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Lithium Teen Vogue’s Grace Wethor talks brain tumors and music therapy

Jan. 14, 2019
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Photos by Gabby Agustin.

At just 17 years old, Grace Wethor has done more than most people twice her age: she’s written a #1 bestselling book, worked with companies as astronomical as Nickelodeon and Teen Vogue, and given a hard-hitting TED talk. But despite the supernova of her success, Grace has also endured more than most. Since being diagnosed with brain stem glioma four years ago, she has created a platform, a voice, informed by her hardship. Lithium editor-in-chief Olivia Ferrucci and photographer Gabby Agustin sat down with Grace at the Beverly Hills Hotel to discuss her day-to-day life and what it means to separate oneself from their diagnosis.

Lithium Magazine: Earlier this year, you published a book called You’re So Lucky. Can you tell our readers a little about the book? 

Grace Wethor: I was diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was 13 years old, and that was kind of the moment [when] I knew I wanted to start sharing my story with other people… At first I [was] giving talks across the country about my experience, and I remember one day, I randomly was like, “I’m gonna write a book!” I wanted it to an inclusive project and invite people into what it means to survive brain tumors or brain cancer, so I started going on social media and finding people [whose stories I related to]. I interviewed fourteen people who had been diagnosed with brain tumors, and I wrote from their perspective. So each chapter is the story of [a different person], and I think that’s what makes the book really unique—it doesn’t just show one cancer story. It’s like a group biography. 

Lithium: Can you tell me about what the day-to-day process of writing the book was like?

Grace: I knew I didn’t want to rush the book, but I knew I wanted to do it while I was inspired… So I just tried to find inspiration somewhere [every day], whether that [meant] actually writing part of the book or going outside and taking pictures that related to the topics I was speaking about. It took exactly one month to write the book, and then it took another month to do the publishing and things like that, and then a month later it came out. It was a very quick process. 

Lithium: Have you written a lot in the past, or was this your first venture into the medium? 

Grace: I didn’t technically know that I was writing. That sounds so weird, but I grew up in musical theatre, I grew up in the circus, so I learned how to write scripts at a very young age. So I wasn’t like, “Oh, I want to be a writer.” The book has a lot of poetry and photography in it, and some of those poems date back to fifth, sixth grade. There’s work [from] throughout my entire life put into that book, and I think that’s what makes it really special. 

Lithium: Was it difficult to balance acting, modeling, and writing the book?

Grace: I’m really lucky to have a team and a mom that allow me to do whatever I’m passionate about. I was originally given an 8% chance of survival over six months, so [during that time] I just did whatever I wanted... Since that [diagnosis], I’ve always had this mindset of “do whatever you want, whenever you want.” So I found ways to make everything work and I was like, “Just let me do this project. I think it’s really necessary to move on to the next steps of my life.” Everyone worked really collaboratively to let me do it. 

Lithium: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you don’t want to be known as the 13-year-old kid who had a brain tumor—you want to be known as Grace Wethor, the actress and model. Has it been hard to create a reputation that is strictly centered on your career rather than your struggles? 

Grace: I think sometimes it is hard for people to [separate] me from that—they’re always like, “Are you okay? Do you need something?” But if I was walking down the street and I didn’t tell anyone I have a brain tumor, no one would really know. It’s a very invisible illness, so I think that’s a positive thing in some way. I’m allowed to express myself in who I am without that illness, and then if I feel like [a person] needs to know that part of my story, I can bring them in and invite them into it. I think it’s learning the right times to share.
Lithium: At just 16, you’ve walked in fashion shows, worked with various celebrities, and attended events. Do you still have that “pinch me” moments sometimes? 

Grace: Definitely. I don’t think you can ever really get over that. It’s something that I love so much—every time I walk on set or walk into a meeting, I’m like, “What am I doing here?” Because three years ago I was going to school. 

Lithium: So what was the turning point when you realized you wanted to seriously pursue acting and modeling? 

Grace: I think I always kind of knew. Like, reading my yearbooks from second grade, my teachers were like, “Oh, can’t wait to see you on TV!” But being diagnosed with a brain tumor was the moment [when] I was like, “Okay, I actually have to do this.” 

Lithium: Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with Teen Vogue?

Grace: Growing up, I was so inspired by [Teen Vogue]—I feel like I manifested that company into my life. When I was little, I would make fake Teen Vogue business cards! It was something I really wanted to be apart of in one way or another, because fashion has always been a huge part of my life and my creative process. I just started going to their events and cold emailing people… Slowly, people were like, “Hey, who is this girl?” And they started bringing me on for individual brand collaboration projects, and then I went on the Teen Vogue Summit tour [last] fall. So yeah, I really weaseled my way in there.

Lithium: You recently directed a short film, Guardian Alien—will we see any more films from you in the future?

Grace: I’m very spontaneous. Whenever I get an idea, I just kind of want to make it. So I was watching this movie—I think it’s called Dude on Netflix with Lucy Hale—and in the prom scene there was this girl singing in the corner of the room with a guitar. I looked her up, and her name was Dana Williams. When I heard this one song, I was like, “This needs to be in a movie. What can I do?” So I was just searching the internet, and [I saw that applications for] the EDU Festival, which is a huge student film festival in the Midwest, were due in two days.” So I invited everyone I knew, and we [made] the entire short film in two days, and it won. That was a really cool experience. For me, directing is just another outlet to be creative... I don’t know, maybe if the opportunity comes along. We’ll see.

Lithium: So what’s next for you?

Grace: I just finished tenth grade, and that was a big focus of mine this year. Now that I’m done, I’m ready to get back out there. I’m doing a lot of exciting things in the music industry, which is something I haven’t really explored yet. Right now, I’m filing to create a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and it’s going to help kids with brain tumors, illnesses, and injuries get connected to music therapy. [When I was] in the hospital, music was one of the only things that was there for me in a way. At the hospital I was in, they had an entire music and video production company—there was a TV studio and a recording studio. To have access to that kind of program, especially when you’re going through MRIs and surgeries and things like that, was really amazing. [I’ve wanted] to integrate music therapy into hospitals for a long time, and I think it’s finally time to go for it.