a conversation with Carla Hill
Weeks ago, I read a caption on my Instagram timeline that made me shed some long-awaited tears. It was my “auntie” (my Caribbean people will understand the many interpretations of this word) Carla Hill. For the earlier years of my life, I mostly called her “Uncle Marlon’s wife.” In my young mind, she eventually took on a life of her own when my mother would tell me stories of Aunty Carla who loved carnival, Aunty Carla who has a wicked sense of style, Aunty Carla who we were going to have to visit next time we went to Miami, Aunty Carla who had lymphedema. Eventually, when I was old enough, I followed Aunty Carla on Instagram, and discovered that she was all I’d heard about, and then so much more. She is a TV personality, an educator, a #HealthStylist, a creator, a survivor, a fashionista. Aunty Carla is so many things, but on the day that she made me cry so many weeks ago, she was my mother.
Aunty Carla’s post was one that I really think captures her essence in a magnificent way. She talks about light. She talks about finding strength in her identity as a #BrstlssBeauty. She insists that she will not be erased. “See me. See me. See me.” And I did.
So now, on the last Sunday in Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I wanted to share with you, my readers, a conversation that I got to have with a woman who has been through it, and now shines beyond it. I think it is fitting that I share this on the last Sunday of this month to remind people that those whom the world often defines by their illnesses are so much more. That after this month closes, their lives go on, and their lives are not defined by their struggle. While I have timed this post at the close of this month, I don’t want you to see this as another post about cancer. I hope that in the chronicle of our conversation that I’ve written for you below, you see a woman who is real, multi-dimensional, and thriving.
This isn’t a cancer story, it’s a Carla story.
Carla Hill lives a rebellious life. Don’t let her remarkable composure fool you—there’s fire behind those eyelashes. In just one conversation, I caught a glimpse of the many ways in which she consistently rebels in a quest to live her truth.
Although she was born in Brooklyn, Carla never called New York home. As goes the story of many Caribbean immigrants to the United States, Carla’s parents had both moved to the US in the 70’s in pursuit of the American Dream. They had not been forced out. They had not run away. They were two people who wanted to change their lives. Whether this move made their lives easier or harder will never be known, but Carla makes it clear that what brought her parents to America was “the lure of the USA,” and not disdain for their homeland.
What is a homeland? Carla’s mother joined the armed forces, resulting in a series of moves from Brooklyn to Trinidad to Texas to Miami. Despite all these moves, Carla appears to have no doubt in her mind about where her spirit resides. She says, “I consider myself a Miami girl.” Quickly followed by, “I’m definitely a Trini to the bone. Don’t let my American accent fool you.” Carla and I both insist that these aren’t contradictory statements (Editor’s note: Trust me. Take one look at Miami carnival and tell me it’s not Trini central).
And a Trini-to-the-bone she is. At the beginning of this piece, I told you that Carla is a rebel. Hearing her talk about carnival, I know this is true. While she clearly adores the parading, parties, and pageantry, it is clear that she understands the carnival experience as an act of rebellion. “Going back to Trinidad is very, very ancestral to me,” she says with yearning. As she recounts memories of dancing through the streets, she tells me how real the Trinidadian legacy becomes for her when she realizes that she knows where slave ships landed. Referencing the stories she learned as a child, she says, “The streets that we’re walking—the names are the same. The stories that I have from my grandmother are not far removed…” She feels the resistance of the people who came before her, and is empowered to carry on this legacy. “So I am that. I am American, Trini, and in my own mind, a carnival queen. That’s the story of me.”
Her story doesn’t stop there. Carla speaks fondly of her time in high school, where she went from singing into hairbrush-microphones in front of variety shows on TV to cultivating lifelong relationships at New World School of the Arts, a magnet high school in Downtown Miami. She attended school with the likes of Alex Lacamoire (Music Director for Wicked, In The Heights, and Hamilton, to name just a few) and years later taught folks like Tarell McCraney (co-creator of Academy Award-winning Moonlight) at that same institution. “These are the people that I know and love. We are just so geeked out about each other, it’s nuts.” When reflecting on her path since leaving New World and forging a path in community building and empowerment as opposed to pursuing a career in the arts, she says “I, at the time, was afraid of the instability of it. I have friends who are very successful, and those who are still pounding the pavement…They’re still a source of support for me even today.”
