Episode 46: Visiting with Nikki Romain and her story “Unapologetically Me”
ANNOUNCER 00:00 Raising women’s voices one story at a time. Welcome to The She Said Project Podcast. [music: The She Said Project Podcast Theme]
JENETTE JURCZYK 00:26 It has been so fun to be back live in the studio for this season of The She Said Project Podcast, where we welcome back women who’ve appeared on stage in That’s What She Said, both in the flagship community of Champaign, Illinois and in more communities as we grow. I am your host Jenette Jurczyk, National Director of The She Said Project. So excited to be here with my gorgeous co-host, Kerry Rossow…
KERRY ROSSOW 00:54 Hey.
JENETTE 00:54 ...one of the founders, founders, creators, launchers, if you will, of That’s What She Said, almost a decade ago, but we’re not gonna talk about that.
KERRY 00:54 I was 10.
JENETTE 00:58 You were, you were! You were a baby prodigy. But what you did do is you figured out that the power of women’s stories is super important. And you created a safe space for those women to be heard both in your community and now, I want to say around the world—because it just sounds really cool, but we’ll get there. Our guest today on the podcast is one of these women who stood loud and proud, shared her story on the She Said stage but also brought That’s What She Said to her community of Peoria, Illinois. Joining us today, Nikki Romain. Hello, my friend.
KERRY 01:06 Woo-hoo!
NIKKI ROMAIN 01:42 That was such a fabulous introduction. Can you introduce me all the time, please? Thank you.
JENETTE 01:46 I would like to follow you around with a microphone and just announce that Nikki has arrived all the time.
KERRY 01:46 Yeah, but I want to be like in your girl band, so Jenette can introduce you. And then I’m just gonna stand off to the side in like a silk jacket and snap my fingers like a scene out of Grease and like..
NIKKI 01:52 Let’s do it!
KERRY 01:55 I’m with her. I’m with her. Uh-huh.
NIKKI 02:02 Let’s put this show on the road. Ladies. Let’s do it.
KERRY 02:04 Let’s go.
JENETTE 02:04 We kind of did, actually. Perfect segue, wink wink. But we did the show started here in Champaign. Kerry was here in the very beginning of it all. I got to join the team a couple years later. I helped launch it in cities like Bloomington, Illinois. And then Nikki, I love this story. Because this is fun to me like you and I got introduced. We’re two peas in a pod like minded women, theater backgrounds wanting to create safe space for women. And we; we are going to launch That’s What She Said Peoria, Illinois. And that famed meeting [Nikki laughs] that you and I had was on Friday, March 13 2020, when obviously the world came to a standstill, and we all had to pivot and shift gears. But that didn’t stop us, did it?
NIKKI 02:50 Not at all two years in the making. We did it. And we made it happen right here in Peoria. And I’m super stoked that not only did we do Peoria, but we have built a wonderful friendship and partnership. I’m excited to be a part of this. She Said sisterhood.
JENETTE 03:06 Nikki, I couldn’t agree more. Getting to know you as a person as a sister has been amazing. Watching the work that you do in your town has been absolutely inspiring. Would you share with our listeners about your organization and the work that you do?
NIKKI 03:24 Absolutely. So I am the co-founder and executive director of Artists Re-envisioning Tomorrow, also known as ART, Inc. And basically my husband and I bought an old abandoned school building in the North Valley area of Peoria, Illinois. And we have turned it into the Romain Arts and Culture Center. And our mission is to inspire and empower the community through arts, education and culture. And we do that through our programming. So we provide after-school arts program, we help the kids with their homework, then they do all sorts of arts from sewing, dance, visual arts, cooking, any type of art, ceramics, you name it, we’re doing here at the Roman Arts and Culture Center. In addition to that, we also do adult programming that we’re starting to kick off. And so when you brought this, it’s like, [Nikki sighs] the perfect fit. Because separate from ART, Inc., my personal mission in life is empowering and inspiring women and youth to have a passion for just motivating women on a basic level, motivating my girlfriends to be the best to be their best selves and to show up as their best selves at all times. I was just so eager to do That’s What She Said here in Peoria. And I’m just so glad that you were brought to me.
