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T for Tough

Life for this Chicago native is no place for sissies, Memphis included.

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How does someone go from growing up the daughter of a single mom on food stamps in Chicago to a married life in Memphis that included a 6,000-square-foot house in a gated community overlooking a golf course, two "gorgeous" children, two "adorable" dogs, two "top-of-the-line" luxury vehicles, a chef, a nanny, a maid, a landscaping service, another service to pick up dog droppings in the backyard, and platinum credit-card access? You start, age 13, in Chicago hauling neighbors' garbage to the street then meeting and marrying your "knight in shining armor."

That's how Marie Pizano describes it in her memoir, From Barefoot to Stilettos (Balboa Press). But as the wife to a successful financier, she "couldn't have been more doomed." She also, as she writes, "had the nerve to be miserable." So, she got a divorce and took to heart some words of wisdom Pizano heard her mother once say to a reporter: "There are two roads you can take: You play victim. Or you do something about it. I decided to pick up my panties and move on."

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Pizano's lucky she can move at all. As the author said in a recent phone interview, before marriage, she'd been "beating the odds" (entering beauty pageants and modeling, working her way through college, teaching aerobics) with her sights set on Hollywood ... until:

"I was on the back of a motorcycle and boom. A car came out of nowhere. I didn't have on a helmet. I could've been dead. The headlight of that car came within centimeters of a main artery in my leg. My life changed."

Yes, it did. Pizano began working in Chicago's financial industry. That's where she met her husband. And when Pizano's husband was offered a "job he couldn't refuse" in Memphis, her life changed again.

"A South Side Chicago girl plopped in Memphis 14 years ago? I was a rock-and-roll chick. I thought, I gotta rock this place. Downtown Memphis then: There was no life! I thought, What's going on? But I convinced myself I'm gonna make it here. This town wasn't too shabby for Elvis. Who am I to thumb my nose?"

Pizano does admit that as a "trophy" wife, she stuck out like a sore thumb. Think Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny. (Pizano does.) But she has moved on since her divorce, working hard on a vision: to bridge the gap between the city's creative talents — musicians especially — and the community at large, government and business in particular. "I'm so sick of people not getting along, sick of the divisions," she said. "There's no need."

In addition to her charitable work, Pizano founded and today heads the MVP3 Entertainment Group — that's "MVP" for Marie Valentina Pizano and "3" for film, music, and community. It's all about, Pizano said, giving back.

And she doesn't just talk the talk. She walks the walk. Proceeds from the sale of From Barefoot to Stilettos will go to the Exodus Foundation, which works to end domestic violence, and to the Military Warriors Support Foundation. Pizano herself comes from a military family, and she's raising funds from her book tour to help pay for a mortgage-free home for an injured U.S. service member.

"Writing this book has been like me bare naked," Pizano admitted, and she doesn't only mean the spotlight the book throws on her upbringing and marriage. She also means the T-shaped scar on her leg from that motorcycle accident:

"It took a lot for me to show my scar in the picture on the book's cover. But as I told Morgan Freeman ... we were golfing one day: I said, 'Morgan, I don't know what this T is for. T for Tennessee?' Morgan turned to me and said, 'Marie, there are no accidents. Let me tell ya: T is not for Tennessee. It's for tough.'

"I've been called ridiculous names," Pizano added. "I've been called a lot of things. But what am I gonna do? Just lay there? I'm gonna pick up my panties. I'm gonna move on."

Except, in a sense, Pizano isn't going anywhere: "The South is home for me now. I'm not leaving. And this book: It's not just my story. Everybody's gone through something. You gotta move on, find your 'yes.' Because you can and you will."

Marie Pizano will sign From Barefoot to Stilettos at the Booksellers at Laurelwood on Saturday, January 11th, at 2 p.m. On Wednesday, January 15th, at 5:30 p.m., she'll be at Jim's Place restaurant along with music and an art auction. For more on Marie Pizano, visit frombarefoottostilettos.com.

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