"I've really learned, I would say in the past two years, to just love myself for who I am,” the former 'Dance Moms' cast member tells PEOPLE exclusively
Kalani Hilliker isn’t afraid to talk about her mental health journey.
The former Dance Moms cast member, 22, often shares mental health tips with her TikTok followers, including how she stays grounded. She openly admits that she needs anxiety medication — as well as what happens when she forgets to take it.
Hilliker spoke more about living with anxiety in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE during New York Fashion Week.
“I didn't really have anxiety on the show," she says, referring to Dance Moms. "I was suppressing all my emotions just to get through. I really got my worst anxiety after the show, once I was able to finally sit down and take a breath and realize who I was and what I went through," she says.
"I had the whole world looking at me and watching me go through puberty. Then, after I left and became an adult, a lot of people on social media told me I looked different.”
“I'm an adult now versus when I was 15 and dancing eight hours a day,” she continues. “Now I'm myself and I've really learned, I would say in the past two years, to just love myself for who I am. As long as I know that I'm healthy and I am doing things to make me feel good, then why does it matter what anybody else thinks?”
Hilliker says the dance world was a "toxic environment" for her growing up. She joined the show at age 12 and was constantly “torn to pieces'' by her dance teachers because of the way she looked.
“There’s an idea of how a dancer should look. I didn’t fit the stereotype,” she says. “I went through puberty and had more of a body and wasn’t a twig. There’s nothing wrong with that…but my dance teachers always had something to say.”
Hilliker says that performing in competitions put her under immense pressure to be the best for her teacher Abby Lee Miller, the judges and herself. “I feel like people always think ‘Oh, you probably wanted to do your best because you’re on TV,’ but at a certain point we forgot we were even filming.”
She adds that even though she and her fellow cast members have gone their separate ways since leaving the show, they're forever bonded by the experience.
"We're sisters," the says. "We went through so much together that we will always have love for each other. I feel like whenever we see each other, it's like nothing's changed. When you go through all that with someone, you're always going to have that connection with them, no matter what."
Hilliker says that when she was younger and filming Dance Moms, anxiety and mental health in general weren't topics of conversation. "Health" referred to recovering from injuries.
But now she knows differently.
“After the show, I was a little bit burnt out,” she says. “I didn't really have the love for it anymore. I took maybe a year off, two years off, and then I started to realize that that's a huge part of my life and something that I love. It's part of my self-care. I love to dance.”
“Mental health is just as important as physical health,” she continues. “Whatever is going on in your head, it totally affects what you do in your everyday life. I've realized that for me. So I just really wanted to be open and honest about it.”
It's one of the reasons she recently launched the beauty and wellness brand Kare x Kalani: to raise awareness about anxiety and inspire people to take care of themselves using different wellness tools.
“I'm someone with a platform that seems to have the most perfect life, who's going to Fashion Week and all these things. But I still struggle with anxiety,” she says. “I want people to know that it's okay to struggle, and it's okay to get help in whatever way you need to get help and be able to manage it in whatever it is for you that helps you in a healthy way.”
She adds: “I know that’s something that us young adults, or everybody, deals with. We’re always so busy – whether you’re an athlete, whether you work a 9 to 5 or whether you’re an editor like me, whatever you’re doing, everyone has stressful lives and needs to incorporate self care.”
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