Nikki DuBose on Modeling, Mental Health, and Politics

Nikki DuBose is a former model turned author who is nothing short of a superhero. Nikki released her memoir Washed Away: From Darkness to Light in September of 2016 in which she reveals her journey to self-care. As an advocate for mental health, Nikki is a Celebrity Ambassador for The Shaw Mind Foundation, and has worked with assembly members such as Marc Levine on addressing the need for updated workplace protections within the modeling industry.

We had the opportunity to speak with Nikki about some of the work she has been doing, her journey to get there, and what is next to come.

Photos by Russ Elloway

Kimberley: What led you to write a tell-all account about your life and your experiences?

Nikki DuBose: When I started recovering in 2012, one of the main things to help me recover was realizing that I needed to stop isolating, so I started getting involved with The National Eating Disorder Association and I found a lot of camaraderie in that. I realized from that and through my writing that there are a lot of people who have more issues… and beyond the eating disorder, there’re a lot of layers in that. So that just led to many other things, especially with the writing and connecting. I just realized that writing a book would help me to connect with people. There’s really no shame in speaking about mental health issues, although we think that there is shame because we don’t talk about it so much. Even though, through the power of social media, there are a lot of videos, and articles — in the real world, when you go out and you’re in your own head, you feel ashamed. Or when you’re at work you feel ashamed to talk about it.

The book and the writing were some things that helped me and gave me confidence because as a person in my natural state, I have depression, I have really low self-esteem… so it really helped me and helped me to help other people. It was a big stepping stone and I try to encourage people, even if they think they’re not good at writing, to try. It’s a creative outlet. Some people like to paint, or some people like to draw, so I think it’s a good way to get your story out there because we all have a story. Every single one of us has a story.

K: In your book, you discuss journaling as a therapeutic way for you to get your thoughts out. Has writing helped you all your life or did you stumble onto it later?

N: I was more artistically inclined. As far as writing goes, [I wrote] ever since I was little. I remember in third grade I wrote a short story and I was really into that. My mom is also artistically inclined so I think it kind of ran on her side of the family. I always liked it, but I do know that my mental health issues kind of hindered me pursuing it. What I mean by that is, I was more inclined to draw or write in my room behind closed doors because it was a way for me to express the pain I felt, than because I was more shy, or because I was being abused. I would go in my room and do that rather than participate in a writing class in school or something.

In my junior/senior year in high school, I did finally participate. I was a senior editor for this newspaper. I would gain some confidence and I would try, but then I would drop out of high school. It was a real struggle for me, however, writing was always one of the things that I eventually leaned back on and it gave me confidence. That was true in high school and that was true in college. Finally, I was sure I was recovering, because eventually something that I started to do helped me to remember all the memories I had repressed. I just started to let all those memories out, so I guess writing has always been that tool that I can rely on to help me. I’m a strong advocate for writing, or painting, or any type of art therapy.

K: You often speak of your experience in the modeling industry and how it can be a tough space for young girls, especially if they’re starting out on their own. What led you into the modeling industry at such a young age? How did it shape your self-perception?

N: That’s a very good question because people need to hear that over and over again because I still find that it’s just a small percentage of people who are telling the truth, versus people who are wanting to get into that business. It is a multi-billion or almost trillion dollar business. I pushed myself into that business because I had really low self-esteem and I like to link trauma in childhood to why people can be attracted to that business. You don’t have to look very far to see how many celebrities or stars come from broken homes who want to become famous. That was definitely true for me.

I didn’t feel like anyone special. My mother had severe mental health issues: bipolar, dissociative identity. I had child sexual abuse, physical abuse, all this stuff going on, and I felt like, in my mind, that it was something that naturally clicked in my head. I didn’t analyze it. I felt like, if I can be recognized, if I can be in a magazine, then life will be OK. That was my natural thought process. I entered a local, very well-known modelling school and was bullied and fat shamed. I was already dealing with an eating disorder for a while by that time, and BDD, which made it worse, so I left that school.

