4 former supermodels reflect on how their experience has inspired their purpose-driven lives
Lights, camera, action! Despite the presumed glamour, the modeling experience wasn’t all paparazzi strobes flashing, champagne, and Project Runway episodes. It took a team of highly experienced professionals to bring our images to life and no, we didn’t look remotely close to that when we woke up in the morning. Fantasy versus reality, with some blurred lines in between. Yes, the world has changed in tremendous ways for me and my supermodel peers included in this piece, but on the deepest core level, the most basic tenets of what we all desired / desire remain a constant – we want to be happy and we want to feel good and comfortable in our own skin.
The world is fascinated by beauty, and perhaps it always will be. I had this idea to assemble some superheroes from my past modeling days to share a snapshot of their stories. Today, one of my favorite things to do is to speak to groups of young women. I lure them in with images pulled from fashion magazines, but leave them with the real sauce – the advice and guidance I wish I had received at their age. This piece was inspired by a provocative question often posed: What would you say now to your fifteen-year-old self, if you could go back in time? And I would dare to add: What would you desire for her?
I crossed paths with each of models in this piece (Lisa Kauffman, Nadine Hennelly, Eileen Cavanaugh Haber, and Kersti Bowser) at some point during my own modeling career, in some place in the world or somewhere within the pages of glossy magazines. I even lived with Lisa in Paris for a brief time. Gathering their stories was reminiscent of recollecting stories of my own. We shared a unique experience with many intersecting similarities, peppered with our own individual seasonings. Reconnecting with these lovelies after so many years has been profoundly inspiring to me. Celebrating their voices is empowering for the younger generations of women, whether or not they are pursuing a career in modeling. There are threads of commonality weaving throughout the human experience, the journey from adolescence to adulthood, and the path to claiming our real purpose and power in the world.
Desire is a funny thing: powerful and simultaneously fleeting. As children we believe we have superpowers, that we can leap tall buildings with a single bound and manifest achieve anything we desire. Then along the way, we allow the outside forces of the world to dull down that magic as our soul is slowly eroded, one sparkle at a time. Reflecting upon your own path from stardust to here, what would you like to tell that younger version of yourself?
LISA: Connect to your inner strength – what others think of you, especially in adolescence, should not affect your future endeavors. Be flexible. Soak it all up – learn languages, see the world, make friendships, save money.
NADINE: Pay attention to what you see and what you feel from the world around you. Don’t be in a rush. Enjoy the ride – ask questions – don’t take anything for granted. See yourself from within. Be happy; life is short and beautiful. Sock money away in the bank!
EILEEN: Everything you need is within. You are worthy of everything you desire. Stand up for yourself; don’t give your power away. You can be powerful and graceful at the same time.
KERSTI: Be kind to yourself. Love yourself. See your inner beauty – you are worthy and loved. You can do/be anything you want to be. Reach within and know that this is the source of true validation.
We were mere adolescents thrown into an adult world of high-stakes business and opportunity, with relatively little to no experience, guidance, or positive role models. That said, in an industry at the time predominantly run by men (some of them lecherous and abusive), Lisa credits the stewardship of her female New York City agent, Pauline Bernatchez, as a great mentor. This was a boy’s club in which female role models were few and far between. There was nothing glamorous about the on-the-job-training aspect of this path, and we had yet to discover or begin to understand our commoditization and/or the complicated relationships that would unfold with our inner selves, our bodies, and the industry folk around us. This was our job – we were a product and this was all we knew. Many of us had never had any other job. Thus this was our journey from there to here. Fasten your seatbelts, please.
We came from different places, different backgrounds, and different experiences, but we came together in the place of modeling, aka Hard Knocks 101. Flying on planes across the world by ourselves at a young age, in a world without the Internet, mobile phones, social media, and constant connectivity, we were thrown into the survival-of-the-fittest modeling pool. We had all been discovered in one way or another. The story wasn’t so unique, but I don’t think any of us truly understood the gravity of what was to come. Kersti and I both grew up on the outskirts of New York City, but anyone who knows New York will tell you that stepping foot into Manhattan was like entering a whole new stratosphere; the boroughs didn’t count. Commuting to school on the subway, Kersti was discovered by the editor of Seventeen magazine, and the rest was cover-girl history for her. As a side note, at that time of pre-electronic media, Seventeen magazine was the Holy Grail to a teenage girl, a hit of media morphine. I still remember waiting for it to arrive in the mailbox.
