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Karla's Gift

Eight years ago, Karla Dascal was already Miami’s premiere event designer, the woman who with an inimitable sense of style masterminded the city’s most sophisticated soirees. In a world of sparkling chandeliers, floating tents, glowing bars and pristine flowers—all part of a signature look she meticulously crafted over the years—Dascal could famously juggle splashy quinceañeras one night, decadent Louis Vuitton dinners the next. But as the parties raged on, what most people didn’t know was that, behind the scenes, their creator was raging in a far more dangerous way. “I weighed 238 pounds,” Dascal recalls. “I had diabetes, high blood pressure, and I was on Prozac. I chain smoked, worked 14-hour days and ate defiantly. I was completely out of control, and I didn’t know how to stop.”

Though she had been struggling for years—“I went to my first Weight Watchers camp when I was 11”—it wasn’t until one morning in 2005 that the chaos came to a frightening halt. “I woke up and my blood sugar was over 350,” she says, pausing as if to remember just how close to the edge she really was. “I thought to myself, I’m not going to survive this.” That day, as the unthinkable began to sink in, Dascal made a dramatic decision: to undergo gastric bypass surgery. It was a move that may have saved her life—and one that certainly helped her begin to change it. In the years since, she’s lost 100 pounds and, just as important, embarked on a new course of holistic living—in both body and spirit. She completely altered her eating habits, introducing juicing and vegan and raw foods into her diet; took up yoga and meditation; and, with the trademark determination she uses to put on her impeccable events, began traveling the world to seek out the most notable spiritual teachers—Marianne Williamson, Debbie Ford, Dr. Gabriel Cousens, to name a few. “It’s been an incredible awakening,” says Dascal, the middle of three daughters to one of Miami’s most prominent families (her father, Charles Dascal, who passed away this summer, co-founded Continental National Bank, the country’s first Cuban-owned bank, and later the South Motors Automotive Group and Vista BMW; her mother, Fanny, is an active philanthropist.) “I made my lifestyle my priority, and it saved me. Now I want to share that.”

Come Spring 2014, she will do precisely that as she turns her famous Wynwood venue, The Space Miami, where many of her over-the-top events have taken place, into the city’s ground zero for holistic living and learning. She will call it The Sacred Space and it will be home to Miami’s first raw and vegetarian cooking academy, led by noted vegetarian chef and cookbook author Matthew Kenney, and to Dascal’s first restaurant, White Lotus, which will feature a fully plant-based menu. The Sacred Space will also host activities and a curriculum that focus on empowerment and healthy, whole living. It is, Dascal says, a true alignment between her work and her newly evolved spirit—the coming together of both, finally. In the meantime, as she gears up for the long list of special events she’s putting on for Art Basel and an endless stream of end-of-the-year fetes, the woman Departures magazine recently named one of the world’s top 10 event planners, (who is also the mother of 2-year-old Alessandra) sits with INDULGE to talk more about her journey, the gifts she picked up along the way and how she hopes to inspire others, especially during the holidays.

It sounds like your battle with weight loss and food started when you were young.

It did. Even though I was athletic, I always had a big weight problem. There was definitely an ancestral issue there—my younger sister and my cousins had similar weight problems—but there was something bigger going on too. For me, there was a lot of stress and anxiety around food. My mother was always on a diet because being thin was everything to her. But then my nanny would put big plates of Cuban food in front of me. There were all these mixed messages.

How did you feel about your own weight gain?

My weight was like an armor. The bigger I got, the more powerful I felt. Or at least it seemed like that. The amazing thing is, I created this whole glamorous business being 230 pounds. But I was liked and good at what I did. So it made me feel like my weight really didn’t matter, it didn’t impede my success.

When did you realize it was a serious issue?

When I was in college, which is when I first developed diabetes. I started feeling thirsty all the time, so I went to the doctor. He diagnosed me, told me I needed to adjust my diet and then gave me medication to control the diabetes. Of course, almost immediately I started to defy the medication. I would see how much I could eat, how much I could push it until my blood sugar would skyrocket. I was totally out of hand.

