On a warm June night two years ago, pretty model Marla Hanson - terrified, shaking and covered with blood - was rushed to the emergency room at St. Vincent's Hospital.
"Dear God, what's going to happen to my face," she kept sobbing. "What's going to happen to my face?"Any attractive young woman would have been asking the same question. But Marla's agony at a brutal razor attack wasn't mere vanity. As an up-and-coming mannequin in New York City, her face was her career, her bread and butter, her life. If those beautiful features had been destroyed, then her means of survival in a tough, hard city had been, too.
"This is a nightmare," Marla cried, as the emergency room physician brought out a stretcher and turned in a panicky call for a plastic surgeon.
Marla Hanson, a native of Missouri, had never expected her big city dream to turn into a nightmare. She had come to Manhattan full of high hopes, convinced that she could make it to the top. From a poor farming community family that could offer no financial backing; only five-foot-four (too short by most standards) and older than the majority of hopefuls (24), the odds were stacked against her. But Marla was determined. And that determination, combined with a charming personality and an exquisite face, soon helped her sign with Petite Modeling Agency and prove the oddsmakers wrong. (Mademoiselle and Glamour booked her; J. C. Penney Co. featured her in its catalog; she was cast in a couple of television commercials.)
"She was on her way to becoming a star," Monty Agard, former director of Petite told the press shortly after the attack.
Although stardom beckoned, things weren't easy. There were long, difficult days - trudging from one photographer to another for tests; trying to land enough assignments so she could build up her model's book. There were dozens of go-sees, some bitter rejections; times when she went out on dates just so she could get something to eat - sort of like Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."
Finding a decent and affordable apartment was another problem. Maybe the biggest.
She moved from one place to another - a dismal, uncomfortable room, a studio on East 29th Street, a place she had with noisy, sloppy room-ies. Finally, she agreed to take a look at the co-op of a makeup artist she'd met at a photographer's studio, Steve Roth, even though she found him rude and felt uneasy in his presence. It turned out to be ideal - a spacious place she could share with a female makeup student. Marla made a deposit and, convinced her luck was on the upswing, moved in. Then Roth began to show up unexpectedly and make unwelcome advances. It soon became a very uncomfortable situation.
The young model saw no alternative but to move again. Roth was furious at first, then finally simmered down. He shook hands with her, said it was OK and that he could find somebody else to move in and pick up her share of the rent. He offered to return the deposit.
On the night the deposit was supposed to be returned, two men came up behind Marla and Roth as they walked along the street; grabbed her, threw her to the ground and, before she even knew what was happening, whipped out some razors.
The model remembers screaming and screaming, as her former landlord made no attempt to ward off the assailants. He just stood there staring with rapt attention at the gash marks. Into the early hours, the police interrogated him and came to believe that in revenge for being rejected as a suitor he had planned the incident. The attackers were apprehended and booked; Roth was put under arrest. And Marla, who was by this time lying in a hospital bed, her face pulled together by 150 black stitches, began the toughest fight of her young life - a fight far harder than making it as a model. This was a struggle against emotional as well as physical scars; a battle to find new direction in a world that had been slashed apart.
"I don't think I ever asked, `why me,' " said Marla when we interviewed her following a Dermablend Cosmetics demonstration in New York City. (she's now acting as a national spokesperson for the corrective cosmetics firm).
"Early in life I learned that bitterness only makes a bad situation worse. I'd be lying, though, if I said there weren't moments when I wished I could fall in front of the subway train. I hated the way people would stare at me, and I'm still in therapy with a psychiatrist; I still have my depressed moments. But I've concluded that this awful experience - that any terrible thing - can be coped with if a person tries hard enough and has a positive attitude. You have to learn to accept, to face facts. You can't waste precious time in self-pity."
From the beginning, physicians made Marla aware that her face would never look the same. The scars, although they might fade, were too deep. Various procedures might improve the situation, they said - for example, dermabrasion combined with scar rearrangement. (in this type of surgery, wounds are recut and rearranged into more natural looking expression lines.) But, they warned, there wasn't anything that could completely eradicate the disfigurement.
