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Just breathe

She was born under the sign of Scorpio; fiery yet sensitive, expressive yet guarded, fair of face and full of grace, with her eye on a star that would only continue to rise.

Just breatheThose who had the ear for it heard it early, the perfect pitch she’d inherited from her mother and grandmother. She was a strong and sturdy child with a bright mind who breezed through her days like a wild palomino. She was good at everything and afraid of nothing, especially the power of music. 

She joined the choir at age 4, under the direction of her mother, the choral director. By 6, she played the piano well enough for recitals; and by 8, she had established her promise. She focused entirely on her music, winning command performances, special awards, and coveted places in honor choirs, or singing solos throughout her schooling.

But what she remembers most about her growing-up years, what she pays attention to in the stories and photographs that retell it, is that she was fat.

Early photos reveal that she came into the world that way, all succulent and round, with padded folds her mother powdered and kissed as she bathed and bundled her baby. How she remembers it is through the laughter, the pointing, the name-calling as younger kids played without her, and older friends pored through the family albums.

Throughout her schooling, she was bigger and taller and stronger and prettier than most everyone else, and all it meant to her was that she was fat. Never mind that she could run fast, hit a ball hard, finesse her way across court, play the piano, and sing with a voice that could both break and mend hearts.
What she remembered in the mirror was that her mother had signed her up for Weight Watchers® in sixth grade. Every morning she met her parents in their bathroom to weigh herself on her father’s scale while her mother wrote down the number. She would have preferred not to look; would have given anything, actually, not to know that number. But her mother called it out and then logged her disappointment into a homemade chart.

She was not quite 2 years old when her mother delivered little twin sisters, and was nearly 10 when another child arrived. None of her siblings were too big or too tall. None could sing or play the piano like she could, either. But all she noticed was that no one else was fat.

Every summer, her little sisters went to camp, where they ate Girl Scout cookies and roasted s’mores. She also went to camp, spending half the summer at music camp and the other half at a “fat farm,” where she learned how to hide her guilt, her shame, and her candy.

Her life was punctuated not by family holidays, achievements, and other memorable events but by heroic efforts to lose weight in time for each of them: the Christmas card picture, eighth- grade graduation, senior prom. And the photos were a reminder not of the fun but of her failure. At her height, a size 16 seemed slim. But it hardly seemed worth the struggle to stay there.

After she graduated from college with a degree in piano and vocal performance, she moved to Europe to pursue her music career. There, she met world-renowned tenor Placido Domingo, who invited her to sing for him. He paid attention not to her weight but to her carriage, her presence, her voice. Before he said good night, he told her she was not merely a singer but an opera singer and that she, too, would become a very big singer, known throughout the world for her voice.

It was the first time the title “big” had meant something beautiful. Ever since, she has worn it like a crown, becoming one of the most celebrated singers in opera, performing all over the world.