It was 2011 and Kristina Kuzmic had a big decision looming. As the winner of Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star, she had just completed a successful run on the OWN network with her show The Ambush Cook. Now other networks were calling, wanting a piece of her rising star and dangling offers of cooking shows created just for her.
For Kristina, the decision was clear. She said no. The other networks wanted her to dazzle her viewing audience with expertise and tone down her very funny, goofy irreverence. But like her mentor Oprah, Kristina was committed to being authentic even if it means saying “no, thank you” to guaranteed dollars and fame.
Instead, this mom of three decided to make parenting videos. She has now built an extraordinary online library of short videos, distinguished by their comedic, honest and uplifting qualities. She has disclosed her romances with Nutella and sleep, shopping trips in pajamas, whether she is “friends” with her kids, and four things women should not wear after becoming a mom (“other people’s expectations of you” is number one). She creates new videos on a regular basis. Today she has nearly three million social media followers.
Her videos also reveal tragedies and hardships that no one could have guessed. When she was fourteen, she and her family were forced to flee the war in Croatia. As a young adult, she became an impoverished single mom who seriously considered suicide. It was just a few short years after hitting rock bottom despair that she won the Oprah competition and became a much loved television personality with an unshakeable commitment to being real.
This Friday, July 12, Kristina brings her "Hope and Humor Tour" to the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet. The evening will be a one-of-a-kind event featuring her comedy, personal stories and passion for empowering her fellow human beings.
Kristina kindly took time to speak with me by phone while she was on vacation in a now beautiful and peaceful Croatia.
DISPLACED BY WAR
Teme: What was it like to flee the war in Croatia?
Kristina: The war started when I was twelve. The area where we lived was in bad shape and really dangerous. Two years after the war started, my dad was offered a job in Massachusetts. We moved for safety. We always planned on moving back to Croatia.
I’d had a pretty traumatizing experience. Our “new normal” had become running into basements during attacks on the city. So going from there to America where the biggest worry my friends had was "which sweater should I wear to the mall today?" was shocking. I had survivor guilt. My friends were stuck back home fearing for their lives and here I was living in a wealthy country with a lot of conveniences. As a 14 year-old, it was hard to process.
Teme: How did you and your family navigate being new immigrants under such difficult circumstances?
Kristina: It took a lot of adjusting. Thankfully, my dad had traveled a lot for work so we already knew families in Massachusetts who helped us. But it took a while. I did not fit in at all at first. I had an accent and clothes that wouldn't be considered "in" in America. In Croatia at the time, people might wear the same outfit three days in a row and I was mocked for doing that. I'm grateful for the people that were patient with us and helped us out.
THE HARDEST LOW POINT AND RISING UP
Teme: You’re very honest about later going through a difficult time as a divorced single mom and feeling despair and even worthlessness. What would you say was the hardest and lowest point?
Kristina: I was broke and on food stamps. I couldn't afford an apartment for my children so we shared an apartment with a roommate. My children and I had one room that we slept in.
All that financial stuff is stressful enough, but the hardest part was how I felt about myself. I got to a point where I actually had a list of how my suicide would affect my children. It makes me cringe now to even think about it because I'm in such a different place. Then, I was convinced that my children deserved better than me and that maybe they would be better off if I was just gone.
I just finished writing a book (Hold On But Don’t Hold Still) which is coming out at the beginning of next year. One of the things I talk about is how people who have never been to that dark place don't understand how a parent could ever get to that point. I write that when a parent is contemplating suicide, to them it's not a selfish thought. They are convinced that they're going to do their kids a favor. That's where I was.
That’s where I draw my passion for what I do now. I want to be for others what I needed when I felt so worthless, whether I do it through humor or through hope. That’s why my tour is called “The Hope and Humor tour.” My calling in life is to be for others what I needed when I was at my lowest.
Teme: Sometimes I let hard times erode my sense of humor. You are so funny. Were you able to maintain your sense of humor during the worst times?
Kristina: I ask my friends "what do you remember about me then?" because I've blocked some of that stuff out. They've said that there were times when I was funny but I ... I just hated myself so much at that point. I was consumed with my self-pity. But the minute I started changing my attitude my humor came back.
THE TURNING POINT
Teme: What was the turning point?
Kristina: The turning point was Wednesday night dinners. I talk about them on my tour. I got to the point where I became obsessed with myself which happens when we’re at our lowest. I thought, "I literally am addicted to my pain and misery. How do I get out of that?" The only way is to do something for others. I needed to distract myself by thinking about others in need instead of my own needs.
I tried volunteering but got rejected from every place because I had a two- and a three-year-old and I couldn’t afford a babysitter. At that moment, I thought, "Okay, nobody wants me," I took it personally but obviously it wasn't personal because I can't have a two- and a three-year-old volunteering with me.
So I thought, "Even though I feel worthless, is there something that I'm still good at?" The only thing I could come up with is that I can cook a great meal on a tiny budget. So kind of impulsively without thinking it through, I told all my friends, "if you know anyone who needs a meal, whether they financially need a meal or they're lonely or new to town, every Wednesday night I'm going to feed people."
