Dave Quinn
March 03, 2018 01:00 PM

Three little words changed Keala Settle’s life forever: “This Is Me.”

The 42-year-old actress, a Broadway veteran and Tony nominee with roles in Waitress and Les Misérables, had a breakout role this year as Lettie Lutz, (a.k.a. the Bearded Lady) in Michael Gracey’s original movie musical The Greatest Showman

It was a part that popped with Settle’s powerhouse performance of the song “This Is Me” — an anthem of self-empowerment that has propelled the film’s soundtrack to a No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts and earned songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul an Oscar-nomination for Best Original Song.

And to think, the tune wasn’t even in the film until Pasek and Paul looked to Settle for inspiration.

Be sure to check out PEOPLE’s full Academy Awards coverage to get the latest news on Hollywood’s big night.

Keala Settle

Settle, like many, has battled insecurities and self-doubt her whole life.

Born and raised in Hawaii to immigrant parents (her mom from New Zealand and her dad from England) and the eldest of 5 children, Settle says she always had the undying support of her family. But that didn’t stop her falling into the bad habit of self-criticism.

Body image issues; a feeling of unworthiness; a constant questioning of her own talent and existence — all has plagued her.

Keala Settle in The Greatest Showman

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“I used to not walk out the door, I was so afraid,” she recalls. “Everything from, ‘You shouldn’t be here,’ down to, ‘Girl, don’t wear those pants.’ I was so sad. I tried my best to not even look in a mirror! It was a lot of hiding, a lot of being afraid, a lot of running away from the industry and wondering why I’m here on earth and not accepting that what I have to give was enough or whether I was able to be the one to give it.”

“I’ve always been the biggest bully to myself,” Settle adds. “No one can bully me better than me. I’m the first person to the party going, ‘Don’t worry — you don’t have to cut me down, ’cause I’m already there.’ I struggled with all those voices and gave them so much power, to the point where they took over my life.”

But a funny thing happened once Settle started singing “This Is Me” over and over again: those voices dimmed.  Though she admits she was afraid to sing the song at first (“This is too much responsibility!”), Settle says her life is now “a complete 180 from what it had been before.”

“I learned not to give power to that doubt and that insecurity anymore,” she says. “Everybody has those feelings. So it made me step up. That fight will always be something I struggle with, but each time I sing, it gets easier. I can’t really do that bullying anymore and I’m grateful of that.”

Benj Pasek, Keala Settle and Justin Paul
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for THR

For Pasek and Paul — the Tony-winning composers of Dear Evan Hansen who took home the Oscar last year for their lyrics on La La Land‘s “City of Stars” — they knew Settle always had that fight in her, even as they were writing “This Is Me.”

At first, the song was supposed to be written for the Tom Thumb character to sing. But when tasked to find a moment that would become a tentpole for the film, Pasek and Paul new a female voice with vulnerability would make all the difference.

“At the time, Keala was a studio singer on the project so she was always in our head,” says Paul, 33. “Anytime you get to hear Keala sing feels like a religious experience… so we thought, ‘What if it was for the Bearded Lady? As soon as we know that and as soon as we thought about Keala, it became just as much about writing a song for her as it was for that character.”

“The way Keala pours so much of her own life story into every note and every lyric of the song is what really brings it to life,” adds Pasek, 32. “Her interpretation and grit and struggle in the performance of wanting to fight through those dark times and come out through the other side is something a lot of people can relate to. That to me is a really profound and unbelievable thing to get to witness.”

Settle is grateful for Pasek and Paul for helping her find her own inner strength.

“What is so beautiful about a composer and a lyricist is that their job is to push a story along and not halt it,” she says. “If you find those people that can actually tap into a place musically where narrative will never be able to touch, then you’ve hit gold. That’s what Justin and Benj did and continue to do.”

Greatest Showman star Hugh Jackman and Keala Settle

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In the wake of The Greatest Showman‘s release, Settle dropped her first EP, Chapter One, and has been busy working on a second.

Meanwhile the most transformative thing for her has been the way fans have responded to “This Is Me” — many of whom have reached out to her on social media to share their covers of the song (like on the top sing-along app Smule’s Sing! Karaoke) and their experiences with the very challenges she’s battled her whole life.

“It constantly humbles me,” she says. “I have a cold every day because I’ve been crying for months. I’m so dehydrated!”

“People of all ages, ethnicities, shapes and sizes, and nationalities have been reaching out with covers, artwork, choreography, and their stories. Blue and blonde hair girls drawing beards on their face with markers and dancing around the room to ‘This Is Me,’ living their best lives,” she says. “I go to Instagram and see stories about people who have wanted to take their own life but put the gun down because of this song. And I think, ‘Keala, look at what the vehicle you’ve been given to transport to people has done for everyone.’ It’s remarkable.”

The 90th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 4, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood and will be broadcast live on the ABC Television Network at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT, with a pre-show starting at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:3o p.m. PT.

Watch People & Entertainment Weekly Red Carpet Live this Sunday, March 4 at 5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT. Download the PeopleTV app on your favorite mobile or connected TV device, or stream the show on People.com, EW.com, Twitter, Facebook Live and YouTube Live. 

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