Meet Nikki DuBose, a former model turned author, speaker, and mental health advocate.
She recently released her memoir, Washed Away: From Darkness to Light, which recounts her experiences navigating the dark side of the modeling industry, while battling abuse, addiction, and various mental health issues.
She recently appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Network on the TD Jakes Show. She spoke about her recovery from Body Dysmorphic Disorder and eating disorders, and how the pressure to “fit into” the modeling industry nearly killed her.
Defying Mental Illness (DMI) recently had the unique and exclusive opportunity to meet Nikki and interview her. Nikki’s story is truly remarkable and will inspire you…
DMI: Wow, Nikki, what an honour to interview you today. You have an interesting story that you would like to share with DMI. You were a former model that was climbing high in your career at remarkable speed. However, there was a dark side you were struggling with.
You were challenged with several mental disorders. While you were probably the envy of your friends, secretly, they were your envy! Tell us, a little bit about who Nikki first and foremost. Give us an insight into your childhood.
Nikki: Thank you. It’s true that I suffered tremendously from low self esteem for most of my life, which was a result of trauma in the early years of my childhood.
Trauma changes you in many ways, and that’s something that needs to be talked about more so that we can work to prevent child abuse.
My mother and father divorced when I was two. I grew up in a nice neighborhood and went to a private, Christian school, but I was living a nightmare behind closed doors. One filled with a lot a lot pain and turmoil.
I never felt as though I belonged or had anyone to turn to because the people who were taking care of me were abusing me. I grew up knowing how to manipulate others into thinking that everything was okay, when the reality was quite the opposite.
After being sexually, physically, emotionally and mentally abused by my mother and a male figure, I developed eating disorders, depression, psychosis, and addictions.
I knew God but in a religious sense and my heart turned hard towards Him. My mother had Bipolar and Dissociative Identity Disorder and all I wanted to do was escape from my body and live in a world where there was no pain and reminder of the sadness.
At thirteen, I was removed from my house by the police and sent to live with my biological father who lived in the countryside. My mother then attempted suicide twice and was sent to live in a mental institution.
DMI: So by the time you got into modelling, you had already gone through so much in your teenage years! That was a difficult start to life. So how did you come into the world of modelling? Was modelling an outlet for you from the pain you were already suffering? As a young girl, you would have been so excited with lots of dreams and inspirations. What were your expectations (e.g. who was your role model ? How did you see your future? What did you think the modelling world be about?
Nikki: I began modeling at 16, and I pushed my way into that world because I wanted to fill a void inside. I wanted to be good enough for someone or something, and I thought that if my face was plastered on billboards or magazine covers, I could finally have the love and acceptance I craved.
I imagined, “Maybe then, my mom and stepdad will finally recognize me, and I will be good enough for them.” That’s what I thought. I had lots of hopes and dreams, to be the best I could be, but because of my addictive personality and disorders that had already set in, I was willing to “be the best” at any cost.
As a teen, I idolized all of the supermodels because of their outward beauty, even though inwardly I knew better and was instilled with Christian values from my Nana.
The trauma from my childhood affected how I wanted to be admired for my appearance, and I thought that I need to be seen as a somebody to be a somebody.
Quickly, I realized that the modeling industry was a reflection of my childhood because it was and still is an unregulated industry and professionals can do whatever they want to manage talent.
At sixteen, I was fat-shamed and bullied in front of my peers, and I felt humiliated. I remember that I binged, purged and self-harmed to deal with that shame.
DMI: So by this time you were looking for acceptance because you clearly felt rejected having had a difficult childhood. It sounded reasonable n the surface of things, that a glittering career in modelling would offer the answers…
Tell us about the pressures of the modelling world? What kind of support did you get during this time, from the agency, ‘family’ (if any), or friends? Bearing in mind you were so young, barely out of adolescence, it seems very overwhelming how much you were thrown into. Seems like you had to grow up pretty quick, what with what you had already endured as a child and teenager!
Nikki: I grew up very quickly. I was an adult child.
I had no support in the modeling industry and kept right on going with my two feet in front of me. I thought that the agency would support me, and they did, but they were psychologically abusive.
They criticized everything about me, which caused me to have more issues with my eating disorder because I had no real support system. Nearly every day I was asked to lose weight, I was hardly ever paid on time and I know that I was underpaid for campaigns and jobs that should have paid large sums of money!
The director of my agency was constantly putting pressure on me to sleep with him, and one day, I was raped at a lunch by a photographer that the director organized.
After it happened, I questioned the incident, and was made to feel as though I was crazy. I pushed down the incident with my eating disorder, depression, and drugs and alcohol.
Trust me, so many girls and boys are going through the same situations and need prevention measures and help.
DMI: It is almost unthinkable to think that this happens. As ‘consumers’ we do not know what happens behind close doors. This was pretty tramatic Nikki. In effect, everything that could happen happened to you, had happened to you. Bullying, mental illness, sexual and financial abuse, addiction, alcoholism, suicide attempts the list goes endlessly on. HOW DID YOU SURVIVE ALL THIS?
I am interested to know what were you thinking during these dark times? What were you thinking about God then? Were you aware these were happening to you even?
Were your friends (i.e. other models) going through the same or did you feel singled out? How were you relating to your family then? What were your coping strategies at the time? Did you seek help? (I know lots of questions but hey… this was hard stuff for a young person!)
Nikki: Looking back, I know it’s the grace of God that got me through all of that mess. Eating disorders are potentially fatal mental illnesses, and I’ve lost some friends to them.
My mother died from her own addiction, and I know that if it weren’t for God intervening, I would have died, too!
