Breast cancer survivor Leslie Ezelle turned tragedy into hope, with a new business and a spot on HGTV’s ‘Design Star’
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
Season premiere airs on HGTV July 11 at 8 p.m.
Going through the horrors of breast cancer may be the best thing that ever happened to Leslie Ezelle.
In 2008, the Dallas resident was a stay-at-home mom to her four kids and stepkids when she was diagnosed. Not a lot of people, even friends, knew about it at the time.
“During breast cancer, I was in complete denial — I wouldn’t talk about it,” Ezelle now admits. “I did six weeks of radiation and wouldn’t talk to anybody there; I just wanted to get in and out.”
But while outwardly nothing was wrong, inside she was falling apart. “What am I gonna be when I grow up?” she asked herself. And the answer was: Follow your dream.
“I thought maybe I could combine all the things I have always had confidence in — my artwork and my painting and my design — and make a living at it,” she says.
For years, Ezelle — a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader — had been an amateur decorator, offering her eye to close friends and family free of charge. But in the middle of breast cancer treatment, she decided it was time to make it official and “start charging for it.”
In 2009, she started her company, LeslieChristine Designs. Around the same time, she took another huge step.
“I was in and out of the hospital during breast cancer with infections and reconstructive surgery,” she says. “I started thinking, ‘What I really want is my own design show. And I want it to be different than other kinds of reveal shows, built around my crazy life. I want it to be like Modern Family.”
Ezelle’s crazy life includes sharing an adopted daughter, Ella, with her ex-partner Marisa Diotalevi; rearing her stepson and adopted sons with her wife Libby; managing “a petting zoo” of a four-legged family that includes a one-eyed Shih-tzu and countless other fauna; and fitting it all into a small house in Preston Hollow.
And the best way to get such a show, she felt, was to compete for it.
Ezelle and her clan were already huge fans of HGTV’s Design Star competition series, which pits 12 aspiring decorators against each other, with the reward being their own weekly series. She figures she might as well try it.
“The day of the deadline, I FedEx’d my stuff to them. Real soon I went up there to meet them. Then I got a call that I was accepted. It was quick and pretty amazing, but really cool, though. They were auditioning for close to nine months; to go through it that long would have made me a nervous wreck. I did it on a whim and it worked out beautifully.”
This season, gay designer Vern Yip returns as the head judge (alongside Genevieve Gorder and Candice Olson), with guest judges like Thom Felicia and Nate Berkus, plus the addition of a new mentor: The gay former series winner and current TV host David Bromstad, who serves as a Tim Gunn-esque mentor. (Gay judges, gay mentor, gay contestant: This might be the gayest show on TV not on Bravo — and that includes Logo.)
Until the winner of the series is revealed (she can’t talk about it), Ezelle’s own design business is doing well.
“I seem to be caught up with the straight-male-bachelor-penthouse scene, which is really great because they have money!” she laughs. “I’m actually doing my first gay male couple shortly — the first gay clients I’ve had.”
But Ezelle found the whole TV experience worthwhile.
“I felt like I knew all these guys,” she says. “Vern is so sweet, so straightforward. I’ve heard critics and other designers describe him as the Simon Cowell [of the show], but I’m not at all intimidated by him. We have much in common: He and his partner had a baby. He lost his mom to cancer, and he’s very dedicated to this foundation [in her memory]. I learned that the day before I went to check into the show and I just lost it. He’s a good guy!”
“I didn’t want to see anything pink — I didn’t want to ‘play’ breast cancer. But that’s really what brought me to the show. I’ve decided to embrace the pink.”
For the season premiere on July 11, Ezelle is hosting an invitation-only screening party and fundraiser for Susan G. Komen foundation at Studio Movie Grill.
“I’m trying to raise $25,000 for Susan G. Komen, hopefully more,” she says. “It’s my time to pay back and bring awareness. Of course, I may be hiding under the table when [the episode] airs, out of embarrassment…”
Ezelle finished her last cancer treatment on Dec. 27 — a milestone for her, but not one she would readily trade.
“Breast cancer really drove me in this direction,” she says. “It makes you remember, ‘It’s not that bad — I’m not dead. I don’t have it as bad as this [person.]’ And I think my story is what got me on the show. Doom and gloom brought me to my dreams.”
And if all works out, it just may make those dreams come true.
To learn more about her designs, visit LeslieChristineDesigns.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 1, 2011.
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