A Diamond In The Rough

Lisa George finds happiness by trading business for bling

written by Jennifer Colosimo
photos courtesy of Sarah Hannah Photography; Cat and Zach

How long would it take you to mentally round up your closest friends? Would they be the ones who’d drop everything to help in time of need? Are they the go-to for a drink at a moment’s notice? Is she (or he) that perfect traveling companion or someone you can tell all of your secrets? For many of us, we can probably name a few in each category because it’s a group we’ve been building our entire lives. It’s one that is constantly evolving. In contrast, when you talk about friendships with Lisa George, a two-time breast cancer survivor and radio-kingpin-turned-jewelry-designer, she has a different perspective. Last year, after her second go-round with the disease, she met an entirely new group of supporters who emerged from the woodwork to stand by her side. It wasn’t something she had previously experienced, or anything she’d ever imagined, but unbeknownst to George, this group of encouraging friends and strangers were her ticket to a rockstar reinvention.

The reinvention picked up speed last year when George faced her second diagnosis. She was more than eight years into remission from the devastating blow her first bout brought in 2006. “This time [the diagnosis] really blew my mind,” George said. “I was not tired. I didn’t have the same symptoms. I didn’t feel anything. I just went in to get my mammogram and the women there were all very quiet. No one said anything. I was like, ‘What’s going on here?’ The second [my doctor] walked in the door, I fainted. I was in complete and utter shock. I thought, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do?’ I had no idea how I was going to tell people.”

Surprisingly, Facebook is what helped her answer that question.

“A couple years prior, someone asked me, ‘Are you scared of anything?’ I said, ‘Other than mice, nothing.’ Now my answer is very different. Sitting at the computer, I said to myself, ‘The only way I am going to make this real is to put it into writing. I shared that story honestly [with two sentences]: ‘I have cancer. I don’t know if I can do it again.’”

Almost 300 people commented within the day, and they continue to encourage her.

“I’ll be honest with you,” George said. “The first time [I was diagnosed] was a very lonely, cold period. There wasn’t really any advice that anyone could give me. I wasn’t on Facebook. My career was falling apart. I lost ambition. I lost everything. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

She remembered how everyone seemed to be scared of the idea of cancer, and especially scared to talk about it. “I lost friends because they didn’t want to hear about it.”

On November 19, last year, George posted, “The last two days have been overwhelming for me. I am humbled by the huge support and love and prayers that have been sent to me … I am truly grateful for how peaceful I feel today. What I want to share in return is what I feel I am supposed to be learning from this experience.”

She went on to write that with the first diagnosis, she lost “her life as she knew it,” but once she found jewelry and sparkle, she started rebuilding it again. Although she was on the right track, she still hadn’t learned her lesson yet. George spent the last three years of her life working nonstop, which also meant she stopped exercising regularly, eating properly and stopped enjoying life in general. Eventually, the realization hit her and that is what she ultimately chose to give back to her supporters.

“All I knew is that I wanted my big life back with all the things I thought were cool,” she wrote. “What I want now is my health. Period. So the only thing I can share to those that reached out is take time for yourself. Go have lunch with the friend you keep canceling on. Enjoy the friendships and family time face to face. At the end of the day, those times are the ones you enjoy most. Thank you for giving me courage.”

That positivity resonated in endless threads of messages like, “You are a bright light that must continue to shine on for many, many more years!” and, “You are mighty, even when you think you might not be.”

As if knowing her new motto, one friend posted, “The meaning of life is to give life meaning … you will keep adding to that meaning for me!”

George gushed as she said, “Women would write on their walls how I’ve inspired them. They use my story as an example to teach their kids how to reinvent themselves, how to never get discouraged and never give up.”

In that spirit, she encourages other women to not be afraid to reinvent themselves as well.

“We are so caught up in getting to the next level, getting the nice car, the bigger house — that’s where I was. I kept moving and moving, but when the radio industry fell apart, I didn’t know what I was going to do. Cancer forced me away from that and into jewelry.”

