With the looks of a model, the energy of a rock star, and the determination of an entrepreneur, it’s likely that if you haven’t heard of Johan before, you will soon. The Chicago native overcame his traumatic childhood permeated by alcoholism and abuse by throwing himself fully into public speaking, community service, and abstinence promotion, all the while handling his model and acting career. With notable TV appearances on the Tyra Banks Show as well as on the Today Show, this 31-year-old BR!NKer instantly made us feel at ease as he talked about his difficult past and his unconventional trajectory.
From what I’ve heard and seen, you seem to be a pretty busy guy! How would you define what it is that you do?
That’s a good question. I am primarily a public speaker, but I also dabble in modeling, acting, and any type of social activism I can get my hands on.
What kind of public speaking do you do?
My main goal is to inspire young people to dare to follow their dreams and to not be a product of their environment. Even though I also promote abstinence, my main message is one of determination and overcoming adversity.
How did you end up doing that? Does it have to do with your own story?
Yes. I grew up in the inner city of Chicago in an area called Humboldt Park. I guess you could say it wasn’t the best neighborhood in the world. Think the total opposite of Disney World: violence, gang activities, drug activities… you name it. To this day, my family still lives over there, and I’m the only one who left.
What was it like growing up in this environment?
I was raised by my mother, grandmother, and uncle. He was the epitome of everything dysfunctional in life. He was an alcoholic, dealt drugs for a living, he was part of the Latin Kings gang, was abusive towards girlfriends, slept around, and was a very violent man as well. As I was growing up, I realized how destructive he was and how that affected my family. One day in particular, when I was in 7th grade, I saw him laying on the couch asleep as I was walking out of the house. He had a bottle in his hand, and I could smell the alcohol coming from his body. And then it just hit me as I was walking out: I had interacted with what could be my future. I decided to refuse to be like him and to do something positive with my life.
Did you keep that promise as a teenager?
I always like to say that just like any teenager, I was a rebel. But when you grow up in a dysfunctional environment, being a rebel means being a good kid and daring to be different. My senior year of high school, I received a letter from the University of Chicago asking me to play basketball there. I went to see my guidance counselor and asked her what she thought. She looked at me and told me, “Johan, you don’t have what it takes to make it to this school. You’re not smart enough.” As a seventeen-year-old kid, I started believing what she was saying! I wasn’t confident in my academics, and that was the last straw.
You turned down the offer?
I did. I went to Northeastern University, decided to focus on academics, and ended up graduating with honors. But this conversation with my counselor was extremely instrumental career-wise for me: she had had an opportunity to inspire me and say that she believed in me, but decided to destroy my dream. After graduating from college, I decided that I would use my voice to tell kids that there are so many opportunities out there just waiting for them.
How did it all happen?
I was extremely motivated and kept on building my speaking abilities. Within a few years, I was on the front cover of a young adult newspaper, was invited twice on the Tyra Banks Show, and ended up on the Today Show in the morning. I visit a significant amount of high schools each year and try to take advantage of every speaking opportunity I can get.
What is it that you love about what you do?
I want to make an impact on other people’s lives. I always like to say that your dreams create the boundaries of your existence. We can either be a product of our dreams or of our environments; it’s entirely up to us. In 8th grade, the principal gathered us and said, “Most of you will be dead before 18, lots of girls will be pregnant, most will not graduate.” I want to show kids that their future is not written.
Have you been able to see the impact that you’ve had on people?
One of the greatest moments of my career was when I went back to New Mexico in 2007, two years after having spoken at a high school conference in front of 1,500 students. A girl came up to me and said, “I was here two years ago when you spoke. This isn’t even my school, but I wanted to thank you for your message and for changing my life.”
On another topic, how has your abstinence affected your relationships?
It’s not always easy. My longest romantic relationship ever was three and a half months. It’s tough, because you always have to figure out quickly if a person is worthy of investing your time and emotions.
What do you need the most right now?
I’m not the most organized person in the world, so I’m currently looking for a manager or any form of agency representation. It would be fantastic to also have someone help me with marketing.