The Shocking Truth about Life as a Model. What the Fashion Industry Don't Want You to Know.
She was tall, slim with striking features. My first thought “wow, she must be a model.”
My second thought “Man, her life must be so easy. I wish I looked like that.”
I’d just finished speaking at the Hero Round Table conference – I was surrounded by a group of attendees who were excitedly sharing about the day so far. The tall slim girl (who later introduced herself as Alexandra) didn’t say much. In fact, she seemed kind of shy.
Meeting Alexandra at the Hero Round Table Conference
And although Alexandra and I exchanged little more than a couple of words that day – we did start to chat online not too long after.
It turned out that Alexandra had been a model. A very successful international model.
But her story was world’s apart from the “easy life” I’d created for her in my head.
It’s amazing how far off our first impressions can be. How we can idolise the people who seem to have the things we’re missing. The things we yearn for.
And it doesn’t just happen face to face. How often have you picked up a magazine, or looked at a billboard and hated yourself for not looking as flawless as the girl in the ad does?
I remember a friend’s daughter telling me once.. “I want to be a model when I grow up.”
“Oh really, hun? Why is that?”
“Because then everyone will think I’m beautiful.”
It’s not surprising. It's the world we live in. We’re taught from a young age that as women, our value lies in our bodies and the way we look. We constantly seek validation that we’re okay. We buy makeup and clothes and diet to ensure we maintain our value.
So shouldn’t models have it easy? After all. They’re GORGEOUS. Idolised.
But perhaps all is not as it seems. As Alexandra so vulnerably shared..
“My experience in the modelling industry almost killed me. It’s the one unregulated industry where the exploitation of children and girls is encouraged.”
Alexandra at the peak of her modelling career.
What I’m going to share may surprise you and shock you. And it should. It’s the story about the lengths a girl will go to in order to maintain her so called ‘value’. Even if she almost dies in the process.
“Okay, well where do you want me to start?” Alexandra asked.
“Perhaps just start at the beginning? How were you as a kid? How did you get into modelling?” I asked.
I could hear Alexandra sigh nervously over the phone..
“Well.. how do I say this…
I’ve always been a bit of an outcast. Even in kindergarden. In my first couple of days there I got suspended because I punched someone in the face. I’ve never been able to communicate with people my own age.
As I moved into school, things just got worse. My parents were often called into the principals office for something I’d done wrong. I just came to know myself as a ‘bad girl’ – and I desperately wanted an escape.”
I stopped her. “Escape? Escape from what?”
“My home life was shit. All kinds of abuse – physical, emotional, mental.
I was told by my parents – there are only a few rules – don’t ever be fat. Don’t ever not be highly educated. Otherwise you’ll never find a husband. They hid the whole world from me, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV or listen to music unless it was classical… They didn’t want me to have an American accent and be ‘uncultured’. I wasn’t allowed sugar or junk food. I was pretty out of control and they blamed my diet, while every night they would be smashing plates and abusing each other. It was scary and isolating.”
I saw an opportunity to escape and I grabbed it. Someone told me once that I should be a model. I was having a lot of problems at that time with eating – so I visited an agency and was signed that day. They ask me to get smaller, I was still ‘too big’ in their eyes.
So modelling became my escape.
And even though I was young, I started becoming really successful in the overseas market. I was in demand and making great money. In many ways, I felt invincible.
It’s difficult for people on the outside to understand. It becomes a bubble that you live in. It’s a job where you are constantly criticised. It’s very competitive. And I am a competitive person. I was getting validation on a massive scale.
But I think it’s the only industry where are children are expected to work like that. And hurt themselves so much in the process. I wasn’t kidding when I said it almost destroyed me.
I had an eating disorder. It almost seems stupid to say it. All the girls I modelled with had an eating disorder – and everyone knows. It’s very normalised.
There were some shoots where I would pass out in front of the camera because I hadn’t eaten for a couple of days, and someone would just bring me a glass of water.
After some water, I’d get back up and we’d keep taking photos. It was never mentioned again.
And look, no one would ever tell you directly to lose weight – they say things like ‘you need to lose an inch and a half from this part of your body.’
I’d do anything to lose weight. The goal is to be as tiny as possible – they can just use chicken fillets to boost other parts of your body up.
Every night I would try to sleep while I listened to 14 year olds vomiting in the bathrooms. We never spoke to each other about it though.
Alexandra with some of her fellow models. Faces have been blurred to protect their identity.
I was constantly dehydrated. Water makes you heavier. So I took laxatives, drank lots of black coffee and spent time in the sauna to make myself thinner. My skin was horrible from smoking cigarettes to keep the hunger at bay.
So many models make out like they are super healthy, but it’s a lie. They don’t exercise. You can’t – it’s not doable. You faint because you’ve barely eaten – and besides, exercise makes you hungrier. And you can’t eat for fear of putting on weight.
Your body just rejects it anyway. Food isn’t food after a while. The thought of putting it in your mouth is like, trying to eat your phone or some other random object, it just seems like a crazy idea.
When it gets really bad, you start growing black hair all over you. And you can’t forget to shave it – if you don’t turn up to the shoots looking as good as possible, the client will charge you money for it.
I remember flying to Singapore for a shoot once and the client told me I was too fat. They said that they were sending me home. The agency I was with said they’d charging me for all the flights, accommodation and all the money they’d wasted to get me over there.
