She is a professional dancer, fitness instructor, and mother of two daughters (with one on the way). She is also a survivor of sex trafficking, rape, and abuse. But neither of those descriptions sums up who she is. This is her story, told for the first time.
From the time I was young, my body just knew how to move. I was a talented dancer, and I had big dreams. If you told me when I was 14 that I would one day run a dance studio and inspire young girls to fight for themselves, I would have believed you.
But when I was 22, being held against my will in a Long Island apartment, held captive by a man I hardly knew, it was hard to imagine I’d ever be free again, much less that one day I’d be training First Lady Michelle Obama. But it all comes down to what kind of fire you have inside you. That’s what I learned through the crazy series of events that is my 36 years of life.
The experience of being trapped lives inside me like a kaleidoscope of terrifying fragments of memories, but I know I was repeatedly raped, sometimes by multiple men, and forced to live through a nightmarish 6 months that left me traumatized and lost.
I’m going to tell you my story, really for the first time, in hopes that you will recognize the signs I never knew existed. And to remind you that we are capable of surviving more than we know.
To be honest, I had never even heard of sex trafficking before it happened to me. I grew up in a Long Island suburb with my two older sisters and my mom. I attended a performing arts high school where I lived and breathed dancing. When you’re lucky enough to love the thing you’re naturally good at, you go after it, so that’s what I did.
After high school, I traveled back and forth from Long Island to New York City so I could continue my training at the highest level. But just as my career took off, I got pregnant, and my whole life changed. At 19, I had to decide if I was going to continue pursuing my dreams or accept my actions and become a mother. When I searched myself, I knew becoming a mom was the path I needed to take for me to feel whole.
During my second trimester of pregnancy, I started going into labor. Doctors stitched my cervix (also called cervical cerclage) and I was put on bed rest. In the end, I gave birth to my daughter, Brianna, at 5 months, and she was just 1 pound 14 ounces. Her lungs were underdeveloped, and I was told she might not make it. But I was also told little girls are extremely strong, and they really fight. And they were right. She fought. Now, it’s hard to believe because she’s 16 and so tall. She’s an honor roll student, and she’s absolutely amazing.
By the time Brianna was about 2, I was essentially a single mom. Seeing how much I was struggling to make a living and care for her, my mom offered to take her while I got on my feet. But she lived in South Carolina. I faced what I call a “big-girl moment,” and I flew home from South Carolina to New York without her, knowing she’d have the stability and consistency she needed, but feeling like I couldn’t breathe without her.
For months, I put my head down and worked as much as possible, temping for entertainment industry executives and talent like P. Diddy and the model Iman. I was desperately lonely, but I was working and saving money. I was being exposed to so much so fast in the entertainment world. I was so young and felt insecure, in part because I was a teenage mom without the tools and resources to care for my daughter properly. Plus, without her, I felt incomplete.
The loneliness translated into dating a man who was 14 years older than me. We got to know each other for about a month before he invited me to his place, and I accepted. But from the moment I stepped foot inside his apartment, I knew something was horribly wrong. My gut was screaming at me to turn around and never come back. But I didn’t. And it was 6 months before I was free again.
Having another baby, dealing with COVID, being the first Black face of a brand—all that is easy compared to finding the courage to tell you this story.
Living a Nightmare
He raped me in his apartment that night. I remember trying to get up in a fog, putting on my clothes, and walking down the hall. That’s when he told me I couldn’t leave. When I tried, he hit me again and again until he knocked the fight out of me. I quickly understood that the man I thought I knew was actually someone very different, and that was a terrifying realization.
It’s amazing how quickly you can go from being on your own and feeling normal to being paralyzed with fear and under someone else’s control. I felt physically trapped but also stuck in a shame cycle, berating myself. I kept thinking, I should have been more careful. I should have known who he really was. But now, after years of therapy, I know that this man spent the month of dating grooming me and learning my weaknesses, which he used to his advantage. He quickly understood that I was basically alone, had no major attachments, and very few people who knew my day-to-day whereabouts. I was the perfect mark.
That’s how he had an answer for everything. I would say, My mom will be looking for me, so I was allowed to call her, but he monitored everything I said and did. I told my mom I was staying with a friend and tried to act normal.
During those 6 months, I was told when I could eat, shower, sleep, or watch TV. I became a zombie, a shell of a person. But one day, something bubbled up from deep within me, and I discovered the will to get out.
I told him my mom needed money for my daughter, and that I needed to wire it right away. He let me go to the MoneyGram down the street, although I knew he’d have eyes on me. But I took the chance, and I called my friend who lived in the area, and told him I was in trouble and I needed help.
As I headed back to the apartment, my captor screeched toward me, got out of the car, and dragged me by my hair down the street in broad daylight. He started shouting, “Who did you call?” I lied and said I called my mom to let her know the money was coming. He didn’t believe me, so he beat me when we were inside. My lip was busted, and there were bald spots from being dragged.
