My Vogue Talent contest entry

When I see a writing opportunity come along, I always get involved. So when the Vogue Talent contest came around again this year, I knew I had to throw my hat in the ring (not just because this was the last year I could take part - I am officially now too old!). While this interview didn't equate to anything in regards to the contest, I'm really proud of this piece. It's been a while since I've worked on investigatory journalism and this was a great opportunity to adapt an interview to address some raw issues within the modelling industry. 

Please note, there are some sensitive issues discussed within this piece. 

Coffee with Colleen: Mental health in fashion

It may be something society is still getting to grips with, but one in six people in the past week have suffered with a common mental health problem[i]. While not suffering myself, I'm always inspired by those who don't suffer in silence. Being in the limelight is one thing, but telling the world about the persistent blows to your self-esteem, motivation and general desire to live is quite another. Combine that with working in the fashion industry, one of the most fascinating and inspiring yet competitive and critical places to be.

Here is where you meet Colleen. Modelling since 15, she's been active in the industry for fourteen years, after bagging herself a Saturday job at a hair salon. She went from making teas to being an in-house model, competing in L’Oreal Colour Trophies while still at school. Aside from her day job, she’s a strong advocate for those with mental health, sharing stories and producing Facebook live streams for people to open up about their troubles.

I managed to catch her on one of her very rare trips to London. It was raining, so we decided to duck into a small coffee shop. After getting snug in a small booth, we both cradled our freshly brewed cappuccinos. There’s a lot of gossip in the modelling world and now that I’ve joined the monotonous 9 to 5 slug, I wanted a taste of the life I once lived. After a few exchanges of giggles and tentative sips, it fell quiet as I folded my notepad open.

We reminisced about her first photo shoot, she told me how she was always getting in trouble at school for her crazy hair “but it was rock ‘n’ roll for me so I didn’t care”. She giggled and we started to chat about her love for the industry, “I want to put my emotions into pictures for others to relate to how I’m feeling, or maybe get lost with for a moment”. The conversation jumped to many of her career highlights, including that one time she worked with Calvin Harris. Apparently he’s quite the gentleman.

But as the motto goes, with the good comes the bad and Colleen’s giggles soon simmered down into a stern tone. Her feet shuffled and her eyes looked down as she began to tell me about one of the biggest triggers for her anxiety today. “I was drugged with Rohypnol on set with a photographer and well, one thing lead to another”.  She paused “This made me extremely cautious about the modelling industry, I completely lost my trust in men. I still struggle with the insecurities”.

It felt natural to progress into our next topic, the big grey cloud that people are still afraid to speak about, mental health. These coffees were tiny so I ordered another and Colleen grabbed a water. We gave it five and then jumped straight in. She commented “my mental health has made me doubt if I were ever worthy to be on set. I found I was questioning if I was attractive enough, if I was good enough”.  She sipped her water. “I constantly asked the teams if they were happy and I felt embarrassed to show my weaknesses”. I smiled and picked up my pen again as I felt the tension fall from her shoulders.

Behind the physical modelling world lies a new, much darker monster. Social media has become a hub to target people on their looks. Including model clichés we all tend to shrug off, these comments can be a real strain on mental health. “I’m naturally a size 6 but jeez I eat a lot”. She sniggered. “I still get comments like ‘you need to eat, go grab a burger’”. The rain had started to dwindle and I could sense Colleen's eyes darting towards to door. “I cannot put into words how much it infuriates me. People judge me on my appearance and not as a person. It's bullying and it does cause eating disorders”. I took the final sip of my coffee and shuffled out from the booth. It wasn't long before Colleen had finished her water, thrown on her coat and had her umbrella in hand.

“But you know what? It’s incredible how many creative people have come forward recently”. The smile I'd met earlier was back. “Jim Carrey, Stephen Fry and Leonardo DiCaprio suffer dearly from their mental health. These people have massive celebrity status, which just goes to show that money is not everything and fame can be a very lonely place”.

While mental health can be seen as a black hole, people like Colleen are a true inspiration to the fashion world, showing that whatever drives you in life can override these unbearable and unimaginable feelings. We left our interview on a high, with Colleen adding that “the modelling industry is a community of wonderful people and we often feel the same. Let’s stick together and make everyone feel great!”

[i]  McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016) Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014. Leeds: NHS Digital. Available at: http://content.digital.nhs.uk/catalogue/PUB21748/apms-2014-full-rpt.pdf [Accessed 5 April 2017]