Interview with Nikki DuBose
‘Being a model is a choice, being a role model is a privilege. Only a few succeed at being both!’
Nikki DuBose is a former model turned author, speaker, and mental health advocate, who has inspiring narratives like Washed Away: From Darkness to Light and We Choose to Thrive to her credit.
‘Being a model is a choice, being a role model is a privilege. Only a few succeed at being both!’
Opinion Sep 26, 2017

The modeling industry has been pretty much the same for decades until the last few years, when it started to come under fire for reasons that have been known but have been wrapped under the glossy magazine covers, designer labels and world-famous runway shows. While the absence of proper laws and regulations to protect the interests of models continues, the modeling industry has made strides towards body diversity in the past couple of years. The result of this progress has led to the fact that today models are better prepared mentally and physically to deal with subjection to sexual and financial abuse, bullying from agents, and being pressurized to lose weight to the extent that may result in fatal eating disorders and life-consuming mental health issues.

A name that needs no introduction today when it comes to talking about taking a stance on not allowing the profession to jeopardize health is that of Nikki DuBose, a former model who has become a role model for many others as an author, speaker, and mental health advocate. Through her recently released memoir, Washed Away: From Darkness to Light, Nikki aims to give a message to her peers, aspiring models and the society at large: “Being a model is a choice, being a role model is a privilege. Only a few succeed at being both!”

In this interview, Nikki discusses how recovery from a nearly lifelong struggle with PTSD, psychosis, addictions and eating disorders had left her with a longing to help others who too are suffering. She agrees that a lack of education and awareness surrounding eating disorders and other mental health issues has led to the problems, but believes that Washed Away: From Darkness to Light serves as a testimony to others to let them know that they are not alone in their fears, doubts, and frustrations, and that recovery is possible. Read on.

Question: In one of the clips in your Vlog series, you mentioned that you would have loved to advise your younger self to find her worth on the inside. How can one do so while being bogged down by so many mental and physical pressures?

Answer: It can be extremely difficult to talk to yourself in a healthy way when you are dealing with mental and physical pressures. We know that the earlier one gets into treatment for a mental health condition and undergoes therapy, the easier it will be for him/her to replace the negative “self talk” with a positive one and find that special inner value that has existed all along.

I suggest that if you are a young person who is struggling with a mental illness, you should talk to your parents about it as early as possible. If you are dealing with low self-esteem or are not feeling okay about your body, it helps to surround yourself with the Word of God and the knowledge that he loves you completely. We can’t get any of our worth from the things of this world because they will always fail us. Jesus never will.

Second, it helps to cut down on the social media because this is another form of media meant to create the “perfect” image, sometimes at a cost that does more harm than good. There is a lot of pressure associated with that and it is not healthy for young people, particularly because they are developing and vulnerable. If you do go on social media, why not participate in or start a soul revolution? Encourage your peers to focus on the inside and harness your inner beauty and talents. It not only will boost your self-esteem but will also guard you against peer pressure.

Third, engage in activities that keep your mind and body healthy and spirited. Go outside, read, write, play with your friends, even if those friends are your pets. Focus on being balanced and talk about your feelings with people you trust. There is nothing wrong about the way you are feeling if you are experiencing insecurity and feelings of “not fitting in.” Believe it or not, everyone does; they just might not show it.

Question: While your journey to recovery is as inspiring as that of many renowned celebrities who came forward to share the stories of their struggles with addiction and/or mental health problems, it is rare to see someone choosing to become a mental health advocate over their full-time profession. What drove you to make this choice?

Answer: Well, I advocate, meaning I work on bills with lawmakers around the nation (and internationally, too) along with my career. I went back to school a few years ago and decided to study to become a psychologist. So, advocating is a tremendous passion of mine because when I lost my mother to addiction, I made the conscious decision that I wanted to get better, and that I wanted my life to become an example for others.

During my recovery from a nearly lifelong battle with mental illness, advocacy and helping others boosted my self-confidence, and it grew from there. Now I am fortunate to do it in my spare time because writing books, speaking and going to school take up most of my time, but I love helping to pass laws. I love helping to create change in our antiquated law system. Anyone can do it.

Question: Mental illness is nobody’s fault but it makes it very difficult for the afflicted to take care of oneself as well as the loved ones, you once cited. Please elaborate.

Answer: Mental illnesses are brain-based illnesses. As much as I and other advocates and professionals say that, it is something that has to be reiterated because people seem to forget. You do not choose to have a mental illness.

Yes – and I am speaking from my own experience here and nothing else. When during my journey of mental illness, I found myself sometimes thriving and on some days completely unable to function. I know that I was being a burden to my loved ones and that they were sad, angry, frustrated, and confused. They did not have the mental illness and they were just trying the best they could to help and cope.

On the other end, I grew up with a mom with mental illness and who abused me (physically, sexually, etc.) So how confusing was that? Very! I loved her and hated her and was sad and burned out and didn’t understand anything. After she died and before she died, I tried to educate myself but I was also trying to do the best that I could. Remember, I was living with mental illness, so it was hard. I think we all try to do the best we can with what we have. Education is real power. In fact, I think it is the best power we have. There are some days when my brain hurts and I do not feel like doing any of this work, but I press on because I remember my mom and the pain she endured and all of the people who suffer. And I keep trying. I keep educating myself. It is hard, hard, hard.

Question: The trailer of your book release mentions your thought on how the modeling industry is psychologically damaging for the people involved in it, and how you constantly struggled with keeping yourself at the top of the game. Do you think it has been this way always or have things changed of late?

