Gigi Lazzarato was just 19 years old when she lost her mother to cancer.
The YouTube sensation – better known to her 1.7 million subscribers as Gigi Gorgeous – had always had a close relationship with her mom, but there was one secret Lazzarato had kept from her: she is transgender.
“I never got to say it to her face,” says Lazzarato, now 23, says in the latest issue of PEOPLE. “[Her death] made me realize, ‘Life is too short to not do what you want to do. Let’s become the most authentic you that you can be.’ ”
Named Gregory at birth, Lazzarato says she was “always attracted to more feminine things” while growing up in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga.
Though her dedication to becoming a title-winning diver gave her childhood “shape,” Lazzarato admits the “grueling” training schedule also served as an opportunity to ignore the feeling inside that “something was different.”
“I had no time to think about becoming who I really was inside,” she says.
But within months of quitting the sport at the age of 15, Lazzarato was wearing a full face of makeup to school.
In 2008, encouraged by friends and teachers, Lazzarato – who, at the time, identified as a homosexual male – began posting on YouTube under the moniker Gregory Gorgeous. Her makeup tutorials started out as “fun little projects,” but after a few months Lazzarato says she was getting recognized at the mall and realized she’d perhaps found her calling.
Her success as a YouTuber led to a chance meeting with transgender model and performance artist Amanda Lepore in New York City. After her evening with Lepore, Lazzarato says she began to realize she was not living life as her “most authentic self.”
Though she never got to share her realization with her mother, Lazzarato credits her mom, Judy, with her success.
“The fact I get to do what I do is definitely God’s gift to me – and that’s how I know my mom is looking out for me,” says Lazzarato, who is now a social ambassador for Crest Canada, partnered with Too Faced Cosmetics, nominated for a 2015 Streamy Award and helped introduce Miley Cyrus‘s performance at the MTV Music Video Awards on Aug. 30. “I truly believe my mom is watching over me and knows that I’m Gigi now.”
RELATED VIDEO: 5 Ways Caitlyn Jenner Broke the Internet
[BRIGHTCOVE “20927612” “” “peoplenow” “no” ]
For more from Lazzarato – including how her family reacted to her transition – pickup the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday