As all the eyes in the room focused on her and the pool of cameras covered her with a barrage of flashes, Daniela Kapusta could only think one thing: "I've got this."
That thought, coming during an unforeseen Cinderella moment, marked the conquering of what seemed to be an unlikely summit of self-confidence for the St. Charles East High School senior. Kapusta says she spent the greater portion of her high school career in the depths of depression from repeated bullying by her female peers.
Kapusta has always been an active student. She's been a competitive dancer. She's marked achievements in figure skating competitions. But it was the competitions in the hallways of school that beat her down.
"A lot of the organizations at school are very cliquey, and they all have people with the same type of personality," Kapusta said. "So whenever someone comes into the group who doesn't have that personality, those people can make it very hard on them.
"It's very competitive. I'm not the kind of person who gets jealous easily. I'm competitive, but only in actual competitions, like for sports. I'm not competitive in just being a girl with other girls. But that's a big factor in girls sports and clubs at schools."
Fortunately for Kapusta, there are outlets for students who are bullied. She became active in St. Charles East High School's Hope Club, which focuses on suicide prevention. Little did she know the club also would be a doorway to one of her greatest achievements yet.
Kapusta's involvement with the club spawned an interest in helping other victims of bullying. So when a friend told her she was going to do some modeling for a Live Out Loud charity fashion show in Addison three days after Thanksgiving, Kapusta jumped at the chance to help her friend with hair and makeup backstage. Live Out Loud focuses on suicide prevention.
Backstage at the show, news spread that the model scheduled to wear the best dress and close the show in a key photo shoot was a no-show. As organizers scrambled to find a replacement, it became clear the showstopper dress was a perfect fit for Kapusta.
When she tried it on, it was a glass-slipper moment. Kapusta was selected for a solo walk down the runway to close the show.
It was the first professional modeling she'd ever done.
"I did not think anything like that could ever happen," Kapusta said. "I was so nervous. I had been walking in heels all day. I never do that. So when I took my first step out on the runway I got a charley horse. But then the cameras starting flashing away, and I saw my parents at the end of the runway. It felt amazing."
A week after the show, another unlikely breakthrough came. Fashion photographers don't usually cold-call models. Yet when Kapusta picked up the phone, there was Thomas H P Jerusalem, one of the photographers from the charity fashion show.
A week later, Kapusta was doing her first professional photo shoot. A few days afterward, she was at school sneaking a check of Facebook and saw Jerusalem's latest post. It was a photo of Kapusta and another model from the recent photo shoot with the words, "You girls are famous" as the caption.
Out of hundreds of photos submitted, Kapusta's face was chosen to be broadcast around the world on a Vogue website.
"I just started screaming," Kapusta said. "I wasn't at the point where I was hoping for something like that to happen, but in the back of my mind are those dreams. So the fact that it happened -- oh my goodness."
From there, the flood of phone calls from other fashion photographers began. Kapusta now has so many photo shoots lined up she can barely keep track of them on her calendar.
But the instant success hasn't sparked any amnesia. Whenever she gets the chance, Kapusta has friends and classmates who are aspiring makeup artists or hair stylists come along and work on her look for the photo shoots.
Kapusta hopes to give them an entry to fulfilling a dream the same way she received her unexpected break.
Life at school has changed as well.
"I can definitely say that my high school experience is definitely getting more positive," Kapusta said. "Through all the bullying, I was getting a lot of negative attention. But through this happening with the modeling, people are proud of me. And a lot of people who have experienced bullying like me are seeing you can get through it.
"For me to be able to show that to others, it means a lot to me. I have been a more positive person. I know miracles can happen now."