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Northern Highlands Friends Glamify Cancer Survivors

Bernadette Vargas, after.
Bernadette Vargas, after. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michele Bonacorte
Jillian Veran Rezo, left, and Michele Bonacorte.
Jillian Veran Rezo, left, and Michele Bonacorte. Photo Credit: Haviland Studio
Bernadette Vargas, after.
Bernadette Vargas, after. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michele Bonacorte.
Bernadette Vargas, before her Beautiful Self session.
Bernadette Vargas, before her Beautiful Self session. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michele Bonacorte
Before.
Before. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michele Bonacorte
After.
After. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michele Bonacorte
Before.
Before. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michele Bonacorte
After.
After. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michele Bonacorte

ALLENDALE, N.J. — When breast cancer patient Bernadette Vargas of Fair Lawn trudged to the Allendale photo studio of Michele Bonacorte in July, she felt anything but glamorous.

She knew why she was going to Beautiful Self , a nonprofit that starts helping breast cancer patients when their treatments stop.

She would have “photo therapy.”

Chemo, surgery, radiation – and a host of side effects – had not left her feeling good about her body.

Bonacarte, a former Calvin Klein lingerie model and current fashion photographer, would help her confident, beautiful self emerge again.

She’d do it with the help of her friend, Jillian Veran Rezo, breast cancer survivor and makeup and glamour artist. The ebullient Rezo has worked on Brooke Shields, Paris Hilton, Ivanka Trump.

She’s done Fashion Week. She’s created makeup lines.

But Vargas was still skeptical. Ivanka Trump was one thing. Her? She wasn’t so sure.

Two seconds after she walked into the studio, though, she felt like family.

“They are beautiful people, inside and out, and made me feel just as beautiful,” Vargas said.

Beautiful Self, now a nonprofit looking to expand, has done shoots for women with breast cancer since 2014. Today its waiting list is 50 women long.

Each woman gets 100 photos, including three or four glam looks, explained Bonacorte, a Hasbrouck Heights native.

The two friends — Bonacorte is 48, Rezo 52 — met over a Chanel counter in 1984. Bonacorte reached with her big ’80s nails to pick up some of that ’80s purple makeup powder.

They clicked. Through thick and thin, they stayed friends.

When Rezo was diagnosed in 2013 with Stage 2 breast cancer that already had spread to the lymph nodes, she endured two surgeries, seven months of chemo, and radiation.

Bonacorte wanted to be supportive.

“You can only make so much soup,” she said.

So the two got busy doing what they do: Rezo took out the makeup and Bonacarte her camera. They chronicled Rezo’s cancer journey.

“I was 100 percent deconstructed,” Rezo recalled. “There was nothing left but the shell.”

What emerged in the images after treatment ended startled both of them: Rezo saw her long-dormant spirit re-emerge.

“I felt beautiful after our sessions,” she said.

It wasn’t long till the pair decided to do the same for other women. So they approached a support group at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood to see if the women would be interested in sessions.

All 30 signed up.

The two friends haven’t stopped since. They’ve done photo therapy for women throughout Bergen County, as far north as West Milford, and throughout Rockland County.

These days, Rezo is on Arimidex and she will be dealing with its side effects for a number of years.

But the joie de vivre in Bonacorte’s photos never fail to remind her who she really is.

Vargas says the same thing.

“I’m a new woman since that shoot,” she said.

Beautiful Self will locate temporarily to Bergenfield in September. It seeks a permanent home and funding to expand.

The services are provided free to the breast cancer patients. Each session has a market value of $3,500. To help, CLICK HERE .

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