Leah Darrow is an American Catholic speaker, author, and former professional model based in Missouri, where she lives with her husband and two children. Before her reality television debut on America’s Next Top Model in 2004, and her career as a model, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, graduating with magna cum laude honors and as president of the psychology honor society. She is currently studying for a Masters in theology at the Augustine Institute.
As a full-time motivational speaker, Ms. Darrow brings her experience of the fashion world and the Catholic faith to young audiences around the country. In addition to appearing on secular and religious media programs, she spoke on behalf of international youth at a United Nations’ panel discussion in July 2011. Her topics are mercy, conversion, human dignity, modesty, true love, and chastity.
On May 7, I interviewed Ms. Darrow by telephone about her faith and work. The following transcript has been edited for content and length.
You’ve been married for three years and you have two children with your husband. How are things going?
Busy! Sometimes I have moments when I feel like I want to run away from home.
It can be very overwhelming at first to be a new mom and a working mom, but the chaos quickly fades. I’m not just saying this, but I feel truly blessed to be a mom and to have two children who make life better every day.
What’s the goal of your work as a Catholic speaker?
The goal of my work is to bring the joy of the Gospel to people, to be a happy Christian and to share the message of salvation through Jesus Christ with others. People want to hear about my modeling career, but the bigger story is that Christ Jesus came into my life and changed it.
As a Catholic speaker, what message do you bring when you speak to young girls about your modeling career?
When I speak to them about my life, not just my modeling career, they quickly realize there’s more to me than just this one part of my past. I’m not defined by a TV show or profession, but as a child of God who’s broken and redeemed by Jesus Christ. The main message I send is about conversion and the mercy of Jesus: It’s never too late to change your life, to stop practicing vice and to start practicing virtue. There is always hope in Jesus.
How have you experienced that conversion and mercy in your own life?
I lost my virginity at 15. That scared me into thinking I wasn’t worth Christ’s forgiveness and God wasn’t worth my time anymore. Those were lies, but I believed them and the world was telling me my relationships were ok. So I tried to validate myself through pop culture, through what the world thought women should look like and do. In that world I was miserable because I was never pretty enough, good enough, or skinny enough to get the validation I was seeking.
And my relationships never worked out. They were all deceptive in one way or another and it took me a while to realize that something had to change. It took 10 years before I realized that God’s love was the only validation I needed.
My big conversion moment happened in 2005, when I had my reversion back to the Catholic faith and made a conscious choice to turn my life around. I decided enough was enough. I wanted to start over again after carrying around my wounds for such a long time. So that’s when I first came back to the sacraments and to the church, but it’s now evolved into a daily experience. Conversion makes you admit the truth about yourself. Every day, I try to be patient and practice virtue, praying for myself and others. God allows me moments where I see weaknesses and trends, helping me stop and pray. It’s extremely humbling to be honest in prayer, but there’s a lot of hope there too.
You attended Catholic parochial school and then a public high school. What inspired you to become a model?
Vanity! Every girl wants to be pretty, every girl wants to be liked, and every girl wants to be told she’s beautiful. However, I wanted to receive that from pop culture, not just from home and from God. I even went as far as to be on a TV show to get validation of my external appearance—a show that was all about trying to be the best model and the prettiest girl. One lesson I learned from that experience is that women are more than just a pretty face. We have a lot to offer the world that isn’t based on appearance.
As a 24-year old model from Oklahoma City, you were one of 14 finalists in season three of America's Next Top Model, but got eliminated in episode two when judges said your photo shoot was too plain. What was that experience like for you?
There’s nothing real about reality TV. The producers create a scenario and present the public with their idea of what they think will get the best ratings. There’s anxiety because you’re competing against these other girls to look your best and take the best picture. You’re looking to be validated for how you look and not who you are, making comparison the norm. You end up constantly comparing yourself to others and thinking you’re not good enough. And that just steals your joy.
I thought it would be exciting to be on the show. But there were very few moments like that. It was about pleasing Tyra Banks and getting criticized for your looks on national television. It was hard to hear that I didn’t look good enough. And I was sad to get eliminated, because I wanted to win, but deep down there was a part of me that was extremely happy to get away from the drama.
What were some highlights of your time as a model?
I very much enjoyed listening to the designers and stylists put clothes together. I’ve always been interested in fashion, in terms of dressing a woman and creating an outfit to bring her personality to life. During photo shoots, I paid attention to what the stylists were doing, trying to learn from their techniques in putting our wardrobes together. It’s always fun to play dress up, to put on fun clothes, and to take fancy pictures. But it was still a job. Even when they choose you for the photo shoot, there’s someone who’s going to photo-shop you, erasing your waistline and cleaning up your face. The constant message is that you’re not good enough and not living up to the ideal of perfection. And that message gets to you after a while.
What was hardest for you about being a model?
I wasn’t authentic. That was the hardest part, trying to reconcile yourself in an authentic way to what you were doing. In the end, when everything came crumbling down, it got to the point that I couldn’t take it anymore. It’s hard to live a lie for very long. There’s a lot of pain behind the smiles you see in magazines and I didn’t want to pretend anymore. I also didn’t want to give the message to young girls that they should look just like me, have my body, and change themselves if they weren’t me. The fashion industry can send that message to girls.