We make our own choices, and I’m definitely not above anyone, but I’ve had to work really hard to get to where I am today. I am not perfect and there are some issues that God is dealing with me about. But I am so thankful that I’ve been sober for over five years and free from my eating disorder for four now.
When all of these dark years were happening, they were my “normal.” Let’s say, so I was aware of them (sometimes), but I didn’t either know how to get out of them, or didn’t want to. I was comfortable in the darkness because to move over to the light, I had to release a lot of pain and growth. I wasn’t ready for that.
There were times when I thought about God, but I didn’t invite Him into my life. I searched for alternative methods of healing, which only added more negative energy!
I always felt singled out, always felt like the outcast. Especially in modeling, where you’re constantly competing. And then I had challenges with mental illness, so I was competing with myself.
I saw life through warped lenses. I didn’t relate to my family at all; in fact, I was trying to block them out and deal with the buried anger from my childhood.
Oftentimes, I felt like the loneliest person in the world. I dealt with my loneliness and awkwardness by putting on a mask, a way to present to the world a different “Nikki,” through photographs. But behind closed doors, or out on the street, I lived in a mind gone mad. I was stuck in my mental illness and really battled my urges to destroy myself.
DMI: Nikki, what a painful story. And you endured all the ‘suffering’ of ill health and so on for 15 long years. Tell us how your recovery journey started.
Nikki: It was a little more than seventeen years. My recovery journey started after my mother died in 2012. It was then that I realized, “Hey, if I don’t stop living the way I am, I am going to end up in a casket, too.”
And I know that mental illness is not a choice, but recovery is. I was completely traumatized when my mother died, regardless of our past. It deeply affected me.
So I left the modeling industry and began home care. My boyfriend at the time stayed with me and helped me get better.
But it was a combination of my sheer will, my intimate relationship with God, a mentor, seeing a psychiatrist, therapy, medication, and so forth that helped me to get better.
I had no idea how to eat. None! I had to learn healthy self-talk. And then there was the twelve-step program which helped a lot. Once I got to a stable place, writing helped me continue my healing journey which led into advocating on behalf of various nonprofits.
DMI: So you have written a book. I like the title of the book! Tell us about this book. How you came about with the title and what we can take from your book.
Nikki: Thank you! Washed Away: From Darkness to Light is my debut memoir, and covers all of my recovery from child abuse and mental illness, from ages 2 to 26. The title is a metaphor for how once I came into a relationship with God, my Higher Power.
I felt as though He had washed away all of my pain. He had taken me from the darkness into the light. Of course, life is life and I still live with pain every day, but I realized that I didn’t have to carry that load anymore. I wasn’t alone. God was with me every step of the way.
There is also the element of rain used throughout the book, as it rained a lot in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. As a child, I used to listen to the rain when I was sad, and it became a great comfort to me.
Also, my mother and I would stand outside and watch the sky change before Hurricanes. I recall the color pink washing over the clouds and you couldn’t hear a sound. It was such a cool, mysterious time.
I hope people are inspired by my memoir. Although there are parts which are dark, it is meant to expose what mental illness was really like for me so that others may be helped.
So many are silenced in their illness, and I hope that the book can be a voice for the voiceless, as well as an educational tool.
DMI: Well reading excerpts from your book, I was riveted. Your book is an eye opener but it is also an educational tool as you say. Thank you for being brave to write it…it takes courage to open up in order to help others!
So what laws would you like to see in the modelling world. Would you say modelling is for everyone? What can young girls do to prevent the suffering you went through.
Nikki: I worked on AB 2539 last year with Assembly member, Marc Levine, which addressed the need for workplace protections and health standards. The bill was killed in the suspense file, but what I learned from that bill is that the industry really needs a mental health educational program.
I began working on such a mental health education program in 2015 for the modeling industry, and I’m hoping to merge with legislators on that.
I tell people that “beauty is not bad, but it’s not everything.” I ask them, “What is your motivation for wanting to get into the modeling or entertainment business?”
That goes for parents, too. It’s an industry that is notorious for chewing the vulnerable up and spitting them out. I encourage young people to look inside for their beauty and to harness their inner talents. More than ever, they have the chance to make an enormous impact on the world. Social media, fashion magazines and the like are not the enemy, but they are not the Bible, either!
Prevention of abuse and mental illness is so, so important. That’s why I work with a child sexual abuse nonprofit, Peaceful Hearts Foundation, and The Shaw Mind Foundation, a global mental health charity. We want to prevent these issues from happening the best we can.
Parents should be responsible for having conversations with their child as much as possible as well as educators.
DMI: Thanks for that Nikki. That is all very useful. And thanks for the tips to the parents too. Parents have to come onboard with what their kids do too.
So tell us about the Nikki today
Nikki: I’m not ‘perfect’ in the sense of how the world defines perfection; therefore I never will be because perfect doesn’t exist.
DMI: That’s true! We are only perfect in the image of God. When He looks at us He sees us as perfect…!
Nikki: Yes, I’m constantly moving forward with the grace of God and very thankful. I am content with myself as a person and that’s a nice feeling. I’m writing more books, in school for psychology and hope to obtain my PhD one day!
My advocacy work has expanded into helping to pass more bills, and has spawned a deep interest in politics. I want to run for office (not right yet, but in the future). I’ll keep you posted.
DMI: Please keep us posted indeed…when you do we will love to do another exclusive (laughs)!
Thank you so much Nikki for this fabulous interview. Wow, there is so much hope in your story and I wish we could ask you some more questions. Another time, but then it is all in the book. All the best for the future!
Check out Nikki’s website