Former NYC model, LDS convert finds place at BYU

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Natasha Rivas was a model in NYC before becoming a BYU cougar. (Rebecca Reed Styling: Michelle Blanco)

Natasha Rivas was successful in one of the most difficult industries in the nation less than a year into her modeling career in New York City.

She worked for a fashion label, booked her own agent, and acted in both commercials and TV shows before turning 21. But for Natasha, the most meaningful experience in the city was being baptized into the LDS church.

“New York was great. I did fun things. I got to model a bunch, which was so fun,” Natasha said. “But honestly, the best part was being baptized.”

Natasha waited six years to be baptized as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In New York, she finally achieved that dream. However, baptism wasn’t the end of her struggles. Natasha developed optimism, courage and faith as she followed an unexpected path that eventually led her to BYU.

Natasha first became acquainted with the church in eighth grade. She struggled with feelings of depression at the time and found strength through attending church. However, her parents were not excited about their daughter’s interest in the church and didn’t want her to attend church services.

“I have to hand it to her for not just giving up and spiraling down — for turning to something that I think that helped her to get through,” said Natasha’s father, Jaime Rivas. “I can talk about it now. At the time I didn’t quite get it, but now it’s very clear to me, and her dedication to her faith is something that impresses me.”

The struggle with her parents’ disapproval continued throughout her high school years.

“I think that may have been one of the hardest things she’s ever faced: the conflict between church and family,” said Natasha’s hometown friend and mentor, Allie Chapman.

Instead of attending church services, Natasha often conducted her own spiritual sessions where she just sat outside of her home and read talks from church leaders or the scriptures.

“Those times were the most tender,” Natasha said. “All of the things that strengthened my testimony the most were the moments when it was personal with Heavenly Father.”

Natasha Rivas modeling for a shoot. (Rebecca Reed Styling: Michelle Blanco)

Natasha dealt with other challenges as well during high school. She was a strong competitor in both cross-country and soccer before she found out that she had labral tears in her hips that caused her to tire easily. The condition pushed Natasha to focus more on music and theater instead of sports.

This new emphasis in her life led Natasha to apply to the Boston Conservatory, a competitive performing arts school. Around 2,000 students audition each year to get into the music, theater and dance programs. Only 10 percent are accepted each year, and Natasha was one of those students.

After a year of school in Boston, Natasha had an idea: At age 19, she would go on her own to New York and try out her acting and theater skills. There was just one problem: she had to convince her parents.

“It worried me, but if anyone could do it she could,” said Natasha’s mother, Donna Rivas.

Natasha Rivas outside posing at a photo shoot. (Photography: Rebecca Reed Styling: Michelle Blanco)

Natasha arrived alone in New York, and within one month she had booked an agent. Shortly after, she earned a job working for a fashion label in a show room, modeling and performing other tasks — “which is not a bad day job,” Natasha said.

Natasha worked in the showroom during the day and auditioned for shows and commercials afterwards.

Life was good. In about six months she had obtained a great job and good friends in one of the busiest cities in the country. With her newfound independence, the timing was finally right for her to be baptized.

Natasha described the experience as one of peace. “My mind was just quiet and calm and it was like, ‘This is good. This is what was supposed to happen here,'” Natasha said.

Her parents were unhappy with her conversion at first, but as time went on, everything started to go back to normal. That is until she began to feel unusually sick.

“I was super weak all of the time,” Natasha said.

Fatigue, nausea and vomiting became part of her life.

“It was really hard to watch her be such an independent person and then take care of herself when she was so sick, so young,” Chapman said.

At a standard check-up, Natasha’s heart started beating at a dangerously slow rate. The doctors rushed her to the hospital where she was forced to stay for over a week. Despite the struggles, Natasha’s faith held strong.

“I felt so much closer to Christ because he’s been through everything. Being sick really strengthened my testimony,” Natasha said.

Natasha knew she needed a life change, and her parents wanted her closer to home. In the hospital room she secretly started her application to BYU, not knowing how her parents would react.

A few short days later, Natasha asked her father what he thought she should do. To her surprise, he suggested that she should apply to BYU before she even mentioned it. Natasha applied and was accepted. 

“I could not say six years ago that I would be at BYU and that my parents would be supportive and that they would ask me, ‘How’s church?’” Natasha said. “It’s so great to be here. It is so different from anything I’ve ever experienced. It has only brought blessings.”

Life still isn’t easy for her; Natasha has to juggle classes, doctor visits and her music. The doctors may have made some progress stabilizing her sickness, but her unknown chronic illness still causes a lot of pain.

“Every day she has to put on a positive face even though there’s pain inside. I think that’s a testament to who she is as a person,” said long-time friend Collette Brennan.

Natasha’s friends and family have shown nothing but awe and admiration for the young woman and the way that she has lived her life.

“In the end all the struggles that she had, I honestly would credit her devotion and dedication to God as helping her to get through. I didn’t quite see it when she was younger but it’s clear to me now,” Jaime said.

Natasha remains optimistic and faithful.

“I have really hard days, but there are some really wonderful days, and the wonderful days outweigh the hard days. It’s better than it was,” Natasha said. “Everything works out the way it’s supposed to.”

For now, Natasha is focused on graduating and helping out others as best as she can. While the future is not set in stone, Natasha is living with hope. Her plan after graduation is just to be a happy person. In the meantime, she is thinking about studying philosophy and how to better help people heal mentally, spiritually and physically.

Natasha’s parents know that only great things are coming for her.

“To think she’s lived all this stuff in 20 short years — who knows what’s in store in the next couple of decades?” Jaime said.

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