I went to the 99 Cent store and spent a couple of bucks on pasta. I wasn't trying to cook anything fancy. I was just trying to make a big meal. That first Wednesday night on my tiny little budget, in the tiny little apartment I shared with a roommate, I fed over thirty people.
That was a turning point for me; not just because I was able to feed people, but because it changed my perspective. Instead of focusing on everything I'm not, and everything I can't do and don't have, what happens if I focus on that one little thing I am capable of? We all have it. Even at our lowest, if we really focus, we can find that one thing where we still feel confident.
Life is much better now, but I still struggle with this or that and I always think, "Okay, what's that one thing I can do? What is the one thing that is in my control? How can I do something wonderful with that?" It was that perspective change that changed everything else.
Teme: Your Oprah audition tape was so genuinely fun and funny and real. How did you go from feeling sad and pessimistic to the person who made that tape? How did your approach to life change?
Kristina: I still call myself a "recovering pessimist" because I think it's in my blood.
Teme: Same here!
Kristina: I call myself a recovering pessimist because it's still a struggle not to go to that negative place. But again, I think our attitude is so powerful. A lot of people wait for their circumstances to change, "and then I'll be happy" and "then I'll be grateful." Really, you have to change your attitude before your circumstances can change.
I tell myself, "Don't let the few things that are completely out of your control control you completely," which is what I used to do. I would focus on those few things that I couldn't control and stress over those instead of saying, "Wait, there is so much that is in my power."
My little guy just finished preschool. When I drop him off instead of saying "have a great day," I say, "Choose to have a great day." So I'm already starting to brainwash him. But it's a choice to think positive and find good in every day.
Teme: What was it like to work with Oprah?
Kristina: She was amazing. I couldn't believe how one of the most powerful women in the world is so humble and down to earth. Once, she grabbed me by the shoulders and I tried not to pee myself because Oprah was touching me, and she said, "The TV industry and the media will try to change you and put you in a box. Stay your authentic, silly self." The sense of worth that she gave me really helped when I decided to go on my own and start making parenting videos.
Many [media] professionals and execs tell you, "You need to be more this and less this." It was nice to have Oprah’s voice in my head going, "I'm just going to be me. I’m going to be authentic. If people don't like it, that's okay." There’s such freedom in that. I think that’s one of the reasons Oprah is so successful. She's a very genuine human being.
Teme: What was some of the bad advice you got that was the opposite of Oprah?
Kristina: I won the show with Oprah and had a cooking show for a season. Then I met with a bunch of different networks for other shows. Everybody was like, "We just need you to be a little more of an expert," or "a little more perfect in the kitchen” or “a little less loud.” Everyone was either trying to tone down my personality or make me some sort of an expert when I always said, "I don't want to be on a pedestal or people looking up at me as if I'm an expert. I want to be that friend that holds your hand and goes, 'Hey, I'm going through it, too. Let's go through it together, and maybe I'll share some things I've learned along the way and you can do the same for me.’"
I'm glad that I refused to buy into that [pressure]. I'd be stuck with some show, maybe even a successful show, but inside I'd be really mad at myself for playing this character and not getting to play me.
Teme: It must take a lot of strength to make that decision. If someone's dangling a show in front of me, it would be very tempting, but you chose the authentic path instead.
Kristina: It's nice to be able to tell my kids. If you can stay true to yourself, maybe the success won't come as immediately, but if you keep working hard and stay authentic, you’ll find your calling. I have more in my career now than I ever imagined and I was able to get there without caving in and betraying who I really am.
WHAT DO PARENTS NEED TO KNOW?
Teme: What do you most want parents to know?
Kristina: That they are already more than enough. A lot of people are chasing an unrealistic fantasy instead of embracing the adventure. Then they beat themselves up because they think, "This isn't how it was supposed to be! This isn't how I see it on social media with other parents," or they’re comparing and competing, which is so detrimental.
I always hope that I will leave parents feeling braver and stronger and more confident to face everything that parenting and life throw their way. Whether I make a serious video about my past or even my current struggles, or a funny video, I want people to feel less alone. That’s always the underlying message.
Teme: Have any of your videos had a response that especially surprised you?
Kristina: The response still surprises me. I still have not completely grasped the fact that I have so many people following my page. I don't ever want to take this for granted. I'm so thankful. I look at my life and I'm just shocked. When I was going through my hard time I was the girl everybody pitied. Now, to be somebody that people come to for hope is just mind-blowing to me.
THE POWER OF “YEAH, BUT …”
Teme: You’ve said you're a recovering pessimist. I don’t think I can recover from pessimism, which is actually a pretty pessimistic thought right there.
Kristina: Exactly! That's hilarious!
Teme: Do you ever still feel pessimistic? If so, what do you do to move past it?
Kristina: I have a game with my kids. It's called "yeah, but." When they're having a bad day or complaining about something, first I let them get it all out. I think it's important for parents to encourage getting it out and talking about it. Then once they're done, I say "yeah, but ... " Then they have to find something positive in it.
