I've had my life planned out since Mrs. Davis' second grade class. Since the age of seven, I knew where I was going to college and what I was going to be. I had a plan, and by golly I was going to stick to it. I graduated high school ten years later with the same plan. I was accepted to Auburn University, which was good, because I didn't apply anywhere else. I declared my major in education because I had no intention of doing anything else.
It didn't take long to realize everything I had planned for myself was not going to turn out the way I had imagined. I found myself twenty-one years old and had changed my major three times. Apparently, I needed a backup plan. I needed like eight of them.
I first met Glennellen Anderson when we worked together at Juicy Couture (I think I was at backup plan number six at this point). I didn't really get to work directly with her very much, but I heard a lot about her from my roommate at that time, who was also a mutual friend. I knew Glenn was an actor and a musician, and had already seen some success. Even as a newborn, she found herself gracing the cover of the phone book, of all things. Then at two years old, she started crying during one of her parents' performances, not because she wanted them, but because she wanted their microphone. She sang "You Are My Sunshine" to thousands of people, and loved every second of it.
The spotlight felt natural to Glennellen, and for the next several years she gravitated to it whenever she could. At eleven years old, with the encouragement of her parents, she tried out for her first play, just to see what this theater thing was all about. She landed a lead role. By nineteen years old, Glennellen had been in a number of theater productions and even starred in an ION Channel movie called Mandie and the Forgotten Christmas (now streaming on Netflix!).
Her next stop was American Idol.
She almost didn't try out for American Idol. It honestly wasn't on her list of priorities. But, everything seemed to be pointing her in that direction. Even with her crazy summer schedule working retail over 60 hours a week, she was somehow off the weekend Idol would be in a neighboring city. So she went. And she got that golden ticket. As Glenn told me, "This is what I had been working towards my entire life, and didn't even know it. From musical theater to voice lessons...I had always gravitated towards music, but had also thought that acting was what I going to do." After making it through to Hollywood, she finally realized, "Yes, I can act, I can dance, I can do all of that, and even get praised for it, but when I sing, it touches people more than anything else ever did." And that was the difference.
Glennellen was eliminated that first week in Hollywood, but that didn't stop her. In fact, it only propelled her into the making of her debut album, Perspective, which was released in October of 2015. Nothing seemed to keep her from moving forward. She turned every obstacle into a stepping stone.
Through her journey from American Idol to the making of Perspective, there was one thing that Glennellen kept saying that really didn't sit well with me. Her mantra: "Performer for life, no backup plan." It annoyed the crap out of me. I could only think how naive it was of her to think that way. My own experiences had taught me a very valuable lesson - you have to have a backup plan. Sometimes you don't get what you want. And you have to live with that.
It wasn't until earlier this year that I began to see things a bit differently. That maybe this precocious, twenty-one-year old red-head was onto something I hadn't thought of before. Which was also annoying. Because I hate being wrong.
When Glennellen announced she would be moving to Los Angeles in February to pursue her music career, she also started offering affordable photo sessions as a way to raise money for the move (oh yeah, add "photographer" to her list of talents). I decided to take her up on that, since I really needed new head shots, plus I thought it would be a great chance to hang out with her one more time before she moved. On top of that, the girl is gorgeous and I had been dying to get her in front of my lens, so we ended up making it a double photo shoot and made some portraits for each other.
That decision was probably one of the best I've made this year.
I didn't realize it at the time, but life had made me jaded. My photography was not going in the direction I wanted, I wasn't pursuing a career I enjoyed, and my relationships felt stagnant. My life was not being lived. My dreams were not being followed. My goals were not being achieved. I was just standing here, holding a camera while doing what I thought I had to do to pay the bills and forgetting that THIS WAS JUST SUPPOSED TO BE A PLACEHOLDER.
I felt like I was spitting in the face of my Creator.
But then this session, with this girl who is clearly doing something she is passionate about, reminded me that I have a passion too. I love photographing people. I love capturing their spirit, their emotion, their relationships. And I am pretty damn good at it.
Enter the epiphany: I went to Auburn because my second grade teacher, Mrs. Davis, went to Auburn, and she loved it. I wanted to be a teacher because my second grade teacher, Mrs. Davis, was a teacher. And she loved it. It was never my passion that made me want those things, it was someone else's passion. I had yet to find my own.
You will never truly succeed doing something you are not passionate about.
Sometimes we do things because it looks so good when someone else is doing it. Like the time I bought that dress because it looked so good on the mannequin, but when I went home and put it on, I was utterly disappointed. Not because it was an ugly dress, or because I was ugly (fingers crossed), but because we just weren't a good fit. The same applies in careers, as well as relationships. You can't choose something or someone because someone else loves it. You have to figure out what you love. Because when you find that thing that you know you're good at, or could be good at, that thing that makes you want to keep trying, over and over and over again, you don't let go of it. Not everyone has what you have. Not everyone wants what you want. And that's a beautiful thing. The world won't work without it.
