Working at my desk one afternoon the phone rang. I picked it up and heard, “Is this Lorraine? Lorraine Leslie?” I replied “Yes. Who’s this?” “A voice from the past, Carolyn Nikkanen.” Oh my goodness…
The Women with Vision Networking Luncheon District Coordinator for Vaughn, Gina Bello, had just asked Carolyn to be a speaker for one of her luncheons. Carolyn, being inquisitive as to what Women with Vision is all about, learned that her old friend, Lorraine Leslie, was the founder.
In my minds eye I instantly pictured myself strutting down the runway in Eaton’s Auditorium modelling for Eleanor Fultcher, a Toronto modelling agency back in the early 60’s. At the age of twelve, I started modelling and by the time I was a teenager I felt quite comfortable on the runway. Wearing all the latest fashions was such a rush back then.
Jumping ahead some years, in 1981 I was working as a volunteer with the Heart and Stroke Foundation creating and coordinating the first Mississauga Women’s Show, when I had the though let’s have a fashion show as part of the event. I opened the yellow pages and searched for a local modelling agency to see if they would volunteer some of their models to work the event. That’s when I met Carolyn Nikkanen. Carolyn and I became instant friends. We had so much in common at that time in our lives. Love of modelling, fashion, make up, hairstyling and of course trips down the runway. We shared many experiences together, including the Mrs. Mississauga Pageant, in which I was a contestant (but that’s another story). What intrigued me most about Carolyn was her personable approach to business. She could take a dandelion and turn it into a rose. Carolyn was and is an incredible woman with a vision. I have watched her natural talent surface like a flower blooming the in the springtime. People of all ages have come to her for guidance, to help them turn their lives around, or to teach them self-improvement through the art of modelling. You see, Carolyn has been passionate about her profession since she was a young child.
Carolyn entered into the modelling industry from the lens side of the camera. At the age of three she was dazzling the photographers.
Carolyn was raised by her mother while living in her grandparent’s home due to her parents’ divorce, so as a child she learned that her strict Pentecostal faith would give her inner strength along her journey and to pursue her dream of being a model.
“We didn’t have a lot of money when I was young,” she said. “My parents were separated…there was a lot of stress. I was always sick.”
Due to her religious background it was untraditional to wear make-up, but Carolyn felt it was important to look her best when she was in front of the camera as a child. Now at the age of 47, Carolyn stills models on occasion for shows held as cancer research fundraisers. In spite of many obstacles Carolyn like the work and kept it up, eventually signing on with the Judy Welch modelling agency.
To be a model you have to be proactive. To get a “go see” once has top be pound the pavement on knock on doors to be noticed. Your resume is quite a bit different from the norm. There are headshots to be taken, which can be very expensive, but it is an investment into one’s future. There’s catalogue work for some, runway for others and if you’re lucky break comes along commercials and magazine covers.
“I always saw myself owing a modelling,” recalls Carolyn. “I always asked myself…If this was my business, how would I run it?”
Carolyn taught modelling for the agency she was working with. Recognizing the potential, she approached the Ministry of Vocational Schools and was advised to set up curriculum which resulted in her teaching her modelling classes in community centers in the Streetsville area west of Toronto. Carolyn took the initiative to approach the woman who was to retire from her modelling company , asking if she could buy the business. She actually slid a letter under the door asking for a meeting. To Carolyn’s amazement, the women responded and within two weeks Carolyn opened her own business under her own name.
“The letter under the door asked if I could take over the equipment and rent. Through personal funding, within two weeks I took over the business for $300.00 in addition to paying the first and last months rent on the location. I redecorated and restructured the business and it was mine.”
I thought, ” What have I got myself into where will the business come from?” As Carolyn had already built an excellent reputation for teaching skills, the clients came through word of mouth. She taught the classes herself, did the accounting, booked the models and hired the photographers. A number of years later in 1990 she employed actors and started to submit them for TV commercials and television series and eventually for movies.
On the personal side, while she was seeing her second marriage dissolve, she came face to face with cancer.
Carolyn was only 35, raising a family, running the now defunct Mrs. Mississauga Pageant when she discovered a lump in her breast the size of an egg. “You could actually see it”, she said. After an ordered mammogram from her doctor Carolyn thought everything was going to be fine. It was not fine, and about a month later she lost her breast to a mastectomy. Carolyn felt like she was starring in her own movie.
“The first thing you always say is, “why me?”” said Carolyn. Then it’s… My God, my kids, I won’t see them grow up.”
Always being in the public eye, Carolyn’s vanity kicked in. “Who’s is ever going to love half a woman?” she said. “That’s the selfish part.
“Then I had the attitude that if a man didn’t love me as I was, who needs them?” All through chemotherapy Carolyn continued to run her business.
