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Hope is on the Way
An intreview with Hope Allen
In the previous 12 years, ABILITY Magazine has interviewed and associated with some of the most remarkable and noteworthy people of our time: screen legends Kirk Douglas and Christopher Reeve, civil rights leaders Justin Dart, Jr. and Harris Wofford, and political figures Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. While the name of actor, model and author Hope Allen does not yet ring familiar in homes across Americathat day is probably closer than she would admitABILITY Magazine recognizes in Hope many of the remarkable qualities that we have witnessed in the living rooms of the worlds most notable. Her beauty is uncontested and her passion is only surpassed by her compassion.
This issue will mark Hopes debut as an editor for ABILITY Magazine and the beginning of a new relationship between a company dedicated to the issues surrounding health, wellness and human potential, and a woman whose personal experiences have fueled her desire to make the world a better place to live. Even before she began putting words to page, Hope signed on to co-host a project that will reflect the heart and soul of ABILITY Magazine in a television series bringing to life the pages of celebrity interviews, human interest stories, health and medical updates. As a co-host of ABILITY TV, Hope will engage viewers as she combines her talents as an actress, writer and spokesperson with her down-to-earth charm and gracious humanity.
Hope Allen: Im from a little mill town called Thomasville, in Georgia, where the population is about 30,000 people. My family worked at the mill and my father was a truck driver. There are four kids: my sister is 15 years older and my brothers are 12 and seven years older than me. I was kind of a surprise.
RS: So youre the baby of the family.
HA: By a lot, it was like having a whole bunch of parents.
RS: That couldnt have been good! (laughs)
HA: (laughs) It was okay because theyve always been really loving and supportive. When I was one, my dad got into a terrible trucking accident and we had to move back and live with my grandparents. He ended up with a lifelong disability and everything changed. It took about five years of going through all the appropriate channels for him to get any disability coverage. In the meantime, my mom was working in the mill at night and trying to take care of my whole family during the day. We were living in a trailer and had to go on welfare for about a year. My mother had always been really proud and it turned our whole world upside down. Her marriage to my father didnt make it, but it was interesting because it was the first time we had dealt with a disability in the family.
RS: What brought you from the small mill town of Thomasville to Hollywood?
HA: When I was 16-years-old I won Miss Georgia Teen USA and started to think about modeling and maybe acting, but stayed in that little town until I was 18-years-old.
RS: How did you become involved in the pageant?
HA: My mom saw an ad in the Atlanta Constitution. She had always been aware of how people reacted to me and suspected that my looks might be my gift. Because we struggled so hard financially, she wanted me to have a chance at a better life. She had some intuitive instinct that maybe I could do something bigger with my life, so she came to me with this ad and asked if I were interested, but I wasnt sure. A month passed and she decided she was going to send in the application. She knew it was past the deadline, but decided that if they accepted it, then it was supposed to beif they didnt, then no big deal. As fate would have it they did accept it. I went to my first pageant in Atlanta with my prom dress. By some ridiculous miracle I won the pageant and Miss Photogenic. It was just crazy. I dont know what they were thinking picking me!
RS: I hope your prom dress wasnt like the ones I remember! [laughing]
HA: [laughing] Well, it had a lot of poof. It was pink with a great big cotton candy bow and some rhinestones. Im really not sure what happened.
RS: It sounds as though it must have been fate!
HA: It must have been. [laughing] Clearly, it must have been fate! I hope that video never sees the light of day. I dont know about other pageants, but this pageant definitely wasnt fixed! (laughing) I really couldnt have had a more pitiful dress or been less connected. It was really exciting though. I got to be on television and took my first plane ride and even made the Top 10. I had a great time, the girls were really nice and I began modeling from there. At 18, I moved straight to New York.
RS: You went from living in a trailer to Miss Georgia Teen USA and then off to New York. Were you prepared for life in the big city?
HA: New York was a culture shock. Id never even been on a subway and I was overwhelmed by the whole city. I had a number of go-sees a day and I was workingwhich was greatbut from out of left field my agency went bankrupt. Almost immediately a great agency in New York offered me a chance to work with them, but I opted out. My grandfather, whom I was very close, had died of leukemia my senior year in high school and my step-father left my mother the week after and it just sent my family into shock. I moved in with my grandmother to try to help take care of her and my mom, who joined us a short time later. Being in New York away from these wonderful women who loved me and supported me and missed me so much was more than I could handle at the time.
RS: Did you get caught in any of the pitfalls that often accompany young women entering this industry?
HA: I am one of those teetotaler people. (laughs) I have never had a cigarette, a drink of alcohol or experimented with drugs. I just never went that way and still havent. In New York, the models were doing drugs and staying out and I was basically in my room watching MTV. I must have had a guardian angel on my shoulder because (laughs) I would take the wrong subway and get out at Harlem, at twilight, by myself, wearing a stupid outfitand everything always worked out fine.
RS: Did you continue modeling when you returned to Atlanta?