Resisting a Day Job
Carla’s current day job as director of inclusion and community engagement at Ransom Everglades School is not even half the story. While she does good work there and enjoys it very much, her passion and identity lie in being a creative. This is evidenced by her growing collection of meaningful tattoos that decorate her body. The first is Prince’s Love Symbol, permanently reminding her of the radical impact that the artist had on her life. “I’ve been a Prince fan since I was 7.” She used to poke fun at those who wailed and mourned at the deaths of celebrities, “but when he died…oh my goodness. I found myself howling boohoo on my boss’s shoulder, it was crazy!” She often dedicated parts of her summers to taking solo trips to see Prince in whatever city she could. She would tell her husband, Marlon, that he could come if he wanted to, but that she was going no matter what. “It was my thing. I rarely invited friends. After he died, I was like, oh my God, I have to get this tattoo. It was one of those things.”
As Carla so eloquently puts it, “I can’t have Prince and nothing commemorating my husband on my body.” Enter tattoo #2. She has a humming bird—an important symbol of both her Trinidad and her husband’s Jamaica. She even allowed the tattoo artist to give the bird “a long, whimsical tail,” hearkening toward Jamaica’s doctor bird.
Tattoo #3 (and an anticipated #4) highlight Carla’s quest to embrace her identity as a creative. “I think I was hiding from that for a long time, and I’m not sure why.” This comment sparks a memory that causes us to stray beyond the world of tattoos. Carla tells me about a job opportunity that she had pursued, thinking that it was her final step into working in television full-time. As happens sometimes in “showbiz,” she tells me, she was rejected. “I was devastated, because I’ve never not accomplished anything that I put in my sights.” It took her about a year to process. And now, “I’m really just climbing, I tell people. Climbing from living underneath my bed, I was so depressed over this. I think I was sadder than when I got ill, because when I was sick, I was able to visualize my wellness. But for this, I had no vision of what was next, and it was scary.” As a former mental health therapist, Carla had to take her own advice. She cites her counselor as a positive factor in her ‘bounce back.’
It struck me that Carla had compared her rejection to being ill. The strongest among us would cower in the face of her #healthjourney track record. Her kidney transplant in 2000 was followed by breast cancer in 2005 with a relapse in 2007. She is now 12 years cancer-free. Throughout her “health journeys” as she likes to call them, Carla resisted being unwell in a variety of ways. She says of her kidney transplant, “I was young, and for whatever reason I didn’t get the magnitude of it all. Maybe my brain put me in some sort of defense mode. I did not understand how life and death it was until it was all over.” The turning point for her was the moment she realized that she was swimming in her small t-shirt that she had put on to go get dialysis. “So it was then that I went, oh man. And it wasn’t for me, it was for my mom looking at me, having lost all this weight. Cause I know that she was very worried.”
The unwavering faith of her mother and husband are what helped to carry her through this journey. “When people tell me, ‘Oh you’re such an example!’ I’m like, well y’all need to hear me when I’m cussing and mad, and I am living under the bed because I just can’t see the light sometimes. It’s hard to continue to see the light.”
Carla feels lucky to have had the team of doctors that she did. Before they did anything at all, “they said ‘Carla, you need to be right,’” she points towards her head and her heart, “‘here first.’” They explained that she could end up making herself even more sick if she allowed the illness take over her emotional landscape. “Envisioning my wellness, even envisioning having plans to do something was very helpful. So in my illness, I learned to envision the end. At the end of the chemo, when I get the mastectomy, I’m gonna be doing a, b, c, d. It was good for me to have a vision of what I’d be doing in a week. In 2 weeks. In 3 weeks. And certainly building upon that, what I would be feeling like, what I would look like at the end of this chemo or this surgery…So it really is about tricking my brain into wellness. Not tricking it, but actually affirming my wellness.”
The “Oh my God” Moment.
Carla is grateful to be cancer-free, “but once you’ve had these health journeys, there’s always this anxiety. I call it medical anxiety. For me, it’s like, oh my gosh, I have a headache. Why do I have a headache? It’s a constant anxiety, and making it bigger than it probably is.”
