Assumptions are funny, aren’t they? We all do it, whether it’s conscious or subconscious. I admit, I see a pretty woman with all the “right” clothes, the “right” job and the “right” things and it never crosses my mind that maybe this person has struggled or has worked hard to get where she is.
That was true for me when I got the opportunity to really talk to Melissa. I didn’t realize my assumptions about her until I learned about how she grew up and what her experiences were. Up until that point, our interactions had mostly been professional. And unlike me, she paces herself with the personal information that she shares with people. I can respect that.
Melissa immediately became an adult at 8 years old when her mom died suddenly of myocarditis. Her dad had just dropped her and her brother off for the holidays, when her mom collapsed in the living room. They had to call their dad so he would return to the house and convince him that it wasn’t a joke.
5 years prior to that, her dad survived being struck by a semi, but the accident left him a quadraplegic. So, after her mom died, Melissa took on the stereotypical gender roles of the household. She cooked, cleaned, did laundry and made sure her brother got to school in one piece. Think about being in 2nd grade and not having the same parental resources as most kids you are friends with. Life gets real, real fast.
Melissa shared that her childhood was difficult, but it also developed her ambition. She was an academic overachiever, skipping her senior year in high school and graduating from Grinnell a semester early. She has 2 Master’s Degrees. One is in Journalism and the other in Business.
Her Master’s thesis explored the “Otherness of the body.” She believed that if people with disabilities were represented more in pop culture and film with or without stereotypes, that it would positively affect the overall populations’ view of them. She proved it by testing 2 sample groups. She showed one group film clips from pop culture movies that contained disabled people as protagonists, then had them answer a series of questions relating to their perception of the disabled as parents, in the workplace, etc. The other group wasn’t shown any clips but still answered the questions. The outcome was able to provide statistically significant evidence that even though the film clips may have shown stereotypical portrayals of the disabled, it still positively affected how others perceive the disabled. Most importantly, this proved that representation and inclusivity within media is essential in making people more comfortable with “otherness”.
Melissa’s career and style is impressive. It’s uncommon to meet someone in advertising who has achieved so much academically. I’m always fascinated by people who can do well in academia. She admits during our conversation that she believes her ambition is a direct result of not having more support from adults as a kid. She just wanted someone to provide direction and say: “Hey kid, you’re really good at this. You should go for it.” Instead, she’s had to embark on that journey alone.
Melissa could have a career in any industry. She chose advertising because she fell in love with it. She started at a publishing company, working as a writer and beauty editor for several local magazines. While there, she was recruited by Target and they brought her on board to work on various creative projects.
While at Target, she transitioned full time into writing and eventually was promoted to Associate Creative Director. Her portfolio of work spans the enterprise including Target Style, Bullseye Beauty, Target Race and Ava & Viv. She takes great pleasure being the person in the room that fights for inclusivity and representation in our storytelling. When her team was developing the Ava & Viv brand (plus size apparel), she was the one tirelessly advocating for us to focus on style first, size second. That commitment has had incredible business results on the projects she leads.
Melissa embodies all the characteristics women get in trouble for. She’s smart, opinionated and determined to get her ideas implemented, no matter who she makes uncomfortable. Those are all the characteristics we need to inspire change and acceptance in our media landscape.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
It changes by day. Michelle Obama. I think she’s amazing. Or Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Time is running out. Make her number one!
Would you like to be famous? In what way?
No, it seems glamorous. I think those people are miserable. I’d like to be known. Someone who fights for something like RBG.
What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
Working out, massage, getting on a plane to a new city and ending with delicious wine.
When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
I just sang this morning! I make up songs about my dogs and sing to them. After my husband left this morning I was scream-singing to my dogs.
If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
Obviously my mind. I’ve always struggled with being physically fit and I’m trying to give myself a little more credit. I mean, I just deadlifted 220 pounds last month! I’ve also been recovering from a concussion the last 4 months and it’s made me realize even more how important it is for me to be able to think and articulate my ideas.
Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
No, and I don’t want to think about it. Having watched my mom die, I only want to focus on living. I do have a goal to become more comfortable with death. I want to be at ease and not fight it, but currently, I’m terrified.
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
Travel, opportunities I’ve had and education. When you travel, you see the world and different perspectives. It changed who I was. I was 15 when I went to Mexico to build houses and I saw what real poverty was. I spent 2 summers doing that.
If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
I wish I wouldn’t have had so much self doubt. I wonder what life would have been like if someone had recognized what I was good at and pushed me.
If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
Being less risk-averse. Having visibility to the community of people with disabilities, I’ve seen the worst outcomes of risk taking! I’d also follow my own advice.
Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
Move and work abroad. It would be hard to convince my husband. When we met, he hadn’t left the country. I have a good job and I’ve created a beautiful home. I’m settled in.