For George, making jewelry was the way to get over being down and out. It started to glisten in a bead shop in Atlanta a few years after the first diagnosis, where one afternoon she spent five hours creating a necklace from stones she’d collected over the years. Soon, the demand for a complete collection took George from not knowing her next move to launching L George Designs in more than 300 stores, accessorizing celebrities and kissing her cancer depression goodbye.

“I’ve had a couple of moments during this jewelry thing where I questioned what I was doing,” George admitted. “I’d ask myself, ‘Why am I making jewelry when there are a million other people doing it out there?’”

Her answer came in two separate signs. The first during lunch with a friend about a year into her new profession. As she was asking if she should go back into the radio industry, Stacy Weiss [of Q100’s The Bert Show] and her assistant walked in — both wearing several of George’s pieces.

“The second one happened last summer,” George said, adding, “I’d never watched ‘Orange is the New Black,’ but one Saturday, a store called and said a woman from Los Angeles wanted to see the whole collection. The following Monday, I binged-watched the show for three days and loved it. The next day, the store called again saying Vee, the main character, was in town again and wanted to meet me. It was so weird!”

George calls “Vee” (actress Lorraine Toussaint) a friend now, and the two grab dinner when she’s in town. Toussaint gave George a thrill when she wore one of her necklaces on stage as the cast accepted their Screen Actors Guild award in front of a billion people.

“God just keeps giving me these little moments, and they reconfirm everything that’s going on,” George said.

Those signs have helped her decide on a new path and given her a new attitude moving forward. One gemstone and precious metal at a time, she’s doing it, and she names each piece of her collection for the people who helped her most along the way to recovery — both spiritually and professionally. The first to inspire that tradition are Dorene Matthews, Molly Parish and the women behind Sandpiper Boutique.

The Dorene Collection was named for Matthews, George’s first friend at 99X. The collection was also the first time she grouped custom casings with small, sparkly square crystals, which represented Matthews because, “No matter what happened during her days as a working single mom, Dorene always had a smile on her face, she always was kind and, of course, sparkly,” George said.

George’s close friend, Molly Parish, is the woman behind The Molly Bracelets, which are L George Designs’ biggest seller. Parish was the one who pointed George toward a future in jewelry. She recognized George’s talent in that very first necklace she made and suggested submitting it to a magazine. “If we did not have that conversation that night, at that moment, I have no idea where I would be today,” she said.

For sure, she wouldn’t be in Sandpiper Boutique, which was the first shop to take a chance on her collection. Kyle, Mendy Carl, Francis and Judy have been selling the collection since 2012, and according to George, “have mentored me from the start, giving me great style advice and sharing their preferences.”

Looking back, George gets choked up thinking about her journey. Before 2006, she was an adventure-seeking girl from Kansas City who first left her family of six to attend The University of Arizona and then left the country to live in Grand Cayman, where she worked her way up in radio. By the time she landed in Atlanta, she was a leader in the industry and setting records with her commission checks. Breast cancer wasn’t even on her radar.

“Cancer is going to change your life,” she said. “Whether you do chemo or not, whether you have a mastectomy — whatever your treatment, it doesn’t really matter. It’s going to change your life, somehow. Instead of being fearful, look at it as a chance for reinvention. Attach yourself to new identities. Change what’s bad. Change what’s not working. Ask, ‘What can keep me motivated, mentally stable, happy and positive?’”

Now, instead of 24/7 sales calls, George goes to movies, helps her friends with interior decorating projects, exercises daily and enjoys outdoor patios with a great glass of wine in hand. And, of course, that sparkle inside the girl living at the beach is brighter than ever.

Every year on June 1, George books a photo shoot to document her cancer-free journey. In each picture, she holds up fingers to show how many years she’s made it. Tootsie’s provides her clothing and jewelry and remains one of her biggest support groups in Atlanta. This year’s shoot was styled by @stylistocrat.

This would have been her ninth year taking the photo, but instead of skipping it, or starting over, she scheduled it again. Alluding to the second diagnosis, she said, “Screw it, I am not even going to count that.”

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