JENETTE 04:40 It was such a good fit and such an honor to get to work with you. But for you to create space just to bring this event to your community in all the work that you do. I can’t believe you found the time but you certainly made the time not just to produce the show, but to empower the other seven women who appeared on stage with you on that magical night where we premiered the show. And as we know, it’s women telling stories. They didn’t know what they were going to say when they said yes to this adventure, Kerry, you know what that’s like, Hey, be on stage share a story. What are you going to talk about? [Nikki laughs]
KERRY 05:17 And the great thing is because women, whenever people say what’s your story, like, the truth is that none of us have just one story. We’ve created and lived 1000 different stories, and we can pull from everybody has a funny story, a sad story, fill in the blank story. And it’s just a matter of piecing it together. And I have to say, I did not get to see your show in person. And when I was in my fuzzy robe, watching the video of it, I had to stop it and text you I was in my kitchen standing up in my fuzzy robe clapping this woman is amazing. And it was the first experience I had had just watching the show. I hadn’t read their scripts, I hadn’t been able to work with you. And so it was the first time I had that experience. And so, I think you’ll always have a soft spot in my heart because you gave me that experience that I had not had, I’d always been on the other side of it. So I was applauding you in my robe from my kitchen [Jenette chuckles]
NIKKI 06:10 Oh, well, yes, that was such a great text. And this experience in itself, this what you’ve created is so powerful, and so amazing, and so inspiring. So I’m just glad to have been a part of, a minuscule part of this whole project.
JENETTE 06:25 We could talk at length about how amazing the first Peoria show was, because it really came together and it was produced, it premiered in your beautiful theater,in your beautiful space in your beautiful school building, aligning with your beautiful mission. Like honestly, I could just brag on you all day long [Nikki laughs]. But I want to talk about Nikki and what she shared on stage that night because you not only were co producer, but you were a speaker that night. And oh my God, you were so vulnerable and so incredible and so real. When you say you want to empower other women in your world, man, did you. So I’d like to share with our listeners, your performance from that night so they can truly understand why we are so excited and going on and on and bragging. So let’s cut to the clip. And then we’ll talk about it. To our friends out there in She Said land. Put down whatever you’re doing, grab a cup of coffee or wine, whatever. And really take a good listen because this is storytelling at its best. We’re gonna go back to the live performance from April of 2022. To the very first That’s What She Said in Peoria, Illinois. This is Nikki Romain and her story, “Unapologetically Me.”
[originally recorded March 8, 2022 at the Romain Arts & Culture Center, Peoria, IL]
NIKKI 06:59 You know, I was told repeatedly throughout my entire childhood, that if anybody ever touches you, you make sure you tell. And then, lo and behold, someone touched me. It was my sophomore year in high school. And I certainly knew right from wrong. And when the unwelcomed touch turned into more, I spoke up. I told and absolutely nothing happened. The person and I lived under the same roof. And absolutely nothing happened. I somehow managed to escape the situation, then ran for miles to find safety at a friend’s house. And nothing happened. He didn’t deny it. But, instead, profusely apologized and asked if we could all sit down and talk it through. Talk it through? I was mortified because in my head, there was absolutely nothing to talk about. This man tried to rape me! So I stood my ground. And I asked that a bag be packed, brought to where I was staying. And I never stepped foot back in his house. My family dynamic was completely shattered, and sent me on a downward spiral into depression. This particular day, I was all alone. And just remembering, just remember feeling a deep, dark sadness. I went to get a drink of water from the refrigerator and I noticed a bottle of pills. I had no intention. I mean, I didn’t have a thought that said, “hey, I want to kill myself”. Or, “I want to die or anything like that”. I started swallowing the pills, the entire bottle of pills.
NIKKI 09:35 And then I noticed that they were prescribed to him. At that point, I began to cry uncontrollably. I surrendered. But I wanted to call someone to say goodbye.
