'Modelling enabled my depression'

By Ainsley McWha

Ainsley McWha was discovered at 16-years-old. Photo / Washington Post / Ryder Evan Robison
Ainsley McWha was discovered at 16-years-old. Photo / Washington Post / Ryder Evan Robison

The phone wakes me at noon. I squint to see who's calling then place my cell face down on the mattress next to me, letting it go to voicemail. The mid-day sun makes the white down comforter glow as I wrap it tightly around me despite the summer heat. I roll over and pull the pillow over my head. It's July 2011. I'm thirty-three years old; my job, still, is model, and has been since I was 16. I should probably get out of bed.

The call was from my friend Dana, also a model, calling from Paris where we met a decade ago and where she now lives with her boyfriend, a sought-after commercial director. I've been avoiding her for months. It's a struggle to fake outward politeness, even with my closest friend.

The phone in my cramped Brooklyn apartment rings less and less these days. My live-in boyfriend, who works in another state during the week, calls me once a night to chat, which usually ends with me getting angry that he hadn't checked on me sooner. He knows how I've been feeling. My mother, no longer knowing what to say as I cry on the other end, barely calls at all.

The agency only emails castings now, and even these have become rare. No castings means no jobs means no income.

With nothing to do, I can do what I feel like. Which, lately, more and more, is nothing. I probably can't go on like this, but at this point, it feels far from under my control.

I force myself to check Dana's message, sliding the phone between my ear and the pillow: "I saw your video footage from yesterday. You don't look that sad..."

At first, modeling was exhilarating - the days spent running around a new foreign city on castings, or on shoots having my hair and makeup done under a halo of vanity bulbs, wearing designer clothes, being waited upon, told I was beautiful.
Ainsley McWha

At sixteen, I was discovered. One month after high school graduation, at seventeen, I was plucked from my sheltered life in suburban Canada, and dropped in New York City to begin modeling full-time. I was a boyfriend-less straight-A student who deserted her pack of stuffed animals back home to begin a career.

Knowing that I had always been fragile, an overly sensitive child turned mercurial teen, my parents, in hindsight, shouldn't have let me model. But none of us knew what to expect. I think my parents saw modeling as a rare opportunity too good to pass up.

At first, modeling was exhilarating - the days spent running around a new foreign city on castings, or on shoots having my hair and makeup done under a halo of vanity bulbs, wearing designer clothes, being waited upon, told I was beautiful. Sometimes, at night my teen model friends and I would be invited to a dinner or a club, everything paid for, granted access to the hidden VIP room, often mingling with celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio or the entire male cast of Friends. But everything over time loses its luster.

"Modelling continuously told me that I wasn't good enough." Photo / Courtesy of Ainsley McWha
"Modelling continuously told me that I wasn't good enough." Photo / Courtesy of Ainsley McWha

The first time I felt that something was wrong was at a shoot in Milan when I was eighteen, only five months into my new life.

It was my best magazine job yet, for Italian Marie Claire. We were shooting in a studio of the trendiest photography complex in the city, the oversized windows letting in so much sun that every surface was illuminated with a vibrant white light. I stood on a black paper backdrop that swooped down from above, dressed in white and grey ensembles in luxury fabrics from high-end Italian designers. The studio's soundtrack was electric Brit Pop meant to set the mood and make it easier for me to move around the set. The photographer directed me from behind his camera, tossing compliments like a Pavlovian response to the clicking shutter.

Something like: "Beautiful! Beautiful! Yes! Yes! Ok... Cross your arms. Bend your left knee. Put the sunglasses in your mouth. That's it. That's it. Look up. Look down. Look at me!"

I furrowed my brow as I strained to hear over the music. The photographer again: "Relax your face." He stopped shooting and told me to step offset, get changed, and join him in the hallway.

Following him outside, I cinched the belt of my scratchy white terry-cloth robe tighter around my waist to prevent a revealing gape. The gray cement floor was cold beneath my feet.

"Ainsley, I don't know what's wrong with you, but you have to snap out of it," the photographer said. I wasn't being as upbeat as he remembered me.

He and I had shot together before, which was how the industry worked, I was learning. A photographer will take a liking to a girl - for her look, their rapport, or some other obscure reason - and continue to book her as a team. If you're both lucky and skilled, the jobs keep getting better, meaning more visibility, more prestige, more money - lots of it. Being so young, I only saw dollar signs.

