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Why I love my smile after 35 years of struggling with 'bad teeth'

After struggling with my teeth for more than 35 years, I plan on smiling from now on.
/ Source: TODAY

Growing up, my three siblings and I would walk a mile to the local convenience store and stock up on our favorite candy: Pop Rocks, Razzles, Necco Wafers, Laffy Taffy, Bottle Caps, Jawbreakers, Fun Dip. We’d polish off our stash on the walk home, play the game Kick the Can until it got too dark out to even see the can, eat dinner, then go to bed.

Oftentimes without brushing our teeth.

You’re probably wondering what type of parents would allow their kids go to sleep without brushing their teeth. Nope, mine weren’t hippies — they were more like characters out of "Mad Men": My dad was an executive with IBM and my mom was a secretary at a New York City-based advertising firm. But this was the late '70s — having a helicopter parent meant your dad or mom actually flew a helicopter. My parents never knew where we were during the day, let alone if we were brushing our teeth at night.

No surprise, our visits to the dentist were brutal. My dentist was our dad’s secretary’s father (his secretary was in her 50s, so you can do the math). I don’t remember him ever telling me to do a better job brushing. But I do have vivid memories of his twice-yearly post-exam conversations; the ones where he would tell my mom I had four (five! six!) cavities.

Fifth grade: My parents clearly missed the class on braces.
Fifth grade: My parents clearly missed the class on braces.Colleen Sullivan

My teeth never bothered me in middle school, but that all changed in high school. I had friends who hated their nose, hair, boobs, thighs (fill in the blank), but the only thing I hated was my crooked, misshaped and silver-filled teeth. It only got worse in college.

One of my first “aha” dental moments came during my junior year. I had just started dating the quarterback of the football team and clearly had my share of female haters. One day, I received an anonymous note via campus mail that was filled with nasty comments about my appearance — I assumed it was from someone who had a crush on my boyfriend. I laughed off most of the digs but I have to admit, the last line hurt. It read, “P.S. Fix Your Teeth!”

I realized then that I wasn’t the only one who noticed my teeth.

Fast forward to the late '80s and my first job working in the beauty department at Vogue magazine. It didn’t take long before my boss, a spunky British editor, said she was sending me for a consultation with her dentist. “If you’re going to become a top beauty editor, we’ll need to fix your teeth,” she announced. Her dentist spent a long time looking inside my mouth and soon called that editor with her assessment. “For about $15,000 I can give her teeth like Christie Brinkley!” she announced. The only glitch: I was making $13,000 a year.

At that point, I was determined to not allow my teeth to sidetrack my career. I was promoted at Vogue and moved on to become one of the youngest beauty editors at Working Woman magazine. My job involved a lot of public speaking and television appearances — things that require a big beautiful grin — but by then I had learned how to tighten the muscles around my mouth so that I could master talking and smiling without showing my teeth.

Engaged: Does this woman look like she’s marrying the man of her dreams?
Engaged: Does this woman look like she’s marrying the man of her dreams?Colleen Sullivan

Then one day I was framing pictures from some of the most amazing moments of my life — my engagement, a romantic trip to Venice with my husband, hospital photos after my first child was born — when I realized that I never looked happy, even on my happiest of days.

I was tired of hiding my teeth. I wanted to smile.

At the time, I was the beauty editor at Health magazine and had top cosmetic dentists in New York City on speed dial. I made an appointment with one of who said she could fix my teeth.

But first, she noted, she would need to get rid of my silver fillings and I would need to wear braces.

Not many people would embrace the idea of having silver fillings removed, but I looked forward to my appointments knowing that with each visit, a tooth would be released of its ugly silver cocoon and given new life as a natural-looking tooth. Then, at the age of 35, I got braces.

But once my braces came off, I went into a dental freeze. After years of cavities, root canals and even an apicoectomy (don’t ask), I was not ready to have my teeth prepped and shaved and covered with porcelain veneers.

My teeth had been through enough.

A few months later, I was running late for a press event where one of my favorite television stars was introducing her first fragrance. I arrived at the luncheon after everyone had been seated and was ushered into a chair next to the celebrity. We were both new moms and chatted about our kids before she got up to address the crowd. Looking up at her from my seat, I had a straight view into her mouth.

I had always admired this star’s beautiful teeth, but that close-up I realized they were covered in veneers! I thought if my idol could wear veneers ... it was like the tooth fairy rang a bell over my head.

A week later, I was back in Dr. Antonio’s chair and before I knew it she was shaving down the fronts of my teeth — six on top, six on bottom — and gluing on veneers.

At this point, you’re probably wondering if it all worked out. Did all this dental work actually change my life?

The short answer is yes. It took a long time to get comfortable doing what comes so naturally to others, but now I smile with my straight, white and perfectly shaped teeth. Not an easy task after years of training my mouth to stay shut.

Everyone say cheese! I can now smile with the rest of my family.
Everyone say cheese! I can now smile with the rest of my family.Colleen Sullivan

That said, I am not without dental baggage: I’m constantly waiting for one of my veneers to pop off in the middle of an important meeting. And I have a reoccurring nightmare where all my veneers fall out into my hands. Unfortunately for my three children, they are not immune to my dental scars either. Some kids get candy in their Christmas stockings, my kids get electric toothbrushes. When my oldest was in fifth grade, she asked if I was ever going to allow her to brush her own teeth. And when I catch my seventh grader chewing gum, I make him spit it out — even if it’s sugarless. My teeth still hurt thinking about all the wads of Bubble Yum I chomped down on in my youth.

One of my proudest achievements as a parent: Not one of my kids has ever had a cavity.

Finally, here’s something I’ve never shared with anyone, not even my husband: I’ve always kept a secret “dental” bank account. If I ever have the need to replace my veneers or deal with other cosmetic issues, I want the security of knowing I can afford to do so.

Because I plan on smiling with my teeth for a very long time.