There’s no such thing as bad PR, but is branding the bad really so bad?
For me, it was a lifesaver.
In the past year and a half, I have been rushed to the emergency room three times, been officially deemed disabled and been hospitalized for what one of the most renowned rheumatologists in the country declared “an extremely weird variation” of “an extremely rare autoimmune disease” for which “there are no case studies” — so “maybe it could be named after YOU!” (And no this isn’t exactly what you want to hear when you’re in the hospital hooked up to an IV with a morphine drip and getting “the most blood tests ever ordered in the ER”.)
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a depressing story. As long as you stick with me so I can get to the good stuff.
Acting Just Fine
This is a story about branding. Up until a year and a half year ago, I branded myself as talented, pretty, confident and kind. I wrote, directed and produced award-winning short films, one of which netted two interviews with Emmy award-winning entertainment reporter George Pennacchio. I went on auditions, I landed lead roles in Hollywood independent films and plays. I formed WOOF Productions, with the goal of donating film proceeds to animal rescue groups and charities. All of this, mind you, when my mom and sister and I were technically still in hiding from my sociopathic father.
It wasn’t until October 2014, with the premiere of the Lifetime movie Run For Your Life, inspired by my mom’s memoir, Quicksand, that we decided to come out of hiding in order to show other women that there is HOPE on the other side of domestic violence.
So I had been acting for 15 years before the Lifetime movie premiered because, unlike my character in Run For Your Life, who had to give up her dream of being an actor when she went into hiding with her mom and sister in order to escape her abusive father, my mom never set limits on my dreams. My mom always told me that I can do anything I want in this world and always found a way to help me make my dreams possible, despite any and all roadblocks. And being stalked by my abusive father, who hired a hit man to kill my mom when he failed to complete the job himself, was a pretty big – and scary – roadblock. But after surviving that hell, the good thing is that following my dreams then seemed like a cinch. I felt, if I could survive that, I can do anything, just as my mom always told me I could.
So I walked red carpets at film festivals and got strangely used to photographers yelling “Bri, Bri, show us your gorgeous smile!” with every step I took.
If you look at the pictures of me from these glamorous events, you’d have no idea I was sick, no idea I was in excruciating pain and no idea that my veins were bursting as I was standing to get my photo taken, leaking blood and essentially causing internal bleeding as I smiled.
Because I didn’t really want to talk about my auto-immune conditions and I most certainly didn’t want to be defined by them.
A Painful Rebranding
So I ignored the pain (as much as you can ignore pain that high doses of morphine can’t even numb) because I had such strength and such willpower. All throughout my childhood. All throughout high school —until I was finally properly diagnosed in college. And even then I pushed on. I wasn’t going to let auto-immune diseases and constant excruciating pain stop me from writing, directing and starring in plays while at UC Santa Cruz.
When the medication I was given gave me too many side effects to count, I got off of it. I opted for acupuncture because I wasn’t going to let medication define me either.
For one thing, I was given prednisone, which made me gain 30 pounds and took me two years to lose. Acting isn’t exactly the kind of profession that treats weight gain kindly (which I parodied in my my award winning GUT-TO-GO, which is the film that George Pennacchio covered twice on ABC-7 Los Angeles, the most-watched newscast in Southern California).
Fast forward to that first ER trip two summers ago: my head and throat are swollen to monstrous proportion. I’m having a lot of trouble breathing, and the solution is to inject me with high doses of prednisone (which I swore to myself I would never take again).
I took it, my mom and sister fought for me to be treated by the best rheumatologist in the country, and I made the decision to stop branding myself as the actor-writer-director who smiles through the pain.
I gained 40 pounds in the first two weeks of taking the high-dose prednisone (along with the puffy face that Ashley Judd wrote such a kick-ass essay about) and now I finally started to look like the kind of overweight person who might actually be sick (at least according to gross stereotypes).
I was still smiling (because despite everything, I have an unbelievably joy-filled life) but my tachycardia (and the fact that no amount of opiates could make me me loopy) finally proved just how serious my pain level was.
Now every appointment I have, nurses pull me aside after looking at my (extremely extensive) medical file from the past and a half year, asking me if I’m suicidal and might need to talk to a psychiatrist.
Doctors look at me like my life is beyond pathetic.
But I never revealed to them that I’m an award winning writer and actor or that I wrote a full-length screenplay called LOVE ABRIDGED that I plan on finding a way to produce.
They don’t know me as the girl on the red carpet who everyone wanted to take pictures of.
I didn’t tell them any of this. I told them about my pain.
Stifling the Giggling
And that’s how they branded me. They made me overweight with their meds, then branded me an “unfortunate plump woman who has no real quality of life.” (I actually read that in my case file.)
