If Kristina Kuzmic were a different type of person, she would be traveling to Chicagoland this Thursday to promote a cookbook. She would be sitting on top of a cooking show empire. She could have been the new face of culinary artistry. That’s the dream that television execs offered her just a few years back. Kristina said "no, thank you." She had a different vision that couldn't be contained on a countertop.
If the sun is our most potent source of vitamin D, I would say that Kristina is our warmest, fiercest, most valuable source of Vitamin HH. “HH” could stand for “Hope and Humor,” the name of her comedy tour which came through Chicago last summer, or for her new book Hold On, But Don’t Hold Still which will be released on February 11. Her book tour will stop in Naperville this week in partnership with Anderson’s Bookshops.
Her powerful, funny memoir details an odyssey. With uncompromising honesty, Kristina talks about arriving in the U.S. as a young Croatian war refugee, becoming a single parent and living in poverty while working two jobs, and her most difficult trial, a descent into depression that brought her perilously close to taking her life.
Desperate to refocus, she researched volunteer opportunities, but she couldn’t afford a babysitter and no organization wanted two little kids underfoot. At true rock bottom, she felt like “a failure by every metric there was.” That’s when she came up with “Wednesday night dinners.” From her tiny apartment, she extended an invitation to anyone who was struggling for any reason. Cooking was the one pursuit that gave her confidence.
Later, she started making candidly messy cooking videos called The Sticky Cook. At the urging of one of her viewers, Kristina became one of 15,000 people who sent videos to Oprah, hoping to appear on Your OWN Show: Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star. Not only was she a top-ten finalist, she won (sharing the top spot with Zach Anner who is still a close friend).
Kristina’s cooking show on the OWN Network came next and when it ended, there were lucrative offers from other networks. But there were surprising disappointments, too, all detailed in Hold On. Television demanded that Kristina play a shiny perfect version of herself. She knew how detrimental it could be for viewers to absorb false celebrity-driven ideals. She wasn't having it.
Instead, she launched her own empire. She started making funny and real parenting videos. Did I mention her book’s complete title? The tagline is “Hope and humor from my seriously flawed life,” which also perfectly describes her videos. Her unwavering commitment to being real combined with the empathy of someone who knows hard times earned her millions of followers.
Hold On is not just a memoir. It’s a blueprint for proactive optimism. When Kristina’s teenage son hit a rough spot, instead of grounding him or some other punitive measure, mom and son drove around town taking opportunities to do kind things for strangers. When she and her first husband divorced, she scheduled a summit with her ex in-laws to discuss how everyone could band together for the kids they all adored. She’s clear that nothing was easy and that she’s going through some things now, too. The book ends on a brave uncertain note. “I don’t know how this particular chapter of my story will end.” This sparkling gem of a memoir will resonate with everyone.
Kristina kindly spoke with me by phone about writing her memoir, the power of truth, and how you can meet her in Naperville on Thursday, February 13.
HOW TO BEGIN
Teme: Your book is a memoir, but it’s not chronological. How did you decide on the order of the stories?
Kristina: I give credit to my editor at Penguin. I've never written a book before. I knew the stories I wanted to tell and why I wanted to tell them. I think of this book as the life vest that I needed when I was struggling. I also think of it as a "reply all" to the emails I receive that I haven’t been able to reply to. I didn't want to start the first chapter being too heavy. I wanted to start it with hope and encouragement, and to write about where my desire to write this book or do anything came from.
It was important to me to end the book by saying I don’t know how the current chapter of my life ends. We don’t know how to solve everything, but just showing up is the key. I didn’t want to tie it all together with a perfect bow because that's not real life. Just because one part of my life got better doesn't mean that life's perfect now. There’s a whole other set of challenges, but there are also lessons and beauty.
Teme: When you say “showing up is the key,” what do you mean?
Kristina: One of the keys is showing up with your vulnerability. A lot of people in hard situations show up with a lot of walls or they show up with a lot of preconceived ideas. I don't even want to say "show up," because I don't feel like that's genuinely showing up. No matter what kind of stress is happening, show up arms wide open, heart wide open, ears wide open. Don't approach with fear. Approach with proactive hope.
THE HARDEST STORY TO WRITE
Teme: Your book is so candid. Were some stories harder to write about than others?
Kristina: Writing that I thought about taking my life ... I sat my older kids down and talked to them about it. I don’t want them to read it in a book first and yet I feel it was important to include it. Ah, that makes me choked up right now, that I actually contemplated taking my life. I know that there are parents out there who are struggling with those same thoughts and they need to hear from someone who has gotten past it that you can get past it.
Teme: You have an uncompromising commitment to honesty. Why is it so important?
