be loved. But that is not a measure of your worth, and you should not have to prove or win anything to be worthy of love. Love is our birth right. So when the people you want it from refuse to give it, find a way to give it to yourself.
Finally, I learned that you can be successful AND feel broken, bruised, defeated and imperfect, like you’re falling apart, not meeting expectations, not feeling confident or pretty. It’s ok to feel all of those things; just get back up and try again, because ‘still, she rose.’ Your contribution to this world still matters, because you matter. Happy One Year, Still She Rose 🌹
Laura Ashley Cliff