Inspired By Rosa Barney - Champion of Others, Steward of Self

Inspired By Rosa Barney - Champion of Others, Steward of Self

We are honored to ring in the New Year and next chapter of our Inspired By series with model, self-love advocate, longtime writer, new baker, and now Nordstrom executive, Rosa Barney.

In June we launched this storyline to honor inspirational and aspirational figures in the SteamLine orbit. Each person featured is someone who moves and motivates us with their shared values and determination to live a beautiful life.

Personally, the first time I was introduced to Rosa, I was immediately taken with not only her warmth and ease but also her incredible lighthearted grace. And I can hardly count the ways that she has inspired me and the SteamLine community since, particularly after a 2020 full of more monumental moments than seems humanly possible! While we ALL had an unprecedented year, Rosa’s in particular was a rich drama of triumphs, challenges, and new beginnings—both personally and professionally. Read on for the inside story on how our friend, Rosa Barney, not only survived but thrived in 2020!

SteamLine Founder, Sara Banks


SB: Before we look back on your remarkable year, I’d love our readers to know a little more about your background. In recent years you built up a substantial following as a model. Can you tell us how you began modeling?

RB: I started modeling completely by accident! I was approached unexpectedly by a scout while on a business trip for my previous job. At first I laughed and didn’t take her very seriously since at the time I was not aware of curve/plus models, and I didn’t think there was a place in the fashion world for women who looked like me. However, she urged me to consider and I took her card not thinking I would ever use it. When I got back to my hotel room that evening I looked up the agency and took a deep dive on the internet, trying to soak up as much information as I could. I learned that there was a market for women like me, with curves and sometimes squishy bellies; it was very empowering to see their confidence. After some words of encouragement from friends, I decided to take the plunge and figured if anything it would be a funny story to share down the line. Luckily I met some great people early on who showed me the ropes and helped me tremendously along the way. 

SB: And now you say “former model” on Instagram. Why did you stop modeling?

RB: I stopped for a few reasons but mainly out of practicality. I didn’t feel that there was a place for me in the industry any more. At the time I was a US size 10/12 and they wanted curve/plus models to be a full figured size 16—the sample size had gone up. More and more clients who I worked with were requesting that I either wear padding or gain weight to fill out the garments. As someone who struggled with body image issues for so long it didn’t feel like a healthy choice to try and manipulate my body once again to fit ideals defined by someone else. As much as I loved modeling I didn’t love it enough to sacrifice my mental health and physical well being, so I decided to step away from that world.

Inspired By Rosa Barney - Champion of Others, Steward of Self


SB: Then a couple years ago you founded MeFirst. I absolutely love the premise and the voice you have given to your brand. Can you tell us about your original goals as a self-love advocate for MeFirst, and what they are now?

RB: I started Me First to be the voice I had so needed to hear when growing up and coming into my own. It was so easy for me to fall into the “compare and despair” mentality which led to feelings of self-doubt and low self-esteem. I began to understand that the negative self talk in my head was bleeding into every part of my life: friendships, romantic partnerships, professional relationships, etc. When we don’t love ourselves we don’t think we are worthy of taking good care of ourselves and setting healthy boundaries.

People think it is selfish to put yourself first but the truth is when we take care of ourselves we become better partners, friends, and colleagues because we are better equipped with the mental, physical, and emotional capacity to show up for others.

My goal remains to help people realize the importance of self-love. To share my experiences with others rather than preach—I know I don’t have all the answers. However I have learned a lot and I hope to inspire others to take time for themselves, to say no when they need to, and to remember that within boundaries there is freedom.  

Rosa Barney Me First

SB: Today you are Event Manager at Nordstrom New York, and my did you take on an event position, mere weeks before the lockdown, at an unusual time. Can you tell us about your first chapter at Nordstrom? How did your responsibilities evolve?

RB: Well, starting to work for Nordstrom was a bit of a homecoming. My mother has worked for the company since before I was born and then I worked as a salesperson seasonally on and off throughout my college years, but this chapter was much different. I was lucky to come into this role with a solid understanding of the Nordstrom culture so even as the world changed around us I felt that I had a good foundation for figuring out how to continue to serve our customers. 

