From Darkness to Light: A Journey from Mental Illness & Abuse to Finding My Voice
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.
You 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.
In 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 what 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.