Terann Hilow has always been more than meets the eye. Back in 2016 a shot of the tall, curvaceous now-30-year-old in cutoffs and a tiny Astros T-shirt went viral as everyone, including the Houston Chronicle, wanted to know: Who is Astros Girl? The Houston bikini model gained thousands of social media followers almost overnight, but it was what she did next—parlaying a chance moment on a baseball game’s broadcast into a massive following, boosting the profile of her own swimwear company, Vengeance Bikinis—that really showed her mettle.
“The Astros Girl thing happened by complete chance,” Hilow told us by phone in mid-April. “I had been working on turning that T-shirt into a bikini top and decided to throw it on for the game. I 'd launched Vengeance Bikinis a couple years earlier, and this really helped to amplify exposure for both me and the brand.”
When the coronavirus pandemic led to a mask shortage earlier this year, Hilow, who got her bachelor’s in communications at UH, saw another opening, a chance to do some good. After all, she’d been sewing masks since 2006, just after graduating magna cum laude from Clear Lake High School, when her mother, Marianne, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Back then Hilow sewed them for the volunteers helping her mother at MD Anderson Cancer Center. As the pandemic’s PPE shortage became apparent earlier this spring, Hilow says, the public health crisis began to feel as overwhelming as her mother’s diagnosis.
“There have been days during this situation where I feel like I’ve woken up with the weight of the world on my shoulders,” she admits. “Events like this show us how very little we are in control.” But when Marianne urged her to turn back to those sewing skills once again, Hilow got an idea.
On March 14 Hilow announced to her nearly 200,000 social media followers that she’d be sewing and donating protective masks, mailing them out to anyone who requested them. The response was “insane,” she says, but she was ready for the challenge as hundreds of requests for masks poured in from first responders, oil and gas workers, and, of course, health care providers, many of them nurses.
I work in the emergency department at Webster. We are running out of supplies, one email read. The boyfriend of a nurse in the UT Health System requested 50 masks to fully employ their self-protect protocols, and a nurse at the bio-containment unit at the University of Maryland Medical Center pled for masks to wear on floors with non-COVID patients: We are trying as hard as we can to preserve the surgical masks we have!
After sewing an initial 2,700 masks (it took her just over two weeks, sewing 16 hours a day on her own machine at home), Hilow realized she could not continue alone and recruited friends, family, and even neighbors to help—including one neighbor who learned to sew working on parachutes for NASA at the Johnson Space Center. Soon she had a crew of 25 volunteers scattered around the city.
By March 31 she’d received over 3,000 requests for masks. By early April her small team was so swamped, Hilow wondered if they could continue. She’d already had to replace her sewing machine, she wasn’t getting any sleep, and there was no sign demand was letting up anytime soon. Worse, all of her usual fabric and elastic suppliers, the ones she relies on to make her swimsuits, were closing. But she kept at it, find- ing fabric and other supplies by window shopping at stores like JOANN Fabrics and Crafts.
By April 9, five days after the CDC issued guidelines suggesting that everyone wear cloth face coverings in public, Hilow had shipped more than 5,200 cloth masks to people around the country.
“Ever since I started, I have been completely inundated,” she says. But she is determined to keep going and sending her masks out, free of charge. When we spoke, she said she had already received more than 400 emails with more requests, many describing heartrending tales of need, adding, “The emails keep me up at night.”
And there are the responses, too. Like the one from Emily Calasanz, an obstetrician at the Woman’s Hospital of Texas: “Thank you very much for your generous gift. They will help protect not only me but my patients and their new babies.”
It was the thought of Calasanz and other healthcare workers having to go without that kept her hunched over her machine. “It’s honestly an honor to feel like I may be helping someone,” Hilow demurs. “Or just showing them someone cares.”
She describes herself as “crafty” and acknowledges she had the skills and tools in place to help. Surprisingly, her own businesses—she owns an app, AlphaLawgics, that connects lawyers to clients, in addition to Vengeance Bikinis—have fared pretty well through the outbreak. And she is still modeling, of course. After all, it’s her striking looks that made Hilow an internet sensation in the first place.
So, who is Astros Girl? Looks like we have a pretty good answer.