From Darkness to Light:  A Journey from Mental Illness & Abuse to Finding My Voice

Nikki DuBose
By Nikki DuBose

Ms. Nikki DuBose


You had a very rough start in life. Tell us about your childhood.

I grew up in a violent, dysfunctional family, however, hardly anyone knew that because I went to a private Christian school and we lived in a nice house. My parents divorced when I was two and my mom remarried to a much older man who kind of swept her off her feet.

Starting at four, I was subjected to physical abuse and then at 8, sexual abuse by a male figure. I developed binge eating disorder as a way to cope with the trauma, and later Body Dysmorphic Disoder and bulimia, which lasted for over fifteen years. My mom sexually abused me from the ages of 9 to 13 until the police removed me from my house. I suppressed those memories until my late twenties.

My teenage years were riddled with depression, psychosis, self-harm, and really never feeling like I fit in. I started doing drugs at 13 to cope and then alcohol, partying. I became addicted to sex – but it wasn’t good. I was unhappy and always thought about wanting to die. My mom tried to commit suicide twice and I have these memories of visiting her in the mental institution; I felt so alone and helpless.

The sexual abuse you experienced at the hands of your mother had to be the ultimate betrayal. Were you ever removed from your home by CPS?

I was removed by the police. I had tried before to call my dad and the police to tell, but my stepfather had threatened to kill me. I lived in fear. Finally, I called my dad and got out. I disclosed about some of the physical abuse then, but the sexual abuse I repressed and it didn’t resurface until in my twenties.

Do you have any siblings? If so, did they experience similar abuse?

I have brother who is about six years younger; I think because my stepfather saw him as “his” child, he never physically abused him. My brother remembers a lot of the abuse that I went through, though.

Were there any adults in your childhood that you could count on?

I felt close to my Nana, my mom’s adopted mom. She was a huge role model for me. We all need role models. I was her everything. But I think that because of the trauma, I kept things hidden a lot.

At what point, did you finally break away from your family?

The police removed me at thirteen, and then at eighteen I married a guy in the military and moved to California. I felt relieved to move away.

Do you still have a relationship with your mother today?

My mother passed away in 2012 due to an alcohol related car accident. Her death was the reason for my recovery.

How did you get into the modeling industry?

I pushed my way into it because I had really low self-esteem. At the age of 16, I walked into a prestigious modeling school one day and signed up for runway training classes, thinking that if I became famous and had my face all over my hometown, my life would be perfect and my relationship with my family would get better. My time at the school didn’t last very long because I was fat-shamed in front of the class. I left the first day and vowed to not come back.

However, a few years later, I found myself right back in the same business I had sworn off. I started amateur modeling, letting strangers take photos of my body just so I could make rent. Sometime later, I met a girl who worked in the local fashion industry in Southern California and then I ended up hosting on television which led to signing a contract in Miami with the biggest modeling agency in the world.

From Darkness to Light:  A Journey from Mental Illness & Abuse to Finding My VoiceYou talk about the dark side of the industry in your book Washed Away: From Darkness to Light. What was the industry like when you were part of it?

The industry was what it has always been: unregulated and a breeding ground for abusive personalities to run wild. Yes, I worked with some really nice people who I absolutely adored, but they were not the norm.

The industry at that time was one big trigger for my addictive personality. It was brutal – not a kind place to work. There was rape, heavy drug and alcohol use, constant bullying, and financial exploitation.

You developed an eating disorder called body dysmorphic disorder. Tell us about that.

Body dysmorphic disorder or BDD, the way I have experienced it, has caused me to see myself like a monster or a man. Basically BDD has warped my perception of myself. When I was living with BDD, I noticed certain flaws and obsessed over them, to the point of binging, purging, overexerising, and self-harming to try to change and then feeling angry and depressed because I couldn’t change. I hated my face, I hated my body, and most of all, I hated myself.

You also have suffered from PTSD and other mental health issues. What type of treatment did you seek?

I’ve been to therapy to talk out all of the trauma that has happened to me and ways to develop healthy coping strategies and boundaries. I still see my psychiatrist, and I also take anti-depressants and anti-convulsants for my eating disorder. At one point I was taking anti-psychotics but I am no longer on them.

At your lowest point, what was your life like?