New York modeling agents deployed streams of girls to Paris and Milan during summer breaks from school, to see who would cut it, what cream would rise to the surface – we were expendable commodities. We all recall those first flights, feeling cautiously exhilarated, the smell of Gitane cigarettes in the air of Charles de Gaulle airport upon landing in Paris. We weren’t in Kansas anymore. Nadine arrived a naïve young girl from Montreal, only to be greeted by no one. As she stood alone (in more ways than one), a stewardess helped her make a call to her modeling agency, whereupon she was abruptly informed that the driver coming to get her was running about an hour late. At least she spoke French. Using my best high school language skills, I managed to navigate my way through customs and to a taxi to the 17th arrondisement of Paris, clenching a little slip of paper with an address written on it. Bonjour, Paris!
And while throughout the years of our lives, having soothed our regrets, our heartaches, and our experiences, we are all very clear about one thing: we were availed of an extraordinary opportunity that opened our eyes to the world at large and shaped the women we have become. These are the pieces and parts that came together to inform the whole. “I believe modeling saved my life in many ways,” said Kersti. We would all agree that we were forced to grow up very quickly, and as Kersti continued, “It gave me a sense of power, a self-reliance” – an invaluable tool to acquire. In many ways it cracked us open to being more conscious of the world. Coming from all quadrants of the globe, as Lisa put it, “We became citizens of the world,” and for this we were blessed.
We each went on to become mothers (interestingly, predominantly giving birth to boys, aside from Eileen, who has two daughters, one of whom is currently following in her modeling footsteps – talk about full circle!). Lisa, the mother of two teenage boys, is now “mother” and mentor to young models as director of LK Model Management in Calgary – walking the walk and talking the talk. What better person to groom a next-generation model than one who walked in her shoes (and down runways around the world, I might add)?
The modeling world bred competitiveness and tried to negate one of the greatest potential opportunities – connection. It wasn’t as if those in charge could prevent friendships from being made (and many old ones still exist), but the pervasive theme, particularly among manipulative Parisian agents, was to incite a sense of competition among us. As Lisa points out, “It was probably to protect themselves from being outed for their emotional / physical abuses and manipulation.” From a very young age, we were pitted against one another to compete rather than to be mighty comrades. There certainly were some lost opportunities in which we could have learned the value of celebrating each other and creating deep connections.
We can’t change our experiences, we can’t change the choices we made, but we can forgive our younger selves for making choices we may not make today, and we can be the voices of wisdom going forward. Kersti admits that, while she doesn’t like standing in a place of “regret,” she was upset with herself at a point for not having been more in charge of her world back in the heyday, a sentiment with which I completely concur.
The Exterior / Body Complex
We came of age in a non-retouching era, aside from covers and campaigns, and thus we fell victim to a highly scrutinizing industry and were often taught to be intensely critical of ourselves. Today virtually EVERYTHING that appears in the media is retouched. Comparison, the thief of joy, was ever present for all of us. Eileen recounts an experience at the beginning of her career, where she was standing awkwardly with her long, lanky body in a bathing suit her mother bought her, next to glamazon Cindy Crawford — self-confidence buzzkill alert! In the words of Nadine, “I always felt I wasn’t that pretty. I spent most of my career picking apart my body. And though today my body doesn’t even come close to looking anything like it did then, I am so grateful to my body for being the vessel of my soul – for allowing me to give birth and experience the passion of life, love, art, motherhood, food, touch, perfume, hugs.”
The driver sent to retrieve Nadine and another model from the airport that first day she arrived in Paris stopped to get them something to eat on the way into the city. As they languished over buttered baguettes and hot chocolate, the bemused driver remarked how they should enjoy it while they could, as it would be the last time they would eat like this. Upon arrival at Nadine’s agency, they were placed on a scale and out came the measuring tapes to document that their measurements were “intact.” When I arrived at my agency, I learned of the infamous “thigh test.” We were told to stand before our agent with our legs together – if our thighs touched, we needed to lose weight and fast – no one was going to provide us with any healthy options on how to best go about achieving that. Lose weight – those were the marching orders! Needless to say, this became the breeding ground for a complex relationship with our bodies and our perceptions, often brutally dissected by others and ultimately by ourselves. It was in Paris that I learned to pick apart my own youthful body. It would be many years before I could see the truth.
Kersti also brings up a good point – as models, we felt washed up and old by our early 20s. We became adept at being overly critical of ourselves, especially our external selves. Talk about missing the moment: “Today at age 50, I’d kill for that body and skin I had then.” As Eileen put it, “At 22 years old, I was lost and had no idea what to do next. I started my spiritual journey much younger than most people.”
The Game / Spiritual Complex
Eileen shared a snapshot of her LOL good old Midwestern naiveté. Upon her arrival in Paris she recalled being confronted by the revelation of the “game” of modeling, one she refused to play. She quickly got the memo that by dressing sexy and dating photographers and wealthy playboys, one could fast-track themselves to plum modeling gigs. She subsequently spent many nights at home – an unwilling and often lonely non-participant.
