We hear it all the time: Thin is in. What 18-year-old model Alexandra "Ali" Michael
kept hearing from within the fashion industry was much more damaging: Thinnest is best.
Last February, at castings during Paris Fashion Week, the lithe teen got the rudest awakening for a young model. She was called the "F" word: fat. Some casting directors told her she had "fat legs" and "huge ankles." One even said, "You're turning into a woman, and your body is changing. You need to learn to control that."
After landing coveted spots on the European runways for fashion giants such as Chanel and Lanvin the previous season, the Colleyville resident was confident that she would have another stellar season in Paris. When agents told her that some clients thought she had gained too much weight, she was taken aback.
"I had an epiphany and realized it wasn't worth it," Ms. Michael says. "I told them that I was fine leaving on the next plane home in the morning." Some didn't realize that the vulnerable young model was silently recovering from multiple eating disorders.
Over a recent lunch at Cosmic Cafe in Dallas, the once-shy teen could hardly stay quiet, discussing her battles with food over a steaming plate of tofu stir-fry. It's a welcome, healthy change from what she used to eat. She chronicles her struggles in the June issue of Teen Vogue, revealing that, at one point, she survived on an extreme diet of oatmeal, lettuce, grapes and occasionally fish.
Her seemingly fabulous lifestyle and success came at a heavy price: She succumbed to anorexia and bulimia and started to lose her hair, her period and herself.
"I used to think of being skinny as a job requirement. I felt a pressure to be emaciated," Ms. Michael says. "It's not even just a pressure to be thin. It's a pressure to be skeletal. The girls with the smallest legs get the smallest dresses."
Some blame designers. Some blame agents. Some blame it on differing standards in the various fashion capitals.
"It is important to realize that the European shows are a very particular part of the industry," says Lisa Dawson, director of the Kim Dawson Agency, which represents Ms. Michael in Dallas. "The designers there are looking for a very extreme body type. The girls have gotten much thinner, and I think the look is shocking to anyone outside of that small community."
Former Dallasite Andrew Weir, president of A-List Projects and ACW Worldwide, casts models for New York and European shows. He has cast Ms. Michael (who is 5-foot-9) in the past and points out that the standards in Paris can be a challenge for some models, extending to extreme height, too. "Of all the cities, that's the city where they want the tallest girls," at least 5-foot-10 or 5-foot-11, he says. "Ms. Michael may be a little bit shorter than some, but she is very special, and if she's right for our clients, then we do book her."
MaryAnn Michael, who travels extensively with her daughter, noticed Ms. Michael's weight loss and confronted her about it.
"I'm a nurse, and we have a large support system of friends, family and agents, but there is nothing that says one is immune to eating disorders," she says. "I was completely blindsided when I found out." She promptly took her daughter to a doctor and a nutritionist.
Mother and daughter also had a long heart-to-heart discussion after one trying day of castings. They tearfully mapped out a plan to talk openly about the weight issue and her eating disorders.
"I am a mother who will carry this guilt every single day," MaryAnn Michael says, "and I will be hypervigilant for a very long time. The monsters are still there, but I think they are down to a dull roar, and I pray for the day that they are silenced forever."
No longer hiding her problem, Ms. Michael's recovery process includes meetings with doctors, eating balanced meals, doing yoga and working out. Sharing her story helped her heal, she says. In addition to speaking out in Teen Vogue, she appeared on the Today show in May to discuss her struggles with Ann Curry alongside Teen Vogue editor Amy Astley.
"I want to keep modeling, as long as I can maintain a healthy lifestyle," Ms. Michael says. Her dreams extend beyond strutting and posing and include college. "My ultimate goal would be to work for the United Nations or the World Health Organization one day and make a difference," she says.
For now, she's basking in a healthy glow of triumphs. She graduated from Grapevine High School earlier this month. And in New York, DNA Models, the agency that represents Ms. Michael, promoted her from its new faces division to the powerful women's board.
Trudi Tapscott, the agency's women's director, says: "It takes one brave person to stand up. The only motivation she has to speak out is to help out other young women. We're still getting plenty of options and requests about her."