In an episode of Sex And The City, the lead
character Carrie Bradshaw, once poignantly
concluded, “Maybe the past is like an anchor
holding us back. Maybe, you have to let go of who
you were to become who you will be.”
In extraordinarily different circumstances, in a far
cry from the glamorous lives portrayed on SATC, a
21-year-old homeless woman named Dani
Johnson, came to roughly the same conclusion,
though perhaps, through a more excruciating
She made a meager living as a cocktail waitress in
Hawaii, and was living out of her car with just two
dollars and three cents to her name and $37,000 in
debt. Haunted by a childhood filled with brutal and
systematic physical and sexual abuse, she
attempted suicide following a cocaine binge – but in
that moment, ironically, her life changed forever.
Today Dani Johnson is a multi-millionaire many
times over, runs five companies and spends her
time jetting around the world, giving back through
her various charities.
How she went on to make her first million despite a
tortured past and despite being homeless, is the
stuff of entrepreneurial legend.
Her story suggests, as Dr. Phil would put it, “It
doesn’t matter what your mama did; it doesn’t
matter what your daddy didn’t do. Nobody but you
is responsible for your life. You are responsible for
the energy that you create for yourself.”
This is Dani Johnson’s story.
It was Christmas Eve, 1990.
“I was stoned out of my mind for two months –
sleeping with eight different guys. I got to eat only
by dating all these people. I realized that I had
become worse than the family I grew up in and that
was devastating. My mom and dad were drug
addicts and I had never seen my parents sober. My
childhood was filled with threats and getting beaten
daily; week in, week out. My whole life was filled
with horror and terror and lies and I vowed that I
would never be like my family. And there I was
She hated cocaine ‘with a passion’ and recalls that
when coke was introduced into the home by her
parents when she was a teenager, the violence had
intensified and the emotional instability was
‘horrifying’. “They would say one thing and then
another thing after 15 minutes.”
That Christmas Eve, she joined other waitresses at
the beach on a drink and drug binge.
“I was sweating as I was constantly dancing. I see
the coke and I leaned down and I did a line. I
remember waking up at 10 the next morning on my
beach mat and I am asking everyone for coke. I
was walking around saying, ‘Where do I get more of
That day, I would have given my body – I would
have become a prostitute for coke and that’s how
low I became. I hated everything about myself. I
knew my future would never be good. I was suicidal
from the age of six. My life was not worth living.
There was no chance to turn it into anything better.
I was disgusting. I hated how my parents raised us.
My life was filled with broken promises and lies and
people stealing and people beating me and people
hating me and me hating myself even more…”
Fueled by the after-effects of the drug, in an almost
catatonic state that morning, Dani decided she was
going to end it all. “I started walking towards the
ocean and dived underneath the wave.”
A few more moments under, and her life would
have ended there – not an unsurprising demise
given her circumstances, the coroner and police
chief would have quietly concluded.
But as it happened, in that instant, her life changed
‘Almost a Miracle’
“I heard a voice say, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’’
It felt almost like a miracle to her.
“The feeling of coke left instantly – I wasn’t
wanting it anymore. I rolled up my beach mat,
turned around and hiked a mile that I needed to in
order to get back to my car. I drove 45 minutes to
the beach where I was living. And the whole time I
was driving, it was as if the left side of my mind
was saying, ‘This is not what is intended for your
life, you shouldn’t be drinking. There is more to
life,’ and the right side was saying, ‘You’re a failure,
you’re a loser, you’re filthy; worse than your
parents. Drive this car into the ocean.’ This was like
a war inside my mind with these voices and I was
literally in a trance.
And I have no idea why I chose to listen to that first
So Dani began to ask herself: What can I do? What
do I need to do to get myself out this situation?
“As a cocktail waitress, I was not making enough,
so I had to figure out my options.”
She needed $4,500 to be able to afford an
apartment but with a small income derived mostly
from tips coupled with the island’s high rents, it
would take her four months to save enough money.
“I didn’t want to be homeless for another four
months. Rent in Hawaii was outrageously
expensive and I couldn’t afford plane tickets back
to California. I knew no one. I was terrified I would
be raped or beaten or kidnapped because there
wasn’t any shelter. I was a kid who, between the
ages of three to 16, was abused and molested. The
emotions were still there. You try to push this back
but when you’re homeless, it is at the forefront of
your mind all the time and it was terrifying to me.”
That night she fell asleep in her car without any
answers but the following day, the proverbial light
bulb went off.
“I get this idea. Everything I ever owned was in the
backseat of my car. And there was this weight loss
program I had purchased long before I was
homeless, lying in the back seat. I had used it for a
week. I never paid attention to it before. And it just
caught the corner of my eye in the sun. It was
warped from the humidity. But it was as if this
device was talking to me. I picked it up and it was
as if this thing was saying, ‘I’m your answer.’ And
my first thought was, ‘No, I’m not going to peddle a
weight loss program! No way I’m going to do this!’
As if it was beneath me. As if it was sinking to a
new depth. And you know, sometimes you have
that feeling that you need to do something you
don’t want to do?
I turned the box around, saw the manufacturer’s
details and called them from the payphone.
I started asking them the question: What is it going
to take to carry the product in Hawaii? As it turned
out, it would require me to have licensing – and
money, that I didn’t have.”
And this is when Dani – given her very scant means
– decided to get resourceful.
“I handwrote a flyer [for the weight loss program]
but I needed a phone number to advertise so people
could contact me – and I didn’t have one. So I
picked up the Yellow Pages in the phone booth. You
know cocktail waitresses always have coins! So I
looked through the Yellow Pages and called a small
telecommunications company. And I chatted with
this guy for some time, trying to build a
relationship. I asked him what the cost of their
voice mail service was.
He said to me, ‘Don’t drive all the way to pay for
this. Send me a check for $15. Here’s your new
Dani, of course, was elated – down to her last
quarter for that week, she got the break she
“I put up the flyer at the Post Office where
everyone in this town went to, and three hours
later, not thinking I would get any messages – it
was filled with 25 messages. I didn’t know what to
do with them!
Long story short, I ended up with 40 checks, totaling
$4,000 dollars from people I didn’t even know – that
I called up the manufacturer with an order but they
wanted a physical address to send the product and I
didn’t have one. So I talked the local liquor store
into letting me use their address.”
Dani made a quarter of a million dollars that first
year just by selling the weight loss program, was a
millionaire by the second year and went on to open
up 18 weight loss centers around the country. She
sold the business in 1996 – a multi-millionaire.