Carolyn contemplated getting an implant. She would drive to the drug store to get an external implant to fill her bra while she was at work. She recalls, the loose implant was a source of fun for her. Vacuuming her business it would pop out of her bra and plop on the floor. She’d promptly pick it up and would lob it at someone. “Flying boob!” she’d call out.
The decision wasn’t even a question. Implant in place, life was returning back to normal. In 1995, the cancer returned, this time in her lymph nodes. “I though this was it, game over.” What was going to happen to her children? Her business? Her passions!
After six months of chemotherapy Carolyn was threatened by losing the kind of beauty that the camera had captured many times. “I remember lying on the couch and pulling my hair and it coming out in handfuls,” said Carolyn. The chemotherapy drained every once of her energy. She had canker sores along her tongue, mouth and throat which made it difficult to carry a conversation.
“Walking across the road was effort, but I went to work everyday.”
Being the survivor that she is, she rallied again. She bought wigs and reveled in how little time it took herself to get ready each morning. There was no shaving or waxing or plucking any more, no more shampooing or blow-drying. Carefully place the wig and go. On the hot summer day she’d go home an yank it off and let the cool night breeze caress her bare skin.
There were good days and bad days. But she got through them. A year after her treatment she walked down the aisle with husband no. 3. “It lasted one year,” she said. It was a nightmare.”
Carolyn fought to keep her business. She succeeded in 2000, the cancer made it’s third appearance. Milder this time but all too present. She is cancer free today but still takes oral chemotherapy to stop the cancer from forming. It has caused her to gain weight and dragged through menopause three times. “I was all over the map,” she says laughingly. “But now I think I am post menopause for good.”
Carolyn, through all this, has learned to care of her health. Once a fitness instructor she is now an avid student of natural health remedies and takes daily vitamins and herbs. She became a reflexologist because she found that when she was receiving a treatment it helped her illness. She watches what she eats and is interested in keeping knowledge up to date on the most recent remedies and medical procedures. Though she had no family history of cancer, she feels stress may have made her vulnerable.
Now Carolyn has settled into her spacious and elegant home with her new husband, three children, two dogs and a cat. She has taken over a small business with an income of a few thousand dollars to a gross of about $1 million.
Coming close to death more the average person Carolyn has changed her attitude towards life and can be seen lecturing on the change to cancer survivors and sufferers. She believes in ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff.’ “You have to have a positive attitude.” says Carolyn. “I wake up smiling each day and happy to be here. When bad things happen’ I know it’s just a bump in the road, I take a much longer view”
“When I was younger, I was so into material things, I was narrow-minded. Now, it’s what you have in your heart. That’s what success is built on.”
Carolyn believes in asking the universe for what you want. “I think good things… and good things happen. Like my husband for example. I feel comfortable with him and we have things in common. It’s a fourth marriage for the both of us. We combined both our families, my tow daughters and his son and we all get along great. My husband and I share the same birthday- same day, same year.” Amazing.
When Carolyn is motivated about something her ambition restiveness kicks in, he encourages her to slow down when she needs to. “We balance each other out very nicely.” she smiles.
“I am finally at peace. Life is too precious and you never know when the end is going to come. Tell your family and friends that you love them everyday. Say I love you to your husband, wife, someone you care about deeply…It’s good for the soul.”
Through trial and error Carolyn has learned to trust her gut instinct. She has learned to say NO to demands that are too much for her to handle.
When people fall ill, she encourages them to let others help. Accept their offers. They truly want to be there for you. Rest when you are tired, in whatever profession you are in. Fighting a life treating illness is not time for false pride. Carolyn is still a driven, ambitious business woman, one quality she inherits from her musician father, now living in the United States. “If it’s going to be it’s up to me!” Carolyn quotes. “I never sat back and waited for things to happen. I made them happen. I live by the words of my friend Suzanne…You have to have something to love, something to cherish and something to look forward to.”
Carolyn is presently writing a book on her struggles with cancer in hopes of helping more people then she can reach through her current work with the Canadian Cancer Society. Proof of her training as a child model has come full circle. “Ill be writing a chapter and I’ll be crying and then the next minute I’ll be writing and I’m laughing my head off.” Carolyn intrigued me when I first met her…this magnificent woman with vision. Vision to carry on through life’s journey and not to succumb to it’s obstacles. She has not waived from the personable friend I met years ago, but now there’s and inner spark of an angel; a woman who openly shares her life, whether through business or on a personal basis.
Carolyn now owns and operates two modelling agencies, one in Mississauga and one in downtown Toronto with though of opening a satellite location in British Columbia. Proud cannot express my sincere and heartfelt thinks in being your friend and business colleague. I’m so glad our paths crossed again. You reinforce something all of us must remember… It’s up to me!
Reprinted with permission of Lorraine Leslie, Publisher of Women with Vision Magazine, copyright 2005
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