“I’m a blind girl. It’s not all of me, but it’s part of me and and I’m proud of it… So it doesn’t bother me. It bothers me if it’s the sole focus, if it’s all you care about.”
A quick scroll through Molly Burke’s YouTube channel (where she has close to 2 million subscribers) offers a pretty realistic idea of the kind of person she is. Recently uploaded video titles include: “I went vintage shopping with Tan France,” “My top 5 tips for dealing with depression,” and “How I know when I have my period without seeing it.” Frank, funny, playful, real—this is Molly in her videos, and this is Molly when we speak on the phone about her new audiobook, It’s Not What It Looks Like, which is out on Audible.ca now.
Molly, who grew up in Toronto but now lives in Los Angeles, began losing her sight at the age of 4 and was legally blind by 14. Diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a rare retinal disease causing loss of vision, Molly took the challenges that life threw at her and turned them into something positive and constructive. She began public speaking at the age of five as an ambassador for The Foundation Fighting Blindness Canada; she has shared stages and collaborated with the likes of Malala Yousafzai and Demi Lovato, run with the Paralympic torch at the 2009 Winter Games, and addressed the United Nations on how to cultivate leadership among disabled youth.
Though she has struggled with depression and anxiety, Molly doesn’t let her disability prevent her from doing the things she loves—whether that’s skiing, shopping or experimenting with makeup. At 25, she just published her first audiobook, which touches on everything from travelling with a service dog to how she became a social media influencer. Ahead of the book’s release, FASHION caught up wth Molly to learn more about her journey and why she expects her book to be controversial.
What was the motivation behind writing this book at this particular time? Was it wanting to share your story and connect with people who might have had similar experiences, or reach an audience that has completely different experiences from your own?
I’ve always wanted to write a book—in fact I did write a book when I was 18 but I ended up pulling out because it didn’t feel like the right time. So I held off, and I’ve just been waiting for what felt like the right time and then last year I told my team that it was time. And that’s when I got to meet the Audible team. What I really appreciated about them compared to some of the other publishing houses we spoke with is that they were open to me writing what I wanted to write. A lot of other companies wanted my life story, they wanted the memoir. And I thought, I’m not ready to write the memoir quite yet. I’m 25, I’ve had a very full 25 years but emotionally, I don’t think I’m ready to expose some of those wounds yet. I need some more time. I want to write a book, I just don’t want to write my whole life story.
This will definitely hold some memoir-like aspects, but it is by no means close to my full life story. It’s snippets of my story and the lessons that they taught me. There are things that I’ve been too scared to share with my career on YouTube and as a motivational speaker. There are some radical ideas and controversial topics, there are embarrassing past moments, it’s just kind of like a collection of things that I’ve never said before, and some other aspects of my story that weave it all together. I wanted this to be less of my life story and more of a self-help book, of things that could teach people, could inspire people, could motivate people, could educate people. And I think that’s what we’ve accomplished with this.
You said that this felt like the right time to write this book, whereas the previous attempt several years ago didn’t. What about this moment in time made you feel like you were ready to start sharing these aspects of your story?
I think when you’re 18 you feel like an adult. You graduated high school, a lot of people that age are moving out on their own, you feel like you’re grown. And that’s certainly what I thought. I had a full-time career, I had health care benefits, I was paying my own bills, I lived on my own in downtown Toronto, I felt like I was a grown-up. But some of the traumas I experienced during that year—like losing Gypsy [her service dog], developing PTSD [from a bad fall], which were all during the time that my book was going to come out—took me back to being a little girl again. And it made me realize how much growing I still had to do, and I am so grateful now that I chose to pull out, because my view on life at 25 is very different than my view on life at 18. I think 18-year-old Molly thought she had healed from the wounds of 14-year-old Molly, but I think she was still quite angry, and judgmental, and did not understand my community the way I do now. And I think I’m proud of the way 25-year-old Molly views myself, my community, my journey, and I think that at 25 I’ve been able to form my own opinions on things, and educate myself further than I had at 18.
What was the hardest part about writing this book for you?
Some of the hardest things were talking about the social model of disability. It is something I very lightly touched on in my YouTube career, and not at all in my speaking career, and that’s because I know it’s a radical idea. And I know that it’s something that many able-bodied people cannot grasp. For me, as a disabled person, it took years of researching and surrounding myself with people who believe in it, who study it, who understand it. And so to write a brief summary of what the social model is, versus the medical model, was very difficult for me, because I know that I’m probably going to face some judgement and backlash and misunderstanding. That was very difficult for me, but I think it’s so important.
Could you explain that a little bit more?
