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‘Confidence’ is the secret to beauty and success

In "Confidence is Queen," former Miss USA Susie Castillo writes about her experiences growing up, and shares the lessons she's learned about positive thinking. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

In "Confidence is Queen," former Miss USA Susie Castillo writes about her experiences growing up, and shares the lessons she's learned about positive thinking. From dealing with an abusive father and living in a drug-infested neighborhood to becoming a successful model and radio host, Castillo says confidence in herself made all the difference. An excerpt.

IntroductionWe allhave times when it seems like nothing’s going our way — when it seems like everything we want is out of reach. Ever have those days when you’d rather stay in bed buried under your covers rather than face the world?

Me, too. Believe me — I’ve been there.

If you had asked me when I was a kid if I ever thought I’d be a beauty queen, I would have said, “No Way!” In my wildest dreams I never thought I’d enter — and then win! — a beauty pageant. Of course, like most little girls, I watched them on TV, but they seemed more like game shows to me — something to watch, but not actually do.

But I did do it. In 2003 I won the title of Miss USA. And even though I wasn’t the most traditionally beautiful contestant, I think what made me stand out — and ultimately win — was my confidence. What made me change my mind about pageants? I realized that it was a great way to bring me closer to my goal of working in the entertainment industry. I always believed a girl like me could win one of those pageants. When I say “a girl like me,” I don’t mean I thought I was unattractive. I never felt I was inferior to the other girls in any way. But I knew I was very different from the typical beauty pageant girl. In those days, most girls who won pageants were ultrafeminine Caucasian girlie girls with straight hair, who came from rich families and were really into makeup and clothes.

I am so not any of those things. I’m more of a jock than a girlie girl. My hair is supercurly. I ran track and played volleyball. My family was far from wealthy. And I’m Latina. On top of that, I had no idea how to pick out the right jewelry, put on makeup, or style my hair for a pageant. My usual morning routine involved tying my hair back into a ponytail and throwing on a pair of sweatpants before running out the door for school (hoping to make it to first period on time)!

Winning Miss USA confirmed what I had come to believe long before that point in my life: even though society may value a certain standard of beauty (like those blond- haired, blue- eyed, superthin model types you see on TV and in magazines), that doesn’t mean it’s the only standard of beauty. Being beautiful and discovering true beauty comes from the inside out. It’s about you discovering what’s beautiful about you, knowing the right tools to enhance your beauty, and then emanating it.

So how did I go from Susie the jock to Glamour Girl? First, let me start at the beginning and tell you a little bit about where I came from.

I grew up in Methuen, Massachusetts, which is about thirty miles north of Boston. I lived with my mom and two sisters in a part of town that you could say was “on the wrong side of the tracks.” It wasn’t a hard-core ghetto, but there were certainly gangs, violence, and plenty of drug dealing happening right on my street. When I got into middle and high school, several of my friends went down the wrong path, joining gangs, drinking and doing drugs. A few even got pregnant by the time we got to sophomore year!

My homelife was also pretty intense. My father was either totally abusive toward us or totally absent from our lives. He was never interested in playing with us or helping us with homework or doing the normal things Dads do. He stayed out at the local sports bar playing dominos until two a.m., stumbling home drunk with lipstick on his collar from women who weren’t my mother. Obviously, he was cheating. When he was home, he “disciplined” us, hitting my sisters and me with his belt, which often left welts on our thighs where it struck. We were all afraid of him and what he might do next.

Once I was playing hide- and- go- seek with the neighborhood kids — a bunch of girls and boys. My dad freaked out and yelled for me to come into the house. Once I was inside, he gripped me by the shoulders—hard—and said, “Las ninas no juegan con ninos!  . . .  Little girls don’t play with boys!” I remember looking at him in confusion, thinking, “In school we all play together. How is this different?” But I couldn’t tell him that — I was too afraid of how he’d react. I was sent to my room for the rest of the day for being “bad.” Thinking back about that now, I get really angry because I was just being a normal kid and wasn’t being “bad” at all.

Another time, I remember waking up to the sound of my parents yelling. I was hoping maybe I was having a nightmare, but — nope — it was all too real. I slowly opened the bedroom door a crack and peered into the living room. My mom was red in the face, crying, and asking Dad where he’d been all night. My father grabbed my mom’s throat and shook her to the ground, trying to get her to be quiet. It was awful. All she wanted was for her husband to stop cheating on her and come home at a decent hour to be with his family. Dad stomped out of our apartment that night, leaving my mom crying in a heap on the living room floor. I ran out of my bedroom to see if I could help her. She had me call the police to report my dad because her English was poor. So there I was, a five- year- old girl on the phone with the Methuen police station trying to explain what my dad had done.

