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Von Decarlo Beach

Photo by Marco David

As audience members and invited guests milled about enjoying cocktails before the premiere performance of Von Decarlo’s one-woman show Lasagna, the lady herself breezed past me and disappeared behind a dressing room door. I had not met her before that night, although I was familiar with her as a performer and I recognized her from her work. The woman who had just crossed my path didn’t look like she did in her usual media appearances, however, as she was presently wearing minimal makeup, ripped jeans, a tank top, and (gasp!) no additional hair.

Used to seeing images of her considerable natural beauty all glammed up, I admit that I thought to myself “Oh, she’s probably headed to finish getting ready,” so imagine my surprise when that same beautifully de-glammed Von took the stage, barefoot even, at the start of the show.

Von Decarlo on Stage

Von on stage in her one-woman show. Photo by Giancario Osaben

Dressed down and charged up, Von performed, reflected, and educated beautifully, and her lack of over-styling is a crucial part of both her message and what made her show so wonderful.

“Life leaves scars that you wear on the inside every single day. And just ‘cause y’all can’t see ‘em doesn’t mean they don’t hurt.” –Von Decarlo in Lasagna

If you aren’t familiar with Von’s work, she’s been a professional performer, producer, comedian, and television personality since way back when she was the first person voted off of the Fox reality show “Temptation Island” years ago. She was deemed the most “intimidating” single woman on the show by the other women, and as such, she simply had to go.

In her one-woman show, Von speaks of growing up in Pittsburgh as a geek with glasses who blossomed into the “pretty girl.” She was even voted the prettiEST girl in high school, and she bravely opens up about how tempting and yet detrimental it is to assign all of our worth to our looks, even when that worth has an extremely high market value.

“Your confidence doesn’t come from your beauty; your beauty comes from your confidence.”

That’s one of my favorite quotes from Lasagna, which was conceived and written by Von herself. Speaking one-on-one, she told me that “It’s been a long time coming; I started writing the show when my [now teenaged] daughter was about 5 or 6 years old. It started out as a show about post-partum depression, and losing part of yourself to motherhood, and it evolved over the years into what it is now.”

Director Jamie Leelo and Producer Mehdi Barakchian told me that Von had sought them out through connections in the sketch comedy world, as they are also both performers and Von is a graduate of UCB Theatre and a UCB diversity scholarship recipient, and is one of the founding members of the musical improv group Good Catch Comedy.

Lasagna was performed at NYC’s People’s Improv Theater, or PIT, which also sponsored the performance, in addition to Pray Urban Attire, From Mother’s Garden, Love Logan Productions, and Mr. Chef it Up Catering, who actually provided delectable lasagna for the reception.

Many of Von’s TV appearances are as “Coach Von,” relationship expert and life coach, and she has already written a book, called “Speak Fluent Man.” The book, a relationship guide that can benefit men and women alike, was inspired and heavily influenced by Von’s relationship with comedian Patrice O’Neal.

“He kinda was an asshole but he was honest. And honesty can save your life if you let it.”

Of course in speaking of Patrice, who died suddenly the same month when he and Von were to be married following a ten-year relationship, Von doesn’t completely characterize him as “an asshole,” and she credits their loving relationship with so much in her life, telling me, “I think Patrice’s death made me stronger. He taught me a lot–not just about life, but about the business too, and performing.”

Patrice’s memory is a strange sort of ghost for Von, as she has had to personally and privately navigate the potentially devastating loss while publicly maintaining his legacy and simultaneously not live in his shadow or appear to be riding his posthumous coattails. She successfully navigates this unfortunate pocket of showbiz by honoring him with gratitude and professionally overseeing the management of his creative output, including executive producing the official Patrice O’Neal documentary Better Than You, while putting her own story front and center.

“Do you know how annoying I am when I love someone?”

Von speaks and writes of their love with brutal honesty, just as she addresses everything else, but hers is the rare brutality with an undertone of grace, which is what makes her brand of storytelling and life lessons so valuable. An extremely spiritual person, Von says, “I truly believe that everything that has happened to me in my life is for me to share, and expose, and give people the courage to have confidence in themselves, and say no and make better decisions. Or, suffer the consequences of their decisions and be accountable.”

She continues, “God didn’t pull the carpet out from under me at so many points in my life for no reason. I feel like he did that and gave me strength along the way so that I can help people, especially women. There are so many levels to our insecurity, especially when it comes to looks, confidence, and careers.”