Kristina: When I was going through my lowest point, I didn't know people who were that open, so everybody's life seemed much easier. When you don't have somebody that can relate, you feel very isolated in your feelings and struggles. That's what makes it feel permanent. That's what makes it feel like there's no hope.
The minute I started opening up through my videos, I had feedback from people like, "I've never heard somebody else verbalize what's in my head." It is so important, especially in the age of social media when everybody's posting their perfect family pictures. Everybody needs to know that every single person struggles. That perfect person you compare yourself to on social media? They've got their stuff. They have the stuffiest of stuffs! We just don’t know about it. If we were all more honest, my goodness, I really think it could save lives.
THE TURNING POINT
Teme: You write that “there’s a name for when things don’t work out the way you thought they would. It’s called ‘life.’” You also observe that dashed expectations can lead to self-loathing. For anyone who is stuck in that cycle, what are the most effective steps to take right now for a happier perspective?
Kristina: One of the things that I write about in my “Wednesday Night Dinner” chapter is my turning point.
At my lowest point, instead of pining for what I thought [life] should look like, and for what I wanted but couldn’t have, and comparing and competing, I had to take the little bit that I had; the little bit I knew how to do, which was cooking. I had to focus on what I have and can do and who I am, and do something with that instead of the long list of things I can't do and I don't have. Every single person can do that.
And by the way, the list of things we can't do and don't have is always going to be longer. It's easy to dwell on that [long list] and let it depress us. Or we can focus on the much shorter list of things we actually can do. Do something with that and your life will change – guaranteed! Literally, it saved my life. I remember at the time thinking, "The only thing I'm competent at is cooking." Then I was like, "So what? Most people know how to cook. That doesn't make me special." It's so easy to go down that road, where you just find the negative.
Instead, I decided to take that one thing and do something with it. It ended up helping me find my worth, my value, to start thinking more positive. My life is much easier now than it was then. On days when my teenagers are struggling or I don't know how to parent them, or I'm having a bad day, or my little kid is throwing a tantrum and I don't know how to help him through it, instead of dwelling on the negative and "why can't it be like what I thought parenting would be?" I go, "Hey, what can I do in this moment? What am I good at that I can do?" It always helps to give yourself more credit and more grace.
BACKSTAGE AT THE OWN NETWORK
Teme: Oprah loved your authenticity and you were the co-winner of Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star. You have a behind-the-scenes story where Oprah’s producers actually discouraged you from being too open. I was surprised that her producers weren't aligned with her. How did that come about?
Kristina: It wasn’t her producers, specifically. The network hired another production company which had to answer to the TV execs. It was the first year of her network and the production company was trying to impress Oprah and the execs. They wanted to follow rules. I was throwing out ideas that they'd never seen on TV, so it was a risk.
My biggest regret is that I didn’t speak up because I thought I was just supposed to be grateful. Thousands of people tried out for the show and didn't win and I won. Plus, two to three years before I won, I was sleeping on a floor and feeding my kids stale muffins from Starbucks. So it was this inner struggle between “I need to be grateful,” and “I need to stand up for myself.” It was a good lesson that you can be grateful and stand up for yourself.
I'm thankful it worked out the way it did. If I got the cooking show I wanted, I would probably still be doing a cooking show somewhere. I still love cooking, but that experience led to this whole new world where I've been able to encourage parents in different ways. I’ve been able to reach more people because not everybody's interested in cooking. Through all my stories in my life, I found that things work out the way they're supposed to, as long as we're being proactive and staying authentic.
IMPORTANT DISTINCTION: NICE vs. KIND
Teme: You write about the distinction of being nice versus being kind. Why is it an important survival tool to distinguish between being nice and being kind?
Kristina: Women especially are taught not to rock the boat and when we do, we’re accused of being dramatic or bitchy. If we're loud, we're taught to be quiet and polite. It's ingrained from a young age. I teach my sons and my daughter that being kind does not mean that you have to be weak. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is be loud. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is rebel because you're thinking of the big picture.
It's like that story I tell in the book of the guy sexually harassing me. The kindest thing I did was outing him and being loud about it. Hopefully, it will stop him from doing it to other women and it will show other women that it's okay to stand up for yourself. Whereas being nice is just making sure everybody else is comfortable and has everything they need.
Teme: I’m a lifelong nice-aholic who’s been on the path of niceness because, as you say in the book, I need everyone to like me. How do I get off that path and learn to be kind instead?
Kristina: It starts with caring more about our own sanity and what's right than other people's judgments. We put other people's opinions ahead of what we know is right. I can think of so many examples where people have emailed me and they are literally going insane trying to please somebody else. Put your sanity and your morals above other people's judgments and opinions.
