Women Who Lead – Starving to the Top – Cassie Davies

My guest this week has graced the runway catwalks of London, New York, Paris. Cassie Davies was scouted at 14 years of age. And by 16, she was signed at one of the top London modeling agencies. Little did she know that her aspiration for fame and fortune would turn herself inside out as she battle not simply the diagnosis of anorexia, but a devastating anger towards very asset that would shoot her to stardom – her body. In this week’s program, I explore the 7-year roller coaster that took Cassie to through the corridors of a world that we as young girls fantasize about, to the decision to save herself from a death spiral. What you say this has to do with leadership? –everything. How we position ourselves in a competitive world is as much about how we see ourselves, what we feel about ourselves, as it is about what we present to the world. I think Cassie’s story has a message for all of us. Let’s tune in and see what she has to say.

Tune In - Women Who Lead


Lesley:  Welcome Cassie.


Cassie: Thank you.


Lesley:  Glad you could join me. I think it’s something I want to really find out about because this has been intriguing me all my life, about what we see on media and television about the world of top models. And I want you to go back into your mind which is not far— you were 18 at the time— as you are getting ready for New York fashion week. Tell me, what was going on inside of you as you were getting ready to start one of the biggest runways in the world?


Cassie: Uh, I think at first I was very excited. It was my first time in New York, and I was with new people, people that I didn’t know very well, and I had gone there with them to other girls who are close to my age. One of them was 16, the other one was 18 I think turning 19, and we had gone as three from my agency. And I think my agency was… she was expecting us to do really well, that’s why she took as three, because we were kind of more powerful together.


Lesley:  Did you actually present together or were you individual in the types of presentations you were doing?


Cassie: We always went to the castings together. Some of the shows that we did together, we did some of the same shows. Towards the end of fashion week, we were all doing different shows.


Lesley: So tell me about these castings because I’ve read about them in terms of… You have a booker. The booker identifies castings that are for you, and then you show up with these castings. What do you do in these castings?


Cassie: Uh not much. You go into the casting. You show the agent or the designer whoever that is. The photographer, your portfolio and they look through it, and then they ask you to walk. So you do that some kind of runway either just in the room or down the corridor, and you have to walk up and down for them. Something happened in stages so they will have a look at your portfolio. And if they like the look of you then they might ask you to try some of their clothes, and then they’ll get you to walk back and forth and try another clothes. I remember some of the castings, they were never that pleasant. At first I used to be… I was really not at the beginning doing these castings, and I put a lot of training into learning how to walk. It took months of training to do that catwalk walk. And the thing I found about the castings was that I knew I was being totally judged on my body, and my face, and the way that I walk. And it didn’t matter what kind of person I actually was and what personality was.


Lesley:  Right. So, there’s different obviously styles of models in terms of the types of categories that you would be cast for. What would be the description of the category that you were most pursued for?


Cassie: For being young and fresh face.


Lesley: So here you are, very young, very fresh face, just developing your personality, so to speak. And now you’re walking in the only thing that they’re looking at is how fresh your face is, how good your walk is, and how you’re going to look in the designer’s clothes.


Cassie: Yeah.


Lesley:  Well let’s get into that because I want to talk a bit about, go back four years, 18 was where you were in New York Fashion Week. And but at 14 you were discovered in Topshop while you were shopping with your mother, and just describe that scene of how this photographer came up to you and what happened.


Cassie: Well I remember what I was wearing. I was wearing a short denim skirt and this little wraparound patchwork top, and I’ve gone to London that day with my mum at Topshop. And I was browsing downstairs and this man came up to me, and he asked me if he could take a picture of me. And I was really confused and I don’t know what was happening, and I didn’t really have any clue about modeling or the fashion industry. But I said yes even though it was just a man asking to take my picture, and he gave me his cards and I found out he was an agent. And then my mum came up to me and she was really excited about it, because I think she saw it as a really good opportunity. But I felt very nervous of that because it was unknown territory, and I really didn’t understand what was happening.