I was hired in March to take on a newly created Event Manager position to support and promote our beautiful NYC flagship store. However, just as I started, the virus began spreading rapidly. Nordstrom made the right decision to close our stores, however, that meant that many of us would need to be furloughed to protect the company and ensure we had jobs to come back to. Admittedly, it was a very uncertain time—knowing that I had only been in the role for a few weeks before stopping and not knowing when or if I would be back at all.

Once they made the decision to reinstate us it was clear that we would not be able to hold traditional in-person events for the foreseeable future. We tried to be as nimble as possible and turned to virtual events as so many others did the same. Luckily, I was able to draw on past experiences in TV which helped me don my new producer hat. Instead of planning our exciting partnerships with NYC Pride and the US Open, to name a few, I started working on a series of digital programming that would allow us to connect with customers in their homes.

As difficult as it has been, the silver lining is that we have been able to engage more customers in events that maybe, ordinarily, would not have been able to join us in the store due to lack of access or other commitments. 

SB: Tell us a little about what your life looked like “pre-COVID” at the dawn of 2020? You shared your health situation in a wonderful story on Instagram; can you tell us about your diagnosis and treatment plan? 

RB: In October 2019 I was on the road, traveling for work with Trish McEvoy, to Indianapolis for a personal appearance. At the time, I had no reason to believe that this trip would be any different from the work trips we had taken in the past.

At the end of the last session a woman who I had never met before came up to introduce herself to me. She complimented us on the demonstration and then asked me, “have you ever had your thyroid checked?” I was of course surprised by her question and asked her why she wanted to know. She explained that she is a doctor and she noticed my thyroid was protruding more than normal and urged me to get it looked at.

When I got back to NYC I followed her advice and made an appointment. The doctor manually checked my neck and felt a lump, I was then scheduled for a neck ultrasound and a biopsy immediately following that.

After the tests were completed I got the call that I was positive for papillary thyroid cancer and I would need to have surgery to remove the tumor on the thyroid. Leading up to surgery I had more checkups and ultrasounds and found that the cancer spread to the lymph nodes in my neck but it wouldn’t be clear until I had the surgery just how many were there.

In January 2020 I had my thyroid removed as well as 14 additional tumors that spread to lymph nodes in my neck. My doctors estimate that the main tumor grew slowly over the course of five years.

I’m grateful to Dr. Laura every day for her kindness. She not only saved my life but she changed it—in that moment I learned how important it is to speak up when you feel the need to. You never know how it might impact someone’s life.

Inspired By Rosa Barney

Rosa's thyroid is highly visible in this photo, long before she was diagnosed. She has become a voice in thyroid-cancer detection and awareness.

SB: During this time you had something of a double quarantine; can you tell us about your treatments.

RB: While the world was experiencing a global lockdown and we were encouraged to stay home I was also about to embark on a separate quarantine on my own. I had to undergo radioactive iodine treatment to eliminate any remaining cancer cells in my body—not to be confused with radiation commonly associated with cancer treatment. This is a specific treatment used to treat thyroid cancer. Our thyroids function on iodine provided by your diet so in order for the treatment to work you need to be on a low iodine diet for two weeks before starting the treatment. The idea is to deprive your body of iodine and then take a dose of radioactive iodine to kill any remaining cancerous thyroid cells in the body. The diet is pretty restrictive and it would probably be easier to list the few things you are allowed to eat rather than what is on the do not eat list—haha! After two weeks, if you followed the diet correctly, your iodine levels should be almost nil and therefore your body will absorb the “bad” iodine. It’s the Trojan Horse of the medical community! 

The radioactive iodine is administered by two small seemingly innocent white pills that are delivered to you by a doctor in a hazmat suit! Once you take the pills you are instructed to go straight home—do not pass go, do not collect $200. The reason for this is that about an hour after ingesting the pills you become a living, breathing biohazard. The levels of radioactivity that you emit become dangerous to those around you. Luckily at the time I was living alone so it was easy to stay away. I had to drink water constantly because they want the iodine to hit and then they want you to immediately flush it out of your body. I experienced a loss of taste that was replaced by an unpleasant metallic flavor in my mouth that I could not seem to get rid of for weeks and a slight ringing in my ears that made it hard to relax. However, it’s a small price to pay to know that after a few days I would be healthy and cancer free. 

