In December 2013, she inspired millions with her TED Talk. Now Lizzie Velasquez, once called "the world's ugliest woman," hopes to reach an even-wider audience through an anti-bullying documentary about her story.
"I know what it is to be bullied and what is to be bullied online, and I want to be the protector of those who think it won't get better," said Velasquez, 25, who has a rare disease that makes it impossible for her to gain weight. She has never weighed more than 64 pounds and is blind in one eye.
"The idea is that they see the documentary and realize that, yes, it is possible to overcome everything," she told The Associated Press during an interview in a coffee shop in Austin, Texas.
She's raising money for the film, tentatively titled The Lizzie Project, through a Kickstarter campaign that has already collected more than $123,000 in donations. The campaign, whose trailer can be seen at TheLizzieProject.com, ends May 31.
The goal is to raise $180,000.
Velasquez was born in Austin in 1989 with a syndrome so rare only two other people in the world are known to have it.
She became a celebrity on Dec. 5, 2013, when her TED Talk (short speeches designed to share and spread ideas from a number of disciplines) in Austin (part of the worldwide event TEDxWomen) became a hit. In her speech, Velasquez explained that her life changed at age 17, when she saw herself on a YouTube video titled, "The world's ugliest woman." The video's comments section featured comments such as, "Do the world a favor and put a gun to your head."
"Instead of just taking shelter of my tears, I chose to be happy and realize this syndrome is not a problem but a blessing that allows me to improve myself and inspire other people," said Velasquez.
In the years since she saw the video and comments, Velasquez graduated from college, wrote three self-help books (the third, Choosing Happiness, will be published in August) and gained tens of thousands of followers on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. She's been interviewed by Katie Couric and ABC's The View, where she met Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg.
Velasquez credits her strength to her parents, who have always loved her the same way they love her siblings, Marina and Chris, neither of whom suffer from the syndrome.
"They're the best parents in the entire world," said Velasquez. "From the moment I was born they showered me with love. And they didn't just raise me. They raised my brother and sister in the exact same way. So that love, multiplied times three, is what definitely brought me to where I am today."
Velasquez was born four weeks premature. Doctors used a photo to show her to her mother for the first time. "I started crying inconsolably, but I asked them to bring her to me nevertheless," said Rita Velasquez. "I wanted to see her, hold her and love her."
Her father said Lizzie realized she was different on her first day of kindergarten, when other kids didn't want to play with her. "We told her about the syndrome and, ever since, (Lizzie) showed great signs of maturity," he said.
"Lizzie has such an inner strength and sense of humor that anyone can relate to her," said Sara Bordo, a first-time director working with Velasquez on the film project. "We all have difficulties in life, but nothing compared to what she has been through. Her positive attitude elevates the spirit of any person in the world."
Velasquez says she's not interested in a possible cure for her syndrome.
"No, there is no way, I wouldn't even consider it," Velasquez said. "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."