The thing is that, because I was so used to being abused, and living in that type of environment, I still kept going back to wanting to be famous or wanting to be in that type of environment. A few years later I got back into modelling again in California, and started working in television and then eventually signed a big contract in Miami with one of the biggest agencies in the world. I got into more problems because I hadn’t dealt with my mental health issues, and by that time I was becoming very successful at modelling. I wasn’t one of those stories that you hear where like, I was in the mall with my mom and a scout found me. It wasn’t like that; it was the opposite.


K: There was a passage in your book that stuck out to me. It reads, “Who am I? I’m certainly not special, but a joke, a close hanger for everyone to admire and forget.” What did you mean by this passage?

N: I mean, it’s exactly like that, because that’s what I felt like. That was from when I did a big fashion show and at that time, I was dealing with psychosis and all these things, and mental health… and mine was so messed up, I really felt like I’d worked so hard but it didn’t matter because nobody cared. So, here I was working for people, but nobody gives a shit about me. So, what was all this for? Why was I trying to attain this lifestyle, this status, when in the end I felt like they were laughing at me. I felt like they didn’t care about me. It was like a reflection of my childhood to me, because I was still dealing with that trauma but I didn’t really realize it. I felt like I was dealing with something that was really burdening to my soul.

It was really hard for me mentally, and I felt really alone. I think I dealt with these jobs much harder than other people, because I had these mental health issues but I internalized things deeply. I could feel the superficiality of the business. I could really digest that. I could sense it. I could see it, and I just felt like I wanted to get out of there. At the same time, I couldn’t because I was attracted to that.

K: What advice would you give to girls who aspire to enter the industry?

N: I think there a few different things. I worked on a legislation last year, and we’re actually doing a campaign right now: it’s hashtag “DearNYFW.” We are doing it with the National Eating Disorder Association and the Model Alliance and we signed an open letter —thirty-five models calling for more health and diversity. Last year, I worked on a bill trying to regulate the fashion business. Any young person has to understand, and especially their parents have to understand, that the industry isn’t regulated. When you are trying to work as a worker in a business that’s not regulated, as an independent contractor, it’s really dangerous because you don’t have protection. You can go in there and they can tell you to lose weight, like every single day, and that’s alright, because you’re not protected. Someone can abuse you psychologically and sexually. You get raped — it happened to me, it happens to a lot of girls, and guess what? It doesn’t really make a difference because there are a thousand girls going in there and it happens to a percentage of them. There’s no worker protection, and this has been a business that has been operating like that since the very beginning and we publicized that it has been operating like that. We took it to the senate, the assembly, and we got turned down.

On the other end, the more commercial aspect, what I like to tell young people is that, beauty isn’t bad. It’s not bad to want to model, I don’t put down the industry, because fashion is amazing. I’m a woman, I love fashion, but it’s not everything. It’s just one component of life. I’m all for humanitarian causes. I think it’s more important to look inside yourself and to see what your passions in life are, how you can contribute to the world, how you can help other people. Try not to get sucked up into a multi-billion dollar business that is just there to make money, and not really there to care for you. It’s not bad, but it’s not everything — try to not make it your whole life because you’re so much bigger than that as a person. You’re so much more important than that as a person, you have so much more to offer this world than just the way you look or how much you weigh. It’s not all there is to life.

K: You worked alongside Assembly member Marc Levine on the California Assembly Bill 2539, which addresses workplace protections and health standards in the modeling industry. Can you tell us a little about the bill, your contribution, and the next steps going forward?

N: I worked on that because I’ve had a great partnership with the National Eating Disorder Association for several years now. I’ve done a lot of different things with them at a national and local level, so we partnered up. We all worked together to try to get this bill passed. It was turned down in the appropriations committee, where they decide how much a bill is going to cost. This year, we have another chance with the bill so we are determining now how we are going to move forward with that.

In 2015, I started working on a mental health education program for models and agents because when I was working in the modelling industry I noticed that there was absolutely zero mental health education and resources to support the models. It’s twofold: agencies need to be educated, they need to understand what eating disorders are, and models need support. When they are independent contractors, they usually can’t afford health insurance. They need free support, so that’s what I’m working on.

