Throughout her 20s, Cristina Horcasitas held a cup in front of her face as often as she could. If a cup wasn’t available, she’d hide behind a scarf or a sweatshirt or even her hand. Anything to deflect attention from the scars along her misshapen chin.
Horcasitas, a Darnestown, Md., native who will be featured on Tuesday night’s second-season premiere of E!’s plastic surgery reality show, “Botched,” didn’t spend much time thinking about her looks before the winter of 1994.
Home from school on a snow day, Horcasitas, her two siblings and a friend passed the hours making a homemade candle out of wax shavings. When it wouldn’t light outdoors, they went into the garage, where a couple of kerosene canisters sat. They poured the gas on the candle, lit the wick and, in an instant, Horcasitas was engulfed in a ball of flame.
The 10-year-old was wearing her grandmother’s fur coat, which protected most of her body, but she suffered third-degree burns on her face and hands. None of the other children were hurt. “I thank God to this day that it attracted onto me and not to anybody else,” says Horcasitas, now a 31-year-old marketing manager who lives in the District.
The next year, she underwent her first operation to fix the scarring on her cheeks. Two years later, she flew to Mexico for a second surgery to reconstruct her jaw. The procedures helped but didn’t eliminate the red scars that marked the lower half of her face. She got used to people staring and occasionally poking fun at her.
“I had to play up my personality a little bit to make up for what I wasn’t having in the beauty department,” Horcasitas says. But she had the support of good friends and a loving family, who helped her flourish. In high school, she became captain of the cheerleading squad, student council president and yearbook editor.
She had a normal college life at the University of Maryland but remained deeply guarded and self-conscious. “Sometimes I’d just look around and be like, ‘There is no one around me that has anything wrong with them. These are all beautiful people — they don’t understand how lucky they are to have that gift of just walking around without people looking at them like they’re weird or different,’ ” she says.
After college, Horcasitas, at her grandmother’s urging, sought out a world-renowned New York plastic surgeon for a third operation. He told her that he could make her face look much more attractive. But when she woke up from the anesthesia, she found that it was worse. Though the scar was flat, her jawline now resembled Jay Leno’s, she says — large, square and unfeminine.
Horcasitas underwent seven more surgeries with various doctors to try to fix the result. None made a significant improvement, and each cost tens of thousands of dollars. She estimates that her family has spent more than $300,000 on the procedures.
She had just about given up hope that her face could be fixed when she saw a posting on the E! Web site, looking for participants for “Botched.” The show mostly features people who have had elective procedures — breast and butt implants, face lifts — that turned out badly. She didn’t think she fit the mold. But a close friend of hers had recently died, and she says she could feel him nudging her to apply.
She quickly heard back from a producer who was interested in her case. And last fall, she flew to Los Angeles to meet with the two doctors who would perform her 11th surgery. A deeply private person, she was worried about exposing her story on national television, but she believed that these doctors could help her — and would be willing to do it without any further financial burden on her family.
As the cameras rolled, producers pushed Horcasitas to really confront what had happened — and to talk about it with her friends, family and boyfriend. “I feel like this was the best, most therapeutic experience my family and I could’ve ever had,” she says. “It was incredible. We talked about stuff that was swept under the rug.”
The experience led Horcasitas to set up a Web site, Pretty With a Scar, to share her experience with people in similar circumstances. She hopes it will allow her to talk to other young burn victims at area hospitals.
“I never had anybody to look up to or relate to,” she says. “I hope that after the show, if somebody else wants to reach out, they know where to find me, and I’ll be right there to be like, ‘I’m here, let’s talk.’ ”
Horcasitas is thrilled with the physical results the doctors achieved. “I’m a lot more confident in a lot of ways,” she says. Before, if someone took her picture, she’d always turn to the side or try to find an angle that would make her look “less dude-like.”
“Now,” she says, “I can smile straight on.”