#56: Your Appearance Doesn’t Define You with Hope Easterbrook

If you’ve ever longed for that beautiful hair in a Pantene ad, or wished for smoother skin, or less cellulite, or to be as graceful and perfect as a dancer on stage…please meet Hope Easterbrook. From performing on Broadway to teaching underprivileged kids, Hope brings a unique perspective to appearance, body image and what matters.

Get Michelle’s free tracking spreadsheet: https://ShesGotPower.com/HowIFeel

In this episode you’ll hear about:

  • Dealing with body image issues as a Broadway performer
  • Inclusivity in the entertainment industry
  • Burnout, breakouts and cellulite
  • Hope’s nonprofit: Dance4Hope.com

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Dancing out of diet culture

I hadn’t put my dance sneakers on in over two decades, but in March of 2020, the world had shut down and I started taking every dance class that I could with Alvin Ali’s extension school. They had started offering classes online for free with all of their top-notch instructors. As a mom living in the suburbs, this was a dream come true.

I started doing a hip-hop class twice a week. That just exhilarated me. Back in March of 2020, we all needed an injection of happiness and stress relief.

Hope Easterbrook was the teacher for that hip-hop class. She sings, she dances, she acts, she choreographs. She even has a nonprofit that brings dance classes to immigrant and refugee children.

Right around that time, everybody was complaining about gaining the “quarantine 15.”

Hope had a pretty unique perspective as a Broadway performer. For someone whose livelihood depends on being seen, she had some really interesting stories and insights in this interview that I’m about to share about not tying up your value with your appearance.

This season of the podcast is all about balancing how much we care about our appearance with how much we don’t actually have to care about our appearance. If you would like to shift from worrying about how you look to worrying about how you feel, check out my free system at ShesGotPower.com/HowIFeel.

It will get you off the scale and more in tune with your body. That’s powerful! Okay. Here we go.

Michelle: Hey, Hope! Welcome to the show.

Hope: Hi Michelle. Thanks for having me!

Michelle: It is very good to see you, and I can’t wait to hear what you’ve been up to. Can you give our audience an idea about who you are and what your career path is looking like these days?

Hope: It’s definitely continuing to evolve and change day by day. I’m a performing artist. I’m also an entrepreneur. I founded my own not-for-profit called Dance for Hope. I had the privilege of being on Broadway in Hamilton, and I was in the movie, so I’ve had a lot of really great successes in the performing arts world.

After I transitioned out of that, I found my love — my passion, really — for teaching and working with young artists, so that’s really why I wanted to build this foundation because I realized how important it is to incorporate art into a young person’s life and how it transformed me and helped me as a young kid. I really just wanted to create the platform and the opportunities for young people to have that sort of opportunity as well.

I’m in my third year of Dance for Hope. I recently went to Puerto Rico where we did some Broadway workshops with students out there. We’re just continuing to evolve and move with the times — we did some virtual programming in 2020, which was really, really fascinating.

And I love my mission. I’m really excited to see where it goes. And Broadway’s back, so I’m gonna try and go back to New York and try and also continue my passion for performing on stage. Cuz I love that as well.

Navigating body image as a performer

Michelle: You have been through an enormous change in career. What I have loved about you since we first met is not just your talent, but your activism and how you’ve been using your platform. You have this big following, and what I noticed is that you’re on Instagram and you’ve been posting things along the way about body acceptance, about how you feel about your weight, etc. That must be very real for you. You’re sharing this out loud, which I think is unusual for someone who’s on stage and has that pressure. What is it like for you having to deal with body image issues?

Hope: It’s definitely been a challenge. I think COVID and quarantine — there were upsides and downsides. The upside for me was coming back to the root of why I became an artist in the first place. When there’s not people looking at you and judging you all the time, I finally was able to really understand why I started to dance, or act, or perform. I think that also made me accept my body more and how it transforms.

I think that as a performer, when you’re in those audition settings and you see there’s so many eyes on you all the time, and especially seeing Hamilton in 2020 on Disney+, it was really hard for me because I was in the best shape of my life when I was doing eight shows a week.

And I just looked at myself and I’m like, “Wow, you know, I’m still strong. I’m still the same artist I’ve always been. I’m still that same girl, but I’ve changed and I’ve evolved and I’m just trying to accept those changes.”

