Lizzie Velasquez is the subject of the new Lifetime documentary, A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story. Made in 2015, the film debuted at the 2015 South By Southwest film festival in Velasquez’s hometown Austin, Texas. It debuts on Lifetime at 8 p.m. on October 17.
When she was a teenager, the 27-year-old Velasquez saw a YouTube video that called her the “World’s Ugliest Woman.” Rather than retreat from public view, she decided to become a motivational speaker and anti-bullying advocate. Valesquez was diagnosed with the incredibly rare neonatal progeroid syndrome and is one of only three known cases in the world. She cannot gain weight and also suffers from early ageing and blindness in her right eye.
In an interview with Heavy.com, A Brave Heart director Sara Hirsh Bordo called Velasquez one of the “few unifying heroes” that audiences can rally around as a “champion to inspire and give a sense of hope.”
Here is a look at her life and career.
1. Velasquez Weighs Just 63 Pounds & Was Born Weighing Just 3 Pounds
The Texas State University graduate weighs just 63 pounds. She was born prematurely, via an emergency C-section and weighed less than three pounds at birth. Although she eats regularly, her condition makes it impossible for her to gain weight. She revealed in 2012 that she eats up to 60 small meals a day.
“My stomach is so small that I can’t eat that much,” Velasquez told ABC News in 2012. “So about 30 minutes after eating I’m ready to eat again. I snack a lot just to keep my energy up.”
Despite her frail frame and blindness in her right eye, she is healthy and told ABC in 2012 that she wouldn’t be interested in a miracle cure.
“I realized I don’t really want a cure for this syndrome,” she said. “If a doctor found a magic pill or some surgery that would help me gain weight, I wouldn’t want it. All the struggles I’ve had made me who I am today.”
Dr. Atul Chopra at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston explained to ABC in 2012 that Velasquez doesn’t have any adipose tissue, which is what the body needs to store fat.
2. Velasquez Turned Her Bullying Experiences Into a Positive by Speaking Out
Although Velasquez dealt with bullying throughout school, it was seeing a YouTube video in 2006 that called her the “World’s Ugliest Woman” and the comments that went with it, that changed her life. At first, she wasn’t sure how to react.
“It made me feel awful, I think if anyone were to put themselves in my shoes the moment I found that video, and reading all the comments, I think you’d instantly knew how I felt. It was horrible, I was upset, I was angry, and I didn’t know how I was going to pick myself back up from it,” she told Australia’s Sunrise program in September.
However, she decided that the best way to overcome bullying was to speak out. This decision eventually lead to her famous TEDxAustinWomen talk in December 2013. Her 13-minute talk became a sensation and is now has over 10.7 million views. You can see her talk above.
3. She Believes Her Hispanic Heritage has played a Major Role in Her Response to Bullying
Back in March, Velasquez picked up the Latinovator award at the Hispanicize event in Miami. Before that event, she told the Huffington Post that being Hispanic has played an important role in who she is.
“Growing up Hispanic has made me the person I am today, without a doubt. The biggest thing I’ve learned from my culture is the support of the ones that you love,” she said.
She grew up with a large Mexican-American family, who all helped her rise above bullying.
“Growing up with that was huge for me because when I would go on holidays and just be with all of my cousins and my aunts and my uncles and everything, they just made me feel like Lizzie,” Valesquez told the Huffington Post. “They never treated me differently. They never did anything special for me. They treated me like everyone else, and having that foundation and having that support on both sides of my family, was huge.”
Velasquez was raised Catholic and told Premier Christianity that her faith has also played an important role.
“I was born and raised in the Catholic faith and my parents have always been very involved in church and volunteering,” she said. “It was always my dad’s way of wanting to say to God, ‘We will be as close as we can with you, volunteer and do what we can, as long as you help keep Lizzie healthy.’ And so we did that our whole lives.”
4. Velasquez Turned Motivational Speaking Into a Career & Knows There’s Still Work to be Done to Stop Bullying
Velasquez has surprisingly become an entrepreneur in the years since she gained media attention. She has written three books and figured out how to monetize her skill as a motivational speaker.
“I didn’t really ever think of myself as an entrepreneur,” she told Forbes in 2015. “First and foremost, I had to flip the hurt and negativity of social media and turn it into something positive, to hopefully help others who have suffered from severe bullying to not let it get them down. I didn’t realize I was an entrepreneur until I was a speaker at a Malaysia conference for entrepreneurs.”
Velasquez has also learned how to turn social media into a positive after starting out with a negative experience. “Through my wide net of social followers, I continue to have a high demand for my books and it has opened countless speaking opportunities,” she told Forbes.
5. ‘A Brave Heart’ Won the Audience Award at SXSW & Was Directed by First-Timer Sara Hirsch Bordo
A Brave Heart won acclaim after its debut at SXSW 2015 and even picked up the Audience Award. The film was directed by Sarah Hirsch Bordo, who produced TEDxAustinWomen. Velasquez told Fortune that she approached Bordo and they decided to work together on the film. When asked about her reaction to seeing it for the first time, Velasquez said, “I was speechless, crying, humbled and excited. It’s my biggest dream come true—that I never knew I had.”
When Fortune asked Velasquez what her advise is to those bullied at the workplase, she suggested:
Find a safe place to talk, and express how you feel. Maybe say something like, “I’m not used to having people speak down to me. How can we work together to find a way to address this?”
But her most powerful piece of advice might be that you are in control of your own life. As she told Fortune:
Throughout the world, there are many people who are worse off than I am. You have to use the negativity in your life to change things. I used to just smile and brush my problems under the rug. But over time, that bubbles up and comes out. You are the biggest influencer in your life. You have to be strong for yourself first. You are the one who defines who you are.
Bordo had never made a film before completing A Brave Heart. She told Heavy.com that Velasquez and her family had been approached before abotu a film or documentary, but they decided that Bordo was the “right fit” for the project as a “surrogate Velasquez.”