I was attempting suicide, self-harming, binging and purging more than ten times a day. I couldn’t see past the darkness in front of my face. Really, I wanted to die so badly. I was doing anything I could to kill myself.

What made you decide to leave the modeling industry?

My mother’s death in 2012. When she died as a result from her alcoholism and mental health issues (bipolar and dissociative identity), I knew that I was on the brink of death as well. We were very similar. My career was a false identity for me, and it was triggering; I had to leave if I wanted to get healthy and discover some sort of a genuine identity.

From Darkness to Light:  A Journey from Mental Illness & Abuse to Finding My VoiceIn your book, you speak about models having no protection from financial abuse, over zealous agents, pressures to stay thin. Is this still the case today?

Yes, it’s still an unregulated industry, but I’m hopeful it will change. I’m pushing for it and working on a mental health education program. I also just signed an open letter to NYFW (#DearNYFW) along with other models to address a new research study that was published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders about the unhealthy lengths that models are going to to keep their jobs.

If you had a daughter who wanted to be a model, what would you tell her?

Well, I am looking to adopt and I hope for that to be finalized in the next year or two. I think about that question from time to time, and I know that I would never want to tell her what to be, but I would encourage her to get a great education, and to look inside for her inspiration. Beauty’s not bad, but it’s not everything, and I want her to know that she has limitless talents and God-given abilities that have nothing to do with her looks. She can be and do anything in this world if she puts her mind to it.

I want to encourage her to help others, to identify causes that are important to her and go after those because that’s what ultimately make us the happiest.

You are now a leading advocate for making reforms in the modeling industry. Tell us about that and From Darkness to Light:  A Journey from Mental Illness & Abuse to Finding My Voicewhat you wish to accomplish.

Thanks! I want to see mental health education implemented into the industry. It’s tricky trying to get everyone on the same level. Personally, I feel that models need free resources and professionals need ongoing training to identify warning signs. I’ve been working on that for a year and a half.

What have you learned about yourself through everything you have experienced?

That I’m strong (it’s God’s strength working through me). That I’m brave. If I can get through all of that, I can get through anything. I’ve learned that I am worthy of love; I never, ever believed that I was truly worthy of real love. But God has shown me that through His love. It’s been an ongoing process.

What is your definition of success?

I used to define success by how much money I had (or didn’t have), by labels, my career status, relationship status, on and on. Now, my definition of success is totally different. Success to me is being happy and content with my life. You can have all of the material things but be miserable; my dad doesn’t have any money but he is one of the happiest people I know. I consider him a success because he has that something that money can’t buy. He’s also not trying to constantly achieve and obtain the next thing. He’s simply content and free to enjoy his life. Isn’t that wonderful? Life is short!

Do you have a personal hero?

I try not to get too caught up in personal heroes or idols. I look up to Jesus as he showed compassion to everyone, regardless of who they were or where they came from. He didn’t judge and he exuded kindness. I have a lot to learn from Him.

I’ve learned to look up to myself; that it’s important to be my own hero and consider myself a strong woman that I an admire and love. It’s healthy.

What is your life like today?

I’m busy working on the right things. My life moves at a super-sonic pace, but I believe that it’s fruitful work. Everything right now revolves around God first, career second, and then planning to adopt in the next year or two. Honestly, they don’t always fall in that order, but I’m trying to keep them in balance.

I just went through a divorce so it’s been a big transition, but I’m putting my faith out there and believing for the best.

Please leave us with your favorite quote.

“Love and knowledge led upwards to the heavens,
But always pity brought me back to earth;
Cries of pain reverberated in my heart
Of children in famine, of victims tortured
And of old people left helpless.
I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot,
And I too suffer.
This has been my life; I found it worth living.”

– Bertrand Russell

Nikki, thank you so much for sharing with us.


