It's a fascinating concept for a TV show: Over two rounds of competition, three mediocre bakers work to recreate incredible, Pinterest-worthy desserts for a $10,000 prize.
Almost the instant that Netflix's "Nailed It" launched in March 2018, it became a hit among viewers drawn to everything from host Nicole Byer's witty commentary to judge/celebrity chocolatier Jacques Torres' expert, French-accent-laden advice. Mostly, though, people loved the drama, because while, yes, sometimes the contestants nail it, way more often they hilariously fail it.
For Alicia Figliuolo, a New Braunfels resident who competed in the "Nailed It! Holiday!" episode "Toying Around," the show offered more than just an opportunity to bake a cake and win some cash. During the course of a three-day shoot, Figliuolo, who experienced a traumatic brain injury in 2017, would learn that something she once loved dearly — baking — could be reclaimed.
In turn, Figliuolo, 33, would inspire thousands of viewers who tuned in for lighthearted comedy but came away with a lesson in perseverance.
UGLY BUT DELICIOUS
Baking was Figliuolo's outlet.
“I grew up baking,” Figliuolo said. “Everything was homemade, my mom never made anything from a box, and we all helped in the kitchen. I have always loved to bake and cook.”
But while her treats always tasted good, their looks left something to be desired. She remembers taking what she calls a “galactic poke cake” to a party she attended with her wife, Ciara, who is also in the military.
“I thought it looked ugly, but it tasted really good,” she said. “We get to the event and nobody touches it. My little heart was totally broken. At the next event, I got asked to bring the chips.”
In August 2017, Figliuolo, a Marine Corps veteran who left the military in 2007 and was working as a social worker in Sacramento, woke early for an appointment.
As she was walking down the hallway, her left leg started to go numb, causing her to lose her balance and hit her head on the wall. She then fell over and hit her head several more times, ultimately losing consciousness. When she awoke, she continued about her day, which ended at Zumba class.
“I noticed that she was kind of off, and I was like, ‘Are you OK?’" said Figliuolo's gym partner and friend Kayleigh Collins. "She said, ‘I don’t know, I might have a concussion. I hit my head this morning.' She told me the story and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you need to go to the doctor right now.’”
She went to the hospital, but they sent her home. Three days later, Figliuolo woke up and realized she couldn't make words. She returned to the hospital and learned that the episode — which doctors said was related to neuropathy, or peripheral nerve damage, she experienced in the military — had resulted in blunt force trauma and that her brain had swelled.
Because of memory loss related to the accident, Figliuolo started doing things like forgetting to turn off the oven and leaving the bathroom faucet running. Soon, her friends and family didn't want her to be left alone.
“She was struggling with certain things like cooking and speaking,” Collins said. “She became a little more reserved, which was very much not like her. She had to change her whole life around.”
Figliuolo said being stripped of her independence and not being able to do things like cook or take a shower by herself led her into a deep depression.
“I was in this really ugly, ugly space and ‘Nailed It’ came on,” she said. “I watched the first episode, and I was dying in tears laughing. It was the first time I’d had that euphoric belly laugh in so long.”
Suddenly, Figliuolo had a new goal. She wanted to go on “Nailed It.”
As she worked hard at occupational and speech therapy, which she took to help with a stutter that developed after the fall, Figliuolo also quietly applied for the show.
In June 2018, she was called to Burbank to tape an episode that aired as part of the “Nailed It! Holiday!” series released in December. In her episode, she and her fellow bakers were tasked with two challenges. The first was to create a 3-D cookie; hers was a doll that ended up with a creepy, melted face that sparked the hashtag #nightmaredolly and later on inspired a tattoo on her arm.
When she unveiled her finished product in the second round, an intricate robot cake, she broke down in tears. Baking, something that she loved so dearly, something she had lost, was attainable again. And while her robot had a misshapen head and imperfect buttons, he existed, shining for all the world to see.
"I have done something that I never thought I would ever do again,” she told the judges in the episode. “While it might not be pretty, I hope it tastes awesome.”
Torres' response when he dug his fork into her red velvet slice only sweetened the deal: “I love your cake.”
“In that moment, when he told me it was good, I knew I could do this," Figliuolo said. "While it may be ugly, it’s me. I put my heart and soul into it.”
A NEW CHAPTER
If a raw, bare Alicia went into that shoot, a tougher, replenished Alicia came out.
Emboldened by the encouraging words from Torres and Byer, Figliuolo set out on a mission to perfect her decorating skills. She’s made elaborate birthday cakes for friends and family and even appeared on a morning show in California where she presented a “mimosa in cupcake form.”
The show inspired her to keep pursuing something she’s always loved. She’s been surprised to find that she's inspiring other people, too.
As she made a batch of chocolate-hazelnut cupcakes in her brand new kitchen in New Braunfels, where she and her wife moved recently from California, she said hundreds of people have reached out to her on Facebook and Instagram following the episode. People who were struggling, it seemed, saw some of themselves in Alicia.
“Seeing someone else go through such a difficult thing and still be able to do the things they love and do something as incredible as compete on ‘Nailed It’ really meant a lot,” said North Carolina resident Leah Wood, who has a rare genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danlos that makes her bones break easily and causes her to be in a great deal of pain regularly. “I think it also meant a lot because, as a society, we don’t often acknowledge how difficult it is to deal with traumatic injuries or experiences and how much trauma can really impact daily function."
After watching the episode, Wood immediately reached out on Twitter to Figliuolo, who wrote right back.
“Watching her on the show made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my experiences,” Wood said. “I told her the episode warmed my heart and that it was incredible to watch her have a fun time and be able to compete despite injuries and trauma. She just really inspired me to keep trying my hardest and doing what I love.”
Figliuolo said she now has a dream of hosting a show or podcast that showcases atypical people doing extraordinary things. And, of course, she’ll keep baking.
“'Nailed It' changed the narrative in my mind to tell me that post-brain-injury Alicia may not be all the things she was, but the person I’m going to become and the person I am today can do anything she puts her brain to,” she said. “It just takes someone believing in you and giving you the courage to do that.”
RELATED: Keep up with the latest food news at Austin360.com
Alicia's Surprise Chocolate Hazelnut Cupcakes
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup melted unsalted butter
2 large cage-free organic eggs
2 teaspoons Madagascar vanilla
24 hazelnut chocolate candies (Ferrero Rocher or similar) plus four extra for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and insert 24 cupcake liners into cupcake pan.
Combine flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl and mix well. Add milk, butter, eggs and vanilla to the flour mixture and blend on medium speed until well combined.
Use a melon baller or small ice cream scoop to evenly fill each liner with one scoop, then place an unwrapped candy in the center, pushing it down so it sinks into the batter. Next, add a second scoop of batter on top and let settle.
Place tray on the center oven rack and bake for 13 minutes; remove and let cool.
6 sticks of unsalted butter, room temperature
3 cups of sifted powdered sugar
1 tablespoon of Madagascar vanilla
14 oz. Nutella
Cream butter in a stand mixer on medium for about 4 minutes or until creamy. Slowly add powdered sugar by the half-cup. When mixing, be sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl between cups. Once all 3 cups are added, scrape down to the bottom of the bowl, then mix again for 1 minute. Add Nutella and continue mixing on low until it is fully incorporated. Fill icing bag with tip of your choice and, once cupcakes are cool, frost them.
Crush extra candy inside a sandwich bag and use as garnish.
— Alicia Figliuolo