When I was 14, I was scouted by a modelling agency. I was never really told that I was pretty or beautiful so it was quite a shock that I would be considered. When I was 16, I went to Paris. Within a week, I’d gone from an absolute nobody to being cast for a Chanel Haute Couture show. Just one person’s influential opinion, and suddenly I was very important. I remember thinking it was quite ridiculous.
It was just craziness from that point. I modelled for five years, mostly in the States. Financially it was great, but the world I was in was a sad one. There were lots of egos, people thinking that a dress is going to change the world and lots of very insecure people, as well as a kind of constant pressure. My whole job was about what I looked like. Apparently I was living the dream, but it was never really my dream. I used to feel terribly guilty for not really enjoying it and also for what I was being paid. By the time I was 21 I was becoming impatient and frustrated and finding it quite boring. I couldn’t maintain friendships because people didn’t understand that I had to go away all the time. I thought: ‘This isn’t making me happy’, so I decided to finish modelling. Even though I wasn’t a Christian at the time, I feel that God really honoured it. The last job that I did was for a commercial for Pantene and I got royalties for that for the next two years, which doesn’t normally happen.
I FEEL LIKE I’VE BECOME THE PERSON I WAS ALWAYS SUPPOSED TO BE
I left it feeling that all I had was good genetics; I’d lost confidence in my academic ability. At around that time I became friends with a couple called James and Emico who were Christians. They were quite normal with me, which wasn’t usually the case with people who had heard of me at that time. They seemed really authentic. I had quite a difficult relationship with my ex-boyfriend and I found myself wanting to hear their opinions and to seek their advice on decisions. It often contradicted what other people were saying.
Gradually I realised that they were the most stable people I’d ever met. I could tell that they had something I hadn’t. I was on a road of discovery by then, and I’d decided to train as a nutritionist. I was into the New Age movements, practised yoga and was looking into Buddhism.
I had been told that when you are successful and have money that you will be happy. It sounds clichéd, but I felt like I had achieved those things and it just wasn’t enough. After I’d known them for a year, I asked Emico about her faith and I remember switching off as she went on and on and on about it. Eventually I did an Alpha course in a small local church. It was all old people and me, and we talked about death all the time.
Later, on holiday with James and Emico, I expressed that my new-found attempts at faith weren’t really working. They said: ‘Do you want to become a Christian? Why don’t we just pray?’ We were sailing in Croatia and I couldn’t run away as we were on a boat. I was sobbing so I knew that something was happening. The night before I’d had a really vivid dream, and I was crying when I woke up. In it a man was saying to me, ‘I want you to cross a bridge.’ Amazing people were crossing this bridge and I wanted to go with them, but this man was saying to me, ‘You can only go over this bridge if you let go of your boyfriend.’ I knew really at that time my boyfriend was my God. It was a necessary step that I needed to take if I was really going to run with God.
Since then, I almost feel like I’ve become the person I was always supposed to be. I have such a freedom. I feel like I can genuinely help people in a way that is no longer feeding my need. It’s radically changed my life. It’s quite a scary thought to think of where I could have been.
Sarah Leo was the face of CoverGirl cosmetics and has appeared on the covers of American Seventeen, French Vogue, Italian Marie Claire and Italian Elle. She was talking to Lucinda van der Hart.