Even though my childhood was less than ideal, all the stuff that happened to me made me a really strong person. I knew I wanted more from life than what I saw around me. And even though my dad wasn’t around, I felt lucky that my mom and grandmother were. They were my pillars — my biggest fans, always supporting everything I wanted to do. They also taught me self- discipline, how to set boundaries, and the importance of trying to accomplish things, even though they might seem impossible. It was through their example that I created four keys that have helped me get through good times and tough times by relying on myself.

My grandmother taught me how to stay true to my principles in the face of peer, media, or even family pressures. She grew up very poor in Puerto Rico and had to learn to trust her own instincts. She trained me to trust mine. My mother taught me how to create strong bonds with friends and family so I’d always have a support system of people to turn to, no matter how difficult my situation might be. After my father left, my mom brought my grandmother to live with us, and we were surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins, whom my sisters and I could go to at any time.

My mother’s resilience in the face of my father abandoning our family showed me that even if certain parts of my life weren’t perfect, I had the power to control my destiny. She took two—and sometimes three — jobs to support us. Because of her, I knew anything I wanted to accomplish, whether it was taking charge of my own health or setting goals and achieving success, was possible.

I always thought that someday I’d write a book, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I would write about. I knew I wanted to tell my story and encourage other young women to take control of their lives and follow their dreams, just like I did. But it wasn’t until 2003, when I won Miss USA, that I looked back over my life and thought, “Wow! How did I do this? How did I get here?” I had accomplished every giant goal that I ever set in my life — yet I knew there was still much more for me to accomplish. I realized how amazing my achievements were and started to consider what led me to this success.

Part of my job as Miss USA required going to public speaking engagements, so I often spoke at high schools, conventions, and other events. Often I’d speak to troubled kids from my own neighborhood. That was always very rewarding because I could totally relate to what they were going through — I knew because I’d been there. Usually they had no idea that I had once been one of them, because I’d be onstage wearing the Miss USA sash and tiara. The kids were always shocked when I told them that I had graduated from the same schools they went to and lived in the same neighborhoods as they did. Most of them were Latinos, like me, so they beamed with pride when I told them that I was only the third Latina EVER to win Miss USA. I wanted them to know that if I could achieve my goals, they could do it, too. I loved sharing my story with them, hopefully inspiring them to try to achieve anything their hearts desired.

But soon I realized that becoming a model and winning Miss USA took a whole lot more than what I mentioned during the hour- long speeches I was giving. I began to think about what I really wanted to say to these kids and considered how I could go about saying it. I realized the message I had to impart was about how I became a beautiful and successful woman through the power of positive thinking. I looked back over my life and discovered that I had created a prescriptive plan for myself that consisted of four specific parts: cultivating my spirituality, creating healthy relationships, taking charge of my image, and turning my dreams into reality. In fact, at first I didn’t even realize I’d been following a set of guidelines, but now I recognize that I’ve been following them practically my whole life.

I think these guidelines came about through a combination of my mother’s strong principles, which she instilled daily in my sisters and me, and my own internal desire to succeed. Looking back over my life, I began to analyze events in my life and characteristics of my personality. I had always done my best to be a good person and treat people with the respect we all deserve. That resulted in a deep caring for others and a true love for myself. I’ve always had great support from my family and always returned that love. I enjoyed fashion and tried to look my absolute best, even if I was wearing sweatpants! I’ve also been writing my goals down and posting them on my wall since I was fourteen years old. But like I said, it wasn’t until I became Miss USA that I was able to look within myself and recognize that all those years something extraordinary had been guiding me. That’s when I decided to write this book and tell my story, which is one of hope, inspiration, and truth.

I decided to call these guidelines “keys” because that’s how I see them — as keys that can unlock your true strength and lead you on a path of self- discovery, empowerment, success, beauty, and ultimately, confi dence. These keys are what helped me go from being a girl from Methuen, Massachusetts, to becoming Miss USA, an actor, a radio host, an MTV VJ, a spokesperson for Neutrogena, and now a published author. They are my rules to live by and I want to share them with you. I hope they will inspire you to stay true to yourself and find success in what ever it is you choose to pursue.

The four keys to unleashing your ultimate beauty:
1. Identify and effectively develop your spirituality
It’s imperative to have a strong sense of self. My first step in the journey toward confidence and true beauty was getting to know who I was and what I was made of. I call this “spirituality.” Without a strong sense of spirituality, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve my goals.