It’s definitely harder. I had a moment even last night where I was thinking that Broadway is back and people are having these workshops and I wanna get into these rooms again, and I don’t look or feel the same way that I used to. January 2020, I was at the top of my game. I was killing it, I was in the best mind-body situation, then isolation happened and we all got locked inside.

I started teaching classes and I was with you and you inspired me to keep going and keep doing this every single week. And I think in the beginning it was almost easy for me because it was like the honeymoon phase of being in quarantine. Then all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, we’re still in this.” Then I kind of just dropped off.

So I definitely have been going through this rollercoaster of being inspired. Now I can totally put my energy into Dance for Hope and into my work with younger kids because it almost solidifies my work ethic.

It’s definitely a challenge. I think I’ve always had this body image problem. I struggled a lot as a kid and as a young adult with acne and really just hating what I saw and I had to go to therapy for it.

I really had to sit down and realize I am not my skin. I am not my body. I am so much more than all of those things. Even though I’m scared and nervous to get back into the world as this new version of myself, I’m almost excited because those things are in the past now. I look at myself and it might not be the same, but it’s different and I’m stronger because of all those things that I went through and discovered along the way.

Michelle: I remember being 13 years old and walking into the New Jersey Ballet Company school and looking at everyone else — and I’ve always been a small person, but these were very, very, very tiny girls — and I was like, “Oh, do they eat? Am I gonna have to not eat? I don’t know how I feel about this.” Soon after, I found my way out of dancing, and that was a big part of the reason. I felt huge compared to the other girls in the room, and we were just 13 years old. So that’s obviously the weight thing, then there’s things like acne. Is there anything else I’m not thinking of that a performer might be just flattened by the idea of people seeing?

Hope: Hair loss. There were certain times where I would put my wig on and feel like my hairline was receding. You talk about this a lot. It’s like redefining our standards of beauty, and understanding I am not my hair. I am not what this is. And I’ll bring this story up because I think it’s really important.

Unfortunately my mom was diagnosed with lymphoma when I was 18, and when she started to lose her hair  (my mom was the first-ever Pantene Pro-V ad in magazines) — the way that she identified was through her hair, it was such a huge part of her, of her person.

So when she was dealing with the hair loss, she just had these breakdowns, and I had to remind her “you are not your hair, you are so much more than that.” And it was so traumatizing when we had to get rid of it for the sake of her treatment. That was such a pivotal moment because as a young kid, in my head, I’m like, “Mom, like, who cares? It’s just hair, it’ll grow back. It’s not that big of a deal.”

But to her, it was her entire self-worth. I think that also gave me a lot of perspective. And again, when I was a young adult and I was like, “I shouldn’t have acne. Why do I have acne?” then realizing, “I’m not the pimples on my face. I’m not the cellulite on my thighs. I’m not any of those things. I am Hope. I’m so much better than that.”

So it’s a constant tug-of-war with your mind.

Michelle: It has to be. And even more so when you’re in the public eye. Pantene Pro-V defined a generation. I feel like any woman my age is like, “Yes, I saw that ad. I bought that product. I’m feeling it.” I remember what the hair looked like in all of those ads.

Hope: She said that the reason they got it as shiny as they did was because they put french fry grease in her hair. Can you believe that? So it wasn’t Pantene Pro-v, it was literally grease to make it look shiny and beautiful.

Michelle: Well, if it wasn’t that, it would be some sort of Photoshopping anyway, right? Wow. That is a fascinating story.

Body positivity in the entertainment industry

Michelle: So you’re maybe going back into the Broadway scene and the New York scene. Do you see opportunities? The world is evolving and sometimes for the worse and sometimes for the better. Are there opportunities in the entertainment industry as a whole for bodies of different shapes and sizes? Are you seeing any changes there?

Hope: I guess we’ll wait and see. It’s still very early on in the stages of hiring and new shows that are being created and cast. You’ll see a breakdown and it’ll be like “all inclusive body types.” Then you go down the line and [it says] “must have ballet-fit body” or something, you know what I mean? And you’re like, “Wait a minute, one doesn’t equal the other, this doesn’t make any sense.”

I think that as a society, we need to change what our idea of what fit is, or healthy.