Nikki DuBose
Nikki DuBose is a former model turned author, speaker, and mental health advocate. She recently released her memoir, Washed Away: From Darkness to Light. In Washed Away, Nikki recounts her experiences navigating the dark side of the modeling industry, while battling abuse, addiction, and various mental health issues (sexual victimization, eating disorders, alcoholism, drugs, depression, suicide attempts, body dysmorphic disorder, PTSD, psychosis). She recently appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Network on the TD Jakes Show to speak about her recovery from Body Dysmorphic Disorder and eating disorders, and how the pressure to "fit into" the modeling industry nearly killed her. “By my early twenties, I was modeling professionally and appeared on the covers of and in editorials for magazines such as Maxim, Glamour, Vogue, FHM, and Vanity Fair. But while my career was going exceptionally well, my private life was falling apart. My mental and emotional health were in shambles. I went from one extreme to the other to meet weight requirements for photo shoots, and quickly fell into anorexia nervosa. At times I struggled to survive, beginning to abuse diet pills as a way to achieve the figure that my agents were pushing me to have for fashion shoots,” says DuBose. Because of the lack of laws and protections, models have long been subjected to sexual and financial abuse, bullying from agents, and have been pressured to lose so much weight that many have developed devastating, even fatal eating disorders. Nikki’s recovery from a nearly lifelong struggle with PTSD, psychosis, addictions and eating disorders has left her with a passionate longing to help others who are also suffering. Although the modeling industry has made strides towards body diversity in the past couple of years, there is a lack of education and awareness surrounding eating disorders and other mental health issues. Washed Away: From Darkness to Light serves as a testimony to others to let them know that they are not alone in their fears, doubts, and frustrations, and that through recovery all things are possible. Praise: "A compelling and educational read about the dark side of the fashion business and its effect on mental health. Nikki draws upon her experiences of overcoming a life-threatening eating disorder as she navigates through the industry, all while wrestling with a broken home life and struggling to discover her inner voice. Nikki's story is truly remarkable and will serve as a beacon to anyone who has ever doubted their own intrinsic value. I highly recommend Washed Away: From Darkness to Light.” - Brian Cuban, Attorney, Author (Shattered Image: My Triumph Over Body Dysmorphic Disorder), Activist “I was truly amazed by her determination to live life. I saw a woman that had every reason to quit and remain silent, but she chose to break through every obstacle that challenged her. I am very grateful that she has taken on the challenge to not only speak about her experience, but to fight for change in laws that will empower children and survivors to protect themselves. We all need to learn from Nikki and use our voices to create positive change. It is no longer okay for the silence to outweigh the tough discussion. Ignorance will not stop child sex predators from harming our children.” - Matthew Sandusky, Founder & Executive Director of Peaceful Hearts Foundation, Author (Undaunted: Breaking My Silence to Overcome the Trauma of Child Sexual Abuse), Speaker “To endure what DuBose has within her first decade proves more than most could handle in a lifetime, yet she looks back at her life with grace and a rare honesty. As she takes us through the overly sexualized fashion industry as an international top model, she gives the no-holds barred account on mental illness, rape, and eating disorders that our society so desperately needs.” - Neesha Arter, Journalist & Author (Controlled) "Washed Away: From Darkness to Light is an incredible story of one brave woman's perseverance in the face of daunting life circumstances. Nikki DuBose details her chilling experiences with an eating disorder, childhood sexual abuse, alcoholism and drug abuse - and how she found the strength to rise above and find recovery. This powerful read will inspire those in their own recovery journeys." - Kristina Saffran, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director at Project HEAL About the Author: Nikki lives in Los Angeles. She recently worked alongside Assembly member Marc Levine on California Assembly Bill 2539, which addressed the need for workplace protections and health standards in the modeling industry. She is currently working on The Omnibus Child Victims Act, a bill that will help protect New York's children from the trauma of sexual abuse. “I was sexually abused by my mother and a male figure. In my book, I talk about how that led to mental illnesses, and my recovery from that, which is why this bill is so important to me,” says Nikki. Nikki gives talks regularly on her recovery at universities and treatment centers. Her advocacy work and recovery story has been profiled on CBS Los Angeles, People, Vogue UK, Esquire, India Times, Inquisitr, and many others. She also writes extensively on mental health, political issues, and exposes the truth about the modeling industry on The Huffington Post, the National Eating Disorders Association, Eating Disorder Hope, Clinical Recovery Institute, and Recovery Warriors. She also recently contributed as an expert reviewer for Harvard University's STRIPED program (Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders), helping craft their lesson for this new semester, which focuses on modeling and eating disorders. To learn more, go to Book Trailer: Facebook: Twitter:

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