Von was a single mother when she was starting out in entertainment, and she addresses her post-baby body with that same brutal honesty. No concerns about her body, however, trump the palpable love she has for her now-16-year-old daughter MiMi, who I spoke with backstage at the show. The beautiful teenager volunteered that her mother is “the most inspiring, confident woman in the whole world, and because of her, I know that I can do anything.” And no, Von was not in the room at the time.

Von’s mother Joyce was there, however, and she told me that she used to say to a young 10-year old Von that she ought to be an attorney when she grew up, adding that she was “so argumentative.” That was probably the analytical nature that she presently applies in teaching her life lessons making its early incarnation known.

“I grew up hard so I would hear Jesus in everything.”

In Lasagna, Von references growing up in the cut and clinging to her spirituality, and also being inspired by Whoopi Goldberg’s fantastic stand-up and sketch character work. She speaks of her sadness and confusion as hearing Whoopi described as “ugly” or “not beautiful” because Von (like many of us) saw so much beauty in what she did. As she grew up and the world relentlessly told her how pretty she is at every turn, Von had to adapt to and acknowledge what I call Pretty Privilege while still managing her own insecurities because, you know, she’s human.

An unfortunate byproduct of Pretty Privilege in a professionally funny lady is that some of us go overboard in a misguided effort to diminish the potential career handicap of our beauty. Think Jenny McCarthy going out of her way to pick her nose or make fart noises in front of every camera with its red light on for MTV in the late 90s/early aughts. We also see it in the relentless burlesque with which Chrissy Tiegen seems to shout “look everyone, I’m soooooo goofy!” just beneath the surface of every clever tweet and Instagram post.

There’s none of that hollow self-effacing present with Von. She’s laying her insecurities bare in the true spirit of sisterhood, holding up a mirror to her own life and then shattering it when what she finds there leaves her wanting more.

This is a topic that solidly hits home for me too, and even though we have to check our privilege when it comes to being viewed through a mainstream societal lens, it can still be a painful experience to share your truth and have it flatly rejected on sight. Von succinctly says, “The world does not see what you see. They see you from a certain distance and they’re like ‘what is she complaining about.’ But you don’t know what’s under here that I have to look at every day.”

“Nobody tells you when you get plastic surgery that you’re gonna need more plastic surgery to fix the plastic surgery.”

A large part of Von’s message includes being open about her multiple cosmetic surgery procedures in a way that you just don’t usually see or hear from mainstream public figures. It’s my belief that everyone is free to say what work they’ve had done or not, but if you’re going to tell your truth, I generally prefer that people tell the whole truth, like Von does.

Von Decarlo Guitar

Making scars glamorous. Photo by Derrick Gomez

It’s one thing to say you’ve “had work done,” and it’s quite another to put your tummy-tuck scar and stretch marks on display. As Von aptly states, “There’s alot about plastic surgery that you don’t know about plastic surgery until you have plastic surgery,” so she’s letting people in via her experiences. She’s quick to clarify that she’s not blaming her doctors, adding, “Let’s be clear—I wasn’t botched or anything; I had great doctors and they were just doing what I asked them to do. And they did a really great job.”

However, the merry-go-round of internalizing what people see of you and letting that become what you are, and making tweaks and improvements to that, can be extremely dizzying and difficult to disembark. Flawless cosmetic surgery results the first time are a rarity, and, unless we know them intimately, we’re often completely unaware of what literal and figurative scars people are left with from strenuous efforts at self-improvement that are motivated externally.

Von is letting us all know her intimately, sharing her journey and showing us all of her scars. Her director, Jamie, praises the way Von “doesn’t shy away from anything,” and says that “the way she puts everything out there makes it really easy to communicate with her because it’s easy to talk to somebody who’s really fully present with you, and that makes her super easy to work with.”

“I wonder if lightning can strike twice for me.”

Von is candid about dating again as a single mom after the loss of the man she thought she’d spend the rest of her life with, including her hilarious take on entering #CougarLife at 40. What’s clear is that she’s dedicated to using her insights and talents to entertain and help others, and her beauty shines regardless of such external trappings as so many of us have gotten used to.

As her show’s producer Jamie says, “the potential for Lasagna is limitless,” and I don’t even want to ruin the layered (get it?) meaning of the title for you—I’ll just urge you all to follow Von on Twitter and Instagram to stay tuned for updates on her projects, including the next incarnation of her show, and buy her book here. Up next, Von will be working with Centric TV to shoot a pilot at the Circle of Sisters Expo based on “Speak Fluent Man.” This is a brilliant Black woman making moves, with the betterment of us all in mind.

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MORE FROM THIS WRITER: 

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