K: As a Celebrity Ambassador for The Shaw Mind foundation, (a global charity passionate about tackling the stigma that can accompany mental health issues) you have been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network on the TD Jakes Show. What have you taken away from this experience?

N: The Shaw Mind Foundation is a great, and I signed on with them. They are currently petitioning to get mandatory mental health education in schools in the UK. I’d like to bring that on here, in the US, in getting mental health education.

The TD Jakes Show is amazing. I love TD Jakes. He is a Pentecostal pastor and coming from the South, it just connects with me because I feel like I can do something in church and I don’t have to sit still. I feel it in my soul. I would watch him on TV when I was in Spain. It helped me along my recovery path. I was watching him and somehow we got connected, then I went on there.

When I was doing the interview, I was thinking, “oh my god!” I felt a little bit struck. Also, because I felt like it was a very good interview. He’s a really good person, and I feel it’s really good what he’s doing with his show because, first of all: he’s a man, a person of faith, and with him introducing mental health issues on his show, it’s great. I personally feel like we need more people doing that, who are faith-filled, talking about mental health, bringing it to the forefront, not people who are from Hollywood attacking other people’s mental health issues, but are applauding them. It was a good interview and I love him, he’s a great person.

K: You are currently working on the Omnibus Child Victim’s Act which aims to extend the current statute of limitations for child sexual abuse an extra five years beyond current law. What does this bill mean to you? What are the next steps going forward?

Nikki DuBose: The revised bill would eliminate the statute of limitations because New York has the worst laws in the whole country for child sexual abuse victims. I got involved in that because it’s something that is really close to me. I currently live in California and we passed that, we don’t have any limitations. One of the things I do with the foundation is I sometimes get involved with legislative issues, and when I heard about this issue in New York, I said, “why has this been turned down?” It’s going on 11 years now. My friends who are working on this, through the “Stop Abuse Campaign,” contacted me and said I would like to get involved because I think it’s ridiculous that this is going on 11 years. The Catholic church paid two million dollars to lobbyists in the past ten years to block this. This is all public information. When the bill was first introduced, the assembly woman who was working on it tried to making it a catholic church bill, but I said that child sexual abuse is not just in the catholic church, it affects everyone. I was sexually abused by my mother, and a male figure, and it correlates into mental health issues and it relates to eating disorders.

This year, for the first time ever, we got the Governor of New York’s support. Which is a big deal when the governor puts his stamp on an issue or bill, then it really shows the legislature that he is serious about getting the bill passed. It makes me sick because statistically from the CDC, and the state of New York, there are 43,000 children every year who are sexually abused. That’s the reported cases. With these kind of issues, they’re often underreported. I hate seeing things like this go on and nothing being done, especially when law makers are being paid to handle issues and they let things like this slide. We want to get this bill passed this year.

K: You have been very open about your personal experience with abuse and have become a mentor for young people everywhere. What advice would you give to young people to come forward if they find themselves in a similar situation?

N: It’s not easy. I don’t think there is one formula. It depends on which type of abuse. With sexual abuse, we know that statistically, it can take the victim 21 years to remember their memories. With physical abuse, I haven’t looked up statistics, but I know that with domestic violence, it can be really hard to get out of that. Everyone’s inner strength is different. I think that if I could give one piece of advice it would be to know that you are worth all the love in the world. If you can just reach out to one person and confide in them, do that, because you are worthy of love. I think it’s really difficult when you are in that situation because I’m trying to think back when I was in the midst of trauma, you can’t see anything else. To some a little bit out of that, I would say to try and confide in someone and get help. Reaching out is the most important thing that you can do. Try talking to a neutral person, and knowing that you are worthy of that care, of that love. You are worthy of getting help is the most important message.

K: You are an advocate for inner beauty and spirituality. What advice would you give someone aspiring to work on themselves with this as a focus? How has spirituality helped you?

N: When I started to work on myself I was in a really bad state. I didn’t understand anything about myself and my perception of myself was completely warped. I think it starts with a healthy dose of compassion. Understanding that you are perfect just the way you are, but you are obviously not going to feel that way.