There’s a friend of mine. She runs her own company called Dance from Home and she’s all about body positivity. She fluctuates very similar to me. Her name’s Megan Bowen. I’m really inspired by the content that she creates, and people are always like, “I wish I had someone like you to look up when I was young and getting into the industry.”

When you’re a young person and you see the things that you see on TV, or even you see on Broadway, it’s really hard to find people that look like you sometimes. So if we have more inclusivity, as far as body types — and people are paving the way, it just needs to be more. It’s not that it’s not happening, and I see the potential, but it just hasn’t really happened yet.

Michelle: Yeah. I’m seeing it in Gap ads and even Victoria’s Secret ads. There’s been a big change in the past couple of years. And I suppose with Broadway, you have costumes to consider and you have other logistics.

Hope: It’s the logistics, and that’s a really good point. If you’re coming into a show and they already have costumes, you have to fit into the costumes, or you are being lifted eight times a week and there are certain tracks that the creative team thinks has to fit into that mold.

Starting it really is gonna be like starting from scratch because it really is just like, how can we not make it? Hamilton is a really good example of how you always have the same type of person replacing the last person. And I would love to see that switch the mold a little bit more and be a little bit more body inclusive.

Michelle: Well, if there’s any show that could do it, it feels like Hamilton would be the one. They already broke so many norms with casting.

When being busy takes priority over self-care

Michelle: You brought up this idea of you having to do eight shows a week and it seems like that is going to take a certain level of being fit. Just the stamina required, the energy required. Does anyone in performing ever really talk about that or invest in themselves in that regard? 

Hope: No, and I really had to learn the hard way, because as much as I, in 2020, saw myself on screen from five years ago — I’m a whole different person now. What’s really interesting is that I might be looking at that and saying, “Oh wow, I was really in shape.” But I also wasn’t.

I was doing eight shows a week. I was not sleeping nearly enough. I was not eating the right types of foods. I was leaving the show at like 10 or 11 at night starving and going to the bar because I’m still hyped up on adrenaline. And I eat a burger, I have a beer or two, and then I might not go to sleep for another couple hours because I’m still jacked up on the adrenaline.

But then I sleep in and then I don’t cross-train, so my body is literally just wear-and-tear of the same show, eight times a week. So I had to almost learn the hard way through injuries.

What I should have been doing was taking yoga two times a week, doing Pilates to strengthen my core, lifting weights, because there are muscles that I was not using that needed to support the muscles that I was using.

So I would have to learn the hard way. I was just running on fumes the whole time. And it was a rude awakening because people don’t tell you that.

People ask me, “What was the hardest part about being in Hamilton?”

That! The not having energy to do anything but the show. That’s really the hardest part. You wanna have energy to take class with your friends or even see your friends. I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed and go do those things during the day. I would literally just try and get my adulting stuff done and then go to the show and do that.

Eventually they gave us a per diem for like, massages. And I used it for acupuncture and stuff like that, so that I can actually get my health going because it was a harsh awakening for sure.

Michelle: What you’re describing is not dissimilar to any of our listeners, anyone who is a high performer in whatever field you’re in, whatever lifestyle you have. If you are going to operate at that level, you need to take care of your body so that it doesn’t just fall apart on you. Cuz we’re talking about, again, your energy levels, your stamina, and managing the stress that goes along with it.

Hope: Yeah, and I know you talk a lot about what you eat. And I think that that was something that I, I tried to do after being in the show and it was when I was feeling my best.

I was on a vegetarian/vegan diet and I woke up and didn’t even need coffee. I mean, that in and of itself is so major to me because it was so groggy for so long. When I was on more of a clean diet, I had the energy without even really needing coffee in order to be on my A-game for those early-morning auditions. So when I get back into it, no dairy, honey.

What was actually hard was eating a seven o’clock dinner. I find that really challenging to not eat after that, cuz I’m so used to snacking until I’m not hungry. So when you really force yourself to eat at seven, so that you can sleep for 12 hours and then eat again, you know? I’m gonna try and get back into those types of habits again.

I think when I’m back in New York, I’ll have more of a routine. So it’ll be a little bit easier for me to have access to whole foods or the types of organic stuff that I actually need. Because I’ve been traveling so much, it’s hard to keep up with that.