I first realized the true importance of spirituality when I was in high school and became a member of our school’s Peer Leadership Group. The group had a pretty impressive role in our community—we encouraged local elementary school kids to stay in school, stay off drugs, and be responsible people. As a peer leader, my job was to be an inspirational role model. By performing funny plays about being loyal, loving, dedicated, respectful, and hardworking, our goal was to instill positive character traits in our young audience, who would hopefully, in turn, inspire those around them to make positive improvements in themselves and their community.

I always felt so good about myself on those days when we performed for the kids. On those evenings in particular, while brushing my teeth before bed, I’d catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and I truly loved the person I saw staring back at me. I thought, “Here’s the face of a person who cares for others, someone who’s a leader, someone who isn’t perfect, but is happy and confident.” I felt like the most beautiful girl in the world.

What I learned from being part of that program is that having a strong spiritual center gave me more confidence than just about anything. I wasn’t looking at my hair or my skin or my cheekbones when I was looking at myself in the mirror — I was looking at ME. The real me, the inner me — the giving, loving, radiant me.

2. Embrace and nurture your relationships
Everyone needs to develop a support system. Family and community were (and still are!) really important to me. My dad might not have been around, but I was able to create my own cadre of reliable people I could call on.

Talk about a support system — I had twelve aunts and uncles and about fifty cousins on my mom’s side — all the family one could ever need or want! Some of them lived close by, within walking distance, so my cousins were my best friends. If someone was ever in need, family was there to give what they could to help out. That’s how it always was.

Still, it was my immediate family — my mom and sisters — that I was closest to. Mami always made us feel like we came first — that everything she did was done with us in mind. I think part of the reason I want to succeed in life is because, in a way, it’s like paying my mom back for all her sacrifice and hard work. I couldn’t have gotten to where I am today without her, and I think she wouldn’t have been able to withstand my father leaving her if it hadn’t been for us and the need to make sure we were fed, clothed, and loved.

3. Take control of your health and body image Your body image is a reflection of your self- control and self- love. Winning Miss USA taught me that beauty comes from the inside out. Sure, I learned a lot of tricks along the way for looking good (which I’ll share with you here!), but the most important thing I learned is that if I’m beautiful internally, I’m beautiful externally, as well. There’s so much more to looking good than wearing the right lip gloss (although M·A·C’s Viva Glam is my fave!).Looking good starts with having a healthy attitude toward nutrition and exercise. When I decided to give modeling a shot, I wanted to appear as physically fit and healthy as I could. I wanted to achieve that from the inside out, so I started by altering my diet. I added more fresh fruits and vegetables to my diet, drank more water and natural juices, and then I began to include strength training in my workout routine. Within just a few weeks, I felt like a new person. I had more energy, a more positive outlook, and on top of that, because I felt so great, I really looked good, too.

That’s when I realized that it was me who had the power to change not only my internal self, but also my physical appearance. I learned that I am the one who can make the biggest difference in the image I present to the world. Once I felt healthy on the inside I began to concentrate on my outward appearance. I learned how to wear makeup, do my hair, and choose the right outfi t for my body. Altogether these things made a big difference both in how I looked and how I felt about myself. I had all the proof I needed that I was on the right track when, a year later, I signed with a modeling agency.

4. Believe in your dreams and make them a reality
Having long- and short- term goals keeps you positive, focused, and strong. My dreams and aspirations kept me moving forward, rather than letting me become discouraged by the poverty, drug use, and seemingly hopeless environment around me.

Thinking back over my life, I’d have to say there were several things that inspired the formation of Key #4. First, I believe seeing my mom make it all on her own was probably the single most inspiring aspect of my upbringing. Mami raised three daughters, had more than one job when necessary, made rent every month, got dinner on the table every night, and was there to make sure my sisters and I got plenty of motherly love. Watching Mami accomplish it all instilled in me a sense that I could make any dream come to fruition as long as I had plenty of determination and worked hard enough.

I was also lucky to have a couple of mentors in my life — my high school indoor track coaches, who encouraged me to do my best, not only in sports, but in every part of my life. They took on my triumphs as if they were their own and were always pushing me to do better and try harder, along with imploring me never to give up and always look toward the future.

The encouragement from those who loved me gave me the strength to recognize that I wanted more from life than what the neighborhood I grew up in offered. All those negative influences, like drug dealers, gang members, and poverty, actually encouraged me to succeed, because I wanted a life that didn’t exist where we lived.

Finally, achieving one goal helped me realize I could achieve more goals, which made me realize that it was okay to attempt to make bigger and loftier dreams come true. Each accomplishment I had led to another one and then another one, from landing that first modeling contract to the moment where I really knew I’d made it — being crowned Miss USA.