And I was so young. I was a kid. I didn’t know how the world works so I just accepted it.
And perhaps that’s why there were so many girls who didn’t want to leave despite how bad it got. The girls I hung out with came from countries all over the world. Coming from backgrounds of trauma, abuse and poverty. So many girls said to me “I will never go back to that country. I would rather die.”
So it gets more competitive. Because no one wants to go back to their life where they feel like they had nothing.
But it’s all just an illusion. It’s so strange. You hang out with these people who are wealthy and take drugs all the time.
Faces have been blurred to protect the girls identity.
I used to think I was so lucky to have all these amazing experiences that most people don’t get to have. Lots of hanging out with wealthy people on yachts. Exclusive parties. I felt special because I could go to so many clubs and never pay for a thing.
But in reality, the clubs are paying commission to modelling agencies so that the models go there. You go and get a night of free alcohol. But really, your agency is making money because all of the underage models are partying at these clubs.
And then you add in the creepy dudes who go there to take advantage of drunk, underage girls.
It’s a disaster. But for so long, I stayed. I couldn’t fail. I was so obsessed with what people would think of me.
I had people messaging me from home in Australia, telling me that everyone was jealous of me. That everyone wanted what I had. I didn’t want to lose that.
But I started to spiral, and my overseas agency eventually fired me because they said I had an attitude problem – and then my Australian agency asked me to leave because they said ‘talking to you is like talking to someone who has their lights on, but nobody is home.’ I was sick, really sick.
My Australian agency was the closest thing I had to a family – a parent. It felt like the last rejection I could handle.
After that, I hit my rock bottom.
I don’t want to go into detail about what happened after I left. I worry about what people might think when they learn about where I was. Let’s just say it would be almost two years before I would find even a tiny sense of my former self.
It was a very dark time of my life that I don’t want to put out there publicly. It took a long time for me to put myself back together and re-enter the world.
By the time I came back to the ‘real world’, I’d been living in one bubble after another for so long, I had no idea how to make decisions for myself. My whole previous life had been built on the way I looked, I had no confidence in anything I had to say, or my ability to get a job, study, sit an exam, or do anything like that.”
I realised for most of the conversation I had been holding my breath. So much of Alexandra’s story seemed almost impossible to believe. How the hell does someone recover from something like that?
“It’s been a long road. I had to start again. I had no other skills other than what I looked like. I struggled with the basics. I still don’t know my timetables. I can’t do long division. But I realised that if you really want something, none of that stuff is important.
I don’t think it’s possible to be successful if you are motivated by yourself. You have to something that is bigger than you, Like if you don’t do it, no one else will. That will make you successful.
I want to be successful. And it needs to have meaning and purpose. After being in such an artificial industry. I wanted to put my energy into something I really care about. Something that REALLY changes the world.
And something that made me happy. And when I thought about it, the only times I feel really happy had been times I’d been around animals. I’ve had a connection to them when I was really young. I lived on a farm for a while when I was growing up.
Once when I was about 4 I ran away from home and my mum told me she found me hiding with the horses. I even used to sleep in dog kennels with our dogs. It’s hard to explain, but I always had an emotional connection to them.
In a world where people seem so complex and hard – animals are my light. My reason for sticking around.
Animal rights have become my driving force. Ride or die, my purpose. Even when I am struggling so much myself, there is nothing more important to me than being vegan and liberating animals from violence towards animals. It’s like we think of them as ‘sub-humans’ who we don’t value or understand.
I think it’s easier to recognise exploitation and suffering when you have some experience of trauma yourself.
At first I wanted to be a vet and work with animals, so I tried my hand at Vet Nursing at TAFE to start. It was so hard. You could either pass or fail – I had never experienced anything like that. It was based on my skills and my own brain, not the way I looked. I had the worst anxiety attacks because I just didn’t think I could pass.
But somehow I did. And eventually I decided to apply for university. Some of my teachers from vet nursing vouched for me, and I finally got into a Science degree at Deakin College. I had to work so hard and really plead my case to get in.”
I could hear the pride in Alexandra’s voice. Being valued for her brain, for what she could contribute meant so much more to her than a manufactured photo ever had. And I loved that.
I asked her one final question – what advice would you give to other girls or women? If you could leave them with one message. What would you say?
“You need to go after what you want. Demand what you are worth and fight for it. Get used to feeling uncomfortable.
When I was making my way back from nothing – I had to take so many risks. I applied for every opportunity I could. Every scholarship. Every academic competition. It’s so important to stay in that frame of mind. You’ll get what you want when you go after it yourself.
In a way, the harder things are, the more actively you have to go to any lengths to get it. I fail at stuff all the time. Every time I succeed, I cry. I’m not expecting it. But I keep going. Because there is something bigger than me that I want to change. That’s worth fighting for.
I've just launched my own YouTube channel called Vegan Ninja. I've been amazed at the response so far. I'm here to stay and I'm on a mission to transform the way animals are treated.”
Alexandra is a freaking legend – she proudly wears a F*cking Fierce Be. Bangle.
“I wear the F*cking Fierce bangle because I swear. A lot. I’m passionate and I’m brave. I hope I end up with a life where I can swear and be intense because I really can’t reign it in. It’s just who I am. So I want to own that.”
And on behalf of everyone who will read this - Alexandra, thank you. You seriously inspire me, and I know hundreds of others will feel the same too. Stay awesome.