As a 23-year-old motivational speaker, Oakville, Ontario native Molly Burke is clearly an accomplished young woman. When you consider the face that Burke is legally blind and first began losing her vision at the age of four, her achievements seem even more inspirational and heightened. The young Canadian activist and YouTube personality was diagnosed with a rare degenerative condition known as Retinitis Pigmentosa, and eventually lost her sight as a teenager.
As a girl, Burke not only had to adapt to her vision loss, she also had to face the ignorance of bullies. Many in her position would have retreated into the shadows, but she decided to transform her challenges into an inspirational journey. Burke turned to speaking gigs and social media as a means to connect with other young people in her position. Today, she is a new Dove ambassador, and can be spotted in the beauty brand’s ad campaign for its latest Shower Foam line.
Recently, Real Style had the pleasure to meet the gracious and compassionate Burke at a Dove Shower Foam event at the Rest Nest Float Spa in Toronto’s Yorkville area. We sat down with the beauty role model to learn more about her experiences meeting fellow activists, such as Canada’s own Craig and Marc Kielburger and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. From connection with her youthful fan base to promoting diversity in the beauty industry, the thoughtful Burke spoke from the heart and shared her tale with Real Style.
Real Style: How do you feel about being a Dove ambassador?
Molly: It’s always been a goal of mine. I’ve always loved their products, branding and what they stand for. It’s always really resonated with me. I feel like they practice what they preach. They don’t just do one feel good campaign to boost their social cause. They really believe in what they promote, and they follow through. It’s given me a more positive mindset, so I have wanted to be a part of helping to do that for other women.
Real Style: Tell us more about your journey as a motivational speaker.
Molly: I started public speaking when I was five. I’m 23 now, so most of my life has been spent on stages speaking at events. It’s just become part of who I am. For me, it’s like breathing. I just can’t imagine my life without it. It’s been so much a part of my journey, and a part of me finding myself and empowering myself.
Real Style: You’re also well known for your YouTube channel. How has that experience been?
Molly: I started making videos, because every headline you would see about me would be “blind and bullied.” I’m so much more than that. Of course, that’s a huge part of my story and a huge part of what I share publicly, with speaking. I wanted to be able to show my audience, when they left that hour long presentation, a good way to connect with me weekly. I post two videos a week, so they can stay connected to my journey in a really personal way. They can also continue to learn more about me. At the end of the day, I’m a normal 23-year-old. I date, I love makeup and fashion- and I have my guide dog. It allows me to further connect with people who would maybe never get to see me speak in person at an event, but who still need to hear my message.
Real Style: How do your young fans react to your videos and social media presence?
Molly: Every day, I get emails, letters and comments on videos or Instagram posts, from people who share their stories and journeys with me. It’s so humbling. I always say “I want to be the role model I didn’t have when I needed it.” When I was struggling with my vision loss, bullying and depression, I felt so alone. There was nobody who was sharing their raw and real experience with difficult life issues. I vowed to myself that that’s who I would be. I would be that person for somebody else. On Instagram, I don’t post super edited photos of myself. I’m not afraid to post a video not wearing makeup, or to cry in a video, if I’m talking about something like my journey with anxiety. I want to be real and authentic.
Real Style: You were just four years old when you were diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa. How did you cope with gradually losing your vision?
Molly: From the time I was six years old, I could say the words “retinitis pigmentosa”. I could tell you it was a disease I was born with, that I was going to go blind. I could recite all the facts, but I didn’t understand. I didn’t realize what impact that would have on my life, until I was 13. My vision loss started to really rapidly decrease. What does this mean for my future career choice, for my relationships, friendships, education and independence? I fell into a deep depression and had to let myself grieve that loss. It was a long journey, but I’m really glad I took it. I’m really proud of who I am today and happy with my life.
Real Style: Who are your role models?
Molly: I have a number of role models. My mom is a huge role model, she’s my best friend. My family, they’ve all really supported me and been there through every step of my journey. Ellen DeGeneres is a huge inspiration to me, because she has faced a role of adversity in her career, and she has continued to be so positive. She made me laugh in a really dark time. Demi Lovato, as well, she’s a young female talking about mental illness, bullying and body image. I really look up to her, because I know they are not easy topics to share.
Real Style: You’ve worked with names such as Malala Yousafzai and the Kielburger brothers. How did it feel to meet these individuals?
Molly: One of the other people I worked with is Demi Lovato! I’ve been able to work with some of my role models. These incredible people that I have worked with are very authentic, genuine and grounded. Malala oozes authenticity and passion, and I love that. That’s what drives me, and I think it’s so important to be passionate about what you do.
Real Style: Where do you gather your inspiration and positive energy?
Molly: I did a lot of work on myself throughout my recovery, through fitness, nutrition, finding spirituality and going to therapy. Through doing all of these things and a lot of self-exploration, I learned to love and accept who I am. When you are free of self-hatred, it’s really hard to feel positive. Whenever I do a beauty video on YouTube, I tell my followers “It’s not about what the mirror tells you, it’s about what you tell you.” That comes from within. Once you’re free of all of that, it’s easy to be positive.
Real Style: What are some advancements you would like to see in terms of accessibility in our society?
Molly: I think the beauty industry really needs to show more diversity. Disability is often seen as an ugly thing, as a negative. But for so many of us with disabilities, it’s not a negative. I would not change my life at all. This is who I believe I was meant to be. I can love fashion and makeup just as much as any other woman. Disability can be beautiful, and I wish that society can see that more.
Photo: Molly Burke