By Christopher Green
IOWA CITY — Leah Darrow, a 2004 contestant on the reality show “America’s Next Top Model,” spoke at the University of Iowa on Oct. 7, recounting her conversion from her “immodest” fashion model lifestyle to a more exemplary Catholic life.
Her talk, “Thoughts from the Runway: An America’s Top Model Contestant Explores Issues of Fashion, Pop Culture and Faith,” was delivered to an audience of more than 100.
Darrow recounted her devoutly Catholic upbringing in Oklahoma and Illinois, which included regular Mass attendance and “praying the rosary daily.” The oldest of six children, Darrow described her transition from a childhood of being a bossy older sister to a time where her faith “got fuzzy in high school.”
This fuzziness, she said, allowed her to turn into a college psychology major who “knew everything,” rejecting many of her family’s Catholic teachings. It also created an impulsive streak within her, particularly after graduating with honors.
“I made the decision to audition for ‘America’s Next Top Model’ in a matter of seconds,” said Darrow, “and I quickly learned there is nothing real about reality television.” She was 24 at the time.
Darrow described her life on the show, on which she was “voted off” early, but was contractually bound to stay hidden away in a New York hotel during the filming of the rest of the series. She could not leave her hotel room, had no money, no food and could not make contact with others.
“A lot of times it was exciting being part of the show,” said Darrow, “but many times I was sad, lonely and depressed.”
When the television show was completed, Darrow entered the world of fashion modeling in New York, eventually undertaking a photo shoot, described as an effort to change her image of “Midwestern wholesomeness.” In the midst of this photo shoot for an international magazine, Darrow said she had a conversion experience.
“I didn’t black out, but I suddenly didn’t feel pretty or glamorous; I felt exposed and immodest. In an instance I saw three difference scenes in which I was surrounded completely by white. In the first, I was just aware that I was dead; in the second, I knew I was in front of God; and in the third, I stood in front of God and cupped my hands and raised them to heaven.”
Despite threats from the photographer to make her stay, Darrow left in the middle of the shoot. Her first action was to call her dad, pleading with him to come and get her.
“I told him, ‘If you don’t come and get me, I’m going to lose my soul,”’ said Darrow.
Upon returning home to St. Louis, Darrow embarked on a new path, one that includes speaking engagements such as this.
“I felt peace for the first time in my life,” said Darrow. “It was frustrating not being authentic.”
The message Darrow hopes to spread to other young women is “what one wears sends a message. I can still be a little fashionista, but it’s important to put together an outfit that can show some dignity.”
“If you do not define your terms, then someone else will,” she continued. “So be authentic and raise the bar.”
Citing herself as an example, she left the audience with the encouragement that “there is always hope.”
Today, Darrow is a nationally known speaker and is represented by Catholic Answers, one of the nation’s largest lay-run apostolates of Catholic apologetics and evangelization. Her appearance was part of The Journeys in Faith Speaker’s Forum, sponsored by The Journeys in Faith Student Discussion Group and The Newman Catholic Student Center.