Michelle: Yeah, not every place that you go has easy access.

Hope: I’ve been living in Nashville, so I would say it’s barbecue and beer and bad stuff. We live our lives. And I think that that’s also a good thing. Not keeping yourself away from the simple pleasures. And if that brings you joy, then I think you should also do that. But it’s all in moderation, you know?

Healing from burnout as a performer

Michelle: I do know. Typically when I’m interviewing somebody, we’re talking about someone who has hit a burnt-out place in their life and had to recover from it. Given the stress and the roller coaster of having a career in performing, certainly everything you’ve gone through in the past year with COVID, have you ever hit a deep burnout point? And what was that like for you?

Hope: Yeah. There was a moment where I was in Hamilton and what took me out of the show for a week — I had an in-grown toenail. It was so painful and I needed surgery and everything. And it was one of those moments where I had to be okay with taking time off. And I think that that is almost harder. Realizing you pushed yourself way too hard. It shouldn’t have gotten so bad that I needed surgery.

So how can we individually anticipate those burnouts or anticipate it when it gets too bad?

When I was sitting on my couch for a week, recovering and watching TV, I was definitely anxious because I wanted to work. I wanted to be in the show. But I would say that if we can somehow have more wherewithal when we are getting to that burnout position and saying, “Hey, can we get this fixed?”

And if it didn’t get fixed, “Hey, I’m following up. Can we get this thing fixed?”

I feel like everyone is now so much more aware of their worth. Now that we’ve experienced what we experienced. People are now speaking up in the industry about having too much, too many, not enough time off. Not enough time to recover in order to be a hundred percent for their job. And it’s pretty simple. We had one day off and eight shows a week — it’s really hard, not enough time where we could let our bodies recover.

Then on top of that, we don’t really have time to see our families or go to Christmas and Thanksgiving, we have shows on those days. So I think it comes down to understanding your worth, understanding that it’s okay to take time off for your mental health, it’s okay to take time off for your physical health,  understanding your worth, being paid your worth. Also anticipating “Oh, I’m not feeling great. Maybe I should take the day off and really focus on my health today.”

Michelle: All of those things, again, applying to people across industries, across lifestyles. Yeah, when the toenail starts to pierce metaphorically or literally, that’s the time. Thank you for sharing that with us.

I love that you have redirected some of your energy towards Dance for Hope. Surely as your career continues to change and as you get older and the opportunities change, it’s great to have something that you’ll continue to do, and also seems to feed you in a really important way in addition to performing or outside of it.

So you already told us a little bit about Dance for Hope. Can you share with us where we could check that out or make a donation towards this great work that you’re doing?

Hope: Absolutely. You can donate at dance4hope.com. We also have an Instagram page Dance for Hope, Inc. And you can follow us and see what we are doing next.

I’m putting together some footage from Puerto Rico, which was the most incredible thing. And you know, when I beat myself up about this year and sometimes we’re like, “Oh, I could have done more.” But I put this whole trip together. And I was able to serve over 60 students in Puerto Rico and give them an opportunity to introduce them to different performing arts that they had never even known about and then got them to the point where they felt so comfortable and confident.

So I’m carrying on in that mentorship even through to this day. They still like hit me up and ask me advice and questions. So it’s really been able to feed my soul in a way that I didn’t know I needed. I’m so excited to continue this work and this mission, because it really does mean a lot to me.

We’re gonna Puerto Rico next summer, that I know.

Michelle: Well, I just wanna go to Puerto Rico anyway, but that sounds like an even better reason to do it. So everyone that is dance4hope.com. Thank you so much for being here today with us, Hope, and sharing your story. And again, we are cheering you on. I can’t wait to see what you’re gonna do next.

Hope: Hey, thank you, Michelle. It’s so good to see you and hopefully we can dance together soon.

Michelle: Oh Yes. You know, I am never gonna look at a bottle of Pantene Pro-V the same way after that interview.

You can learn more about Hope and Hope’s non-profit at dance4hope.com.

And as a free gift to you, all of my listeners, please go to, ShesGotPower.com/HowIFeel to change the way you think about your health and your weight, appearance, and staying quote unquote on track. It’s the very same system I use with all of my clients.