Meet the Breast Cancer Survivor Who Bared It All in John Legend's New Music Video
Since its July 10 release, John Legend’s new music video for his single “You & I (Nobody in the World)” has been viewed more than six million times on YouTube. In it, you’ll see 63 women look at themselves in a mirror.
You’ll see Legend’s wife, supermodel Chrissy Teigen, get ready to go out. You’ll see a boxer mid-workout. You’ll watch a bride shake off nerves, a girl get her ears pierced and a young woman try on clothes in a dressing room. You’ll see an elderly woman apply makeup, a teenager with Down syndrome look her outfit up and down, and a mom adjust her glasses. You’ll watch “Orange Is The New Black” actress and transgender advocate Laverne Cox take off her makeup and a cancer patient take off her wig.
And at the 2:43 mark, you’ll watch a woman take off her bra, revealing scars from the double mastectomy she had in 2010. Her name is Brenda O’Brien.
This is her story.
“It’s not like I want to show everybody my chest all the time,” O’Brien, 50, says in the beginning of her interview with The Mighty. “But I want people to know what it looks like to go through what I went through. This is my body. It’s just a fact. I’m embracing it.”
O’Brien was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. She sat in a Jiffy Lube with her father when she got the call; he knew from her face what the doctor had said — he recognized the expression from his wife, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer years earlier.
“It was a blow,” O’Brien recalls. “But I remember feeling like I could get through it.” She underwent treatments and had a lumpectomy.
Five years later, the cancer returned. This time, O’Brien chose to have a double mastectomy. Months of radiation therapy followed, along with reconstruction surgery. She found herself with a new, almost unrecognizable body.
“It was one of the most emotional times of my life, not because of the vanity or visual of it,” O’Brien says. “But because I felt like I had failed somehow, like I couldn’t heal.”
As she worked to accept her body, O’Brien — an artist and writer by trade — began a photojournal, documenting her life with breast cancer. She wanted to make a resource for women who would Google “double mastectomy,” as she had months earlier. She wanted them to find pictures filled with bravery and beauty — not the scary, shock-value images she had seen when she first searched. She asked different photographers to take her picture for a series that became the What Lies Beneath Project.
A few weeks before the Legend video was released, O’Brien stood on a closed set with director Mishka Kornai.
“We’re absolutely not looking to exploit this,” he told her.
“It’s not exploitation,” O’Brien replied. “This is it. This is my real body. This is me.”
When cameras rolled, she looked into a mirror, as instructed, and readied herself the way she would for any ordinary day. Then, on one take, Kornai asked her to think back that day in 2010 when she realized a double mastectomy was the best — if not her only — option.
“That feeling I felt — that ‘this is it,’ devastating feeling — it’s always right under my skin, ready to go,” O’Brien says. She cried while she undressed on camera, and she cried weeks later, when she watched the footage back for the first time. But the tears aren’t all out of sadness; they’re a sort of celebration, too. Each time O’Brien sheds them, she sheds a piece of herself who felt defeated by breast cancer. She sheds the parts of her who felt ashamed of her body after surgery. She sheds the pieces of her past she doesn’t need anymore.
“If you keep living in a body you used to have or in a situation that’s not there anymore, you’re just going to be depressed,” O’Brien says. It’s what has driven her to “show everybody [her] chest all the time.” It’s what has driven her own photo project. And it’s what drove her to pose for New York photographer Isis Charise in the Grace project, a photo series of breast cancer survivors.
O’Brien stood before the camera once more for Charise — this time, with her two sisters, Kathleen and Angel, by her side. Within 11 months of her own diagnosis, both women had been diagnosed with breast cancer, too.
Together, the trio has created a network called Three Sisters Survival to raise breast cancer awareness and research funds and to connect survivors and cancer patients around the world.
O’Brien didn’t hesitate when producers called and asked her to appear in Legend’s video. She felt honored to stand with the 62 other women who bravely shared their insecurities with the world. Her own insecurity may seem more severe than others’, but she doesn’t see it that way.
“I was talking to someone who said, ‘Well, it would all mean more if John Legend didn’t marry a supermodel, and I thought, ‘Well, you just missed the whole point of the video,’” O’Brien says. “I know people who are beautiful but don’t think they are. Everyone has something they’re insecure about. Everyone has something they’re dealing with.”
It’s true. She’s come a long way since her double mastectomy — many women would never bare their scars the way she does. But she still struggles with her new body. Dating can be awkward. Meeting new people means explaining her past. Getting dressed can be a production.
“It’s not like I’ve got it all worked out,” O’Brien says. “It’s an ongoing thing, but I feel 95 percent better than I did when I had my mastectomy.”
Today, she works in New York City as a makeup artist for Broadway’s “The Lion King” while she works to turn the What Lies Beneath project into a book. Every day, in the midst of a busy schedule, she has to learn to love herself.
Patience, she says, is the key to accepting a new body.
“You’ll find your womanhood deeper inside yourself. You’ll find it in every other part of your body — in your elbows, knees, your back,” she says. “Every part of your body is a woman.”
Meet the 63 women from Legend’s video in the behind-the-scenes documentary below.