HA: I did. I had a few great contracts including being a spokesmodel for Hitachi and working for Black Velvet whiskey. I had a little problem because they make you have a favorite drink thats made with Black Velvet. Uh... I like it with uh Sprite! I said, making it up as I went along. As fate would have it again, the agency I was with in Atlanta went bankrupt. Shortly after, I accepted an offer by William Morris and LA Models to come to Los Angeles. It was my plan to come here for one year, make a lot of money and go home and pay for college. I began getting approached about acting. I decided to take some classes and several years later I starting getting booked as co-stars and guest-stars on a number of sitcoms.
RS: Any sitcoms or films we would know?
HA: Friends, Frasier, Suddenly Susan, Baywatch, Alias, Melrose Place, Liar Liar and I was the last spokesmodel winner on Star Search before it went off the air. When I saw it was returning I joked that I would return as the reigning champion! [laughs]
RS: Any favorites among the shows youve worked on?
HA: The best thing Ive done so far in L.A. was to be on Frasier. They had the nicest cast and were so professional, wonderful and generous. They sat with me and gave me pointers and helped me in rehearsals. It was really a wonderful experience to work with such talented people and I found that Kelsey Grammar really set the tone for his show: everything moves quickly and they treat everyone very respectfully.
RS: Its always interesting to see what a cast is like behind the scenes.
HA: Overall Ive had really wonderful experiences. People have just been very warm and giving. Ive had more trouble with people in wardrobe than Ive ever had with any actor that Ive ever met or worked with.
RS: How is your family doing?
HA: Well, right before I actually came to L.A. my brother had knee surgery and developed an illness called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy.
RS: Im not familiar with RSD.
HA: Basically, your sympathetic nervous system goes into shock and it sends pain signals constantly to whatever area is affected. In his case, it was his knee. Unfortunately, because its in his nervous system it travels and now he has it in both legs. Hes been using a wheelchair for about 12 years now. His illness was really devastating. In school, hed been the quarterback on the football team and the catcher for his baseball team; hed even been scouted by the Braves.
RS: What causes RSD to occur?
HA: They dont know. They say it can occur after a surgery, someone can just fall and twist their ankle and it can set in; its more commonly in upper extremities. They cant even amputate because its in the nervous systemits almost like a phantom illness where he might still feel like his leg was there and hurt. Its really bizarre. He didnt get the help he needed in the first year so it went from first stage to fifth and is now irreparable. I dealt with an enormous amount of guilt because he wasnt okay and I was okay. Coming from a close knit family and from the deep South, I had the idea that if someone I loved was in pain I was supposed to be in pain too. It was really difficult to get those wires uncrossed in my brain. Then my sister got sick after Id been here for about four years and shes almost died many times.
RS: What does she have?
HA: She has vasculitis which is a disease that affects your blood vessels. She has also been diagnosed with Cushing's syndrome which means your adrenal glands over produce the hormone cortisol. To make things even more complicated she also has Addisons disease. Between the Addisons and the Cushing's syndrome, the one that did the most damage is the Cushing's syndrome. Because one is overproduction and the other is underproduction of cortisol, its clinically impossible to have both, but she does so shes become a case study. My mom lived with me in L.A. for two years, but had to return home to care for my grandmother who recently passed from Alzheimers. Its been hard to deal with three catastrophically ill people within one small family unit. So I havent had a stereotypical model/actress experience.
RS: Thats a lot for one family.
HA: You know what they say, That which doesnt kill you makes you stronger! I think theres truth to that, but I also believe the silent sufferers are often the close family members. When my mother returned to care for my grandmother with Alzheimers, she had a difficult time because there was no money for nurses or additional help. I thought I would make a lot of money and be able to alleviate all these problems. For a while I was making enough money to get my relatives into therapy, pay for extra medicine, a doctors appointment or hire an attorney to look at a case. Ultimately, I never really made enough money to help everyone as I hoped. It was a devastating decade.
RS: Are things different now?
HA: Im so happy to be in my thirties because life feels different after the lessons Ive learned about surrender. I have a healthier perspective now. Before I was trying to carry all this pain on my back that was not mine, and it doesnt help the people that are in their own pain to have you be in pain as well. I finally got sick from constant worry and picked up a bacteria in another country. It destroyed my stomach lining and my immune system. It was the first time in my life I couldnt get up and try to fix other peopleI was forced to finally look at myself and what I was doing and the path I was on. It was fascinating to see how much focus I put on other people and other things to avoid looking at myself. Its been difficult to change old patterns but thats something that I work on consciously and consistently.
RS: Do you feel that you ever shied away from the limelight because you were always trying to take care of, and focus on, other people?
HA: I have been afraid of being famous and its held me back. I come from such a small community that standing out brought with it a lot of pain and criticism. When I was 16 and went to the pageant I didnt tell anyone. When I won I was so excited for about an hour and then it hit me that I was going to be on television and that people would see me. Panic seized me because I didnt know what to do with it. On the one hand it was so exciting for a young girl from a poor family to have this opportunity, but I was afraid of being different, of rising above or reaching farther. There were a lot of people that wanted good things for me, and I know it sounds arrogant and ludicrous, but theres been a certain amount of jealousy in my life that I didnt have the maturity or the wherewithal to understand and be able to deal with.
