VANESSA SANTIBANEZ: FROM HEROIN ADDICT TO BIKINI CHAMPION
Interview By Ben Yosef | Michael Brooks Photography
Twenty nine year old Stellar IPL Bikini Athlete Vanessa Santibanez was incredibly impressive on the IPL stage in 2018. Four shows under her belt and top placements in all classes, including a few wins, certainly put Vanessa on the map this year.
In this exclusive interview Vanessa opens up about entering the world of Bikini competition, flying on a plane for the first time to compete IPL, and most importantly overcoming drug addiction to become a top bikini athlete.
BEN YOSEF: Vanessa! Congrats on all of your success on the IPL stage this year! What an incredible run. Four shows and only in five months. How are you feeling right now? Are you totally exhausted, or what? [laughs]
VANESSA SANTIBANEZ: Well first, yes very exhausted. [laughs] Back to back shows are no joke. But through all the hard work, I am very pleased with my track record. I’ve placed in all shows!
BEN: Your first IPL show was the SoCal classic in April. What led you to compete in the IPL and to compete in that show?
“I ALWAYS WANTED TO COMPETE, BUT WASN’T READY TO COMMIT. SO I FIGURED I WOULD GIVE MYSELF A GOAL AND REACH IT. “
VANESSA: Well, in November 2017, I was healthy enough to workout. I’ve always had the gym in my life and being active has always been important to me. I just got out of rehab in October and knew I had to do something to keep me busy.
I always wanted to compete, but wasn’t ready to commit. So I figured I would give myself a goal and reach it. As far as the organization I chose, I didn’t want to put myself in a position to go against people who are taking substances. And I did my research and came across the IPL and knew it was the best fit for me.
BEN: Well, you definitely chose the right organization! And I feel honored to have you as part of the IPL family. I remember seeing you for the first time at your first show, the SoCal classic, and thinking that you just had a fantastic look.
At that show you ended up placing 1st in Bikini Novice and 3rd in Bikini Open, which is very impressive. And that Bikini Open class was super stacked. How were you feeling coming out of that show and what was your focus as you prepped for your next show, the California championship?
VANESSA: Honestly, I felt so accomplished that day. I had been through so much, and honestly winning Bikini Novice almost felt like being in a movie with a happy ending. I have a very competitive spirit so, after getting the whole experience, I knew how much harder I had to train and what I needed to work on for my next show. I felt like I already had a great package. I just needed to be more relaxed and work on things such as presentation.
“FOR MY SECOND SHOW, TRAVELING WAS A WHOLE OTHER EXPERIENCE. THAT WAS THE FIRST TIME I EVER WAS ON A PLANE, SO THAT WAS EXCITING. I LOVE TRAVELING NOW.”
BEN: What was it like traveling for that show? Did you fly or drive? You definitely improved between shows, especially with your presentation and seeming more confident up there. Then it was back to SoCal for the September show, your third show of the year. What was your game plan for this show?
“I WANT TO MASTER ALL CATEGORIES. LET ME REPHRASE THAT. I WILL MASTER THEM…”
VANESSA: For my second show, traveling was a whole other experience. That was the first time I ever was on a plane, so that was exciting. I love traveling now.
I think doing back to back shows helped a lot as far as being comfortable on stage. Now it’s just second nature to me. For my third show in SoCal, that was an important show for me because that’s where it all started. I came in more prepared and actually bulked for that show, so I was thicker. I wasn’t going to leave without placing.
“FIRST SHOW I WAS REALLY LEAN, BUT I’VE ALWAYS SEEN MYSELF BIGGER. SO, I WAS A LOT HAPPIER WITH SIZE AT THE SECOND SHOW.”
BEN: Oh, wow! That’s so cool. You know, it’s funny… Karl Hall, who is the reigning IPL Men’s Pro Bodybuilding Champion, competed in his first IPL show in March of 2017 at 40 years old. He flew from Wisconsin to New York to compete in that show and that was the first time he had ever been on a plane! I was shocked when he told me that in an interview. I felt really honored that his first flight was to go compete in an IPL show. So, I feel the same for you. I’m honored that the IPL was able to get you on your first plane! laughs
So, you definitely came in fuller for that second SoCal show. And, you looked really great. Looking at your placements up until that point…in the first show you placed 3rd in Bikini Open and 1st in Bikini Novice. In your second show, in NorCal, you placed 4th in Bikini Open Class A and 2nd in Bikini Mommas. Then, in your third show, you placed 2nd in Bikini Open and won Overall Bikini Mommas. So, your placements were getting better over time. How were you feeling about your physique and placements coming out of the second SoCal show? And why did you drop the Novice class? Did you just feel it was time to move on?
VANESSA: [laughs] Yeah, kind of embarrassing that I never really traveled. But, I’m glad it started with something I’m really passionate about. Honestly, I felt really good. First show I was really lean, but I’ve always seen myself bigger. So, I was a lot happier with size at the second show. As far as placements I was still in my learning faze and understanding the whole concept. If I was as confident and more prepared mentally I know I could’ve done better. To be able to place regardless is a really good feeling. So I’m happy overall with my second SoCal show.