The creases in the photographer's face aged him, but his beach bum blond hair gave him the illusion of youth. He was playing twenty-five, but was probably closer to forty. He smelled like stale cigarettes.

I don't remember what I said to him, but I do remember starting to cry. He was right. I was sluggish on set, something three cappuccinos from the studio's espresso bar had done nothing to fix. But I had a feeling it was more than that.

The photographer turned his back, deserting me in the hallway to "collect" myself, and I worried that someone - a famous model, an important magazine editor -would walk past and see me. I smelled the hairspray diffusing from my head as my face reddened and warmed.

Back in the studio, the makeup artist touched up my face, reapplying eyeliner, giving me eye drops to remove the redness, and the shoot resumed like nothing had happened. But I felt like a failure. I had been unable to mask my mood, to do the job I had been hired to do, which was to at least feign marketable happiness.

Worrying that he would never book me again, I repeated the photographer's words in my head. Ainsley, what's wrong with you?

I had no idea.

I roll out of bed. As I shuffle to the living room, the comforter wrapped around me like a cocoon, I repeat Dana's words: "I saw your video footage from yesterday. You don't look that sad."

Dana's boyfriend had requested me for an upcoming project, a job that would pay upwards of $80,000 for one day of work, depending on buyouts and residuals. It was my first casting in a very long time. Even though I rarely leave my apartment, spending most of my time in bed sleeping - anything to shorten my days, I had made the casting call the day before. Castings for high-paying jobs like this are extremely rare for any model, and of course, the money would mean temporary financial security, not needing to worry about booking another job anytime soon.

As per the casting director's request, I had put on some matte makeup, thrown on the provided white shirt, plastered on a smile, and danced and pranced and twirled my way across the studio on command, under the blinding glare of spotlights, with all the energy I could channel.

In my living room back at home, the gray couch cushions are still creased with my body-shaped imprint from last night. As I lie here, Dana's comment causes a heaviness to form in my stomach, an unbaked loaf of bread threatening to rise.

Dana is the only one in the industry that I ever really let in. She's the friend who knows that for work models get asked to do things and they do them: Jump on that trampoline and play this snowboard like a guitar. Wave the black and white checkered flag before a crowd of thousands at the stock car races. Get back on the horse that just bucked you off and nearly trampled you. Lose weight. No, more. Bleach your hair blond; dye it brown. Dress differently, wear different makeup, change bedrooms, change cities.

I did it all.

The word "no" is nonexistent in a model's vocabulary. Being difficult means not getting booked, and not getting booked means no paycheck.

Simulating happiness for a sixty-second casting doesn't mean that I'm better. It just means that I wanted the job; I needed this job. After ten years of friendship, Dana should know me better than this.

Suddenly I feel that much more hopeless and alone. I didn't know that was possible.

A couple years after the disastrous Milan shoot, I sat in the brightly lit office of my family doctor, a woman I had only seen a few times before. I wrapped the gaping paper robe tighter around my body and left my socks on so I wouldn't be too cold.

I had spent the previous seven months in London, where the gray days blended into one another. For the past few months, I had claimed the only un-shared bedroom in my agency's four-story house, home to nine other models. The room had a queen-sized bed and a door that locked, and this is where I had begun to spend most of my time, full days behind drawn curtains, reading nonstop or pacing back and forth like a caged animal. Or, when I had no castings, I wandered the streets alone with no destination in mind, sometimes roaming so far that I had to take the bus back, always sitting on the upper deck, my one source of amusement.

Instead of asking me if anything was wrong, my booker had simply suggested, "Maybe it's time you try another market." I was only useful as long as I worked, which lately I hadn't. I flew back to my parents' house, where for the next two weeks I didn't get out of bed, rarely got dressed, ate, or left my room without crying.

When pressed by my family doctor, I admitted that the previous two years had been peppered with extended bouts of extreme sadness, my confusing moods often controlling me, like the time in Paris when I kicked my city map across my bedroom so hard that the cover flew off as I screamed at the top of my lungs, then crumpled onto the floor in a fetal position, sobbing, terrified of myself.

Diagnosed with depression, I left that day with a prescription for Luvox crumpled in my sweaty palm and a small hope that I could feel better.

This day started a cycle: I would go on and off meds at least three other times until my early thirties - Zoloft, Paxil, Effexor. These always helped, but I stopped taking them when I decided that I had improved. Or, constantly on the move, I would simply run out with no means to get more.