SB: Within all this you re-connected with a former beau, yes?

RB: Yes, Joe and I met when I was traveling to work for London back in 2014. The long distance proved difficult, so we separated after a time, but never “got over each other,” as the saying goes. We reconnected during my health scare this winter and decided to see each other as soon as possible. I went to London before the lockdown and it seemed we picked up where we had left off, with a renewed understanding of the depth of our feelings.

SB: And at the same time you started baking, yes, launching @tinykitchenco?

RB: While I was home alone, furloughed from my job with nowhere to go I found I needed something to keep me busy! I have always loved cooking and baking but I never felt that I had sufficient time to really dive in and learn more. Sourdough baking became the new Tamagotchi of my generation, and I fell fast and hard, just as I did for the little electronic pets as a child! All of a sudden I had something to take care of—I nourished my goop of flour and water into a robust sourdough starter that has yielded many delicious loaves of bread but more importantly it helped give me a sense of purpose when I felt like I couldn’t do much of anything else.

It was really hard to be creative at this time, friends and family that continued working throughout lockdown kept saying “but you have so much time! you can focus on writing…” or insert any other creative pursuit but honestly, I felt emotionally drained for such a long time. I enjoyed baking because it was physical and creative. I was able to experiment and develop recipes while also taking my mind off of what was happening in the world around me. 

Even though I am lucky to be back at work I still find time in my week to bake one or two loaves. My favorite part of making sourdough? Sharing the bread with friends and family. It’s become such an obsession that I now pack some away anytime I know I’m going to stay away from home and leave Bread Pitt’s dough babies scattered all over!

Inspired By Rosa Barney

Like everything Rosa does, her bread is beautiful and well-made!

SB: So you completed cancer treatment, went back to work, and that only takes us halfway through 2020! Now the fun begins—can you tell us about the exhibit you dreamt up for Nordstrom?

RB: My idea for the art exhibit came to me before I even started my job at Nordstrom—though I had no idea at the time.

Before Nordstrom New York opened and it was still being built and the finishing touches were underway I got to spend a lot of time with Dawn Clark who was instrumental in the planning of that store. In one of our conversations she told me that she envisioned it as so much more than a home for retail. She wanted art, real art to grace the space and so many other beautiful things. That sentiment stuck with me and I would think of it often as I walked the store, even before I started working there.

Then in March, when I started this role, I spoke with some colleagues about hosting an art exhibit in the store. Unfortunately our store closed and I was furloughed before I could make any progress on that idea—but everything happens for a reason. 

The Black Lives Matter movement erupted while I was out of work, I tried to do my part to be vocal, to educate myself and others as it was happening. When it was time to go back to work and I looked through my notes I knew what I had to do. Instead of hosting just *any* art exhibit in the store I knew this was my chance to do something real for the movement that was happening around me. I decided I wanted to support Black artists and create awareness and also work with the community that our store is in.

Styling: Black Expression, Rebellion, and Joy Through Fashion - Curated by Souleo, Presented by Long Gallory Harlem and Nordstrom
Rosa's brain-child as Nordstrom New York came back to life after the lockdown. Styling: Black Expression, Rebellion, and Joy Through Fashion—Curated by Souleo, Presented by Long Gallery Harlem and Nordstrom

As someone who loves art and beautiful things I admittedly do not know very much about the art world so I quickly started researching. I learned that there are very few Black-owned art galleries in the country which just added fuel to my desire to make this exhibit happen—if I could support Black artists and a Black-owned business in my community, it would be even better. After some digging I found Lewis Long of Long Gallery Harlem. I sent him an email out of the blue lightly explaining this idea that had, not  knowing how it would be received. I was ecstatic when he replied and said he was interested—from there it moved very quickly. He came to walk the store and then engaged a brilliant curator to work on the project with him. They created a beautiful, meaningful, educational exhibit that went live on 9/27. The exhibit showcased 15 artists and more than 40 works of art throughout our store. Many works were special commissions that we were lucky to unveil together. 

It was an incredible experience for me and I am so grateful for the support the exhibit received not only from Nordstrom but from everyone that came to see it. 

