“Five, six, seven, eight, and go,” the music reverberated from the speakers off the hardwood floor and walls of mirrors. A line of women took turns walking across the room, expertly placing one high heeled foot in front of the other. Pausing before the mirrors, they struck a pose, then walked back to a slew of smiling faces.
One of the women leading this runway rehearsal was a tall ex-model, wearing a pencil skirt, standing with her shoulders back, and a medical mask across her face.
“Is anyone on chemo?” She had asked moments before, “This is for you.” Her slight cold posed a threat to the one woman on chemo, yet she was the one to wear the mask.
The common denominator of the women in this runway show is cancer.
You Night is a cancer survivor empowerment program based in New Orleans helping women embrace life beyond cancer. You Night does this through their signature runway show. Over the course of six months, women participate in various activities like retreats, meetings, and art therapy to build community within their cohort of cancer survivors as well as prepare for the show. The purpose of the culminating 90 ft runway is a culminating expression of what You Night is instilling in these women: they are beautiful, with scars, bald heads and all that comes with a body going through or having survived cancer treatment.
I attended one of the final runway rehearsals days before You Night’s July 2019 show. “You are seeing this grand celebration, but the 364 other days we are dealing with really serious matters,” said Lisa McKenzie, founder of You Night. “Can you imagine being asked to walk the runway with no hair or no eyebrows?” Lisa said many women come to her crying in the first meetings, saying they are terrified of the runway. This was unbelievable to me as I watched the chatty, smiley, confident women in rehearsal drop props and loose shoes and play it off like professionals.
I got connected with You Night because of Debbie Tonguis, a close friend of my dad who heard about my project and reached out, suggesting You Night be included. She was a You Night participant in 2017 and could speak intimately about the program.
Debbie described once she was in remission from cancer, she felt scared and damaged, faced with entering a new reality, as there was no returning to life before cancer. But, through You Night she was given a chance to reinvent herself after trauma. Looking at Debbie, I would never describe her as feeling scared or damaged. Her life was in absolute chaos the day she picked me and my cousin up from our NoLa AirBNB, but she was entirely engaged and present with us. She had on expert make-up, sparkly jewelry, and a cute t-shirt with the word, “Sisterhood.”
Debbie calls You Night a leadership development program, as she sees so many women who want their story to be able to help others. As a lifelong teacher (and the 2009 Louisiana Teacher of the Year), Debbie is trained to look for human growth and development, something clearly occurring in the You Night women.
Instead of falling apart, women “get strong together,” said Lisa. While she is not a cancer survivor herself, Lisa understands how life circumstances can absolutely destroy a woman’s self-esteem.
After going through a painful divorce and becoming clinically depressed, Lisa describes her mental place feeling, “I’m not worthy. I started actually believing that.” I sat with Lisa and Debbie in the lobby of the gym where You Night was using an exercise room for rehearsal as she emotionally shared the depths of her sorrow during this period of her life.
As she sought help, each day became characterized by more pinpricks of light in the darkness, until one day she woke up flooded with it. Around this time Lisa was creating a runway show for her fashion brand. She went to a modeling agency looking at portfolios feeling like the models didn't look like her customers.
“My customer is the everyday woman,” described Lisa. As she contemplated her runway show, she thought, “What if I create an experience that is meaningful for the women?” Her personal trauma and profession led to the creation of You Night, now a thriving nonprofit, providing programs at no cost to participants for the past six years. High-end boutiques donate clothes, inviting the You Night women to try on outfits at their shops to find the perfect ensemble. Models donate time to help coach the runway rehearsals. Professional makeup artists help all the women get ready. For some of these women, being put in a $10,000 gown and getting the expensive salon treatment or walking into a boutique is far beyond what they could imagine for themselves.
Doctors, through the alumna waiting room visits and runway shows, see a real impact in their patients in a short amount of time. Lisa thinks maybe the draw and high demand for the You Night program is this dramatic and rapid impact. In the first year of You Night, the program was not adopted by any doctors or hospitals. After seeing the first runway show, doctors started to buy into it.
“Doctors want to see their patients thrive after cancer,” Lisa said, but their role is not the aftercare for women–the role You Night fills. Now, You Night has relationships with hospitals, having proven their impact. Many referrals come from oncology nurses who get out of their scrubs, dress up, and attend the runway show.
It’s as if the nurses come and say, “I look good, you look good, maybe something is going right here,” observed Lisa. A doctor called You Night alumna, “ambassadors of enthusiasm” after one day finding You Night ladies encouraging the women in his waiting room saying, “you can do this, you will make it through this.” With 12 programs under their belt, Lisa is getting asked to start You Night programs in other cities.
Cancer does not discriminate. But, things like health care service and relationships differ from woman to woman, resulting in disparate cancer experiences. As Debbie witnessed, some women show up to chemotherapy on a medical transport van and get back on the van after their treatment with a bucket. They have no family, no friends, nothing to lean on for support.
You Night is for women of all socioeconomic statuses. Gas cards appear for women who need it. If a woman does not have shoes, shoes are provided. This lends the group to being, as characterized by Debbie, a “true representation of New Orleans” as there is no discrimination.
When Lisa moved to Louisiana from California, she was amazed to find that there were specifically black and white churches. “In our program, does race even matter?” Lisa asked. Debbie shook her head. In Louisiana, where race is still divided, You Night unbuilds divides.. You Night brings women together whose paths would never have crossed without the shared life experience of cancer and binds them into a sisterhood
As I was hearing about the You Night sisterhood from Lisa and Debbie, a group of women entered the gym who obviously were involved with You Night. Alumnae open the runway show every year to keep the sisterhood together and guide and support the next class, as these women were doing.
“Look at them all together, they must have met up before this,” Lisa said. Debbie and Lisa greeted this excited group of women, some were in Debbie’s class, and all have been touched by Lisa’s vision. They were short, tall, curvy, thin, black, white, single, divorced, married, and mothers.
One woman, a single mother, took the hand of her ten-year-old son and led him with the group upstairs to rehearsal.She looked at the mother-son pair and smiled, saying, “Your kid is going to see what strong women look like.”
Even for those with abounding friends and family at their side through cancer, there is a rare empathy that can only be found among fellow cancer survivors. Debbie said she found friends who knew what she was feeling, like fear and anxiety that comes every time she returns to the doctor to make sure her cancer has not returned.
“The strength of the sisterhood is phenomenal,” Debbie said. I witnessed this all throughout my day of rehearsal and conversations with You Night women. During the rehearsal, as coaches were giving directions, one paused and said, “Listen up ladies.” Some standing against a wall chatting close giggled and quieted their conversation.
“The side friendships are the magic,” said Debbie. “You’re in it forever.”
“We’re not dealing with cancer, we’re dealing with the human condition,” said Lisa. Lisa, Debbie, my cousin Lindsey and I debate what is the key ingredient to this group overcoming struggles to form a united front against a problem they can directly influence–empowering women with cancer. I think it is the act of facing a challenge and overcoming it together. In this case, the runway is a shared experience.
At the end of the rehearsal, we all gathered for a group photo and a woman, who had arrived late and missed my introduction, squeezed my arm and asked with a big smile, “Are you joining You Night?” I was not insulted, but rather thankful to have directly experienced the open arms of You Night. I would not wish cancer on myself or anyone else. But, I would wish this sisterhood for every woman in the world. A sisterhood that says, we hear your story, we understand the pain, we feel the pain to this day, but we won’t let fear keep you from living, we will let love rule the day. Will you let your story of past pain create divides? Or will you use your story for hope and healing?