Growing up, Julia dreamed of glitz and glamour, but when that dream became a reality, the sparkle soon faded. Her modelling career put her under constant pressure to conform, but in finally listening to her intuition, Julia discovered peace and happiness
As a nerdy tomboy with big ears, glasses, braces and a moustache, growing up in Australia I was in awe of models – their beauty, grace, confidence (not to mention a lack of prominent facial hair). I was scouted overseas when I was 13, but my parents were pretty strict and drilled into me that any kind of taking pride in your looks equates to vanity, so the focus remained on my studies, and modelling was just for my dreams.
In 2004, during university, where I did an International Business degree to keep my parents happy, I decided to reach out to large modelling agencies, but their response was that they were unimpressed with my dark looks. Back then, Australian agency books consisted of Caucasian blondes and brunettes, with a token African girl, which stirred up feelings of resentment, frustration, and unworthiness.
Eventually a small agency took me on and I did a few jobs, but it became clear that modelling wasn’t something I could make a career of in Australia. So I decided to look at it as a stepping stone to acting, which I’d grown to love since childhood.
After my degree, I trotted along from 2007 to 2009 in an office, as everything from a cosmetics product manager to a beauty editor, which exposed me to the glitz and glam of the Sydney social scene and re-ignited my showbiz desires.
At the end of 2009, I was made redundant from my job. I wanted the feelings of elation and genuine passion for a job to continue, and I realised the only way to do that would be to give my dream of working in the entertainment industry a chance.
After planning for months, in 2010 I booked a one-way ticket to Mumbai, with zero knowledge of the language, family, friends, home or job. The idea was to establish myself as a model, and then make my way into Bollywood films. I knew it was going to be an adventure, I just didn’t anticipate the toxicity of the modelling environment, and the effect it would have on my mental health.
When I walked into my future international agency, they were aghast at my timidly presented folio, openly told me my legs were ‘huge’ and that I needed to get my upper lip ‘done’. Naive me assumed they meant waxing the moustache (yep, that old chestnut).
My confidence was shot, however I took it upon myself to work as hard for this career as I had in my other jobs. I focused on exercising a lot to lose weight quickly, doing hours of cardio most days. As the weight dropped off, the agency finally accepted me a few months later, reinforcing those negative habits.
The problem was, it didn’t stop at just my weight. The width of my hips came under scrutiny, and it became a fairly normal practice for show directors and designers to openly call certain girls out on this in front of everyone, which I learned to ignore with an aching heart. Ironically, even though I was working as a model, it never gave me the validating feeling I’d been chasing since I was a kid.
By 2012, despite studying two Indian languages day and night almost to fluency, I discovered the seedy side of getting into most Bollywood films and it was not a path I wished to pursue.
It was a constant cycle of humiliation and mind games, and I felt like I was running on autopilot, an empty shell. Fellow models either joined in the bullying for Brownie points, or gave you a wide berth so they wouldn’t be picked on, too. It was an incredibly isolating and dark place to be in.
During this time I had body dysmorphia – unaware of how thin I was, and was hyper aware of my ‘imperfections’. For a few years, my legs were so thin I’d struggle to walk a runway in heels – I just couldn’t hold myself up.
After five years, the final straw came after a particularly humiliating experience of yet again being ridiculed – this time for the broadness of my shoulders – in front of a pack of cowering backstage girls.
When the designers had had their fun and walked out, I threw the jacket – which had prompted the remarks – on the floor and stomped on it amidst the cheers of the backstage crew. That gave me the strength I needed to realise I was not going to take the abuse a second longer.
On my way home that day, I had an angry conversation in my head of what I should have said to the designer. “You think I’m fat? Well, deal with it – because I love food and this model eats a lot!”
This thought gave me an idea and confidence in myself; I created a brand from it. It’s become my identity and has brought me so much joy and peace. In 2014, This Model Eats A Lot started as restaurant reviews, but has since evolved to YouTube episodes at Michelin starred restaurants around the world, as well as collaborations with some food bloggers and food-positive models.
While it’s been a gradual process, the freedom I’ve been able to exercise with this has been pivotal in my healing. While I gained my first piece of editorial in a major newspaper within a month of launching, the day it came out, I was awash with stress because I’d booked a show that day, and was praying the bullies hadn’t seen it. They had. I left Mumbai shortly after that, at the end of 2014. I was done.
Over the years, This Model Eats A Lot has been acknowledged by people in the modelling industry – those who have stood up to the harsh standards and unhealthy practices imposed on models. I am grateful that diversity and inclusivity has become more and more prominent, and agencies are finally accepting more racially-diverse models who don’t conform to high fashion measurements.
In hindsight, I realised that when I stopped being fraught with anxiety about being a perfect runway model, and focused on eating intuitively – eating with no judgement and treating food as a friend, not the enemy – everything fell into place.
Having a career where your looks are judged, and your self-worth is tied to whether or not you get the job, is extremely mentally destructive, and there have to be healthy boundaries. Over the last couple of years I’ve made it a priority to nourish my mental health. This has included everything from chatting regularly to a trusted professional, to journaling, and definitely what I consider to be most important, changing the way I think about myself.
Never forget, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and mental health should be a priority for every single one of us.
Here’s to nourishing yourself in every spectrum – body, mind, environment!
Rachel Coffey | BA MA NLP Mstr, says:
Julia’s story is one of self discovery and determination. It’s great to go out and follow our dreams, but we need to ensure that the real-life situation meets our needs, and we aren’t carrying on at the expense of our own self-worth. Fortunately for Julia, she saw that there was another way. Through a combination of inner strength and professional help she found a way to care for herself, help others, and truly fulfil her dreams!