Over the years I've certainly challenged my mind and body to overcome both fear and pain. I rose to the occasion when asked to compete on a special Miss USA edition of Fear Factor on NBC back in 2004. Turns out a cash prize is a good reason to choke back your fears and rally. It was just weeks after I was crowned Miss Alabama USA that the producers of the show contacted me. After I was chosen as a contestant I couldn't tell anyone about my participation on the reality show due to a confidentiality clause. But if I had been able to, I know most folks would have bet against me.
On this episode, I would be competing against other Miss USA hopefuls. As part of our contract with NBC and The Miss Universe Organization half of the winner's prize earnings would be donated to a non-profit. Before we even started shooting we were asked to name our charity. I selected the National Breast Cancer Coalition. At that time my grandmother, Helen Darby, was a recent breast cancer survivor. It was my way of honoring her strength; never would I have imagined that someday the same disease would find me.
In youth, we feel we are indestructible. And I had good reason to feel that way.
I made it through the first two rounds of competition on Fear Factor. The third and final round would determine the winner. It was explained to us that in this challenge we would begin be riding on the back of a jet ski. A driver would take us around a lake and then a helicopter with a trapeze bar dangling from it would appear. The goal was to grab on to the trapeze bar and hold on for dear life while the helicopter circled around the lake. Eventually we would plunge into the cold water far below us. It was a timed stunt, so whoever held on the longest would prevail. As luck would have it, I had to compete first. It was down to the wire and I was so close to the prize. Once I completed the stunt I didn't really know if my time was good or bad, there was nothing to compare it to.
There were three more contestants who would go next. The first two didn't match my time. So it was finally down to me and one more beauty queen. As I stood there on the dock next to the show host, Joe Rogan, watching the final contestant dangle from the helicopter he leaned over and privately told me that I had been so genuine and kind and he really hoped I'd win. All the other ladies I competed with were lovely. So maybe he told that to everyone on the show, but I took it as a sincere compliment. I still wanted to win but his words reminded me that it's not what we take away that's important, it's what we leave behind.
Ultimately I shocked all my family and friends back home by winning the show. Joe Rogan crowned me Miss Fear Factor and declared on international television that fear was not a factor for me. Later I appeared as a special guest on Larry King Live to share more about my experience. That was a personal highlight for me.
Winning Fear Factor is an accolade and title that my father-in-law, Lary, still loves to tout in crowds. It's an honor that I hold privately but that certain friends (you know who you are) will embarrassingly share with anyone who will listen. I think winning the show gave me a boost of confidence and courage that I didn't necessarily have before. Since then I've been bungee jumping and cage-diving with great white sharks. I've run a marathon. I've birthed my babies naturally, without medication. But NOTHING, it seems, can prepare my mind and my body for what is to come on May 31. In 21 days I will undergo a double mastectomy and reconstruction. I am anything but fearless; I am beyond terrified.
Nobody would have expected for me to win that silly game show. But now that I'm in the fight of my life I know that I have a whole team of supporters who are betting on me. The ultimate motivation for this challenge is my fully restored health. I will also leave behind a legacy that my girls, Darby & Malone, can be proud of. That their mother was a strong, fierce, graceful fighter.