A funny thing happened on the way to becoming a psychiatric architect (nope) . . . . . . a psychologist-architect (not that either) . . . umm, an architect (noooo) . . . okay, an ethnomusicologist (no again) . . . a music biz mogul (almost!) . . . (>record scratch<) an actorvist and founder of my Bald Is Beautiful movement (yep!).
My life’s path has never been the straight and narrow one. Nor has it been the path(s) of least resistance! I have always tended to blaze my own trails, so to speak, and I charge forth to accomplish those aspirations with vigor and drive. I plan, I research, I nerd out, I also worry, and I might be a wee bit of a (recovering) control freak. Even so, when obstacles or detours appear, I find creative and unexpected ways to shift direction, often without much time to deliberate or dilly-dally.
When I started my first year at Barnard College in New York City, I had a clear vision in my mind of what I wanted to do. I was going to become what I called a “psychiatric architect” (long before the art of Feng Shui had become something familiar or popular), designing spaces that were conducive of a healthy mental and emotional environment. With each semester, different classes changed how I felt about this plan. That didn’t derail me, though, and, like many college students figuring out what they want to do, I adapted my course of study several times.
After two full years of running through the practical, I decided to move toward the passionate.
While I’d spent my days in classes and diligently doing my homework uptown at Barnard, my nights were spent off-campus into the wee hours immersed in the downtown jazz scene of New York City. I even interned at the legendary Blue Note Records starting in my second year of college! This was my heaven! So why not make my own heaven on earth?
After several consultations with academic counselors, I discovered the very cool option of designing my own major! I felt empowered. Columbia University had a graduate program in Ethnomusicology (basically, the study of music and culture), so I decided to create my major in that field, and I spent the next two years taking courses that fulfilled my mind and my soul — and graduated cum laude with the first-ever undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree in Ethnomusicology from Barnard College*.
*Sidebar: Many years later, the Barnard administration created an official undergrad Ethnomusicology degree program, and I’d like to think my academic path laid the groundwork for that!
Shortly after graduating, I landed a job at Verve Records. I was living my dream in the bustling, dynamic NYC music scene, forming enduring personal and professional relationships along the way. The practical and the passionate were perfectly merged . . . or so I thought. After many years in the “biz”, I realized that I loved music too much to work at a record company. So I took a leap of faith and left the gig. For the first time in my life, I was forging ahead without a map or net! Eek!
I spent that summer in London and while there, I had several painful “stomach” incidents, the worst of which had me crumpled on the bathroom floor all day into the night. So I set up appointments with doctors at home in New York to explore things further. I made what was supposed to be a short diversion to see my folks in Florida, but that one-week trip to Miami turned into a three-year medical mystery tour.
Another stomach attack grounded me in Miami, and after being misdiagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, things went from the gastroenterological to the gynecological, with a final referral to a gyn- oncologist. There’s only one reason you see an oncologist. Three consultations and two surgeries later, I was officially diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 28.
The unpredictability of Life took the reins so to speak — and this time, the stakes couldn’t be higher. All of my inner resources were now geared toward overcoming this seemingly insurmountable obstacle. It turns out that there wasn’t a whole lot of definitive information about this cancer. And what I did learn wasn’t particularly hope-inducing. Without any kind of early detection, it’s most often diagnosed late stage with a survival rate of only 30% — and a 70% recurrence rate. Terrible odds.
I immediately activated my support system of family and friends, and assembled my team of healers from a wide range of healing modalities. In addition to Western medical treatments, I was connected with a doctor of Chinese medicine who oversaw my herbs and acupuncture treatments, I worked with a medical intuitive, completely overhauled my nutritional regimen, and I did other things like yoga, meditation, “herbal” remedies during chemo, and even my own “laugh therapy” program (watching every funny movie or TV show I could!).
Before starting chemo, I’d been advised to cut my long locks short so it would be less traumatic when it started to fall out. So I had a haircut party in my parents’ living room with a gorgeous view of Biscayne Bay. When my pixie ’do started to commit follicular mutiny a week later, I had a head-shaving party. Everyone took turns buzzing off my hair, laughing and joking around the entire time. What could have been devastating and scary events were actually joyful and fun, and I never felt helpless.
These haircut and head-shaving parties were major light-bulb moments for me. I couldn’t control having cancer, but I could choose how I experienced every aspect of it. The three years that followed included chemo, surgeries, and two recurrences, with a final surgery in January 2003 — I’ve thankfully been in remission since then.
The physical, mental, and emotional rollercoaster ride that is ovarian cancer brought forth questions about how I defined myself as a woman — and how society’s definition conflicts with what cancer brings with it. Losing my hair, and also meeting women who struggled more with that than having cancer, sparked something in me. It seemed out of balance that we feel so much anxiety and stress about hair (or boobs or reproductive organs) when we are fighting to LIVE. On top of that, the resources available did not seem to take cancer patients my age into account. I didn’t see myself in any of it.
