Ahwatukee native Michelle Vezilj’s career is poised for blastoff.
In the 12 years she since she graduated from Mountain Pointe High School, it had already been on an upward trajectory in Philadelphia, New York City and now Los Angeles.
She earned her bachelor’s degree from the prestigious University of the Arts in Philadelphia, was part of a national touring company among a number of acting roles and is now writing songs and working with composers for the scores of movies and TV shows in L.A.
But when she followed May 17 in the footsteps of pop icons like Adele and Katy Perry with her first performance on the Hotel Café Main Stage — one of L.A.’s most vaunted music venues — it wasn't just another big step in her professional career.
It marked Vezilj’s triumph over a secret that tormented her for seven years.
It was her #metoo moment.
Her show of eight to 10 songs — some solos and some with a backup band — was built around her newly released single, her first, called “Fire Goes to Die.”
That song is her testament to being sexually assaulted.
“Recently, a lot of brave women have started coming forward with their own stories of sexual assault while in pursuit of their career,” she writes in a lengthy statement that accompanied the release of “Fire Goes to Die.”
“Their will to stand up and say something propelled me to come forward,” she said. “Speaking those words out loud gave me back my power.”
She adds that she wrote the song not only in search of a catharsis from a memory that tortured her in silence for so long but also “as an anthem to the Me Too movement,” the female-driven campaign against sexual violence that has been joined in the past two years by many celebrated women and that has been the downfall of many powerful men who were unmasked as sexual predators.
Vezilj has written a lengthy, graphic account of her assault, which occurred after she had been lured into an interview for a modeling gig with a top executive for an international modeling agency in 2012 when she was 22.
In the seven years that followed, she began building her singing and acting career in New York and then in L.A. after moving there two years ago.
Yet, throughout most of that time, the memory of that assault was never far away.
“I felt guilt and shame,” she said. “I didn’t tell anyone.”
Her tortured soul volleyed between feeling like it was her fault and pretending like it didn’t happen.
She never told her parents, Julie and Chris Vezilj of Ahwatukee, or her two younger sisters, Jennifer and Stephanie, even though they are the most cherished people in her life.
Finally, after watching a flood of #metoo stories about actresses and other women of accomplishment who came forward with their stories of sexual humiliation, abuse and, in some cases, rape, she came to a realization.
“I started hearing and reading other women’s stories and they were all so similar to mine,” she said.
So, too, were the feelings those women recalled as they detailed their own experiences.
Finally, Vezilj told her family, starting with her middle sister Stephanie.
In retrospect, Vezilj said she never should have doubted what their reaction would be.
“I’m incredibly lucky to have such a supportive family,” she said.
They have all made frequent trips to L.A. to see her perform at smaller California venues over the last two years as she slowly but steadily added gigs to her blossoming resume.
She calls her youngest sister, Jennifer, “my warrior.”
She recalled that when she told her mother the painful experience she endured, her mom’s reaction was one of sympathy and regret that she didn’t come forward sooner — that she had held the secret inside her and felt so alone for so long.
“My mother was really wonderful about it,” Vezilj said. “She called and said I just wish you had told me sooner.”
Now she is telling the world, and plans to keep on telling it.
Vezilj said that she likes to make her stage appearances a combination of song and narrative.
“I like to talk to the audience between songs,” she said.
And she told the guests at the Hotel Café Main Stage what led her to write “Fire Goes to Die.”
Now that she approached her biggest gig yet with trepidation.
“Not every song will be about that,” she said. “It will be a celebration.”
“Fire” is the first of at least two singles she plans to release this year as she lays the foundation for an album.
At the same time, she's planning on playing a supporting role and supervising the music for an upcoming Netflix film and writing the theme song for an Adaptive Studio episode by celebrated director Sonja O’Hara
She has been working the intricate web of streaming platforms and playlist coordinators to get “Fire” in front of the world audience. “It’s definitely a hustle,” she said.
Not that she’s starting from scratch.
She has opened for multi-award winning performer Frank Turner, played on the same bill as American Idol Haley Reinhart and sang the final-credit song for Fantawild’s feature animation, “Boonie Bears: Blast Into The Past.”
Besides the Netflix jobs, she also will be writing an original song for another feature film.
She’ll be continuing her work as music division chief for WrenLee Pictures as she pursues her performing career.
She also hopes that “Fire Goes to Die” just isn’t another addition to her resume.
She wants it to be something more.
The song, Vezilj explains, is “my small way of encouraging other survivors of all genders and orientations to come forward and know they are not alone, as I once was.”
To hear the song: FireGoestoDie.com or visit any streaming platform.