Portraits featured at the Styling: Black Expression, Rebellion, and Joy Through Fashion Exhibit. Hollis King's portrait of Lana Turner (left), Stephen Tayo's portrait of Ifeoma and Rebecca, and Ruben Natal-San Miguel, The Bronx (bottom right).
Portraits featured at the Styling: Black Expression, Rebellion, and Joy Through Fashion Exhibit. Hollis King's portrait of Lana Turner (left), Stephen Tayo's portrait of Ifeoma and Rebecca, and Ruben Natal-San Miguel, The Bronx (bottom right).

SB: How have you seen retail adapt throughout the pandemic? How has Nordstrom fared, and what are you most proud of in their handling of this year’s trials?

RB: This has been an incredibly difficult year for retail, and so many businesses. Nordstrom has been very nimble in trying to navigate a crisis that no one could have predicted. While our stores were closed we operated many of them as distribution centers to help fulfill online orders which also allowed us to keep more people employed. Once the stores opened we knew many customers would still be wary to walk through our doors so we implemented lots of new services such as curbside, no contact pickups, virtual styling and so much more. We are ready to serve the customer however they want to shop and in true Nordstrom fashion—nothing is out of the question! I am amazed everyday when I hear the stories of how our salespeople are taking care of their clients in these uncertain times—customer service has always been a point of pride for us and I’m happy to say we can continue that legacy through the pandemic.

SB: And somewhere in there you and Joe made some pretty big plans, didn’t you? Please tell us about what you did, where, and why?

RB:  After Joe and I reunited we immediately knew that we were ready to spend the rest of our lives together. We had a few years under our belt from the first time around so we knew that this time we were ready. We were tired of living in two different counties and knew that if we wanted to be together, we had to make it official! 

Inspired By Rosa Barney - Champion of Others, Steward of Self

We decided that we want to get married—I suppose saying that we decided doesn’t sound very romantic but it was a big conversation full of many special moments that I won’t elaborate on here. As soon as we decided we started planning—at this point much of the world was deep into lockdown—we knew that trying to get married in the US would be difficult due to Visas, we looked into getting married in the UK, but registry offices were closed. 

So, I decided to turn to Google. I started researching counties that we could get married in without a Visa and I cross referenced with what counties haven’t closed their borders—seriously that’s how we decided where we would get married. Luckily for us there were some pretty choice destinations on that list and the one we decided on was Jamaica! The process was incredibly easy, the resort truly did everything for us! We celebrated with our parents in a very small intimate ceremony of six—including us! It was perfect!

Inspired By Rosa Barney in Jamaica with her SteamLine Luggage Botanist Mini in Pink

Rosa in Jamaica with her Pink Botanist SteamLine Mini

SB: Then mere weeks after getting back from Jamaica, you left your studio of eight years on the Upper East Side for another huge life change (by New Yorker standards!)…

RB: Well, we knew my lease would be up in November and that once Joe is able to move to the US we wouldn’t want to squeeze into my small studio. We decided to start looking for apartments, like many newlyweds we had a long wish list for what our perfect home would have. At first we cast a very wide net, not knowing what neighborhood would catch our eye. As we searched we found ourselves looking at Brooklyn more and more—we found we could get so much more space and our dollar went a lot farther! We found a beautiful recently renovated apartment that we can now call our home—it’s very exciting to see it come together!

SB: When it comes to travel, I know you are half-Italian and speak fluent Italian. What about your other half? And how much does being Italian play a part in your life?

RB: The easiest way to explain my ethnic background would be to show you my DNA estimate. It ranges from 24% Southern Italian and 9% Northern Italian, to 13% Mali and 9% Cameroon, Congo, and Western Bantu, to 13% Middle Eastern and a remaining melting pot of European and African descent! I’m a true mutt and very proud of it—not to go off on a tangent but I think if more people did these DNA tests maybe they would see that the world is a much smaller place than they thought.

Culturally I am very in-tune with my Italian roots, my mother was raised there and didn’t move to the US until she was 21. It was very important to her that my brother and I felt connected to that part of our culture. As a child I was very lucky to spend a lot of beautiful summers with that part of my family. I was able to learn the language, enjoy the food, and spend time with my family. 