So I decided that when I was done with this cancer thing, I would stay bald and find ways through TV, film, and print media to put the image of a vibrant, happy, youthful bald woman into mainstream awareness in order to redefine how we can see and perceive ourselves and each other — in sickness and in health. Thus began “Bald Is Beautiful” and my new life purpose as what I call an “actorvist” — acting work fueled by my Bald Is Beautiful message of self-acceptance, self-love, and mind-body-spirit wholeness.
My twin sister had invited me to perform in a theatrical event she produced after I finished with chemo, and I caught the acting bug then. With that newly ignited passion, I rechanneled my marketing, organizational, and research skills to forge a path as an artist. I shared my story through my website first, and then I focused on manifesting this conceptual and what some skeptically called a “crazy” idea into reality.
I supported myself doing freelance proofreading and copyediting work, and, with just a mission statement stapled to the back of my headshot, I started pounding the acting world pavement in New York. What if they’re right, and this is crazy? Or foolish? After all, I was embarking on a career path pretty late in life compared most folks pursuing their acting dreams. Nevertheless, I was undeterred, and my commitment has paid off in some uniquely gratifying ways.
One of my first acting gigs was doing featured background work on Sex and the City. While on set, I’d shared about my Bald Is Beautiful movement with the director, who told me they would be addressing the subject of cancer in the final season and to keep in touch. The following year, I was contacted by the show’s casting office about a very special scene of Kim Cattrall’s character at a cancer benefit gala. They invited me to be part of the scene, but more important, they asked if I could assist with casting real cancer patients to be featured in that scene.
I brought in several women I’d met through the support community at Gilda’s Club New York, all of whom wore wigs and had never been bald in public. But with this one magical day, these women could now associate being bald with an extraordinarily powerful, once-in-a-lifetime experience meeting celebs and being on the most popular television show at the time! The showrunner also lovingly took the PSA script I’d written for Gilda’s Club and put that information on the HBO website, where it still lives to this day! It was the perfect blend of artistic success and Bald Is Beautiful activation!
The next huge career path coup was the international commercial campaign I did for Bristol Myers- Squibb. They were seeking real patients who’d taken their drug as part of treatment, so the audition was actually more of an interview. I told them about my ovarian cancer journey and also, of course, about Bald Is Beautiful, and I got a callback! The script that awaited me when I got there blew my mind. The writer had adapted what I’d said in my interview into a commercial script — nothing about the drug itself, or the company or brand name. It was just my words, including me saying “Bald Is Beautiful” at the end. I was moved to tears when I found out I’d booked the gig!
When the campaign launched, I started getting emails from people all over the world telling me that seeing a smiling, pretty bald girl going through cancer telling them that they are beautiful inspired them and changed how they saw themselves. It gave them permission to find joy and positivity in what is a profoundly difficult physical and emotional ordeal. For me, it literally connected the conceptual dots of the Bald Is Beautiful message — positive, empowering images have a positive, empowering impact. And made the fire in me to do more burn even more brightly.
After a few years laying the groundwork in New York, I ventured west to bring Bald Is Beautiful to the masses. Since coming out to Hollywood, I’ve had the chance to portray a wide range of characters on various cable and network shows, from a new-age midwife to an MRI tech at a VA hospital to a time- traveling FBI agent to sexy dominatrix — all while remaining bald. One of the highlights was playing a woman in a cancer support group on Shameless, working opposite one of my acting heroes, William H. Macy, directed by Alex Borstein! It was a magical day!
Most recently, I achieved a personal and career milestone that I could have never imagined. I booked a supporting role in the blockbuster Marvel movie, Captain Marvel! I play the role of Soren, who is of the alien race known as Skrulls, and is the wife of Skrull leader Talos, played by none other than Ben Mendelsohn! As a Marvel fan since childhood, this is beyond my wildest dreams. And it also hits a few other points in the Bald Is Beautiful spectrum: It’s the first Marvel movie to feature a female superhero as the lead, as well as having the first female director in the MCU. Also, the storyline for the Skrulls has some profound messages about society and humanity. As an added bonus, the exposure of being part of a movie of this scale has allowed me to speak about Bald Is Beautiful on an even wider platform.
While some people in the Hollywood “machine” have said that being bald will limit my opportunities for work, I have also been told that it makes me stand out and have a niche. Throughout all the twists and turns and hurdles (and even what felt like a couple of wormholes!), the fuel that has always carried me through is my deep sense of purpose.
Traumas have become triumphs. Obstacles have become opportunities. Detours have become discoveries. And because of this, I’ve never felt more beautiful and ALIVE!
September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month … and it’s also Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. To read more about Sharon and her Bald Is Beautiful movement, visit www.baldisbeautiful.org . And feel free to share the link with anyone for whom you think it might be a source of empowerment, encouragement, inspiration, information, Love, and Light.