In the morning, I started with meditating on something positive and this eventually translated onto feeling good about the way that I looked. I would meditate on something spiritual, or on little notes that I wrote to myself. Everything was on purpose. It was a conscious decision that I made. I would write things like, “I’m worthy” or “this is what I love about myself.” I was recovering from BDD and I was recovering from an eating disorder. These were critical things that I did.

I wrote down all the positive things that I liked about myself. I chose to focus on the positive rather than the negative. Whatever we chose to meditate on, that’s going to amplify and resonate in our mind. I would put sticky notes on my mirror, because I had such a horrible self-esteem. You’ve got to remember, when you’ve had an eating disorder for a long time, it affects you, deeply. Or even if you have depression, or low self-esteem, we all have at some level, some type of hatred towards ourselves at some point in our lives. Or maybe someone else tells us something bad about ourselves.

I think that putting the sticky notes up was a great way. Every time I passed myself in the mirror, even though I felt ridiculous doing that, it really worked. I would look at myself and say: you’re amazing, you’re special, god loves you, I’m confident, I’m one-of-a-kind, I’m going to do something great with my life today. Even if I didn’t, because I wasn’t leaving my house, because I was sick, those seeds that I planted in myself led to a start of an amazing life because I didn’t feel like I had a future, but I was planting those words in my mind and my spirit, which is the basis for everything. I think that starting with things like that can help anybody. The way that we think about ourselves, and our environment. Changing your environment starts at home, it’s the basis for everything.

I had to make a conscious decision to change my friends and the people I was hanging out with because if they weren’t a reflection of the way that I wanted to see myself or the way that I wanted to be, I had to make really important decisions. I would encourage people to think about that.

K: What’s next for you? You’ve mentioned running for office in the next few years, and with the book tour going on, you are pretty busy! What are you excited about?

N: Yeah, that’s what I’m really excited about. I didn’t expect to do that because I never really saw myself doing politics. I don’t see it as I’m a politician or anything, but it’s something that came out of my natural passion for advocacy work, my own suffering, and a desire to help people which I’ve been doing ever since I’ve been recovering. It’s a natural progression for me, being involved with people at the state-level and national-level and here in the community.

I see myself running for office in the next couple years.  I’m just getting involved with the League of Women’s Voters Los Angeles. They’re heavily involved with the election process and the local issues here in Los Angeles, and the policies. I am getting more involved in that and learning about the issues that affect our community, and our state and combining that with the advocacy work that I’ve been doing because I do care about people, I care about mental health. When I do run, my main mission is to bring mental health to the forefront because what really got me interested in politics is that, when I went to California capital in Sacramento, I helped Senator Levine with AB 2539, it was 90% men in the legislature. This issue is kind of laughed at, about worker protection and help for models. I had a conversation with a friend who is an attorney and working on this issue and she said, “you should run, there is no women working there.” I also realized that there was no women pushing forth mental health issues. There are very little women pushing forth protection of children. I feel like this really needs to be pressed and since I’ve been doing it anyway the past few years for free, I would love to go in there and keep fighting because it’s a passion of mine.

I love writing and I’m working on another book. It’s a cultural book about the Gullah culture in South Carolina, where I’m from. I love keeping things alive that people tried to kill. I want to continue doing that, some more book signings and speaking engagements. There are a lot of great things going on, but I can tell you the thing I’m most excited about is the political aspect. I want to keep it alive and show that women are in there, fighting for mental health issues. I feel that the only way we are ever going to bring mental health to the forefront, while of course there are many other issues that I care about, it’s really about if women are in there and they are the ones fighting for that because from an advocacy perspective, being in there and trying to fight with lawmakers – it’s hard. These issues often get pushed to the side.

Nikki’s book Washed Away: From Darkness to Light is available through Outskirts Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Google Books. It can also be purchased on Kindle, Nook and iTunes.

Nikki is also a contributor within We Chose to Thrive by Becky Norwood. The book is a collaborative effort by 31 women who share their stories of overcoming abuse, while hoping to reduce the stigma that pertains to it.

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