Now that I don’t have the luxury of being a kid with seemingly endless summers I stay connected to my family and my culture with the gift of technology—thank goodness for WhatsApp! I also do other fun things to practice my Italian as much as possible—a few years ago I changed my phone settings to Italian. It forces me to use the language in all of my apps which is a surprisingly helpful practice tool. I also like to watch movies in Italian, it really helps if it’s a movie that I have seen before in English.

I’ve had so many amazing trips to Italy—many of them have centered around exciting family events so they all have a special place in my heart. Each time I go I discover a new part of our culture and our history which helps me feel even more connected to where I come from.

SB: You’ve been traveling with SteamLine since Trish gifted the team a custom Starlet Carryon Spinner some years ago, and now you have a Pink Botanist set! Do you have any particular memories that stand out of traveling with SteamLine? How would you define the SteamLine Effect?

RB: Oh my goodness! I fell in love with SteamLine the second I received my first Starlet Carryon. The pieces are not only beautiful but so functional—truly the best of both worlds!

My favorite part of traveling with SteamLine—more than their beauty—is that they are such a conversation starter! I have yet to travel with them and NOT be stopped by a stranger asking me about my case. I really love telling them about this special company and making a brief connection with someone new—especially now. 

Of course I would have to say my favorite trip with SteamLine would be my trip to Jamaica with my Botanist collection to get married! It felt extra special to travel in style knowing I was embarking on a life changing trip—it just wouldn’t be the same with any old suitcase! It’s the details that make them so special :)

Q: And somehow in there you found time to volunteer on Election Day?

A: Well, when I was in college I was a member of College Democrats and it was such an exciting experience. Through that I was able to work on a few local Boston elections as well as volunteering for the Obama campaign. It was such an adrenaline rush to feel that I was a part of a history-making moment.

When this election came around I found myself wanting to be a part of that world again. First, I signed up to send texts and make calls for Biden but I wanted to do more. I knew that this election year would be particularly tough on our election system. Many poll worker volunteers are of the critical vulnerable age so they were not going to work this year due to the pandemic. I wanted to do my part to protect our democracy so I signed up to work the polls! I loved it! We worked from 5:00 AM to 10:30 PM and I hit every emotion throughout the course of the day, but it was an incredibly rewarding experience. 

SB: I think this brings us to the present. How are you feeling as this year comes to an end? What are you excited about personally and professionally as this holiday season draws to a close?

RB: This has been quite the year as you can see! Despite everything that has happened in the world around us I feel a lot of joy and more than that I feel hopeful for what is to come! If this year is anything to go by 2021 can only be better.

Personally I am excited for Joe and I to be able to live in the same country together, I hope that his spouse visa comes through! That is by far the biggest thing that I am looking forward to in the coming year.

With work—I am excited to get back to normal events this year! I hope we can continue our partnerships with the US Open, NYC Pride and more. Beyond that I am excited to develop new events and bring my worlds together. Having Gotham in our store through our Holiday Pop-Up was such a special treat and it felt good to help a New York institution and to help them reconnect with their devoted followers and meet new ones through our special partnership. 

SB: You inspire us. Who inspires YOU?

RB:  I’ve always been inspired by my mother. Throughout my whole life, she has been a shining example of love, determination, balance. She works hard every day to be the best wife and mother—always taking care of my brother, father, and me while also completely excelling in her career. Everything she does, she does well and with grace.

I’ve always loved my mother, but it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties and realized that I hit the same age she was when she had me, and I was able to understand genuinely everything she has done for us that it truly hit me how lucky I am. 

SB: Lastly, can you leave us with any thoughts on what you dream of for 2021?

RB: For 2021 I hope for a world where we can be with our loved ones and share hugs without fear. I hope that before we rush to return to normal that we think about what parts of “normal” we are rushing back to. This year has really helped me gain perspective and understand what is important to me. I hope that I am able to carry that into 2021 and beyond. 

Explore more of Rosa's boundless creativity on Instagram through her personal account, her MeFirst profile, and her cooking Instagram. Learn about Rosa's Self Love project, MeFirst, here.


Read our Inspired By series, conversations with editors, ambassadors, and long-time friends of SteamLine.



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