Nothing was for free, and fame came with a price tag. As Kersti described her experience, “I was exposed to a dark side where extremes were commonplace, such as between drugs and eschewed value systems, but I was also exposed to wonderful groundbreaking individuals who were out there making a difference in the world.” Such was the yin yang of the modeling experience.
We pieced it together as best we could, traipsing along without proper guidance or mentorship. Fame, fortune, and glamour aside, we craved stability and something “normal.” For us that often translated to a life no longer lived out of a suitcase in hotels; rather we craved the stability of family, and as Kersti recalls, a more “approachable, low-maintenance lifestyle.”
The Biz / Financial Complex
As Nadine has pointed out, today by virtue of how the world has changed, many models are in charge of their own destinies. Often bypassing their agents, they understand their own branding. Everyone, including every celebrity and every sports figure, is their own brand. Back in the day, before the proliferation of electronic media, we knew nothing of brands. We just represented them. We were the face of something, but not of ourselves. Today models possess much more business savvy. I think we can all agree that we could have been a bit more responsible with our finances. Luckily, the advice that Lisa‘s NYC agent gave her sunk in and positioned her to be able to retire early and provide for herself and her family, in particular, to care for her young son diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The harsh reality, however, is that she was in the minority in that department. Kersti recalled, “We were self-taught. We didn’t have the same access to information that is available today. Models were rarely considered businesswomen.”
Most of us arrived in Europe by virtue of agency “advances,” which in essence meant that the agency forwarded a plane ticket, provided an apartment, and then began collecting their money, plus some, once we started working. There was a lot of creative accounting going on, specifically with respect to agent commissions and taxes. We were paying taxes in countries we weren’t legally working in. Curious. But, in line with our inexperience, we went on about our merry ways, not rocking the financial boat. Ultimately, the models who fared the best in the financial arena were the ones who had parents holding the purse strings. I knew a girl whose vigilant mother controlled all of her money and invested it into real estate – she was set for life by the end of her career, at least financially.
The world will continue to evolve and hindsight will always be 20/20, but what can we do with our experiences to transform them into tools of empowerment? It is our responsibility to ourselves and the world we live in, to use our powers for good, to tap into our inner superheroes and to follow our heart’s desire. Because when we live authentically and on purpose with our life’s mission, when we impart wisdom to our youth, and when we connect to one another, we shift the world.
Have you found your way back to those superpowers of your own?
Where They Are Now
Lisa Kauffman – The first model from Canada to grace the cover of British Vogue has not only gone from supermodel to super mentor as Director of LK Model Management, she also gets behind the camera with her models. “By being the first one to take their photos, I can pass along my knowledge to the new generation and make them more at ease in front of the camera.” A new brand of modeling is in town; the LK site refreshingly states, “Discovering beauty one role model at a time.” Lisa lives in Calgary with her family.
Nadine Hennelly – Inspiration in action, Nadine Hennelly has transformed the life experience of her travels and studies around the world into a manifestation of art. She is a successful portrait and fine art photographer with her own studio/gallery and has also recently returned to the stage, performing in local theater and film productions. Nadine and her wonderful 10-year-old son reside in Montreal. Her work can be seen by visiting her website at http://www.nadinehennelly.ca
Kersti Bowser – Producer, chef, owner of Gourmet Butterfly Media, a-food-in-media production company, CIA (the Culinary Institute of America)-trained, single mother, and woman-hear-me-roar extraordinaire, Kersti has come full circle connecting to her lifelong passion of expressing love through food. Its roots run deep into her childhood in the mountains of Sweden and intersect with a love of all things French cooking, transforming her into a model with a Julia Child palette. She has taken her experience in front of the camera and turned it into a career of behind-the-scenes food styling. She is the in-demand magic behind just about every household-name chef you know, among them Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, Rocco DiSpirito, Rachel Ray, and Bobby Flay, to name a few. Her work regularly appears on TV shows such as “The View,” and with celebrity cooks, most recently Gwyneth Paltrow. While building her media empire, she aspires to return to the CIA to teach food styling to others. She resides with her teenage son. To find out more about Kersti, you can connect with her on Facebook.
Eileen Cavanaugh Haber – Eileen can’t restrain herself from making all things around her more beautiful, both physically and spiritually. Her quest for deeper awakening has ignited monumental transformation in her journey. Currently residing with her family in Santa Barbara, California, she is transitioning from her roles as full-time mother and successful interior decorator to writer, her passion-filled purpose. It is her greatest desire to help others to connect to their deepest calling and purpose. Her inspirations can be found on her blog, goddessgrotto.wordpress.com