The idea of such lengthy, costly cosmetic surgery didn't appeal to the model, who shuddered at the very thought of a sharp blade touching her face again. She opted to wait and see how the healing process went.
As the young woman exercised her face to keep the skin around the scars from puckering; as she learned to live with sympathetic stares instead of compliments, her outlook on life changed radically.
"I began to develop empathy for those who have suffered," she said. "I became far more understanding than before. In modeling, looks count more than anything. That's all you talk about, that's all you think about. Well, suddenly, I didn't look quite as perfect, and that forced me to reconsider everything."
As she analyzed her life and her goals in this new light, Marla decided modeling, if anyone wanted a less than perfect face, would still be one of her priorities - she enjoyed the businesss. But realistically, if it didn't work out - and maybe even if it did - she wanted something more. She wanted to reach out and help those who also had been disgfigured or victimized in some way.
The first chance to reach out came through Dermablend Cosmetics.
"A dermatologist friend of mine had introduced me to the products long before I was attacked," Marla said. "I developed spider veins on my legs and he suggested using the leg cover-up cream to hide the flaws. When I wanted to get on with my life and find work again, I tried Derma-blend cover cream to make my facial scars less obvious. I developed a method of blending and filling in with a brush; covered the whole thing with setting powder. It worked beautifully. I was delighted with the result. For the first time in many months I could walk down the street without those sympathetic stares."
Flori Roberts, the dynamic lady who developed Dermablend after she had cancer surgery on her nose and couldn't find anything to cover the scar, heard about the case. Contact was made, and Marla agreed to become a spokesperson for the firm.
In her job Marla models - but in a different way. In addition to being featured in ads for the corrective cosmetics, she makes numerous personal appearances talking about her traumatic experience and explaining to the audience how even some of the worst flaws can be successfully hidden. She works extensively with men and women who have a variety of disfigurements - everything from minor problems such as dark under-eye circles to serious port wine stains (large red birthmarks) and vitiligo (the loss of skin pigmentation).
Working with such individuals, and frequently visiting burn centers and health care facilities, Marla has become quite an accomplished public speaker. And as she addresses the crowd, her message isn't just skin deep. How we look outside directly affects how we feel inside, she explains to her audience. Therefore, perfecting our imperfections so we can present the best possible image and feel good about ourselves isn't just vanity. It's the smart, positive way of coping.
With every day that goes by, Marla feels she is becoming better able to cope with her own problems. She also has become quite a crusader since the attack; an advocate of victim's rights.
Appearing at the trials of her attackers changed her attitude toward the justice system forever.
"I felt as though I were on trial," she said. "My entire life was dredged up, whether it had any bearing on the case or not. They talked about my racial attitudes, my sexual morality. It struck me throughout that there is an incredible imbalance in our justice system. Victims simply aren't accorded the same privileges that the criminal has - and this situation needs to be changed."
Since the trials and convictions (her assailants were given 5 to 15 years), Marla has been on the lecture circuit actively crusading for change and has been invited to Washington, D. C., where she met with Dr. Jane Burnely and became involved with the Victims Service Agency. She has appeared on college campuses, at various rallies and was in attendance at the Robert Chambers preppy trial, speaking out for victim Jennifer Levin who was murdered in Central Park.
She's aiming for a powerful victim's bill of rights in this country. She is seeking increased protection for victims from overzealous defense lawyers. She's pushing for more equality in the courtroom - if the character of the victim has to be established, then the character of the defendant should be established, too.
If anyone had told Marla Hanson a few years back she'd be speaking out for such things today, she probably would have laughed. But then attackers with razors changed everything.
"I have been made an advocate for life," explained the model, who now is hoping for an acting career and the joys of marriage and family. (she is currently dating Jay McInerney, author of "Bright Lights, Big City.")Comment on this story
More than anyone else, Marla says, McInerney has provided her with strength and courage to face her problems. And whenever she feels like giving up - whenever she gets to thinking the lecture circuit is too hard or helping others with troubles is too traumatic - he offers this advice: Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Get on with it.
Dermablend Corrective Cosmetics will be demonstrated in Salt Lake City July 18 at Downtown ZCMI and July 19 at the Cottonwood Store. Consultations will go on from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and appointments may be made through the cosmetics departments.