“So I’m going to just push you down this ramp… When you hit the water, there’ll be a splash – some water will come in but I’ve left the plug out so it’ll drain.”
“What’s to prevent us from going straight across and hitting the other side of the dock?”
“Well yes, there is that…. You have to dig your oar in the second you hit the water. Most people panic, and start paddling. Don’t do that, you’ll just go into the dock. just put your oar in and the kayak will swing around. Ready?”
And so began my adventure with Lillian Lightbourn, former Miss Bermuda, and current international model. Born and raised right here on this dot in the Atlantic, Lillian now lives in New York City, walks runways for Fashion Week, and was recently featured in a Maybelline commercial.
I’d decided that, rather than a straightforward and dry (literally) chat, we should go paddle-boarding around the St. George’s harbour, but the wind that day put us in a 2-man kayak instead. A monstrous grey cloud formed, but Lillian’s sunny optimism declared, ‘It’ll just pass over. Let’s go!”
Within 10 minutes of fighting the windy waves, it began raining. Then pouring. Seeking refuge on Higgs Island, we pulled the kayak up onto the beach, and searched for a tree-canopy to protect us (mostly my phone) from the rain. Perched closely together on a log under a few giant palms, with rain dripping through the leaves onto our heads, we talked about Lillian’s childhood, her career, life in New York, her unwavering faith in Jesus, and what she sees for her future.
With just the few inches between us, I was able to study her famous freckled face up close and was mesmerized by her wide-set, light eyes. They are indeed very special, and she spoke about how, even when she was being teased in middle school for being skinny and tall with a flat butt and chest, her tormentors would still admire her eyes saying with the strange compliment/insult that they are “the only pretty thing about you.”
And although she fondly reminisces about hanging out with lots of different friends throughout school, in addition to the bullying, she faced other challenges. Early on at Purvis Primary she struggled academically. She remembers always being the last to leave class and having to repeat a year.
“I’m a twin so staying back affected me a little bit. When I got older I realized nothing’s wrong with it, because you have to do what’s best for you. You don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you’re not going to do well. My parents saw that, and I appreciate that. Instead of them thinking of my pride, they thought about my education. They put a lot of thought into it. My sister found old letters where my mom had written down her thoughts about how she felt about me being held back. She was really concerned.”
She says that her mother’s anxiety was because the twins were often compared to each other. As fraternal twins, they don’t resemble each other at all, and Lillian recalls that from the gaps in their teeth, to their different sizes and skin colours, to how they performed in school, people have always commented on their differences.
‘You start to hear things from people… I really hate when people compare me and my sister. I don’t think anyone should be compared to anyone else, because I can see how it affected me as a kid. I always thought for a while that she was the smart one. And I was just the silly one.”
In the middle of dealing with these comparisons and being held back, her mother suffered a sudden heart attack when she was 8. “Me and my sister found her. It was so scary. We’d been taught to call 911 in school, but then in the moment….” Lillian mimes calling and then hanging up. Eventually, they did call, and emergency services came and confirmed that their mother had died.
At first, she discusses the death in a quite matter-of-fact and somewhat detached way, guessing that maybe her mom had heart disease but didn’t know it, and wondering aloud whether she was stressed out. “She seemed pretty healthy to me. I’m not sure… You mourn, but then I think I got tough. I never told anyone but I was trying to be strong for my twin sister. I didn’t allow myself to mourn in the best way. Things just moved too fast.”
Her face saddens. “My mom’s death made me think about life more, because you don’t expect people to die when you’re a kid. It made me start wondering, ‘what else is there?’ I want to know more about her. It was so long ago, I don’t remember much about her… I don’t remember her voice. I have dreams about her sometimes though. The entire situation made me appreciate life more, I appreciate family more.”
Lillian acknowledges that everyone did their best with helping the girls to navigate an impossibly difficult situation. Their older sisters, aged 18 and 20, stepped into a maternal role, and Lillian began living between her dad and stepmom’s house and her home with her sisters. “One of my sisters was about to go to college. Their whole life had to change. They had little sisters and had to help take care of us. It’s so amazing that God did that, made it so that we had sisters that were so much older than us. We were always close, but we became even closer.”
After being held back and dealing with her mom’s death, Lillian says she ‘started to realize she was good at stuff’, began doing really well in school, playing sports, and was eventually Head Girl at Purvis.
She began Sandy’s Secondary Middle School and this was where the bullying began. “Some people just have to go through things because it makes you a better person when you’re older. It humbles you. I never said anything to my parents about the bullying but they may have noticed that I was very self-conscious, always checking in the mirror.”
Then out of the blue things changed. “I remember one day I came to school, and I guess I looked cute, and the guys were like, ‘hey’… I was like what the heck is going on here? By the time I finished M3, it was a lot better. When I got to high school it was completely different. High school was a great time.”
She was on Berkeley’s undefeated basketball team and credits her coach and the sport for helping her cope with issues she faced and making her high school days so memorable. “My older sisters also had a good influence on me. I still look up to them a lot to this day. They taught me not to conform. So I started to know who I was… and in high school I was always myself.”
After leaving high school, she studied Liberal Arts at Bermuda College for a short time and was a bit confused about her career path. She enjoyed writing, and still does, but had no clarity about what else to do. But Lillian knew what she loved, and began to think strongly about pursuing her goal of becoming a model.
Read Part II
(Published on Bermynet.com on July 17, 2015)