When her blond hair fell out in clumps last year, Emma Schmidt shaved her head and bought a hat. For those first few months following initial rounds of chemotherapy, Emma kept her baldness under wraps.
But one windy day last May, as she got ready for a tripto Lagoon with her class, Emma wondered how she was going to keep the hat on her head. Just go bald, her mother said.
So Emma left the hat at home. When she entered Cottonwood High as a sophomore last fall, she left the hat at home again, even though high school typically is a place where being normal is a virtue, a place where if you're talking about anxiety you're probably talking about hair.
High school is also where survival typically means making it through finals, and understanding the meaning of life takes a back seat to understanding the meaning of Shakespeare. In that setting, Emma's battle against Ewing's sarcoma, a form of bone cancer, gives her a different perspective.
Emma believes you can either sit around feeling sorry for yourself and wondering about your future, wondering if you'll even have a future, or you can decide to get on with things. Faced with a life-threatening disease, Emma has plunged into her lifelong dream to be a model.This spring, Emma competed with 800 other Intermountain teens in "Seventeen" magazine's "Cover Model" contest. If she is chosen as one of 10 area finalists on Saturday, Emma's photos will be sent to New York, where they will be judged against those of 399 other young girls.
The irony of Emma's good fortune is that it would not have happened without the big dose of bad fortune that began one day 15 months ago when she noticed a lump on her breast and another under her arm.
"I think things happen for a reason," Emma says about her disease. "It's not that I'm glad I got cancer. But I think good comes with the bad."
Although Emma has wanted to be a model since she was a little girl, her family couldn't afford modeling classes, which run from $500 to $1,000. Last fall, as Emma underwent yet another round of chemotherapy, her mother called the Make-a-Wish Foundation to see if Emma and her wish would qualify.
Typically, the foundation gives children and teenagers with life-threatening diseases a trip to Disneyland. Emma's wish was unusual, but also in keeping with Make-A-Wish's attempt to counter "the specter of death" that hangs over the group's head, according to executive director Christine Sharer.
"We want to be able to impact outlook," Sharer explains, "We want to have a healing impact on the disease, and on family relationships." The modeling classes, Sharer says, renewed Emma's willingness to accept chemotherapy.
With the help of Make-a-Wish volunteers Linda Adams, Diane and Don Strong, and model Rob Schmidt, Emma enrolled in modeling classes at the McCarty Agency and had photo sessions with some of Salt Lake's best fashion photographers.
But Emma wasn't a poster child. What the photographers quickly discovered, says Schmidt, is that Emma has that natural something that separates models from people just having their picture taken.
"In all honesty, I think she has a great future," Schmidt said. "She already has great height, she has fabulous bone structure and wonderful skin."
Although she was intimidated and unsure of herself at first, he said, "she's developed a confidence that carries through on the job."
Emma's photos - which have appeared in Utah Holiday and Salt Lake City magazine - reveal a sophistication and pensiveness that seem to belong to someone older than 15. In some of the fashion photos Emma is bald.
Last fall, when she was a new sophomore, some of her teachers thought she had shaved her head just to get attention. Walks though the mall, says her father, Sonny Schmidt, often elicit the same "skinhead" response. And stares.
"One time," Emma remembers, "a girl came up to me in the mall and said her friends would give her $5 if I would let her rub my head. I said, `Go ahead.' Then she asked me why I had shaved my head. I told her I didn't shave it, I had cancer."
If Emma has taught people to think twice before they make assumptions, she has also learned to see the manifestation of her disease as distinctive. Last fall when she ran for sophomore class secretary her posters featured her bald head, with "Vote for Emma" inked across the scalp. Emma won the election.
Emma hopes her luck holds out. If she is selected by the "Seventeen" judges as one of the magazine's eight "Cover Model" winners, she hopes to join the ranks of Brooke Shields, Whitney Houston, Cheryl Tiegs, Cybill Shepherd and other young women who used the contest to launch careers.
In the meantime she looks forward to the middle of May, when she'll enter the hospital for her final chemotherapy treatment. Emma plans to be cured.