I was watching the Oprah Show a couple of years ago when Kenny Rogers came on to sing "The Gambler" (among other favorites). Before he began the set, he shared the following:
"There are three versions of each of us. The version you think I am, the version I think I am, and who I really am. The closer you can make those three versions, the longer you'll last and the more authentic you are."
I really needed to hear those words at that point in my life! It was as if he was speaking directly to, and only, to me. You see, I had recently finished BRAVO's Make Me a Supermodeland was attempting to navigate life in the Big Apple. New York City, like most other major cities, can be intimidating and extremely lonely. (Oh, the irony amongst millions of people.) I literally found myself asking, Who am I anyway? on a regular basis, empathizing with the character Paul in the Broadway musical, A Chorus Line. With that being said, the following is simply a short reflection upon my personal journey of self-discovery and I thank you in advance for joining me.
In my opinion, so much of life can be likened to an elaborate jigsaw puzzle with the never-ending goal of figuring out where we belong or how we fit-in. When we are born we are connected to everything, but as we grow up we are influenced by the thoughts and opinions of those around us -- parents, teachers, friends, and community members. We are taught to conform to the norms, live within boundaries, color inside the lines, and to get along to go along. Well, as many of you may already know, I like to strip down to the bare essentials (pun intended). I like to ask questions, challenge norms, and start conversations. If you think about it, it's the only way we truly learn.
Upon moving to NYC from my hometown of Chicago in 2008, I discovered how important it was to challenge myself to step outside of my comfort zones, to take risks, and to dare to be different. As an openly gay artist, I encountered (and continue to encounter) numerous challenges and obstacles that perhaps would not have been there if I remained closeted. Ultimately though, if I was given the chance to do it over again, I would do it exactly the same. I don't regret being openly gay because it is a part of who I am - no excuses, no apologies, and no shame. Living in fear is not living at all.
At the same time, I have purposefully chosen not to allow that particular label or any other label that either society (or that "little voice in my head") would want to confine me within. The truth of the matter is, I do not fit neatly into one box. In fact, neither do you. We are all so much more than these labels, or as I refer to them as, self-imposed prisons. I highly encourage you to bust out. It's an incredible gift, to give yourself the freedom to explore your diversity, to embrace your individuality, and to then find your authentic voice. Now, many of you may be thinking to yourself, "But Ronnie, it's not that easy. People are going to judge me." To that I say, in the words of Joy Behar, "So what? Who cares?"
We discriminate and prejudice against one another on a daily basis - it's a very human characteristic. I personally have wasted far too much time in my own head wondering, are they going to like me, am I saying the right thing, and am I making the right decision. Life, to me, is all about taking risks, making choices, and exploring - if you never try, you can never fail - and if you never fail, you can never truly succeed. At the end of the day, perception is reality (whether it is true or not) and it is impossible to please everyone. No two people can have exactly the same perspective - thereby leaving most everything open to discussion or debate. More importantly, this fact proves that the "self" is left in the realm of subjectivity -- which is essentially what Kenny was trying to say in his message.
As a man, I have personally struggled with the perception of what it means to be a "man." If I come across effeminate, does that automatically make me not a man (or gay)? Should it be my responsibility to "butch it up" so that others can feel more comfortable around me because I fit society's definition of masculinity, or can I find a place somewhere in-between that allows me to simply be myself? Many of us go through life with a very solid perspective of who we think we are, but we don't necessarily realize how vastly different that perspective may be from someone else that is viewing our life from the outside-in. Knowing how others view us can also help us to understand who we are; their criticisms and praise can effectively help us to be our best "self" or at times unjustly beat ourselves up for not being who they think we should be (but, that's a separate essay).
The journey of self discovery is a beautifully complicated path. Although filled with uncertainty, it without a doubt leads to peace via authenticity and connectedness. As humans, we yearn to be accepted and to know that we belong, but many times we just try too hard. We try and force things that are not meant to be. I have found that the most magical things happen when we least expect them to -- when we release our need to control the outcomes, our need to impress people by being something we are not, or our need to have all the answers in the timeframe that we want them.
I say that the road to self discovery starts with pleasing yourself first! Look in the mirror and tell yourself, "I am enough," because you areenough. You do not need outside validation to achieve self-love, acceptance, and understanding. Embrace the fact that your "self" is always changing and that your perception of self will be at times different from those around you. Only you will know in the depth of your heart how to remain grounded in your authentic-self and to reconcile the various perceptions to find your own personal truth. In closing, I encourage you to please stay strong in your convictions, follow your dreams without regret, ask for patience, and remember to have funas you too embark upon your path of self discovery. I wish you love, happiness, and much success along the way - anything is possible!
RONNIE KROELL is a past winner of Bravo's Make Me a Supermodel. To join this conversation and others like these, visit his blog, RonnieKroell.com, or to see more of Devin Mitchell's incredible photography, please visit his website https://www.devinography.com.