So my son will be like, "I'm so mad we lost our soccer game." I let him get it all out and say "Yeah, but ... " and he'll go, "Well, we have another one next weekend. And I love my coach." If you do that regularly and end with something positive, it becomes a habit.
I had a key chain made that says "yeah, but" because my keys are the one thing I always have on me. So if I'm complaining, "Ugh, I can't believe I have to go get gas. I wasn't planning on getting gas today,” I look at the key chain and think, "I have a freaking car and I can afford gas. That's amazing." I couldn't afford gas years ago.
I did this for a year. In 2013, every single night I had to write something good that happened that day. It couldn't be general like, "I'm thankful for my health and my family." During that year I was up for a really big TV job. This one was going to let me be myself, and it didn't go through. That year I miscarried twins. There were all these horrible things that would have left me going to bed miserable and negative. And yet I forced myself to write something good every night.
When I had my miscarriage and I had to get the D&C [dilation and curettage], we came back from the doctor and I was just so miserable. I had to break it to my older kids. Any other year, I would have gone to bed thinking “This was the worst day" and hating life. Even though I felt all those feelings, I again forced myself to write something down. The only thing I could come up with that day was, "I felt so loved the way my husband tucked me into bed when he brought me back from the doctor."
I fell asleep that night with that thought. "I am loved" instead of "My life sucks. This day sucks." It's life changing.
Teme: That’s such a great path through a hard time.
Kristina: Yes, because not every day is good but there is good in every day. We humans so easily focus on the negative. Even if you're not a pessimist, if ten people tell you how beautiful you look and one person tells you, "Oh, you look tired," or "you gained weight," - just one person! - you're going to go home and forget what all those other people said and obsess, “Do I look tired?'
We are drawn towards the negative, unfortunately, and so forcing ourselves to find the good even in the bad days is a good exercise.
Teme: Why do you think we're drawn to the negative? Is it some kind of primitive instinct where we had to focus on the negative to survive?
Kristina: That's the only explanation I can think of. But as someone who used to see the world as all dark and horrible, I know we can train ourselves. I struggle with it still, but I'm in such a different place than I was years ago because it’s like exercise. That’s what I tell my kids. If you want to build muscles, you've got to exercise regularly.
Teme: One of the themes I hear in your work is this wonderful resiliency. Can resiliency be learned?
Kristina: Yes. I think everybody has it. People say to me, "You're so strong." My response is that I was just as strong at what I thought was my weakest. We all have the tools. We're just not using them. We're all waiting for someone to ring the doorbell and hand us a box of happy or a box of strength when we already have it.
EMBRACE THE FLAWS
Teme: You also talk about embracing flaws and how flaws are interesting and perfection is boring. How does that work in the big picture?
Kristina: If you’re expecting yourself to be perfect all the time and for everybody to like you, you're always going to feel inadequate. It’s not possible for human beings to be perfect. Flaws don't make me inadequate. Flaws make me human. I don't have to be super-human. We like ourselves more the minute we stop putting unrealistic expectations on ourselves. The same is true of people in our life. The minute we stop expecting them to be perfect we can like them more.
I want everybody to leave my show feeling more confident. We are handed this baby when we become parents and we expect ourselves to get it perfect. The minute we mess up a little bit we feel like complete failures. The truth is we're not failing. We're learning. How can we expect ourselves to know something we've never done before?
If you look at those mistakes not as failures but as, "Okay, I'm learning. Of course I don't know that," then you see it differently.
In my show I say, "I need someone up on stage who has never knitted before." I hand them yarn and say, "I need you to knit me a sweater." And they can't do it. I ask the audience, "Do you think they're a failure because they don't know how to do it?" No, no one thinks that. But we do it to ourselves. We expect ourselves to get it all perfect when we've never done it before.
What if when we lay down in bed, we said, "I'm going to list the things I did right today." If we focused on who we are and what we've done instead of all the negative, it's so much easier.
Teme: I go to bed thinking of everything I didn’t do and I wake up that way, too.
Kristina: You've got to start writing a different list. Instead of writing a "to-do" list write an "I did this" list!
Teme: What will happen at your show?
Kristina: It's a lot of comedy and personal stories, and definitely a pep talk. You get everything that people look for in my videos. You'll laugh. You'll feel less alone. If, hopefully, I've done my job, you will leave feeling much better about yourself.
One of my followers nicknamed me "a cheerleader for parents" and I thought, "that's the nicest compliment ever" because that's what I want. I want to make every parent feel less alone.
Teme: I love that you say "everyone in the audience will leave feeling like a badass." I feel like we all need that.
Kristina: Yes. There's so much judgment and mom-shaming. There's so much comparing and competing. My show is not that. It is the opposite. I will make you feel like the badass that you are, you just don't realize it yet.
Kristina Kuzmic brings her "Hope and Humor Tour" to The Rialto Square Theatre, 102 N. Chicago St., Joliet, on July 12, 2019 at 8:00 p.m. A limited number of VIP Packages are available. Tickets are available here or by calling the box office: (815) 726-6600.
More about Kristina at KristinaKuzmic.com.