Her days are sometimes characterized by a series of “Oh my God” moments, “‘Oh my God, I lost weight. Oh my god, I gained weight.’ It’s always an ‘oh my God’ first.” She thinks these moments are par for the course of a survivor “because we fight so hard just to be normal. So any little something is…” her voice fades. But then, she laughs. She tells me how once she was feeling unwell and made one of the biggest mistakes you can make: she Googled her symptoms. “So I went to my oncologist and I said, ‘Look. It could be bladder cancer.’ And he’s like, ‘Carla, you do NOT have bladder cancer.’” She laughs, “Who does that?” People fighting for their lives, or those who have had to fight for their lives in the past, are always ready to fight, according to Carla. “It’s like I’d rather be on the ready than have something take me by surprise. Which can be a stressful way to live. But for those of us who have gone through it, I think they totally get it and understand.” Here, I find common ground with Carla as she looks at me knowingly. “Those family members, like yourself, who have been through the fight. You know it. Every little thing. A sneeze, a this, a that. What is it? Oh my God.”
Carla is now very wary of what she says, and of what she puts into the universe. With all of her ‘medical anxiety,’ she is careful that her “oh my God” moments don’t become projections. She doesn’t want to be looking for something to go wrong. “I have to be conscious of that too. So I gotta say, ‘Oh my God! It’s…nothing.’”
Carla’s social media sphere is now dominated by her hashtag, #BrstlssBeauty. It “started with a friend of mine, in 2005 when I was diagnosed at first and I lost my hair. I was a Miami girl to the bone, I would get my blowout every week or so, because my hair was down to the middle of my back.” When she lost her hair, Carla wouldn’t go outside. Eventually, “one of my best college girlfriends came to my house with these eyelashes and she said, ‘Put these on with that bald head, you’re gonna be fabulous.’” And thus, BrstlssBeauty was born.
Ever a fan of fashion and beauty, Carla remembers being a child, cutting pictures out of Vogue magazines and putting them on her wall. The eyelashes put her on a trajectory marked by using fashion and beauty to empower herself and others. She chose not to get reconstruction after her double mastectomy, rightfully worried that an infection may compromise the health of her kidney transplant. “I could lose my kidney. And I was like, it’s just not worth the risk.” She refused to lose her spark. She was on a quest. She decided that she would go breast-less, “and I’m gonna make fashion choices that are just as feminine, just as sexy, without breasts. I’m always doing fashion and beauty research.”
She also adores giving makeup advice. “Sephora is my friend,” she chuckles. “Listen, me and Sephora have a standing relationship, every payday. It’s nuts.” She often connects with her followers on Instagram, those on health journeys and those seeking to celebrate their bodies in a judgment-free beauty space. She didn’t want to feel confined to the stereotypical head wrap that is often worn by cancer patients. “I think that you can be a lot more yourself. Because, again, it’s about tricking our minds sometimes that we’re trying to live as normal a life as possible, in spite of the circumstances.”
Laughter is Resistance.
As we wrap up and I slip out of ‘casual interview mode’ for a moment, I remind my Aunty Carla of what she said to me when I dm’d her in tears at the beginning of the month. She said to me, “Living is an act of resistance for women like us. Laughing is resistance.” And she’s right. Her resistance is a light for all those who encounter her. She is a great inspiration, yet she is still human. She says again of her medical anxiety, “that anxiety is a big part of my life that I try to manage. Cause, you know, life is real. But I have to manage it. Because I don’t want it to rule how I find joy or happiness or plan my life. Because it could. It could be paralyzing.” But it isn’t.
We finally say our goodbyes, and I’m jealous of the delicious Trini dinner that she tells me is waiting for her at home. I can’t thank her enough for finding and sharing the courage to shine. Let’s all hear it for my Aunty Carla with a hearty “Oh my God!”
Carla Hill, #BrstlssBeauty, can be reached on her Instagram @mscarlahill. She continues to be a champion for self-love, resistance, and phenomenal eyelashes. If you visit her page—which I highly recommend—tell her that Lia says hello!