But later that day, he left to run an errand. He had awoken something inside me, and I used a little tool, kind of like a screwdriver, to get the door unlocked. I started kicking it with everything I had in me. When I got outside, I called my friend and told him where I was. He got to me almost right away and took me right to the hospital.
From there, it was a whirlwind of painful medical exams, police interviews, and testimony in court to help put my captor behind bars for 9 years. I didn’t talk to a therapist or really anyone I knew about what had happened to me. I buried my trauma deep within myself and got back to work, more determined than ever to get my daughter back and find my way forward.
I’m super strong. I’m super fast. I can jump. I’m flexible. But I’m not a size 2, and that’s okay. I want other girls to feel that way too.
I dove back into work. I got a great job working for Warner Music, and it wasn’t long before I was able to find my footing—I had benefits and an apartment of my own. So, I went and got my baby.
As I headed down to South Carolina to get Brianna, I was so full of nerves—maybe she wouldn’t respond to me the same way or even not recognize me. But when she saw me in the airport, she almost flipped over the stroller trying to get to me. She hugged me so tight, and I just remember crying and saying, “You’re going to be with me forever.”
Finally, it felt like the wind was at my back. I was thriving in my career, and I met a man who was incredibly patient with me. But I was so cautious with my heart and Brianna’s that it was a year before he actually met her. As I grew to trust him, I showed him some old footage of me dancing and told him how much I missed it. He surprised me with a 20-pack class card to Alvin Ailey, the premier dance studio in New York.
Almost as soon as I started dancing again, it just clicked. My body remembered how to move, and before I knew it, I was teaching classes there, and I found myself needing dance more and more. It felt like home, and it helped me heal. I put my heart into it. I kept pursuing it. I kept teaching, I kept choreographing, and amazing things started to happen. I was pinching myself because I thought, Maybe after everything that’s happened I can still do this. But then I got pregnant again.
This time around, the birth and pregnancy were much more normal, but by the time I had my second daughter, London, I weighed 286 pounds. The first pregnancy had been so scary, and I think I just let myself enjoy the second one. Suddenly, my body, which I had relied on for so much, felt a little foreign to me. I also struggled with intense postpartum depression. I could barely bring myself to hold London. Just the smell of her made me queasy. It was heartbreaking.
My sister helped me with London for about a month until my postpartum subsided. I had lost some of the pregnancy weight, but I was still struggling with my body image—I just didn’t feel like myself. I was working at MTV at the time, and my boss was amazing. I remember asking her what the hell I was going to do. She just told me matter-of-factly that I was going to lose the weight and go back to dancing. She told me I’d be fine, and I believed her.
She sent me for a casting for a Beachbody video that was focused on helping people lose weight through dancing. It turned out that it was taught by the famous trainer Shaun T., and it was exactly what I needed. The training was called CIZE, an 8-week program that focused on dance, choreography, and nutrition. I lost 60 pounds using CIZE and another 40 on Weight Watchers. I looked amazing, but more importantly, I felt amazing.
Series of Firsts
After starting my health and wellness company ARX (Alexis Rose Xperience) in 2014 and working for Equinox, SoulCycle recruited me as an instructor. The training was arduous, and they wanted me to relocate to the Philadelphia area. I had hesitations because I didn’t look like any of their other instructors. At the time, most were skinny and white, and that’s not me. I didn’t want to be a token. But they loved my energy and they told me that they wanted me, exactly as I was. That’s how I found myself training First Lady Michelle Obama. I won’t lie. At first I was pinching myself (it was Michelle Obama). Soon enough, I’d just lose myself in the music and movement.
I felt the same way teaching ARX classes. They were physically challenging, but the underlying purpose was to help people embrace self-love and compassion. Before I knew it, I kind of became known as the Empowerment Queen of Philadelphia. People came to the studio to dance their butts off, but also because I helped them feel good about them embracing who they are.
Since then, I’ve become an ambassador for other brands that don’t routinely hire people who look like me. I became the first Black ambassador for Lululemon in King of Prussia. Just recently, I became an ambassador for Free People’s Athletic Division. It’s become important to me to show people, especially young Black girls, that fitness doesn’t come in one color, shape, or size. I love the idea that a Black girl can see my picture and say, She looks like me.
I’m super strong. I’m super fast. I can jump. I’m flexible, but I’m not a size 2, and that’s OK. I want other girls to feel that way, too.
It’s taken me a long time to get here, and I’m in therapy now to work through some of the trauma I’m still dealing with. I’m engaged, and I have another baby on the way. And, yes, I’m slightly terrified. But I know I can trust myself because after everything I’ve been through, I’m still here.
In truth, having another baby, dealing with COVID, being the first Black face of a brand—all that is easy compared to finding the courage to tell you this story. But there’s this quote from author Jen Sincero that I try to live by. It says, “When you love yourself enough to stand in your truth no matter what the cost, everyone benefits.”