There was a time when the photographer’s words would have crushed Leah Darrow.
In panic and fear, the young model would have begged for another chance. She’d do anything to change his mind. She’d cry, offer to go for a drink or his place for a coffee.
As she gathered the last of her clothes and opened the studio door, the photographer repeated his threat: “If you leave now, you’re finished. You’ll be a nobody, Leah.”
Half-turning her head, Leah spoke calmly, more in relief than sarcasm: “Do you promise?”
Moments later, Leah Darrow was half-walking, half-running down New York’s 5th Avenue, her tears ruining her perfectly applied makeup.
“People stared at me like I was some sort of mad woman,” she smiles.
“I didn’t blame them. On the outside, I looked a mess, my mascara running down my face. Inside, my emotions were in turmoil. In an instant, I’d walked out on a successful modelling career, which I’d been painstakingly building, a career I’d sacrificed everything for.
“Part of me was overjoyed I’d quit, but part of me was suddenly hit by practicalities. I was earning big money as a model. How would I pay my bills and my rent now? How would I eat? What else could I do because modelling was all I knew?”
Few New Yorkers watching Leah stumble along 5th Avenue that day would have recognised her as the beautiful model who just months earlier, had been swaying down the catwalk on one of the world’s most watched reality TV shows.
As a contestant on America’s Next Top Model, Leah lived a seemingly exciting and glamorous life, eagerly shared and envied by millions of viewers around the world. From designer fashion shoots to celebrity red carpet parties, Leah – then 25 – seemed to be living the dream.
It was a world away from the farm in Oklahoma where she grew up, the oldest of six children. Her devout Christian parents took their children to church and prayed as a family. After moving to St Louis, Leah started modelling in college before applying to ANTM. She was one of fourteen girls from hundreds of thousands of hopefuls, who made it on to the show.
“I didn’t realise I was signing my life away,” explains Leah.
“I became an object, not a person. All that mattered was how I looked and what my weight was. We stayed in an exclusive hotel but the doors in every room were removed, including the bathroom. They even took away the shower curtain so when one of us wanted to shower, the other girls would hold up towels.
“All the camera operators were men and they weren’t allowed to talk to us. They just silently followed us everywhere we went. They filmed us twenty-four hours a day, even when we were sleeping.”
She added: “Bad behaviour was encouraged. The producers wanted us to argue and fight. It made for good television but it was exhausting. At times, it was so upsetting and stressful and every emotion we revealed was recorded by the ever-present cameras.”
Several times during the show, the cameras recorded Leah praying but those moments were never broadcast. The rows and arguments were regarded as more entertaining.
In fact, all through school, college and her modelling career, Leah continued to go to church and regularly prayed.
“Deep down I believed in Jesus but I didn’t know what to do with that,” she laughs.
“Like most of my Christian friends, I gave Jesus His one hour at church every Sunday and said prayers now and then. I pigeon-holed my faith. The rest of the week was mine to do with and live however I wanted.
“Overall, I felt I was still a good person living a good life. I mean, I hadn’t murdered anyone.”
Ten years before America’s Next Top Model changed her life, Leah experienced another life-changing event. Aged 15, she lost her virginity at her school prom.
For weeks, she’d been looking forward to attending the dance. She had picked out a new dress and was excited about wearing it for her older boyfriend.
“I had a boyfriend because all my friends had one and I didn’t want to be left out. The prom was a chance to dress up and be beautiful and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, as the prom came closer, my friends started asking me if I was ‘ready for it’ and if I would ‘do it’ on prom night.
“I honestly didn’t know what they meant so they made it clear that it was expected I’d have sex with my boyfriend. I was a little girl dealing with big issues. I didn’t understand what chastity was. I couldn’t talk to anyone about sex.
“According to my friends, everyone was having sex. Virginity was something to get rid of as quickly as possible. It was no big deal, and sex would make me a woman. So I slept with my boyfriend. Afterwards, all my friends congratulated me.
Deep down, I knew something had been lost; something had changed. I felt different and it didn’t feel good. That’s when I realised we are free to make choices but we are not free from the consequences of those choices.”
For the next ten years, Leah continued to live a double life. Faith was kept for Sunday mornings. The rest of the time she lived in the world partying, drinking and having casual affairs. Modelling was a source and an expression of the lifestyle she had chosen.
To read Leah’s full story subscribe to Liberti here