The reason Glennellen vehemently refuses to have a backup plan is because, "Mindset is everything." She tells me, "If you believe you can't, or let other people tell you you can't, then you won't be able to...Always keep your passion in it, cause that's whats gonna make you want to continue, through all the hardships and hard days..."
"Persist without exception," as Andy Andrews says. It's one of Glennellen's favorite quotes, which makes sense, because year after year, I keep seeing Glennellen do one thing: Try.
Act. Try. Relationship. Try. Heartbreak. Try. Move. Try. Fall. Try. Get Up. Try. Sing. Try. Try. Try. And try again.
It's the try-ing that's the thing of it. You'll never know what you can do if you don't try, right? That's the first step. And what I've learned from Glennellen is that the second step (and equally important step), is to figure out that thing that you want to keep trying even when you fail the first (hundred) time(s).
And you know what else? If you don't want to keep trying...then maybe you shouldn't. Maybe it's time to move on.
Not to say that it hasn't been a hard choice for Glennellen to keep doing what she's doing. Don't let the mermaid hair fool you. She is, in fact, human.
As for all of us, there have been times when she has fallen victim to humanity at its worst. She was bullied as a kid, which is why she started homeschooling. Of course, that homeschool community led to her meeting life-long friends, and gave her the freedom to travel and eventually pursue music.
Then at 14, some girls started spreading rumors about her. Which was when her parents taught her that you can't let others define who you are. "You write your own story, you don't let others write it for you," She says, "You should be proud of who you are, and if you aren't then you need to figure out why." You need to be your biggest fan, but you also need to have a reason to be your biggest fan.
Then of course there was the time she starting dating one of those "bad boys" all our mommas warn us about. He shook her faith, her confidence and even her career path. It took two years for her to realize that he was doing nothing but hindering the person she was meant to be. "I realized I almost changed myself for one person because he thought I was wrong", she told me. "God instills some part of you from the time you're born, but it's up to you and those around you to help that flourish, or not." She knows now, "If you don't have confidence in yourself, these things really can change you. I've just used them in my writing, in my music. You have to rise above the influence, and stick with what you believe in."
There's a silver lining in those dark clouds if we let there be. Sometimes we just have to get our pretty silver pencil out and draw it ourselves.
There's a scene in the beginning of Batkid Begins (a documentary about the entire city of San Francisco coming together to create Gotham for a little boy named Miles with a terminal illness) where little Miles is sitting on the couch with his parents, and the reporter asks them, "So is this what you guys expected?" Miles immediately responds, "Mmhmm!" while his parents laugh with a confident, "No."
It's a familiar scene to me.
It seems that the younger you are, the easier it is to believe in your dreams. As we get older, we get our hearts broken. We encounter disappointments and letdowns. We have what adults like to call a "reality check" and begin to assume that dreaming is "just" for children. Somewhere along the line, we stop believing in ourselves. We conform to the idea that our dreams aren't worth pursuing, especially if we end up failing. But hasn't history taught us that the greatest dreamers failed thousands of times before their dream was realized? Doesn't that mean something? Isn't it worth failing if in the end we create something no one else ever could?
The wisdom gained in every failure is valuable. We need to be more careful about not letting those failures stifle our potential, convincing us to live a life less than that which we were created for. As R.S. Grey wrote, "She believed she could, and so she did." There is something to be said for having a "child-like faith." God even asks us to become like children before we can enter the kingdom of heaven. So, I mean, it's got to mean something.
Though ten years my junior, I can honestly say I have learned a lot about life from Glennellen Anderson, just as I have from the other incredible women in this portrait series. As Hannah has helped me to be grateful, and Robin has helped me to dream, Glennellen has helped me to be brave. This is what a woman can do if she sets her mind to it. If she believes she can. If she is committed, and passionate, and fierce. The hardest part is finding the thing that makes you want to fight for it. But once you find it, maybe it's ok not to have a backup plan. Maybe it's ok to believe that "somewhere over the rainbow" really does exist. And maybe, just maybe, it's the fighting and the getting there that's the best part.
I have no idea what tomorrow holds. I have no idea if this will work out the way I expect. I have no idea how successful I'll be or really even what success is supposed to look like. But I do know this: I sure as hell am gonna try.
Thank you again Glennellen for letting me share your story. I would love to hear more stories of dreamers and failures and believers and, well, humans, so please share yours in the comments below.
Photos and story copyright Jessi Lambert of Jessi Casara Photography. For inquiries, please contact me.