Twin sisters’ project a true ‘beauty’

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“Sometimes, you just need someone to tell you that you’re still beautiful,” says Mia Vanoni, a senior at Sonoma Valley High School. “Because sometimes you can’t believe it any other way, especially when you are fighting a disease that’s changed the way you look.”

Along with her twin sister Bridget, Mia is one of the creators and producers of “Beauty and a Breast.” An aptly titled fashion show and fundraiser, the event will raise money for the Breast Cancer Fund, a San Francisco-based nonprofit working to prevent breast cancer by limiting human exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. The fashion show was designed, in part, to give women and men with breast cancer a chance to dress up and strut their stuff for one high-spirited afternoon.

Scheduled for Saturday, May 21, 2 p.m., at Andrews Hall, the project initially arose from discussions about how the sisters would approach the high school’s required senior project.

“So many of the other senior projects are so senior project-y,” Mia says. “We wanted ours to really mean something to people. We wanted it to impact our community and make a difference.”

With support from Sonoma Arts Live – which is donating the theater space in the middle of its “Calendar Girls” run – the “Beauty and a Breast” fashion show has already won wide support from numerous local businesses, clothing stores, and local volunteers, including over a dozen models.

“Our models have either had breast cancer, or have been impacted by it, or by other kinds of cancer,” says Bridget Vanoni.

Initially, the twins thought that they would design and sew their own clothes for the show, but the idea now makes Bridget laugh.

“There’s no way,” she says. “That would have been so hard. But shop owners have been really generous.”

Mia and Bridget are keeping secret the name of the model who will be appearing in the show’s grand finale, but they say it’s someone very special. Angelique Boutique, one of the event’s sponsors, is putting together a finale for that special model.

“It’s going to be really exciting and beautiful,” Bridget says.

The ambitious project may have begun as a school assignment, but the twins’ motivation is more than just academic.

The sisters were 4-years-old when their mother, Leslie Vanoni, was first diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Since then, though there have been periods where she has been declared cancer-free, the disease has returned a number of times. Vanoni only recently completed yet another round of chemo.

“It’s hard, being a kid whose mom has cancer,” says Mia. “Bridget and I have pretty much lived our entire lives like that.”

The first time their mother underwent chemo, bringing the expected loss of hair, they only knew that their mom looked different, and was spending a lot of time at the hospital.

“The second time she was diagnosed,” Mia continues, “we were a little older, and we began to get how truly serious cancer was.”

Over the years, the twins witnessed up close what cancer can do to the confidence and self-esteem of people undergoing chemotherapy, surgery and other treatments. As Mia and Bridget tell it, there was a cancer survivor fashion show in Marin County a few years ago, and their mom was invited to participate. That night, sitting in the audience watching their mother step into the spotlight, Bridget and Mia understood how important it is for people battling cancer to know that they can still look awesome.

“It made Mom feel really good about herself,” Mia says. “She was bald at the time, and dressing up and walking out there, alongside those other women, it made her feel more confident.”

Leslie Vanoni, who’s appeared in other cancer survivor fashion shows since that first one, says she is astonished at what her daughters are accomplishing with “Beauty and a Breast.”

“One of the things I think is so cool,” says Vanoni, “is the assortment of people they’ve reached out to, as models in the show. One’s a teacher from Sonoma Valley High. One is the mother of a friend of Bridget and Mia’s. One is a young boy, a senior, who had leukemia. Some are students whose parents have passed away from cancer. Some are people who’ve had cancer in the past, and others are still being treated for it.”

Recalling what it was like the first time she herself agreed to model, Vanoni suggests that the “Beauty and a Breast” first timers can expect to experience a bit of an emotion-powered thrill ride.

“It can be very emotional,” she says. “Let’s face it, this is not a club you really want to be a part of. Plus, there’s all the insecurity that comes when you are asked to be a model. It makes people a little nervous, but that changes the minute you step out there. And its significant to see how many other different people are going through the same thing you are. I think all of the models are gorgeous.”

It’s that wide mix of different models – all from different ages, genders and experiences – that Bridget and Mia believe will give the event additional impact.

“Cancer effects everybody,” Bridget says. “Even if no one in your family has had it, everyone knows someone who has.”

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