Why did you quit modeling?
I didn’t plan it. On the day of the photo shoot with an international magazine, I had an encounter with Christ in my heart that changed everything, and that was the beginning of my reversion to the Catholic faith that I mentioned earlier. When that moment happened in the middle of the shoot, the photographer was taking pictures, and I accidentally looked right into the flash during one of the shots—a rookie move that I knew not to do. When I turned my head away to blink, I suddenly saw an image of myself in that outfit with my hands completely empty. And I had this overwhelming feeling of disappointment. I looked down at my hands and saw that I had nothing in them to offer. The photographer told me to get back on the shoot and I just couldn’t do it.
I really believe that’s how God was speaking to me in my heart. You can agree with me that it was a spiritual moment, or you can disagree, but it doesn’t matter. I knew Christ was talking to my heart, helping me realize that I had many gifts and talents from him but that I had been using them all for myself. I walked out of the photo shoot knowing that I would change my career completely and not do modeling anymore. I knew I was going back to Christ and wasn’t going to feel ashamed of myself anymore.
Do you have any regrets about the past?
Of course I do. I think it’s silly for people to say “I have no regrets because my mistakes made me who I am today.” I don’t get that. If I could go back and not sin, I would go back and not sin. Now I live in a place of renewed hope and life in Christ, knowing I’ve been forgiven. But of course I regret the mistakes I’ve made in my life.
Do you have any hopes for the future?
That’s all I have. The future is full of hope and there’s no way of knowing what God has planned for me. I hope to keep being a wife to Ricky and a mom to Ambrose and Agnes. Agnes is 22 months old and Ambrose is two months old. I enjoy being a wife and mom. When it comes to my work, I’m grateful that I can do it and still be home with my kids more often than not. I enjoy writing and speaking. I’ve got a couple new books coming out, but that’s not the most important thing in my life.
How has your Catholic faith influenced your work?
It’s the source and summit of my work. The Church and Jesus Christ are everything in terms of the work, the content, and the delivery of what I share in my writing and in my talks.
How do you pray?
Every chance I get! When I was single, I had set times of day to pray and a particular routine. As a new mom, I don’t always have that luxury, so I get up early in the morning to pray. I ask for the strength to love and serve God. Then I read and reflect on a spiritual book. After I read and contemplate that message or story, I sit and talk with Jesus. Practically speaking, it’s just prayer throughout the day after that. At one moment it might be rote prayer, but at other times my prayer is being with my kids or changing diapers. I offer all of that up as a prayer.
Who are your role models in the Catholic faith either living or dead?
Venerable Fulton Sheen: I love him. I have a very holy crush on him—and I promise it’s holy because he’s a priest and he’s dead! I feel closest to him. But there are so many others. St. John Paul II is another one.
How has motherhood changed your life?
It changes everything! I know it’s going to be the surest way for me to become a saint, as long as I’m faithful and I do it well. But it’s difficult, time-consuming, and energy draining. And even with all those things, I can’t believe how happy I am when I’m exhausted each day. I can’t believe the joy my kids bring to my life, even when it’s challenging. Being a mom is a privilege and honor.
I’m humbled that God allowed me to be a woman, a mom, and a wife. Motherhood has definitely opened up my eyes to a deeper relationship with God. As a mom, my appreciation of how we are all God’s children has become more realistic. Since the moment I first became conscious of my oldest child in my tummy, I’ve never stopped thinking of her, and it’s an intense feeling that’s always been there. Being a mom helps me better appreciate being a child of God.
Where do you find Jesus in your life?
I don’t know if I really have to find him. He’s just always there, praise be to God. I don’t have to look far. He’s there when I wake up at 2:30 in the morning to nurse my child and he’s there when my children are sick. He’s there in my talks, like when I’m counseling a high school girl who’s scared because she lost her virginity and is afraid nobody will love her anymore. He’s everywhere.
What is your favorite scripture passage and why?
Luke 7:47 roughly says “she loves much because she’s been forgiven much.” I identify with that verse. It’s about the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis, what would it be?
If he let me, I would probably just run up and give him a big hug. And tell him how I love him so much. I wish I had something profound to tell him, but the honest answer is that I would probably just hug him. If he had time, I might also ask him to get some pizza or something.
What message do you hope people will take away from your life?
Mercy, basically: just mercy. Anyone can change for the better and Jesus Christ is our hope and salvation. And he’ll never forsake you. I’m very excited about this upcoming year of mercy that the pope has declared.
Any final thoughts?
I believe in the mercy of Jesus Christ in my life. I’m also aware that without Christ, I wouldn’t be here. A lot of people seek to be validated for what they do or look like, but it makes them lose any sense of self and of the difference between real love and imitation love. The only validation of our lives and of our relationships is on the cross. If you want to know what real love looks like, it’s Jesus Christ on the cross, looking down at us. God is working on me every day and I’m grateful.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.