The question that tops my list of most frequently asked is: “What are the most important factors for success in the modeling and acting industries?” Survival, persistence, resilience, passion, a great attitude and a belief that even the most impossible dream can come true are top priorities. Model, actress, sports reporter, anchor and television host Maria Serrao is living proof of this.
I first saw Maria, out of the corner of my eye, whizzing down a hallway at the New York Hilton during an International Model and Talent Association convention. It wasn’t the flying blonde hair or the mega-watt smile that made me miss the impatiently awaited elevator (a rare and priceless commodity at these jam-packed extravaganzas), but the fact that her mode of rapid transit was a wheelchair. My journalist instinct sent me in hot pursuit.
At the end of the hall, walking toward me with the vivacious blonde in a wheelchair, was Los Angeles talent manager Debra-Lynn Findon. Debra-Lynn’s introduction was the start of one of the most inspiring interviews I have ever done.
Life changed for Maria when, at the age of five, a drunk driver hit a car she was in with her parents. The crash left her partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She credits her incredible career to her parents’ determination that she would not be treated differently.
“My dad had me swimming in a swimming pool right after my injuries,” Maria said. “They told me, ‘You are going to attend regular school and do regular things and you are not going to be separated from others.’ In the beginning, no regular school would take me and I had to attend a special school. I was only there for a month when my parents pulled me out.”
It was obvious at this point that Maria was very intelligent. She was accepted at a private school where she was a cheerleader and “did everything everyone else did.” She took her parents’ lead and refused to let adversity stifle her dreams. Her persistence, resilience self-confidence and indomitable spirit overcame many obstacles.
In 1986, Maria was modeling, doing commercial print work and learning to train animals in a wild animal park when she received a phone call that would change her life, from a pageant director in Northern California.