Naomi Judd didn’t waste any time warming up to the crowd at the Bakersfield Women’s Business Conference on Thursday.
“It’s my people!” she told the women gathered, bypassing the podium on the stage at the Rabobank Convention Center and instead addressing the crowd from within it, walking back and forth and speaking among the guests eating lunch, jokingly stealing a plate of food from one woman. To much laughter afterward, she told the women and the cameras projecting her speech on the big screen, “Get this side, girls, it’s my better side.”
For the 27th annual conference, around 1,000 to 1,200 guests gathered at the convention center for guest speakers, workshops, information and a little shopping. Judd was the keynote speaker, with local singer and actress Amy Adams and Bakersfield native/L.A. party planner Rachel Hollis also speaking. This year’s theme was “Find Your Passion, Brand Your Life.”
After guests finished their lunch, they were ready for Judd to take the stage, though she never actually did make it there. As she spoke about her life as a small-town good girl turned single teenage mother turned survivor of domestic abuse and hepatitis C and, finally, country star and activist, Judd stayed on the floor, often addressing women one-on-one. As she got to know the crowd, they got to know her, too. She reckoned many of the guests might be looking at her and wondering if maybe she’s had some work done.
“Well, of course I have! I’m an entertainer!” the 70-year-old said with a grin.
The biggest lesson Judd imparted to her audience was the importance of self-esteem. Before she hit it big as a country star, Judd led a troubled life and took the blame for things she had no control over.
“I thought I was responsible for everything that happened, so I had no self-esteem,” she said. “What happens when you have low self-esteem? You attract what you feel you’re worthy of.”
Judd told her story through a series of “tests and lessons,” sharing how what she learned from each trial can be applied to anyone.
“The test comes first, then you get the lesson,” she told the crowd. “I hate when that happens.”
The first test was about change, and the lesson was that it is up to you what to do with that change. Just before her senior year of high school, Judd got pregnant and, right in time for graduation, gave birth to daughter Wynonna. Between that time, her brother died, her parents divorced and her father started dating a girl closer to her age than his. Things were definitely changing.
“I had to make all these decisions all of a sudden at 17,” she said. “I didn’t have anybody to talk to. I just knew everything was going to be up to me.”
Judd continued with a message on choices. After moving to Hollywood and later divorcing the father of her second daughter (actress Ashley), Judd entered another relationship, this time with a man who abused her. Away from home and family, Judd didn’t know what to do but knew she couldn’t stay there. She decided to go back home to Kentucky and become a nurse.
“We moved to a mountaintop in Kentucky, with no TV, no telephone,” she said. “The girls were not amused.”
It was there where Judd would give her 12-year-old daughter a guitar that would change both of their lives. The two had a successful music career together, winning critical and fan acclaim until a hepatitis C diagnosis forced the older Judd to retire early. Judd believes she contracted the disease from a needle while she was a nurse in the intensive care unit. Despite being given three years to live, Judd defied the odds and beat the disease. She’s since been diagnosed with another devastating illness: severe treatment-resistant depression, which she is currently fighting with anti-depressants, meditation and “radical acceptance.”
Judd touched briefly on her family’s long history with mental illness, talking about a great-grandfather who was a serial killer and a grandmother who burned down the family restaurant. In every generation of her family, she said, there is a suicide.
“I came here to tell you this story because I care about you, because I see myself in you,” Judd told the crowd of mostly women. “Just remember what I said: You attract what you think you’re worthy of.”
When Judd got a signal from offstage that it was time for her to close, both she and the audience seemed to be sad their time was up. She left the room to a standing ovation, stopping for a few hugs on her way out.
At a table in the back, friends Kristan Rios, Johanna Smotherman and Eliza Hernandez sat talking after Judd finished speaking. All three agreed Judd’s address was inspirational.
“We do have choices in life, you just have to find that motivation in you to move forward,” Smotherman said of what she took away from the speech.
Executive committee member Dayna Nichols said Judd’s story was important to hear because women tend to compare themselves to other women, whether they’re famous like Judd or just successful in their own field. All we know is their success, she said, but seldom do we know what else led up to it.
After the keynote address, Nichols was ready to call the day a success just halfway through.
“It’s been great,” she said. “I think women came away motivated, inspired and uplifted.”