The modeling agencies did not provide health insurance, and being a transient "alien" made it difficult to get coverage. Without proper medical care, I would ration the remaining pills into what I thought was an acceptable weaning off. (None of this is advisable.) Inevitably, depression would reappear for that, I would learn, is the illness' nature.

Despite everything, my career could be viewed as a success. I appeared on 20 magazine covers, my gaze peering out from newsstands around the world. My smiling face and flawless, Photoshopped image were seen in national and international campaigns - in print and on TV -for clothing, face creams, cosmetics and cigarettes. My oversized likeness could be found on two Times Square billboards.

And while I am proud of the work I did get, I know that had I not had depression, my career could have been different, more lucrative. After that shoot in Milan, I learned how to be happy on-cue, saving my sadness for solitude, for I understood that was the job. But my pretending had a half-life. Chronically unstable, I was unable to develop lasting client relationships, which led to less work and chronic financial struggles.

A week after the call from Dana, I learn that "the client went in a different direction," and I did not book the $80,000 job, after all. This news, of course, did nothing to help how I felt at the time.

But, what I know now, years later, is that had I booked that job, nothing in my life would have changed. With the resulting paycheck, I could have afforded to stay sad, remaining stuck in my cycle of crippling darkness indefinitely.

This summer of 2011 episode was my longest and darkest and last. I can't explain why it went on as long as it did - over six months. I suppose I accepted that this struggle was it - my life, me - and these facts were a given, indisputable and immutable. I had given up, given in.

Like the sheer bodysuit I had been asked to wear once for a fashion show casting that had left me feeling exposed and ashamed, my depression was a second-skin of heaviness and hurt that I put on day after day, season after season.

Then one day in the fall, the leaves swooping down from the oak tree outside my Brooklyn window, after another sob-filled phone call with a friend, it dawned on me: I had never seen a friend cry. Yet, they had seen me cry countless times.

From deep inside me, unearthed, unexpected, almost from outside myself, I understood that it was not normal to cry all the time. It was not normal to be debilitated by sadness.

And in that moment, I saw a way forward: I could accept that depression was a part of me without allowing it to control me completely.

The day after my thirty-fourth birthday, I entered therapy at my new school, where I was enrolled in an MFA program. I was now model-by-day, student-by-night, attempting to finally forge an identity of my own choosing. Finally with a plan to stay put in school for at least two years, with health insurance, I could devote myself to getting well. Finally, my psychiatrist and I landed on an antidepressant that worked.

For the first time in my life, I committed to medication and therapy. For the first time in my life, I felt in control.

Now, at 38, I've been living in rural southeast Idaho for two years. After almost twenty years of working as a model and ten years of living in New York City, I had made the decision to leave.

Removed from it all, I realize now: Modeling enabled my depression from the start.

Modeling kept me largely separated from anyone who cared about me. They were not there to witness how bad it was; they saw the pictures that portrayed me as happy and assumed it was true. Isolated in this insular world, I had no support network, no one to refute the endless chanting in my head: worthless, hopeless, helpless, lonely.

Modeling, too, continuously told me that I wasn't good enough, treating me the same in my thirties as it had in my teens - only the image mattered. I also believed that there was nothing else I could do; you don't put the ability to walk in five-inch heels on a résumé. Finally, modeling kept me on the move, and while each move brought with it temporary spurts of stability, being constantly on the go kept me from facing my depression.

In Idaho, I am no longer alone. I live with my partner of three years, sharing a house that his great-great-grandparents built in 1914. We don't have much, a bit of land, and a garden that I tend to myself. A team, we take care of our two cats, two dogs, and three chickens. When I open my front door, I see the horizon. There are no honking horns, car alarms, shouting people to disturb my peace. My new skyline is mountainous; to the east the shadowy Grand Tetons loom as the Sawtooth range slices the sky to the west. I have been hired to write for a local magazine, for jobs teaching high school art and as a community counselor helping women and teens. Finally, I feel as if I am capable of more than just modeling. Finally, I feel as if my life makes a difference.

Now I know that change - though not easy - is possible.

Off-meds and episode-free for over two years now, I don't know for certain whether this is because I finally followed a supervised course of treatment or because of the positive choices and drastic changes I've made. Or, if this respite is simply part of the cyclical nature of depression. Only time will provide an answer.

What I do know is this: Every day, in the field beyond my yard, both the fog and scent of sagebrush rise with the morning light, marking yet another day of this new life.

And I choose to be here to see it.

- Washington Post

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