NIKKI 09:50 I called my cousin that I was really close to. I called her because she lived too far to do anything to help me. Well I was wrong. The next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital with a tube down my throat. And I know this is gonna sound real cliche or whatever. But I knew in that moment that I wanted to live, I realized that very moment that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
NIKKI 10:21 Now, don’t get me wrong, I was still empty inside, and I continued to feel all the feelings. But this, it was a mental shift. I also made a promise that day to no longer speak up, or speak out. When I returned to school, my choir teacher demanded that I audition for the musical. And although I really didn’t care about Joseph or his stupid coat, [laughter] I did it anyway. And I got the lead role of the narrator. I didn’t know anything about musicals, except that they were cheesy and stupid [laughter]. But when I stepped out on stage for the very first time, that opening night, it was like I found my purpose. I had never ever felt so at home. So deserving. And like I belonged than I did, being on stage. It was like the ultimate high. And I don’t even know what drugs are like. But this shit was magical. [laughter] Especially musicals, I could sing, dance, and act all at the same time. Amazing. [laughter] By becoming all of these other characters and living their lives, I was able to leave mine temporarily. It allowed me to channel that pain and depression and all that negative energy that surrounded me into a more positive space. And for me, it was better than any therapy I’d experienced.
NIKKI 11:48 I’d always marched to the beat of my own drum and rarely followed the crowd. But now, being a theater kid, this put a whole new spin on that. And I didn’t care one bit. I went on to major in theater, which led to a singing gig that allowed me to tour northern Italy. Once I got back from that tour, I packed my bags and my little Hyundai, and I moved to Los Angeles. I didn’t know a soul and I didn’t care.
NIKKI 12:16 While living there, I saw an amazing one woman show, she transformed into all of these different characters. She embodied them with such ease, and they all had all these different accents. I was like, gonna tell ya, I do accents! [Nikki speaking in African accent] [audience laughs] And I do character work [spoken emulating an Indian accent] [crowd chuckles]. And I can totally make people laugh [spoken in a valley girl voice]. Could I do something like that [Nikki imitates a British accent]. I don’t know, maybe one day I will. And then I had an opportunity to be a part of a writing workshop specifically for one person shows. I had the perfect picture of what my show would be like. And one thing I made perfectly clear to the instructor on day one was that my show was not going to be about my life. We were given these writing assignments and we would share and so many great stories came out of that group. At one point in the class, I was horrified, when I realized that what I was writing; what the other actors and writers reacted to the most. What moved them were the stories of my life. Performing the show started a movement within me. A movement that had awakened that little Spitfire that would speak up and speak out. All of this made me realize that even though I felt nothing happened when I spoke up, I was wrong.
NIKKI 13:36 Something did happen. And even though I felt abandoned as that 15 year old girl, I am realizing…[voice quavering] sorry. For the first time, now, that I chose me. I chose my safety. I chose me. [applause]
NIKKI 13:55 And I’m glad that I did because we later found out that the man who sexually assaulted me hand molested his stepdaughter, years before assaulting me. What if I had not spoken up? What if I had not stood up for myself? What if I had acted like that with some completely normal shit and swept it under the rug like I was being suggested to do? [shout of affirmation from audience] I went on to perform the show in Chicago and Los Angeles with rave reviews from critics. And then my last performance was at a sold out show at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago, which ended with a surprise marriage proposal. [loud applause]
NIKKI 14:53 I was now back to speaking up and speaking out and I was planning to start a nonprofit in which I would use my show to inspire women and young girls to use their voices. I moved to Peoria, and began a new chapter in my life, being married to my soulmate [applause] and experiencing the joy of motherhood. As we began the journey of ART Inc, I consulted with family and friends. And we all agreed that I shouldn’t tell this particular story. Even though I agreed, it didn’t sit well with me. It made me feel some kind of way. Because I’d kept this private for so long and was just experiencing the joy and exhilaration of speaking my truth. That these sorts of stories have always been kept quiet. Everyone knows you don’t air your dirty laundry. And you definitely don’t talk about mental health, depression, suicide, or anything of that nature in the black community. And then I remembered that 15 year old girl that spoke up for herself, what would I say to her. I would remind her that she marches to the beat of her own drum, and she doesn’t follow the crowd. Well, ladies and gentlemen, she’s back.! [applause]
NIKKI 16:21 And tonight, I removed the muzzle, because this is who I am. I speak up, and I speak out, not just for me, but I will speak up and speak out for you. [applause] I will create safe spaces for you, your daughters, your aunties, and for my mom, who I eventually learned had been molested as a child. And when I was assaulted, she shut down just the way she had done when she was a little girl. And for all the black and brown girls who have been told or feel that they should mute themselves; and it all starts with me. So I stand here authentically and unapologetically being me. [applause]
JENETTE 17:23 Just wow, just wow. Nikki, that was sensational.
