This very week, back in 2013, Jillian Rezo began a battle with breast cancer that would alter her life — and the lives of others — forever. On top of the changes taking place in her body both physically and mentally, Rezo’s career as a makeup artist and on-air spokesperson was taking a toll as well. But she refused to let the disease take away from her confidence, feminism, and sense of self-worth. So she harnessed her power and found a way to fall back in love with herself — and she’s on a mission to help breast cancer survivors everywhere do the same, through her non-profit organization, Beautiful Self.
“Survivors need to believe that they’re beautiful,” Rezo tells PeopleStyle of her mission. “They need to believe that breast cancer didn’t rob them of their beauty.”
Alongside her close friend Michele Bonacorte, Rezo launched Beautiful Self: an organization that through “photo therapy,” as she calls it, proves to breast cancer survivors that they’re just as beautiful, sexy, confident and powerful as they were before being faced with cancer.
“When I was sick, I couldn’t keep up with work because I work in front of the camera,” Rezo explains of how Beautiful Self came to be. “So my dearest friend, Michele, who is a photographer, would come over — even on days I didn’t feel well — and I would try on different looks and she would photograph me, in order to journal what was happening. At the end of my treatment, we wound up with an amazing body of work.”
After seeing the photos, Rezo found her new beauty — and she and Bonacorte set out to support groups in order to help others do the same. The two set up shop in a borrowed law office and invited survivors to come in, get their hair and makeup done, and be photographed during what’s usually a 4-hour session. But it turned out to be about so much more than simply a photo shoot.
“We play music and talk about our journey and I listen to them and what they went through. It’s a very safe space to talk about anything you want and we laugh and then they relax,” she shares. “I do their makeup, my niece does their hair, and we put them in an evening gown and then take them to what we call ‘set.’ Usually at first they’re tense and scared. But we peel back their insecurity and start to build their confidence. By the time the second shoot comes, it’s another evening gown, they’re posing on the table, we’re making jokes, and they’re crying laughing.”
Rezo and Bonacorte shoot three sets of photos with the women — and the third shoot is when the real magic happens. “By then we have peeled back the layers that you see of exalted beauty. A woman will be like, ‘I’m a size 22 and I have no breasts but I’m the hottest thing I’ve ever seen.’ By the end of it they’re so high on confidence, they don’t wanna leave.”
Now, they have a year-long wait list of women from all over the country, all of whom are on the same journey. But why just breast cancer survivors? Rezo explains that when a woman finishes breast cancer treatment, there’s, of course, a celebration: she beat cancer. But what many people don’t realize is that the battle still continues — which the pro experienced firsthand.
“The thing about breast cancer is that it’s the medicine they give you; they take your breasts; they take your ovaries; they give you meds that push you into menopause when you’re 30 or 40. The body is robbed of it’s perceived femininity,” she explains. “What we say what happens to women after treatment is that the next three years are almost as bad as what happens to you when you go through it. There is a social, sexual, psychological, physical and emotional ramification to a life after breast cancer. I have stories of women coming in and saying, ‘men like to date women with two breasts.’ ‘I used to be a size 4, now I’m a size 16.’ ‘I don’t want to have sex anymore.’ ‘I have no ovaries, I can’t have children and I’m 25.’ ‘My joints are so bad I have osteoporosis from the drugs.’
But together, they’re able to fight through the hard times and regain their strength. And thanks to the photos that Bonacorte shoots, each woman can go home with a reminder of the confidence that she felt during that session.
“Within the first 24 hours we try to get them at least one or two photos, sometimes ten, to make them continue their high. By the end of they week they usually have 75-100 photos that they’re given to do whatever they want with and to remind them about their new but still beautiful self. My own picture is blown up over my bed.”
Next, Rezo and Bonacorte’s goal is to have enough funding to hold a registered chapter in New Jersey. But in the meantime, Rezo has one message: “You’re new, you’re different. You’re never gonna be the same — lets call it what it is. But you’re still beautiful, you’re still hot, and you’re still sexy. You just have to believe it.”