And what would the doctor say? He would give me more medications. I was also seeing nutritionists and a therapist. I was depressed, so I was on Prozac. I’d been diagnosed with ADD so sometimes I was also on Ritalin. Meanwhile, I’m eating Happy Meals and smoking and drinking. It was a terrible cocktail. At first you resisted the idea of gastric bypass.

I did. Because I was the queen of control—I could control everything in my events, so why not this too? But I remember going to a meeting once, just to learn more about the procedure, and I was struck by the fact that there were people there who weighed 400 pounds and had already lost 200! When I saw that I thought, if they can do it so can I.

What happened after the surgery?

I shed pounds very quickly, so that was good. But I wasn’t healed yet. I came out of the hospital not needing to take diabetes medications, but I was still on Prozac, still battling depression—and still eating Happy Meals. The thing about the Prozac was that it made me feel like I had a mask covering my face. I couldn’t see things clearly. I was desperate and had tried to talk to so many people about it. I just wanted to feel better. So I decided to take a yoga class even though I’d never taken one before. I walked into the studio and saw the instructor, Fred Busch (who would eventually become my master), and he was drinking this blue-green algae drink. I just walked up to him and asked, What are you drinking? When he explained that it was something called E3live I said, Do you think that can help get me off Prozac? Absolutely, he said. So I started drinking it, started taking more of his yoga classes, and started doing cleanses with him. Little by little, I felt better and was able to let go of the Prozac.

What difference did you feel?

It was like my brain just opened up and I could see clearly. Once I had completely weaned myself off the Prozac, I never again took another drug.

What else did you do?

I did a 30-day raw food program in which I only ate plant-based foods. And though I was losing even more weight, that wasn’t the point anymore. I had never felt that good in my life! The diabetes and the high blood pressure were completely gone. The irony was that I was healing myself with the exact thing that had created the imbalance in the first place—the food.

And that lead you onto a whole other journey.

Yes. I was getting better and better, and I wanted to learn more about holistic living in general. I started educating myself. I dabbled in Buddhism. I went to see energy healers, acupuncturists, spiritual teachers. I’d take trips by myself, go hiking by myself. I’d go to a new city and look to connect with the holistic community there. By this time, it was 2008 and the recession hit Miami—and the entire world, really—and the events business really slowed down. Instead of getting worried, I saw it as an opportunity to continue to travel to meet more healers. Then, I started offering my space to them. I’d invite them to Miami to share their message. Debbie Ford came. So did David Wolfe and Dr. Gabriel Cousens, and even some Buddhist monks from California. That’s when I knew that the next thing I’d create was this wellness business—I called it The Sacred Space.

Was it about this time you decided you wanted a baby?

I always knew I loved kids, but the circumstances just weren’t right in my life to have them traditionally. It was my journey, the people and the love it unleashed in my life, that perpetuated the decision to have my daughter. Alessandra was born of a relationship that still exists, with a person who’s been with me throughout my journey. And while it’s a relationship that’s still coming to fruition, I simply didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to have a child of my own, to teach her everything I’ve learned and share my love. And as it turns out, I was in optimum shape to have a baby. The pregnancy was spectacular and I felt great. And my daughter—my Chi Chi—is perfect, my best production ever! When I think about it, I realize my journey back to health not only taught me to love others and myself, it gave me the biggest gift in my life—my Alessandra.

Your father, one of your earliest teachers, passed away this year. What’s the most important lesson he left you?

Aside from learning high levels of style and elegance from him, he always told me that I had no limits. He taught me I had it within me to do whatever I wanted.

What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with The Sacred Space?

For me, being able to obtain all this knowledge and this information throughout the last eight years comes with a certain responsibility—a responsibility to share it. The Sacred Space is a place that lets me do that. Our mantra is “Love Is Everything” and I want people to really understand what that means. That even the most broken among us can heal if there is love. I think people in Miami are hungry for this.

As the holidays approach, what do you hope people take from your story?

I hope they realize that if I can heal myself, they can heal themselves and we can all heal each other. I hope people remember what the holidays are really about—love and family—and that they remain focused on that. That even though it’s a time of giving gifts, everything they need to be happy and healthy already exists within them.

We couldn’t resist asking the queen of stunning table settings for advice on creating a holiday spread that’s both healthful and festive. Click here to see Karla Dascal’s elegant ideas and recipes.