KERRY 17:30 Well, it answers the question Jenette has been asking for years, “But will it play in Peoria?” YES! Yes.
JENETTE 17:37 A resounding yes! [Kerry laughs]
NIKKI 17:41 It absolutely did play in Peoria, and it played so well.
JENETTE 17:45 It did. And you were the grand finale, if you will, of the show with the final story. And then of course, you led the whole cast in a singalong to take us all home. But the story you shared that night. You and I went back and forth quite a bit about finding the right framework for your story and getting it just right. But you shared a very, very vulnerable experience that you had as a young girl. Can you share with us now, what was that like to share that in that type of environment in front of, a couple hundred of your closest friends?
NIKKI 18:18 So in the story, I talked about me telling this story, in a play. And in a play it is…I’m a kid, I’m doing all these different characters. I’m singing, I’m dancing, I’m doing all this stuff. But this was really just like, like I was naked on stage. It wasn’t there’s no frills, there’s no, there’s nothing but me and the mic. So it was definitely a different experience telling it in that way. And also, as I say in the story, telling it to an audience that didn’t know anything in a space that we had chosen that we weren’t going to tell this specific story. So there’s all these different layers that are on top of me telling this particular story. I was nervous, I had time to second-guessing should this be the story that I tell? But ultimately, it was a resounding yes, absolutely. I should tell the story. And as you and I worked on it. I came from different angles, like coming at it from a movie to a short film. And then what can I just say Jenette is an amazing editor, and really, really great sounding board. So amazing. I want to consult with you on everything that I write now.
JENETTE 19:34 Aww.
NIKKI 19:35 Because you know, I had already written this out as a one woman show before but again, this is completely different. The other thing is, you know, I’m spending all this time working on the other ladies’ stories, so if I had crammed this time into my story. But when I would speak with you, it would just come pouring out of me like I would just get so inspired. And give me a note and I’m all in it. And it was amazing. And I think the experience itself was another level of this story that I’ve told before, but just in a completely different way in a new experience for me, so it was life changing, it was great.
JENETTE 20:14 Oh, Nikki, that means so much. And working with you was exquisite. But I really want to point out that the core of the work in That’s What She Said is just listening, is just creating that safe space and then getting out of your way and the other speakers’ way. Because the goodness is there, it’s always there. And we as women want to create those layers and hide behind those characters, to protect ourselves, our hearts and our souls and our, you know, our vulnerable sides. And the goal with That’s What She Said, is literally to just remove all those layers and let it be, and let it be beautiful. And that’s exactly what you were able to do. And you drew all of us into your journey, and we got to cry with you. And we got to celebrate with you. As you found your own discovery, it was so powerful.
NIKKI 21:20 I agree. It was powerful. And I really enjoyed the producing aspect of it and getting to listen to everyone else’s story and help them build their stories. But it is a completely different experience when it’s your story. And I was able to separate that. And have both experiences at the same time, which was also magical. So I enjoyed pouring into the other women, but also being able to really hone my story and just kind of create or curate this amazing night.
KERRY 21:56 What has been the feedback since the show that you’ve gotten?
NIKKI 22:00 Oh my gosh, the feedback has been absolutely amazing. [Nikki chuckles]. Everywhere I go, even today, I went to a function and a guy at my table’s like I was there at That’s What She Said, Oh my God, it was amazing. People have been sending me messages, like “hey, can I be in it next year?” [laughing] It’s been an amazing experience. People just calling to say this experience was for them. I had someone, a friend and another organization that I’m in, say that someone in their team came and saw the show and how my story inspired them and, and said to tell her please, please, please make sure she does this. She said she’s gonna do it every year but please make sure she does it every year.