CREATIVE CONFLICT RESOLUTION
Teme: I love that you resolve conflicts in ways that have long-term value for everyone involved. Like the way you went to speak with your ex in-laws, or the night of random kindness with your son. Your approach is a beautiful fusion of creativity and empathy. Are we all capable of that?
Kristina: We can all do it. First of all, we're stuck in the stress of now and we're stuck in our own pride. That's why the chapter [about the divorce] is called “Kids First, Ego Last.” I really had to practice. I still do. We've been divorced for almost 14 years, and there are times still where I want to send “that” text because I'm annoyed.
It's a continual practice that requires work and thought. I’ve had many friends who think of an idea, and they immediately insult that idea and say, "it's stupid." If we all stop putting down our ideas, we'd be doing much greater things. Stop judging your ideas. It doesn’t matter if it’s “normal.” Feel free to write your own rules.
Teme: “Normal” is overrated.
Kristina: Right?! You've got to be willing to be rebellious. The other thing is the idea of getting uncomfortable. We love to be comfortable. But change doesn't happen unless you're uncomfortable. In fact, I'm going to start a podcast this year [on that topic]. Most of the things that have produced the greatest change in my life were very uncomfortable.
Teme: How can I tell the difference between an uncomfortable idea and a bad idea?
Kristina: That's the practice of learning what our sanity is telling us and what are insecurities are telling us. We give our insecurities jobs they're not qualified for. I talk about that in the book. Ask, “Is this an insecurity speaking to me and trying to lead the way? Or is the idea what is healthy for my sanity?”
I'll also ask myself, "How would I want my kids to handle this situation?" Most of the time, the answer is, “I would want them to be kind and brave. So I'm going to do that.”
Teme: You write about how it’s important to be lighthearted when possible and one of the things you do is prank your kids. What was your favorite prank?
Kristina: Well, this one was really bad. They’re still mad at me. I was almost nine months pregnant with my youngest on April Fool's Day. I thought, this is the only chance I’ll have to be almost nine months pregnant on April 1st. My kids came back from school and I was on the kitchen floor screaming. I said, “The baby’s coming!” They got all excited, and I started sending my daughter to get me random things. She was nine at the time, so she had no idea what I needed. I was like, "I need a hairdryer – it has to be the silver one!" She's running around opening drawers. I said, "I need Mr. Potato Head!" And at one point I'm like, "I need chicken breasts! White meat from the freezer!" She's throwing everything out of the freezer, trying to find it.
In the meantime, I tell my son, who's almost 11 at the time, to call my husband. I had this all planned, and my husband tried to talk me out of this prank because he’s a good person unlike me. But then he decided to play along because you don't argue with pregnant. He tells my son that the ambulance is on the way. And then a couple of minutes later, tells him the ambulance is stuck in traffic, so you're going to have to deliver this baby. That's the line I told him to say. And the look on my almost 11 year-old's face when he realized he was going to have to see his mother's vagina and pull a baby out, was one of the funniest things I've ever seen.
Then finally, I sat up and said, "April Fools!" They were so mad. They weren't worried something was going to go wrong with the baby, because through the whole thing I let them know, "I know how to deliver a baby, I've done this twice!" They were excited to meet the baby. Then my daughter was like, "I don't even like to run, and you made me run!"
I've also changed all the clocks in the house to make them think that we were late and other silly things.
Now that they're teenagers, they send it back to me. I had a mannequin head that I bought for a video two years ago and I forgot about it. Recently, my oldest son found it and he put it in my bed with all these pillows so it looked like there was a body. Oh my god, it was the scariest thing.
Teme: Those are all awesome!
Kristina: Just ways to add some humor and fun and crazy into a life that can be mundane at times.
Teme: My kids are grown and they’re wonderful, but I think I was a very grim, serious parent. Now I look back and I realize that things did not have to be so serious all the time.
Kristina: You know, it's interesting. That's what my mom says. But I always tell her, you did the best you knew how to do. Everybody's circumstances are different. I think for me, because of everything I've been through, I have to find a way to add the fun. I wrote about how when we were sharing one room, I'd take my children on picnics. I had to figure out ways to add some creativity because I was always trying to compensate for the fact that we didn't have nice things and I couldn't sign them up to gymnastics, or other fun things. We all do the best we can with the circumstances we're given.
TEENS DESERVE EMPATHY
Teme: You write that “the only thing harder than parenting a teenager is being a teenager.” What should parents remember about being a teen?
