For most of the last decade, Livvie Forbes, 18, suffered from debilitating medical disorders that left her looking different than other children, and from attacks by school bullies that left her feeling hopeless.
Her voice was silenced by sadness buried so deep within her that she was unaware it was her lifeline.
Then, last year, she rediscovered it, reclaimed it, and recorded a demo. Members of the Hooters, the iconic Philly rock band, were so blown away that they offered to produce Forbes' first album for September release.
It's a Cinderella story, if Cinderella lived in Berwyn.
Before the medical problems and the bullies ganged up on her in elementary school, Livvie Forbes was a happy little girl running swiftly and fearlessly through a Chester County childhood.
"She was this wiry, effervescent kid with sparkly eyes," said her father, Michael P. Forbes, a Wayne lawyer. "I used to think, 'Oh, my God, I'm going to be chasing after her all my life.' "
But while at Hillside Elementary School in Berwyn, Livvie suddenly started growing and gaining weight much faster than her classmates. "Everything changed at that moment," her father said.
Forbes, a June graduate of Conestoga High School, said she won't forget those grade school years when she didn't know what was happening to her.
"I was 5-foot-2. Everyone else was four feet," she said. "I looked different, so I was pretty easy to bully. They'd call me Big Bird, things like that. I just cried a lot."
The bullying escalated at Tredyffrin-Easttown Middle School, she said. "They beat me up on the playground. They choked me on the bus. They told me, 'You're ugly, you're fat, you're stupid, you're annoying. Why don't you just kill yourself?' "
School administrators tried to help, said her mother, Nancy Forbes, but the bullying continued.
Her psychological stress was accompanied by a physical mystery: Time and again, without warning, her ankles collapsed.
"I sprained and broke my ankles a ton of times," she said. "I didn't know why I was in constant pain."
For years, she said, her doctors didn't know, either.
Livvie's physical and mental anguish drove her to extremes. "In middle school, I started to self-harm a lot," she said, meaning cutting herself on her arms. "I developed eating disturbances. I'd make myself throw up a lot. I kind of drowned in the victim thing."
Finally, in middle school, Livvie's medical problems were found to stem from polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder that can result in obesity; Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder marked by unstable joints; and amplified musculoskeletal pain syndrome and reflex neurovascular dystrophy, both of which cause extreme pain in the joints.
"There were so many tears, so much broken heart," her mother said, "that we told her, 'Livvie, there's got to be another side to all this, something you can hold on to.' "
Last year, as a Conestoga High School junior, Forbes discovered what that something was. Beneath layers of childhood trauma were a voice and a singer/songwriter's ability to turn personal pain into universal poignancy.
She got up at Conestoga's annual Junior Cabaret and wowed her classmates with her Adele-like rendition of Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise."
Even her former tormentors became fans. But, Forbes said, "I had so many bad memories that it was like, 'How could you just pretend that nothing happened? You hurt me so much.' It's still mind-boggling."
She wrote songs about love and loneliness, but not what she personally had suffered. She was trying to put the hurt behind her. She stopped self-harming, she said. "I was sick of it. I don't want to look down at my arm and see all those scars."
Still, "I was very uncomfortable with the fact that I had talent," she said, "because my whole life I'd been told I was worthless."
Her father, who had videotaped rock bands in the '80s before becoming a lawyer, gave a demo of Livvie singing two of her originals - "Small," an upbeat pop song, and "Addict," a heartbreak ballad - to old friend David Uosikkinen, drummer for the Hooters.
"Dave told me he heard it and almost drove off the road," Livvie Forbes said with a self-deprecating laugh.
Uosikkinen confirmed it. "I get a lot of music sent my way," he said. "Frankly, most of it is mediocre, at best. But when I heard Livvie, her voice jumped out of the car speakers at me and, it's true, I almost drove off the road."
Uosikkinen shared the demo with Hooters bandmate Eric Bazilian and Steve Butler of Smash Palace, and they all agreed to co-produce a Livvie Forbes album. Uosikkinen did the drumming, and Bazilian played several instruments on many of the songs, joined by musicians from other Philly bands. On "Small" and "Addict," she accompanied herself on banjolele, a hybrid banjo/ukulele.
Forbes will perform her debut CD, Chronic, at a World Café Live release party in Philadelphia on Sept. 29, after which it will be available in stores. Her first single, "Small," already is getting radio airplay nationally.
She is building up to her live record-release concert by doing open mics at the Riddle Ale House in Media and by studying with her voice teacher of three years, Susan Dash, in Devon. "I want to hear the person in the voice," Dash said. "You hear Livvie, the person, in her singing. She has incredible warmth."
After years of taking pain medicines, Forbes is finally medication-free, but not pain-free.
"I'm still trying to find my way," she said. "After so many years of trauma, the pain isn't going to go away for a long time."