KERRY 22:43 They’re gonna hold her to it.
NIKKI 22:47 Yeah, they’re gonna make sure I do it.
JENETTE 22:48 They’re going to hold you to it.
NIKKI 22:49 Yeah.
JENETTE 22:50 What we find when we produce the show, here in Champaign, and in, in new communities, women are so hungry for events like this, where they can be themselves where they can share and connect. The world is such a mess right now that this whole concept of safe, safe space for women to be celebrated for exactly who they already are, is just, it’s so needed. And women got something to say. I’m just saying.
NIKKI 23:20 Oh, yeah, definitely. [laughs]
JENETTE 23:23 And the moment that really struck me in your story, was when you took it back to your mom, how I got the the feeling at the beginning of your story that, that you had a sense of disappointment, um, and resentment about how she treated the situation. And then to learn at the end, that she had also been in an abusive situation, and how she reacted to it, and therefore how that played out. It’s like the cycle. And that, you know, standing proudly on that stage and being open and honest. You’re ending it with you, you’re ending the cycle of abuse right there.
NIKKI 24:03 Exactly! You’re gonna make me cry. And the thing about it is is like, even though I thought nothing happened, and maybe she felt she didn’t do enough, but she raised me to speak up. So she did stop the cycle, because even though; and I know that she wanted to do more, but she’s you know, she was halted by her own experiences. But she wanted to do more and, you know, felt some kind of way that she didn’t. But she did, because she had already instilled in me to speak up. And not only speak up, but she had instilled that in me so much that I didn’t… I spoke up, I ran and I got out of the situation and allowed, in a space where I wouldn’t even allow that to happen to me. So I mean, she should be super proud of her own self for even though, you know, like I said she didn’t quite step up the way she anticipated when she would say you know, make sure you tell Mommy make sure you tell him Mommy. But she did in her own way, she did. She raised me right, she raised me. And that’s out. I’m sorry, I’m gonna start crying. That’s what makes me who I am and makes me able to stand up and speak up and speak out.
JENETTE 25:14 Yeah, in that moment, you didn’t see her strength, but it was there. And because of her experience, she did do the right thing. You just didn’t see it until later. And…
NIKKI 25:25 Exactly.
JENETTE 25:26 That’s so great. And that’s the work that you’re doing now. You’re doing that work for your daughter, you’re doing that work for my daughter, you’re doing that work for all the little girls in your programs. So that, you know, no one ever has to be afraid of being who they are in speaking their truth.
NIKKI 25:44 Yeah, cuz, again, as I said, in my story, these types of things often get brushed under the rug. I have seen several instances where, oh, you know, don’t say anything, because, you know, she’s married to him and he has a really good job and he takes care of the family. Okay, well, [Nikki scoffs] what about what just happened to me? You know, what about what he’s doing? So no one should say anything. I mean, it just it could go on and on about all the different experiences that people have had when it comes to sexual assault, molestation, but we need spaces where these women can feel safe and speaking up and even though you may not get the response that you think there’s still power in speaking up it is in every you have to speak up. That is the message.
JENETTE 26:34 And you did! Loud and proud, my friend. If I learned one thing from Kerry Rossow in this journey, it’s stand up loud and proud. Let your freak flag fly. [laughter] It’s a Kerry quote. We can edit that out. But you did [laughter] you. Sorry, we had to break that tension. [laughter]
KERRY 26:34 Yeah. Well, I always… I fly my freak flag proudly. And I think it gives other people permission like and when I say freak flag, it means you know, whatever the thing is that in your mind, do you feel like is the freak flag. Like oh my gosh, I don’t want anybody to know, anyone may say what are they gonna say? How will they respond? Blah, blah, blah. And then like, so you make it the worst thing. It’s my freak flag. And then you’re like, you know what, and then I’m gonna shout it and show it to everybody. It gives everybody else permission to be like, Oh, girl, sit down. Mine is way freakier than that.
NIKKI 27:24 Exactly. [laughs] I agree.