The social model of disability is basically the idea that I am not the problem as a disabled person—society is, by not being as accessible. The medical model of disability says that I, as a disabled person, am the problem, and I need to be cured. The medical model is what most of society is raised on. We raise money for cures. We fundraise for cures, we use the money for research, we’re all excited about medical advances, everybody always wants to know: is there a cure for you? Is there a surgery? That’s everybody’s first question. ‘I’ll pray for you, I’ll pray for your healing.’ The only thing that tells me as a disabled person is that I’m broken. It tells me I’m not good enough. It tells me I’m never going to fit in. It tells me I’m different, and I don’t belong here. So if you are raising disabled people to believe that about themselves, you’re never going to cultivate a society where disabled people will be strong leaders, will be independent, confident, happy and self-accepting.
Whereas addressing the structural problem of inaccessibility would be more constructive.
Exactly. The social model of disability takes the ownership off me. It says you’re just fine. You’re ok the way you are, we as a society need to change, we need to become more accessible. And that doesn’t just help disabled people, it helps everybody; it’s the curb-cut phenomenon. Curb cuts were designed for people in wheelchairs and walkers but they help people pushing a baby in a stroller, they help people on a bike, on skateboards. It’s this idea that we think of accessibility as being for disabled people but really accessibility is to make the world better for all of us.
A lot of able-bodied people get very offended by the social model of disability. Because I think it requires them to take some ownership over the issue, and people don’t want to do that. I think it’s also hard for able-bodied people to think, ‘wait, you don’t want to be like me? But my life is great, you should want to be like me.’ We’ve been so trained to view disabilities as the worst thing that can happen, so when a disabled person says, ‘no I’m fine, I’m good as I am,’ they’re like, ‘wait, what?’ That doesn’t fit into the ideology that they’ve been taught from the time they were born.
So it’s a very difficult idea but the deeper you delve into the disabled world, the more you will realize that more and more people hold this idea. We don’t want to be cured, we feel confident and we feel comfortable. I think that there’s certainly still a portion of the disabled community that does want to be cured, which I do not judge, I do not frown upon, but I do believe that they feel that way—and I say this because I felt that way for so long—because they are surrounded by that. They are surrounded by people pushing that agenda. And I didn’t feel like I was whole, I didn’t feel like I was ok, I didn’t feel like I could accept my blindness and live happily with it until I was surrounded by a disabled community that felt the same way about themselves. And they told me, it’s ok to be disabled, it’s ok to love yourself the way you are, and what we really need to fight for is the world being accessible. It took me years, like I said, to grasp that, to understand that and to take that on as my own belief, as my own feeling.
There’s some pushback among successful women in various fields who don’t want to be identified as “female directors” or “female CEOs” or “female executives” because they don’t think that identifier needs to be tacked on to their accomplishments every time. So I was curious about how you feel when you’re written or talked about as a “blind YouTuber?”
I made a whole video about a year ago titled ‘I’m the Blind YouTuber in Every Other YouTuber’s Video’ or something like that. Because a lot of my followers were getting upset that when I was collaborating with a friend, they would put ‘I did this with a blind YouTuber’ or ‘Blind girl does my makeup’ [in the title]. They were getting upset that I was being identified through that and not my name. To that I say: I guess that’s what makes me stand out in this industry. It’s what’s different about me in this space. And what’s important to me is somebody clicking on that video and watching it because that’s how they get educated. That’s how they find my channel and access more knowledge. I know that if you had no idea who Molly Burke is, what’s going to make you click is ‘Blind girl does my makeup.’ If it’s ‘Molly Burke does my makeup’ and you don’t know who I am, you’re not going to click on it. But ‘blind girl does my makeup’ is interesting. You might have questions, you might be confused, you might go to my channel and get educated. And that’s what’s important to me.
Obviously I would love to get to a point in my career when I’m established enough that you don’t need to state that I’m blind. I would love to be in that place one day but I know I’m not there yet. And that’s okay because I’m building my career. I’m a blind girl. It’s not all of me, but it’s part of me and and I’m proud of it. I’m not ashamed to be a blind girl. So it doesn’t bother me. It bothers me if it’s the sole focus, if it’s all you care about. I’m completely fine with being the blind girl, but what I would really like and what I prefer for my friends to do when I collaborate with them is put ‘A blind girl does my makeup featuring Molly Burke.’ So that my name and ‘blind girl’ are becoming synonymous vs just ‘blind girl.’
I wanted to talk about how candid you are about your experiences and your struggles, whether it’s with mental health or your love life or your service dog. At what point did you realize that that’s what you wanted to focus on with your career and your YouTube channel, really being super candid and honest with your subscribers and followers?
The world needs more honest and open people! We need to break down our walls. Why are people so weird about keeping things — that’s the thing about me, I’m an extroverted, outgoing person, I’ve always been that girl who said something she probably shouldn’t. If I think something about something I’ll say it, it comes out of my mouth. That’s who I am. I’m just that honest, outgoing, loudmouthed girl. That’s just part of my personality and part of the career that I started to build. I choose to do it publicly instead of keeping my loudmouthed honesty behind closed doors, because we need people to be honest to break barriers, we need people to be honest to change the world. You can’t change the world and try to move it forward without people coming forward and being honest and telling their truth. So that’s what I want to do.
It’s Not What It Looks Like is available on Audible.ca.