The combination of my life experience is what has contributed to the development of these four keys. It’s difficult to pinpoint any one thing that’s singularly responsible for their development. I have to give credit to all of the people and events in my life because they’ve all influenced the keys in some way.

These four keys helped me develop what I call “true beauty.” True beauty isn’t about how you look—it’s about so much more than that. True beauty starts from the inside. It’s the part of you that is loving, giving, positive, and contented.

You’ve probably seen people with true beauty — they exude radiance, like the sun, and shine with self- esteem and a positive attitude. They also have the ability to make those around them feel good about themselves with an ease that seems to come naturally. Overall, what they possess is confidence. Confidence is what equals true beauty. It may seem like these self- possessed beauties were born with that attitude, but I can tell you they probably weren’t. Having a strong sense of confidence takes practice — plus, most important, you need the right tools. And that’s what I want to pass on to you: the tools that shaped who I am today.

Throughout my life, the four keys have helped me transform from a young girl unsure about her place in the world, wondering whether or not she fit in, to a woman who knows exactly who she is, what she wants, and that she has the power within her to do anything. I’ve found that, while this transformation to true beauty was my end goal, I couldn’t be in this place without taking the small steps that led me here. You’ve heard that saying about how it’s the journey that really matters? I think that’s true. The path I took to become Miss USA was just as rewarding as the night I got crowned. Following these keys will send you on your own journey of self- discovery — one on which you’ll discover who you really are and how much power you have within you to achieve what’s important to you. I’m certain that if you follow these four keys, you’ll find — just like I did — your own confidence, your own “true beauty.”

Whether or not you want to be a beauty queen, what ever your hopes, dreams, and aspirations are, I believe these keys can guide you toward finding your own beauty. They can help you achieve any goal you set out to accomplish — from getting into a great college, to becoming a successful CEO, to being a good friend, wife, and mother. You can use these keys to help you create a personal belief system, to become more positive, to give back, to tighten family bonds, to make (and keep!) friends, to get healthy (inside and out), to make your dreams come true — to become a content, confident, truly beautiful you.

And once you’ve attained that, you can really do anything you put your mind to. Somehow when we’re confident and positive, all kinds of possibilities and opportunities present themselves to us. It’s like the law of attraction: depending on how we present ourselves to the world, we can attract positive or negative things to our lives.

You know bling, designer clothes, a fancy car — none of those things shows off the inner you, which is the most beautiful part of you. Believe me, I’ve met some of the world’s most famous celebrities, who have all the right clothes and may appear to be beautiful on the outside, but deep down, some of them are the ugliest people I’ve ever been around. By knowing who you are and believing that you can achieve your goals — despite your family situation, how you look, where you live, and what people say — you can show your beauty to the world.

This book will guide you through the four keys and show you step by step how to employ them in your own life. Within each section I reveal the tips and tools that helped me master each key. I also share with you my personal experiences and tell you exactly how I implemented those tools in particular situations to become a more confident, in-control, and beautiful person, so you can see firsthand how and why the keys work. I’ve also included some exercises and recipes that will make using the keys in your everyday life, not only simple, but fun, too.

The keys are organized in such a way that you will be able to start practicing them right away. Once you start to follow them, I’m sure you’ll see a big difference in yourself almost immediately. Each key builds upon the next one, so be sure to start with the first section, in which I show how to develop your spirituality. After you’ve learned how to feed your soul, you’ll move onto the next key where you’ll find out how to nurture the relationships with the important people in your life, whether it’s your family or your friends. Next, I tell you about the beauty secrets that helped me win Miss USA, led to my being named one of the most beautiful by People en Español, and keep me looking my best each and every day. Finally, I reveal how you can turn your dreams into tangible, actual real-life accomplishments, just like I did.

If you follow these keys, I guarantee you will transform your life and become the beautiful, confident and successful person you’ve always dreamed of being. Use this book like a guide to your new self, and refer to it whenever you need encouragement, a pick- me- up, or advice from your long- lost sister — me! Remember that I’m here for you as you begin the journey into your new way of living, thinking and relating to the world and to yourself. I’m writing this book because I want to share with you what worked for me. I know if the four keys could transform me, they can transform you, too. Here’s why the four keys work: because they’re all about you. Based on your life, your experience, what you need and what you want. I know they work because I followed them to help me become Miss USA, and I follow them to this day as my career continues to unfold.

Let’s get started so you can start following them, too!

Excerpted from "Confidence is Queen." Copyright (c) 2008 by Susie Castillo. Reprinted with permission from Penguin Group.