JENETTE 27:27 I love this quote by Meryl Streep. “Find the thing that makes you the weirdest, that one thing that makes you that,” you know, that freaky weird?
KERRY 27:36 Yep.
JENETTE 27:36 “...And then own it. Because that’s what’s gonna make you fabulous.”
KERRY 27:40 Yeah, yeah. Well, I think it’s so hard, especially for young girls. It’s a fear factor for them, the things that set them apart, there’s such a need and desire at that time to, to be ‘one of’ the crowd. And I think that even if they aren’t quite there yet, to see women ahead of them, who are proud and celebrate it in themselves and celebrate it and each other, and that are telling the funny stories, but also telling these stories that are really hard to tell, but pushing forward and doing it anyway. I think that you’ve given a gift to so many people more than you’ll probably ever know.
NIKKI 28:16 But the huge strength in all of this is, you know, we think, Oh, I don’t want to say this. I’ll be weird. We’re all weird. [laughter]
NIKKI 28:17 We all have some, you know what I mean? Like, you’re saying you want to be normal or whatever. But what does that mean? Like, by doing that’s what she said, you realize like, I can’t tell you how many people in the audience and even the young lady that spoke to the friend that I know, I could totally relate to your story. And and all of the other women in the cast receive that as well. Like, oh my gosh, you know, I experienced something similar. We all have a story and we all have these things that make us quirky. That makes us funny. That whatever, all the different layers. We’re human. So we all have these layers to us and we shouldn’t be ashamed of them because the person next to you could have the exact same experience.
KERRY 28:17 Yep.
KERRY 29:06 And there’s no greater, you know, long before the “Me Too” moment took on the magnitude it does now but there’s nothing that connects us faster than you know revealing something and seeing someone nod or say, “me too.” And it can be about whatever it is, you know, and in your mind you think you must be the only one and then just see someone have that flicker in their eye and like yep yep “me too.”
JENETTE 29:31 Kerry, you always say that That’s What She Said is like a window and a door.
JENETTE 29:35 No. I said that wrong.
JENETTE 29:37 Kerry, you always say That’s What She Said is like a window and a mirror. You’re either looking into the mirror, reflecting something you heard or saw back at yourself and feeling like me too. Or you’re looking through a window and learning something completely new that you didn’t know before about the women in your community. Nikki, you have brought That’s What She Said to the women of Peoria. It sounds like it’s gotta stay. It sounds like we got to keep doing this.
KERRY 30:03 We have you on record.
NIKKI 30:05 Oh, absolutely! There, there’s no stopping this show.
JENETTE 30:09 And we’re going to bring it to the teen girls. We’re going to bring it we’re going to invite the women from your show to join us on the podcast, but we wanted you to be the first since you were the first one to say yes and that is the position of honor. And we are so grateful to know you, to get to work with you, to get to empower women together, to get to share this mission of raising women’s voices, and I can’t thank you enough my sweetheart! I love you so much. Thank you for everything.
NIKKI 30:39 Aww, I love you too. Thank you, thank you!
KERRY 30:41 Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
JENETTE 30:44 And we’re so glad all of our friends and fans could join us today to meet Nikki because she is absolutely incredible. And we’ll see you next time on The She Said Project Podcast.
KERRY 30:54 Over and out.
[Music: The She Said Project Podcast Theme]
ANNOUNCER 30:56 Thank you for listening to The She Said Project Podcast, in partnership with Illinois Public Media. All materials contained in the podcast are the exclusive property of The She Said Project and That’s What She Said, LLC. For more information on our live shows, go to shesaidproject.com. This podcast was made possible with support from Carle and Health Alliance and presented by Sterling Wealth Management, empowering women to live their best lives.
[Music: The She Said Project Podcast Theme continues to play until it ends]
Nikki Romain co-produced the first ever "That's What She Said" in her community of Peoria, IL and visits with Jenette and Kerry to talk about that experience, as well as sharing her own story that night, "Unapologetically Me."
The She Said Project Podcast is recorded in partnership with Illinois Public Media. All materials contained in this podcast are the exclusive property of The She Said Project and That's What She Said, LLC. Learn more at shesaidproject.com.