On a day that assistant principal Kiley Russell should have been attending the first day of school, she was sitting in the audience of 'The Oprah Winfrey Show,' when the craziest thing happened: A moment that has gone down in pop culture and television talk show history.
"You get a car! You get a car! You get a car!"
"My mother started doing the Hallelujah dance and everyone was jumping up and down and crying," said Russell, 34.
Minutes later, she and her mother, along with the rest of the 276-member audience, were running through the Harpo Studios parking lot to a fleet of gleaming new Pontiac G6s wrapped in red bows.
As tears of joy flowed, Russell said Oprah gave her not just the gift of a new car, but words that would change her life.
"Oprah said, we're not just giving away cars, we're changing lives."
At the time, Russell was battling lupus. The stress of long hours on the job, her health condition and not taking proper care of herself was taking a toll on her body. She and her husband Terrence were trying to start a family, but her body rejected a number of pregnancies. Stress, her doctors warned, could be the death of her.
It was time for a life change, and the encounter at 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' that September day back in 2004 was just the impetus she needed to take the first step.
"I felt like that was a sign for me to start living my life differently," Russell said. "I had to step out on faith."
So she sold the car for $20,000 and used the proceeds to launch her dream: Big Girl Cosmetics, a line of cosmetics specifically geared toward women of color.
For years Russell, had been whipping up batches of homemade soaps and body butters for friends and as gifts at baby and bridal showers. The recipes came from her grandmother Louise, who brought them with her during the black migration from the South to Chicago during the 1920s. Her grandmother's oatmeal and lavender soaps were the only soaps that wouldn't bother Russell's extremely sensitive skin, she said.
When Russell told her grandmother that she wanted to launch a skincare line using the family recipes, Louise was happy if not slightly amused.
"She just laughed," Russell recalled. " She said 'Baby, I've been doing this for years.'"
About a year after the show, Russell quit her assistant principal job and dedicated herself full-time to the cosmetics line.
She used the initial $20,000 investment for product development, marketing and a website. Another $60,000 in savings went into the business over a period of time. Big Girl Cosmetics turned a profit of $30,000 the first year, $40,000 the next and it has continued to grow each year, said Russell.
Thanks in part to a "grassroots guerrilla marketing" campaign and swift word of mouth, online orders have skyrocketed.
"I started getting orders from Montana, Washington, from little old ladies in Kentucky," she said.
Today, the Chicago-based company has grown to include Big Girl Makeup Bar & Spa in Hyde Park. Russell and her husband, Terrence, an IT professional, hope to soon expand with a second location. Big Girl Cosmetics product line includes makeup, lip glosses and soaps.
The good fortunes from Oprah's gift continue to flow, she said. Her health is in check. She is happier than ever with her work life. And though doctors said she would probably never be able to conceive, she and Terrence have two sons, Chase, 5, and Ellis, 2.
"Anything you do could be a risk, especially leaving your job," said Russell. "But it was worth it for me. It was about being a mom and about being healthy. I needed to make serious lifestyle changes."
Back in the audience on that September day in 2004, moments after Oprah's staff handed out 276 little silver boxes wrapped in red ribbon, Russell had no idea how big a gift she was really receiving.
"For me there were small things along the way leading me down this path, little whispers here and there," she said. "And then I won the car and it was like, do you hear me now?"