Honestly, I felt like Novice is for beginner athletes. Kind of to get your feet wet for bigger categories. I was able to master it at the first show and wanted to keep challenging myself. I want to master all categories. Let me rephrase that. I will master them and earn my Pro Card in all categories.
BEN: Your last contest had you back in Sacramento. This time you entered only one class, Bikini Open. Where you placed 2nd in Class A. How were you feeling heading into that show and how did you feel about your placement?
VANESSA: Honestly, I felt like I brought a great package. I was physically and mentally ready for that show. Unfortunately the funds for that show weren’t all there, but I wanted to compete, even if it was just for one class. So, considering that was my only category, I was happy with my placement.
BEN: Well, you definitely had an awesome run this year! It was a pleasure having you on each of those IPL stages. What’s next for you?
VANESSA: I appreciate that! I enjoy competing in the IPL. Well, I definitely will be back in Covina once the 2019 schedule is out. I’m determined to get my Pro Card! NMI
BEN YOSEF: Let me first say that it is very brave of you to open up about your experience with drug abuse. Thank you for sharing this part of your story with NATURALMAG. When was the first time you used drugs? And, what was your first drug?
“IF I CAN HELP ANYONE WHO’S NOT OPEN WITH ADDICTION, THEN I’VE DONE MY JOB.”
VANESSA SANTIBANEZ: Of course. If I can help anyone who’s not open with addiction, then I’ve done my job. I guess the first time would be high school. Like any typical teenager with experimenting…a little weed here and there. Nothing crazy. That was only in high school. Then I didn’t do anything until I was 23.
I had surgery and was prescribed Narcos. I guess you could say over time of taking them I got pretty hooked. So, that’s where it started. It went from being prescribed for a weeks worth, to being on pills for 4 years. After a while doing that, my body got used to it and it wasn’t working anymore. Or I wasn’t getting the effects that I wanted. So, that’s when I got into heroin. I did heroin for about a year, maybe a year and a half. As soon as I got on that, everything started spiraling.
YOSEF: So, basically from painkillers to heroin? How does one make the jump to heroin? What led you to that choice?
“MOST PEOPLE WHO START ABUSING PAIN KILLERS EVENTUALLY GO ON HEROIN. THEY GO HAND AND HAND.”
SANTIBANEZ: Well, painkillers and heroin are very similar. Heroin is cut with morphine and morphine is a painkiller. Most people who start abusing pain killers eventually go on heroin. They go hand and hand.
YOSEF: What did it feel like using heroin?
SANTIBANEZ: You get this warm sensation that’s all over your body. The best way to describe it is smoking weed without the head change and being able to control the high.
YOSEF: At what point did you acknowledge that this was a serious problem? And, what made you want to stop?
SANTIBANEZ: I knew right away. You get very addicted to heroin, almost instantly. The first time I ever got sick from not having it is when I knew how bad it was. I would get sick off not having pills, but being sick off heroin is another ball game. Basically when my addiction came to light with my family, it was game over for me. But I consider it a blessing, because I didn’t have the strength to do it on my own.
YOSEF: Wow, so interesting. And yes, it was most certainly a blessing. Do you struggle to this day with staying away from drugs, in general? Or is it a completely conquered demon?
“…ONCE I GAVE IT UP I WAS DONE. I’VE NEVER RELAPSED. NOT EVEN ONCE. AND TODAY I’M 404 DAYS CLEAN.”
SANTIBANEZ: No. Actually, once I gave it up I was done. I’ve never relapsed. Not even once. And today I’m 404 days clean. I’m done with it. At the point of going into rehab I was done mentally and physically. I just needed the push.
YOSEF: What was the catalyst that drove you to rehab? And what advice would you give to people out there who might have similar struggles with substance abuse?
“ADDICTION IS A DISEASE OF THE BRAIN AND SHOULD BE TREATED JUST LIKE ANY OTHER DISEASE.”
SANTIBANEZ: I would say what really made me want to stop is it coming down to losing my kids and family forever for the drug. Or being done and given the opportunity to rebuild everything I lost. What I would tell anyone who struggles with addiction is get a support system. A healthy support system. The drugs have too much power over our mind and body to do it alone. And, actually work all the steps they tell you to in rehab. Because it actually works. Addiction is a disease of the brain and should be treated just like any other disease.
YOSEF: Well said. And, I just want to say thank you again for going so deep into this and sharing something so personal. I am quite certain that we have never had an interview like this in NATURALMAG in the five years this magazine has been published. I appreciate you and I appreciate you being part of the IPL family. Thank you again. so much.
SANTIBANEZ: I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to share my story. And I’m glad to be the first to take it as deep as I did. I really appreciate you and the IPL very much. NMI
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