Michelle Hansen

Photo: Sergio Kurhajec, Courtesy of Michelle Hansen

Michelle Hansen
Age: 37
When I was a teenager in Stockton, California, my style was shaped by the music I listened to, especially the Cure. With my very pale skin, dark eyes, and black lipstick, I thought I seemed unique—almost masculine. At 22 I moved to San Francisco with my first boyfriend, also a Goth kid. My unconventional look fit our identity as a couple, but it also became a mask for me to hide behind even after the relationship ended. By 29 I still hadn't figured out who I was. Instead, I played a character—I was afraid to show my true self.

But that fear disappeared right before my 30th birthday after my dad challenged me to go skydiving. I agreed to do it, and as soon as I landed, I knew I had to take control of my life. I thought, "If I can jump out of a plane at 10,000 feet, I can do anything—I'm going to move to New York!"

Being on my own felt like a kind of rebirth. My first job in the city was as a coat-check girl at an Art Deco cocktail lounge, where I'd sit in my little booth and read books about the 1920s that featured women who embraced their power and femininity. The experience inspired me to reveal my softer side. It felt so natural to choose nice dresses that showed my figure, wear high heels, and grow out my hair. When I was younger, I thought I had to make my mark by looking tough and extreme. Now I have a delicate exterior, but I know I'm stronger than I've ever been.
Suzanne Corso

Photo: Sergio Kurhajec, Courtesy of Suzanne Corso

Suzanne Corso
Age: 43
I met the love of my life in early 1996, just a few years after I'd finally broken free from a tumultuous relationship with a man involved in organized crime. When my future husband and I noticed each other on a Manhattan street, the spark seemed instant: He was warm, engaging, and courteous—the exact opposite of the controlling abuser I'd endured. He was also a Wall Street hotshot whose wealth seemed worlds away from the poverty I'd experienced as a child in Brooklyn. We married, had a daughter, and settled into a financially comfortable life. As I took my place in this new world, I quickly began dressing the part in Hermès scarves, Versace dresses, and Prada heels.

But when the stock market crashed in 2008, our lifestyle changed dramatically. We went from living as multimillionaires with an 11-room minimansion to surviving paycheck to paycheck in a two-bedroom apartment. I won't lie and say it didn't bother me when I'd walk down Madison Avenue and see all the things I couldn't buy. At the time, I would've told you I was devastated. Then I started to think about my situation: People all over the world live in desperate conditions. Was losing millions really that devastating? After all, my relationship with my husband was still strong. I finally told myself, "Get over it."

Yes, we lost all our money, yet I gained a strong sense of who I am—a woman who will never again be controlled by another person or defined by material possessions. These days I can wander out in a T-shirt and jeans and feel far more beautiful than I did two decades ago.
Sigrid Olsen

Photo: Sergio Kurhajec, Courtesy of Bradford Fuller

Sigrid Olsen
Age: 58
My fashion label took off when I was in my 30s, and I went from wearing jeans and a Peruvian alpaca poncho to shopping for designer clothes. I had never had regular haircuts, then suddenly I was getting weekly blowouts at Frédéric Fekkai. No one said I had to change my look—it's just that I now had the financial resources to do so. But as I became more polished on the outside, I paid less attention to how I felt on the inside. I was exhausted, and I let my daily meditation and yoga practice go.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, so I took a 30-day leave of absence from work; it was the first time I'd had more than a week off in 20 years. But after recovering from surgery, I kind of forgot about the cancer and went back to my job. For the next couple of years, I totally immersed myself in my company even though I wasn't sure it would survive. When it finally closed in 2008, I had two choices: wallow in self-pity or take hold of my life and do something positive. I was forced to reinvent myself. I started going to the gym and recommitted to yoga and meditation. Several months later, I began organizing inspirational retreats for women and devoted myself to the art gallery I'd opened a few years earlier.

I used to wake up every morning frustrated that I had little control over how I'd spend my day. Now I'm living a life I've chosen, not one that chose me. I'm physically well, and I can create art every day without inhibition. My body, mind, and spirit are in alignment, and it shows.

Kathy Sledge

Photo: Sergio Kurhajec, Courtesy of Kathy Sledge

Kathy Sledge
Age: 53
As the youngest member of the R&B group Sister Sledge, I spent my girlhood surrounded by family. I was the lead singer, but I never thought of myself as an individual. There was so much comfort standing there with my sisters.

But at 29, I began a solo career. For once I could choose everything from my musical style to my clothing. As much as I'd loved sharing the stage with my sisters—with our '80s outfits and big hair perfectly coordinated—moving out on my own was the step I needed to take. I performed by myself for the first time at a concert in Miami. As soon as I finished my opening song and the audience stopped cheering, I noticed something: silence. In the group, I'd always relied on my sisters to talk to the crowd. It sounds silly, but that night I had to find my voice.

Each time I've performed solo over the years, I've grown more and more comfortable standing out front in the spotlight. Now I have the confidence not just to sing my old songs, which, of course, I still do, but to set bigger goals for myself, like producing and starring in a musical about jazz legend Billie Holiday. I'm working harder than I have at any time in my life, so I'm especially grateful when fans come up to me and say, "You look better now than ever." Beauty is an attitude. And I suppose I have a glow offstage and on because I'm doing exactly what I want to do. That's why I'm embracing every moment of this decade even as I look toward the next.

Next: How to change your life at any age