But the truth is, although the drugs and doctors may have made me look more the part of the sick, disabled person that I am, I’m not a different person than I was prior to a year and a half ago. I was just as in pain then, just as disabled then, only I didn’t brand myself as such.
When my condition worsened two summers ago, I decided to brand myself as in pain and disabled. I spoke only of my ailments, not my accomplishments. When my mom was in the ER with me and I started to giggle from our conversations, she would shush me because most people who are in as much pain as I am aren’t gigglers. “Giggling” in not part of the “in excruciating pain” brand.
So I stopped giggling, allowed the meds to keep bloating me up, and stated every scary detail of the worsening of my condition until I had a whole team of doctors on my case who not only believed in the severity of my pain and disease, but were determined to help alleviate it.
Defining Happiness, Branding ME
A friend of ours recently texted Kelsey saying she wished I could go back to being how I was several years or so ago, and when I saw the text, I was more than offended.
Yes I will always be disabled and likely always live in pain, but I am BETTER now than I was several years ago.
And that’s because I’m finally being true to me and not hiding any part of who I am.
The beautiful smiling pictures of me from film festivals don’t show how much pain I was in, don’t show how I would be bedridden for at least a week after those pictures were taken.
I’m not going to lie — accepting my pain and disability and being treated for it rather than pretending I’m Superwoman and can do anything in pain that others can do while not in pain — has been extremely difficult.
I am now refusing to be on chemotherapy drugs for the rest of my life — the supposedly last (though scientifically untested) remaining option after a year and a half of brain MRIs and heart ultrasounds and bone scans and head CTS and giving so much blood for so many blood tests that I’m surprised I have any left to give.
I’m exhausted from a year and a half of appointments with specialists on top of home care (aren’t YOU exhausted just reading about all these tests and appointments and pokings and proddings?)
But I’m getting acupuncture once a week, taking my pain meds (along with about 20 other medications) and I just began Reiki, which so far has been surprisingly amazing.
And I’m optimistic that one day I’ll be on a red carpet smiling again — though without hiding or masking any part of me — having completed production of LOVE ABRIDGED, which my mom and sister and I plan to make together.
Because no one but me gets to define who I am. I have the power to decide who I want to be, how I want to be branded and what makes me happy in life. And I choose to celebrate life’s little joys each and every day because they are really the big joys.
For instance, It was scary and depressing when I was physically unable to walk Ivy and LuLU two summers ago. But now I can, and we regularly go on one to two mile walks together, which brings me an insurmountable amount of happiness. It was sad when I was in too much pain to hold up a book to read. But now I can do that too. And I’m well on my way to completing the Gilmore Girls reading challenge my mom and sister and I are doing together. Which is definitely a KOTAW Girl Gang HERE HERE moment to celebrate. As is the fact that I’m an official writer for the KOTAW blog.
I had to brand myself as sick in order to get the treatment I needed. I had to slow down in order to have a chance of getting better.
But despite the rebranding on my road to recovery, I haven’t changed, except for the better. To paraphrase Meredith Brooks’ belt-worthy song, Bitch — you know the one: “I’m a little bit of everything, all rolled into one!” — I’m in pain and I’m full of joy and I’m disabled and I’m incredibly funny and I’ve gained weight but I’m losing it.
I’m smart and I’m talented and I don’t care what anybody else thinks and I love writing and I have the best family in the whole world and the only thing that defines me is the love I feel for my life and my mom and my sister and the furry members of our KOTAW Girl Gang.
Fat, thin, vibrant, sick. These are all just labels.
When I stopped branding myself as talented and pretty and worthy of news-coverage, people looked at me differently. When I shared my weaknesses rather than my strengths, people pitied me.
That’s the power of branding, for good or bad.
My branding campaign to make doctors believe how sick and in pain I was (other than forcing them to look at my swollen head and throat — and an entire body covered in broken blood vessels) included dialing down my happy, suppressing my giggles and allowing myself to be intravenously given medication that would make me fat.
That’s not a bad price to pay for getting to walk my dogs again.
In fact, it was the best trade-off I’ve ever been given.
What are your thoughts about personal branding? Do you think revealing the flawed, controversial or negative side of your personal brand is a good or bad idea?
Where do YOU draw the line between vulnerable and TMI?
I’ve never been one to toe the line, so I took a leap of faith here and chose to be very open, honest and revelatory.
Thinking about revealing a particular story as part of your personal brand but not quite sure it’s business-appropriate? Tell me your story either below in the comments section or privately here and I’ll shed some light for you.
Want to know more about me and my personal brand? You can read my KOTAW bio or ask me questions below! Let’s swap stories!