Jealousy is such an abstract term to me because from where I was sitting, I couldnt understand why anyone would be jealous of how hard we struggled and the poverty. I didnt realize the value that the world places on physical attractiveness. At times I thought I didnt deserve the break I got. I wanted everything to be fair. Realistically, it never will be. I had to learn that everyone has gifts and its okay to own them and use them in wonderful ways. Nelson Mandela wrote a speech about shining and he explained that the more you live in your light, the more you give other people permission to do so. He also says were not afraid of our darkness, but afraid of our light. His teachings really helped me. From his point of view, I could never shrink small enough to make certain people feel big. So I decided to be brave and know that whatever amount of criticism comes my way, Ill be fine and hopefully take it with a grain of salt. I always remember that the only thing I have control over is myself and my intentions. I would just rather die than hurt anyone of my own volition. Along the way I realized that its also not okay to hurt myself. My journey is important too.
RS: Absolutely, and you have been given a number of gifts.
HA: I do feel that God gives us all gifts and that its my responsibility to shoulder my gifts and to use them to help other people. So I decided to step out and do the best I can. Certain days that means doing a lot and on other days thats just not doing harm to anybody. (laughs) Through my work, I got to help raise money for childrens hospitals, work with kids from battered wives shelters and homeless children. Its been really wonderful to have my talent as an actress recognized, to be out modeling again and to have my health back I appreciate it in such a different way.
RS: Losing your health can definitely put things in perspective.
HA: Its so easy to focus on the wrong things and forget whats important and what matters. Im so grateful to have a family that loved me so fiercely and gave me a sense of self. I had such a wonderful foundation and in this industry its easy to get blown from place to place and from opinion to opinion. Im trying to be okay with my age, my body, my height and all those other things that people try to give you paranoia about.
RS: Theres a lot of pressure to be perfect, isnt there?
HA: There is
and I just get so bored with myself.
(laughs) I think that its a really unhealthy environment that weve
created, specifically in America. Valuing women so much for what they
look like and their sexuality is such a disservice to the excellence of
women, especially grandmothers and moms with so much wisdom to teach us.
The fact that we throw away women after they reach their mid 40s
is so absurd to me, especially because I do value the wisdom and the kindness
that the older women in my life have given to meand to the world.
I think we really have that backward in America. Theres nothing
better than a mothers love or a womans insight or intuition.
Im really pleased that Hollywood is opening up so much. With Meryl
Streep nominated for two Golden Globes and the nude scene that Kathy Bates
did, there are a lot of wonderful examples how the industry is trying
to change its standards.
HA: Thank you and Im looking forward to working with ABILITY through writing articles for the magazine, the TV show and working on the ABILITY House project. Growing up in Georgia, I was already very familiar with Habitat for Humanity because Jimmy Carter was so involved. I always admired his work and his humanitarian effort.
RS: Was this your first time attending the Media Access Awards?
HA: Yes. This past year was the first time I made it to the awards, what an amazing organization! I was very impressed by Peter Farrellys speech at the awards and then interviewed him for the article I wrote.
RS: How did you become involved with Childrens Hospital?
HA: While in L.A., my mother was a nanny for a two year-old, Skyler Neil. Shes actually the child of Vince Neil from Motley Crue. Ironically, my lil southern belle mom was looking after this rockers kid. Skyler was the most amazing human Ive ever had the pleasure to be in the presence of. I just fell in love with her instantly. Her lack of fear, her intelligence she was a remarkable child. Its interesting because after the first time my mother met Skyler she told me, Ive never met a child like that, shes either bound for stardom or not long for this world.
HA: She was serious. I remember her saying, Im telling you, theres something so unusual about this child. My mother looked after her for over a year before returning to Georgia. When she came back to Los Angeles she was no longer Skylers nanny, but Skyler would come spend the weekend with us. She began getting really bad stomachaches and ended up with a very aggressive cancer, and after a six-month battle she passed away. I became interested through watching her process and what those pediatric nurses go through. Theres nothing like seeing a little tiny pink casket lowered into the ground. About five years after she died I did my first fundraiser for Childrens Hospital. The work they do is so important, but Im such an emotional person that I havent been able to go back into the hospital yet.
HA: Yeah, I couldnt even drive past it for two years. I was a wreck. For whatever reason, that child and her death made me question everything that I ever believed to be right or holy or decent in the world, and I couldnt understand how the God that I believed in would allow such a thing. What I finally came to came to believe, is that children who die are these extraordinary spirits, angels, that come and show themselves for a brief time to show us how to love and then they leave. Its a hard thing to deal with, sick children and its hard to deal with impoverished children that are living in shelters because they are precious and wonderful too. Many of them have a feeling of not being good enough and you work very hard to hug them and love them and make them feel important and special. Sometimes when youre on the lowest end of the spectrum it feels like an impossible mountain to climb up. But its good that there are people that care and let them know that opportunities are available.
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Excerpts from the Hope Allen Issue