Answer: I think that there have been some strides to include diversity, which is great! However, what I would like to shed light on is that there are young people struggling with mental illnesses who have no resources. Because the modeling industry is not regulated, a boy or a girl can model with depression, eating disorders, anxiety, psychosis, and not receive any sort of education or guidance as to where to get help. Also, agents and professionals are not educated about how mental illnesses affect models, and this is important because models are in a niche workplace similar to ballet dancers and professional athletes. Agents have a real advantage to help models instead of potentially triggering them by adding resources and holding training workshops on mental health.

Question: Earlier this year, the International Journal of Eating Disorders published the largest study so far on eating disorders among professional models. It stated that models are pressurized to lose weight and jeopardize their health to get assignments. What does your experience say?

Answer: It’s a no-brainer to say that the modeling industry pressures young people to lose weight. All you have to do is read my memoir, Washed Away, as I explain how the strict and competitive environment triggered my mental illnesses. Also, even if someone doesn’t have a mental illness, the constant pressures to lose weight in order to secure a job (and most of the time, the jobs are low-paying or free) can lead a person to resort to maladaptive coping behaviors in order to meet the strict requirements.

Eating disorders are very complex, brain-based illnesses, and they are a result of factors like genetic, environmental, social, biological, and so forth. When I worked on AB 2539 last year with Harvard STRIPED, the research amongst fashion models showed that a reported 40 percent of fashion models had eating disorders. However, one must take into account that those are just the reported numbers and the actual numbers can be much higher.

Question: You have battled abuse, addiction, and various mental health issues, including sexual victimization, eating disorders, alcoholism, drugs, depression, suicide attempts, body dysmorphic disorder, PTSD, and psychosis. What was the sequence? Was that a case of dual diagnosis?

Answer: Yes. I have the genetic component, which is important to note because again, mental illnesses spring from that and then the environment and other factors influence the development of them. The childhood trauma really set off the other mental illnesses, such as eating disorders, addictions, depression, suicide attempts, BDD, PTSD, and psychosis in me. I had no guidance in my life, and I turned away from God in my teens. So I really became lost and attached myself to all sorts of maladaptive coping behaviors to dull the pain inside.

Question: Your book ‘Washed Away: From Darkness to Light’ has garnered a lot of attention and appreciation from both the mass and the class. With whom would you like to share the credit of its success?

Answer: Jesus Christ. The One and Only!

I owe everything I have to God. I would not be where I am without the guidance and support of my heavenly Father. And although that might not be a popular answer, it’s the absolute truth. I tried my entire life to lift myself out of addiction, despair, sadness, the quest for fame, etc., but nothing worked like when I gave my life to Christ. Not a religious relationship, but a down-on-my-knees honesty and asking God to help me. He is my everything and I know that God loves me for who I really am, including my flaws and everything else.

Question: Why didn’t the California Assembly Bill 2539 see the light of day? Can a new legislation be proposed to change the shape and form of the modeling industry with respect to workplace protections and health standards?

Answer: Articulating the message is really important; kids are the most impacted and I think that a new bill should shed light on this. We did our best and we were going up against the fashion industry, which has always been running a certain way. I am not against the fashion industry, I just want to help people who are suffering in the fashion industry with a mental health issue, as once I did.

I have young people contacting me, asking how they can approach their representatives because they care about this issue so much. So, it is really refreshing to see 8th graders motivated about a bill – it shows that yes, fashion magazines, eating disorders and other mental illnesses in the modeling industry do impact young people. Kids are highly vulnerable as the research shows and start dieting in the 4th and 5th grades, or even before. Lawmakers need to pay attention because it can be their kids as well.

A health issue is a workplace issue, and I think that we need to introduce education on mental health into the modeling industry. Kids care and that’s the most important part.

Question: You have been trying to fix the broken sexual abuse laws in New York by helping push through The Omnibus Child Victims Act. Do you think the proposed law has a potential to be of help to the children in America?

Answer: Of course, and that’s what I wanted to get involved this past legislative session. I am working on it now for next year too. We need to focus on the mental health issues involved, which seems to get swept away in all of the political uproars on social media. Not that adult survivors don’t deserve their day in the court, because they do, but if we really boil this issue down to the most critical component right now, it’s the fact that over 45,000 children are sexually abused every year in the state of New York. Getting this bill passed through the legislature will immediately help children and their mental health. Sexual abuse leads to eating disorders, learning disabilities, depression; the whole deal! Passing of the Child Victims Act in New York and removal of the statute of limitations is also setting the tone for the rest of the nation that mental health and sexual health is a priority for our kids!

Question: Recently, a Brazilian model called it quits when she was labeled “too fat” for weighing 50 kilos. This demonstrates that models are taking stances against putting their health second to their ambition. Do you foresee display of more such prudence by the models in years to come?

Answer: I hope so. You know, I made this decision when I felt like no one else had, before social media, articles or anything back in 2012. I felt extremely alone and began blogging about it and volunteering with NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) at that time and focusing on ways to bring changes in the modeling industry. I think it is great that more models are coming forward because young people see that and see them as role models. What is more important to me personally is focusing on inner beauty, soul health, spirituality, and our talents. We are so much more than our looks.

About Nikki DuBose

Nikki DuBose is a former model turned author, speaker, and mental health advocate. In her recently released memoir, Washed Away: From Darkness to Light, she recounts her experiences navigating the dark side of the modeling industry, while battling abuse, addiction, and various mental health issues (sexual victimization, eating disorders, alcoholism, drugs, depression, suicide attempts, body dysmorphic disorder, PTSD, psychosis). She also appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Network on the TD Jakes Show sometime back to speak about her recovery from body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders, and how the pressure to “fit into” the modeling industry nearly killed her.

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