Paulette Leaphart has inspired millions of people in her fight against breast cancer, and thanks to Beyoncé, her story has now touched even more.
Turning lemons to lemonade, the breast cancer survivor and mother of eight has been on an incredible journey that ended in joy on the set of Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album.
While training for her 1,000 mile bare-chested walk for cancer awareness (which begins Saturday), Leaphart learned of a casting for a “top secret” video being made for a “very big star.” She took her 8-year-old daughter Madeline to audition, but it was Leaphart who ended up with a part.
During her daughter’s audition, Leaphart showed the casting director a video trailer for the Kickstarter-funded documentary about her battle with breast cancer. The casting director then forwarded the video to the director. The director was impressed and shared the story with “the main person in charge” – later revealed to be Beyoncé.
When Leaphart arrived on set for the mysterious shoot, she didn’t know what to expect. Getting out of the car, she was immediately escorted to a trailer for wardrobe, hair and makeup.
“I am bald. I don’t even have hair and they had a hair person there for me,” Leaphart tells PEOPLE exclusively.
That’s when she started to suspect she was part of something big, but she didn’t know what, exactly.
“I asked everyone on set who the project was for but nobody knew. The people who did know kept quiet,” she says. “There was an air of magic. Everyone knew it was special but I wasn’t sure what for.”
Then Leaphart was dressed by wardrobe and taken to the set.
“I was given warrior shoulder pads and a beautiful skirt. I was then led to a dark dungeon-like room with candles and nice silk drapes,” she says. “There were a lot of cameras. It felt like 50 cameras but it still felt intimate. The director, Kahlil Joseph, was so nice to me – he was good. He was gold.”
They filmed her scene, for the portion of the video titled “Hope,” and made Leaphart feel like a welcome and important part of the project.
“Then in walks this figure. She was dressed in black with her head covered by a hoodie. I thought who is this now?”
It was Beyoncé.
“Beyoncé said, ‘Thank you Miss Paulette’ and gave me a hug. She was so sweet, so humble and totally a regular person – but she was Beyoncé,” Leaphart explains. “She thanked me for being in the video and asked about my kids. I showed her the video about my walk [for breast cancer awareness] and she said I was brave.”
After a day on the set, Leaphart started to suspect she was taking part in something special, but after her second and third day, she knew it was profound.
“When we filmed ‘Freedom’ there were all these beautiful black women who were all-stars. It was very powerful,” she says of the cast, which included Serena Williams, Amandla Sternberg and Creole cooking legend Leah Chase.
“They fixed a candlelit dinner. We were at a table together eating good food, talking and laughing. Beyoncé led prayers. It was just a real moment of women supporting each other.”
There was also one very notable man on set.
“Jay Z was there supporting his woman,” Leaphart tells PEOPLE. “He was just so loving and supportive, doting on his wife and daughter. He was just wonderful.”
At one point, Leaphart asked Jay Z how long he was going to be in New Orleans. He replied that he’d be there “as long as she’s doing what she’s doing here in Louisiana.”
So what did it feel like to be celebrated as a queen in the presence of musical royalty?
“It was just wonderful,” says Leaphart. “They were like regular people but at the same time made us all feel special. It was special.”