Kristina: It's such a vulnerable, confusing time. There's so much to juggle. There's peer pressure and bullying. With social media, it’s even worse. Then there are all the life changes and physical change. And by the way, I've made so many mistakes in this area. That’s why I talk about it. It’s that empathy of realizing that this is a much bigger struggle for them than it is for me and that how I handle it could impact them for the rest of their life. They will remember the words I use. They will remember my actions. They will remember whether, when they were scared or insecure and that insecurity came out as something that I didn't appreciate, whether I just scolded them, or whether I came to them with love. By the way, I believe in tough love. I don't mean let’s let them get away with anything. I mean “I know life is hard right now. I still have rules, but I am here. I'm your greatest ally, and I have a lot of grace for you.”
The other thing I still struggle with, but I'm learning, is to shut up more and listen more. If I don't shut up, they're going to shut down. They start telling me something, and I want to jump in and go, "Wait, who did it? Where were you? What happened?" But it's coming out of fear instead of just letting them open up and let it all out. They need to let it out. And how lucky am I, that they are saying it to me?
FOR THE LOVE OF BOOKS
Teme: Your book has so many great stories! You have one about your dad risking his life in a plane crash to save his books. May I ask you for the back story?
Kristina: Sure! It was at John Wayne Airport in Orange County in the early '80s. Some misinformation caused a plane that was taking off to collide with one that was landing. The flight attendants were getting everybody out on those slides. We didn't have money at the time, and my dad's most prized possessions were always books. Everywhere we ever went, he had to take books. And he didn't even have a fancy suitcase for them. He usually just had them in a bag. He would go everywhere with them. So he would not leave the plane without his books. There’s a rule that the flight attendants are not allowed to leave until the last passenger is off, so now he's not just risking his life, he's risking their lives. So down the slide he went with his bag of books. He woke up in the hospital, and there on the nightstand next to his bed, was his stack of books. He looked over before he even asked about how he was doing – he was okay, by the way. The first thing he wanted to know was, did his books survive?
A FIGHT TO SAVE LIVES
Teme: Some of your recent videos tackle heavy topics like the stigma around mental health. What inspired you?
Kristina: I feel a responsibility to be a voice of change. A lot of my passion comes from what angers or upsets me about the world. The stigma around mental health is heartbreaking. I get a lot of emails from women who are struggling with postpartum depression, or depression, or anxiety, or bipolar. They are reaching out for help, which I think is one of the hardest things to do when you're struggling because all you want to do is shut down. You have a lot of shame and you don't want to let anyone in your mess.
When people finally have the strength to reach out, if the person on the other end shames them, or makes them feel like they're being dramatic, or suggests things that you know are not going to work … I've gone through depression. I was told to pray more, and go take a walk. You wouldn't say that to somebody who is having a heart attack!
Teme: Anyone who hears a remark like that is less likely to reach out again.
Kristina: Exactly. If we treated mental health the way we treat physical health, the suicide rate would go down.
“WE ALL HAVE THE POWER”
Teme: What is the most memorable encounter you’ve had with a fan so far?
Kristina: There are so many stories, I hate to just point out one, but I’ll tell you one. There was a woman that came to one of my shows and she handed me a ring. It said "worthy," and she said, "I have one too, and I want to tell you the story behind it. I have two daughters. I dropped them off at school, and I left a suicide note on the bed. I went to a bridge and I was going to end my life." She said she had written out a text that she was going to send to everybody. She went into her phone to copy and paste the text. As she opened her phone, one of my videos was there - and I was so mad I didn't ask her which one, because I was just so flabbergasted by the story. But she opened her phone and happened to be on Facebook, and one of my videos was on. And after watching it - I'm going to cry -- she went home and ripped up the note.
She said, "The video made me feel that I was worthy." So she had the rings made, and she wanted me to have one, too. I make these videos and I hope they'll encourage somebody. I never started this thinking “this is going to save somebody's life.” And it's not about me. There's nothing special about me. My story is not any more special than anybody else's. We all have the power just by being honest and vulnerable and sharing our struggles and our triumphs, to help somebody. That's why I'm so passionate about being honest. Let's stop putting filters on everything.
Teme: What will happen at your event in Naperville this week?
Kristina: I did my "Hope and Humor" show in Chicago last summer. I’ve traveled to I don’t know how many cities on my comedy tour and people always ask me, what was your favorite? Chicago is always the first that comes to mind. There was so much love when I was there in July. I’m really excited to go back.
We're going to start with a new making-of-the-book video that nobody's seen yet. I'm going to read a little from the book, but the main part is the Q&A. Everybody can ask me anything. You can put me on the spot if that's what you want. After the Q&A, I will get to meet every single person which I don't get to do during my tour, and spend some time with you. Sign the book, hug it out, hear your story. I love hearing other people's stories. It will be a fun celebration.
Meet Kristina in person this Thursday, February 13 at 7:00 p.m. at the Doubletree by Hilton in Lisle/Naperville. Tickets and all details here. Sponsored by Anderson's Bookshops.
More about Kristina at kristinakuzmic.com/
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