News that top French model Noémie Lenoir attempted suicide last weekend, along with the recent suicides of models Ambrose Olsen, Daul Kim, Hayley Kohle, and Ruslana Korshunova, has many people asking: Why do all these models want to kill themselves?
That, of course, is impossible for anyone in this life to answer. And yet there does seem to be an inordinate number of models who have experienced psychological problems: Wallis Franken, Brian Bianchini, and Margaux Hemingway were among those who took their own lives, while others, including Karen Mulder, have suffered through public mental breakdowns. In the summer of 2008, Kazakh model Ruslana Korshunova died in a fall from her New York balcony four days before her 21st birthday; her death was ruled a suicide (though rumors of foul play still persist). Later that year, 26-year-old Canadian Hayley Kohle reportedly jumped from the balcony of her Milan agency's apartment after telling her room-mates she was going out for a cigarette; the Italian police failed to notify Kohle's family of her death for three days. On the day Kohle died, male model Randy Johnston died of a drug overdose, which was ruled accidental. Model-turned-actress Lucy Gordon hanged herself in Paris. Last November, Daul Kim was found hanged in her boyfriend's apartment — and while her death too was ruled a suicide, rumors of foul play arose after friends alleged her much-older boyfriend had been physically abusive. Then, last month, Ambrose Olsen, star of dozens of campaigns for Hugo Boss and Armani, was found hanged by a room-mate. And Lina Marulanda jumped to her death in Colombia.
The media typically jumps all over these stories, for a half a minute — a model who kills herself is the ultimate empty tragic figure, the Freudian sex/death paradox embodied and served up in four-to-six column inches topped with a hot photo. One of the tragedies of suicide is that it precludes any possibility of understanding why that person has chosen to end her own life; for surviving friends and family, the why can and will never truly be known. Public speculation about an individual's bad relationship or personal problems or financial problems or what someone wrote on her blog this one time is generally misguided, although of course it stems from the very human desire to narrativize, to understand, and to seek "closure." Certainly in Lenoir's case, we have no business idly talking about what might have been going through her mind on Sunday afternoon, as she apparently ingested a large quantity of drugs and alcohol, called an ambulance as she began to OD, then thought better of it, canceled the ambulance, and went instead for a walk in the woods.
The media is also generally very quick to blame fashion for pushing these young (predominantly) women to a point beyond desperation; actually, it would be very hard to pinpoint the precise ways in which the modeling industry may or may not have impacted any individual's wellbeing. (Though Maureen Orth makes a great attempt in her story about Wallis Franken's death.) What I do know is this: modeling can be extremely lonely, and the pattern of work it requires — endless spin cycles of travel at short notice, and a stream of new people coursing through your life each day — can have the effect of distancing one from preexisting support systems, like family and friends. By performing this work, you also sign on for a vicious level of bodily critique from potential clients and even your own representatives. It can be a very financially unstable way to live. And most crucially, agencies seem to put very little effort, if any, into identifying models who might be vulnerable to psychological disorders, and encouraging (or even just allowing) them to seek help. At best, the structure and economics of the industry are such that short term results — by whatever means — are prized, and at worst, long-term thinking, or considering a model as a whole person, is disincentivized. (At absolute worst, models may be exposed via the industry to older, wealthier, more manipulative people who take on the guise of protectors, like Claude Montana to Wallis Franken, or Daul Kim's boyfriend.) Many, many models struggle with stress, anxiety and depression, as well as substance dependencies and eating disorders, and the resources available to them are few.
I was talking about this last night with a friend of mine who still models; when we went over the depressing retinue of suicides in the profession, she said, "But is it really a surprise that there would be so many?" I thought for only a moment before I replied, "No."