Growing up, the singer-actress formerly known as Dana Owens didn't look like anyone else. Then one night, she found a perfect role model: herself.
I'm a statuesque woman and I have been for most of my life. I developed early, and I was always one of the tallest girls in my class. By the time I was 13, I had a body. I was one of those girls whose daddy wanted to keep a shotgun by the door, because it was all there.

When I was younger, my size didn't bother me. My mom had to make me wear a bra, because I wasn't even paying attention. I just thought, There are these things coming up on me; I know what they are, but who cares? I'm going out to play. But then when I hit my teens, it became a big deal. Boys started zoning in on certain parts of me—which made me feel cool and totally embarrassed at the same time.

Like any girl whose body is changing, I felt unsure of who I was becoming. I was having mature emotions for the first time, I had a crush on a classmate and all of these things made me suddenly conscious of my body. Plus, the images I saw in magazines and movies weren't women who looked like me; they were thin white girls, for the most part. There were some people I admired—the Patti LaBelles of the world, Diana Ross—but most weren't thick and big-boned like I was.

Then my eighth-grade class put on the musical The Wiz. I went to a small Catholic school in Newark, New Jersey, and in order to be fair the teachers cast three students as Dorothy. There was one girl who resembled Dorothy—she was petite and spry and looked the part. The second Dorothy was a really good actor. And then there was me. I was a big, tall Dorothy, but I guess the teachers thought I had a good voice, because I got to sing the finale, "Home."

I performed the song in front of all the students, as well as parents, teachers, and guests. It was a large audience, but I latched on to my mother's smiling face in the crowd. I sang, When I think of home, I think of a place where there's love overflowing…I was totally in the moment, and, suddenly, I became Dorothy, not Dana. When I finished, I got a standing ovation. It was the first time in my life I'd gotten that kind of mass encouragement. For the audience to receive me like that, to enjoy the song so much that they were moved to stand up and clap, I knew they saw me as more than just the "big Dorothy."

I realized in that moment that I didn't need to change. I felt comfortable—strong, beautiful, talented—in my own skin. I had the same feeling years later when I was onstage at Madison Square Garden and 20,000 people were singing along with me to my song "Ladies First," and again when I was nominated for an Academy Award for my performance in Chicago. I've never molded myself to fit other people's ideals. Who I am works for me, and it's working for my career.

I'm a realistic person. If there's something I can't do, I know that. But if there's something I love, something I'm willing to put 150 percent into, then nothing—especially not my body—can limit me.

As told to Rachel Bertsche


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