Lesley:  So 14, you get “discovered”.


Cassie: Yeah.


Lesley: And then from the stages of 14 to 16, how would you describe that period because you ended up getting booked by one of London’s top agencies.


Cassie: I think, for about a year my mother and I just left it and I really didn’t think about it. I was quite young. It was around the age of 15 when I started looking into the agencies. All agencies have that kind of walk-in service where you can just walk into the agency, and someone will come to have a look at you. They’ll take pictures of you. They’ll decide whether they want to sign you or not. So I went I think four or five of the top agencies in London. That’s Storm, Models 1, Premier, Select, and Select was the one who signed me. They were the one who scouted me in the first place.


Lesley:  And then they signed you. So let’s go into this one interesting area. I was reading one of these sort of glitzy articles about how to become a top model. And one of things they say is that you need to be very clear on your values because of what happens in this industry as you start to get exposed. So I don’t know. At 14, 15, 16, 17, did you know what your values were?


Cassie: I had no idea what my values were, and I also really didn’t know anything about the industry on what I was getting myself into.


Lesley:  So when did the first moment come where as you said, there was discomfort all the way through the process? But when did you start to get an awareness that this discomfort was not going to go away, that there was something about it that you had to pay attention to?


Cassie: Not for a long time. for being out until I was towards the end of my modeling career when I was 20, 21 years old. When I was actually able to reflect on it, and look at what I’ve been through and how it wasn’t okay.


Lesley:  So tell me the part about in reflection what wasn’t okay. And in an article you wrote, you talked about being in London garden where you were wearing only a thong. And so that the photographer could get a head shot of you, it didn’t want you to have anything on you on so that the head shot wouldn’t be in anyway affected. I mean, when you think about that, how old were you?


Cassie: 15.


Lesley:  So you’re 15 years old and you’re being looked at by… was the photographer male or female?


Cassie: He was male.


Lesley: Was there anything about this situation that didn’t feel right, or was it just “This is the job. This is what I’m here to do.”?


Cassie:  No. There wasn’t anything sexual, it was just a job. And I’m sure that for him it was professional because in the modelling industry, that’s just the way that young girls and women are expected to behave.  They are expected to be okay with their bodies about undressing in front of everyone and putting on clothes. And even if you’re getting changed for a photoshoot and they’re putting on different outfits, people will expect you to be okay with just getting changed in front of everyone and being naked in front of everyone. I never really thought like anyone’s looking at me in a sexual way, it was just a norm.


Lesley: Now here’s the interesting thing. You have to feel good in your skin, except that your skin happens to be constantly the focus instead of your weight. How did you get as thin as do you possibly can be? What’s the perfect measurement?


Cassie: 24 inches on the waist and 34 inches on the hips.


Lesley: I’m looking at you today and there are definitely bones here. So how in heaven’s name do you get to that measurement?


Cassie: It’s extremely difficult. I mean, some girls just don’t get to that measurement, because their bones just won’t allow them to. It was when I was 18, I had just finished school. And I have this summer model, and that was the time when my agency wanted me to the do fashion shows, which were coming up in there in September time. And for the fashion shows, it’s really important that you have those measurements, otherwise you just won’t get on the cupboards. You won’t get any jobs because you won’t fit into their clothes. The designers won’t like your body, it just won’t work. It’s very rare I think for models are above that 24, 34 size to get unto a catwalk, unless they have some kind of exceptional face or something like that.


Lesley:  Right, but the catwalks are whole different line of modeling business. I mean that’s where you literally are demonstrating the flow of the clothes, how they move. So the walk is very important, and also of course the way in the fact that there’s only one size that you fit into, right? So there you are, you’re getting ready, and what do you do to get ready for New York and London fashion weeks?


Cassie: That time I was dieting, I mean a lot of salads. I exercised every day. I was just trying everything I could to lose the weight and get down to that size.


Lesley:  And so how did you feel? If you would wake up in the morning and you’ve just eaten lettuce all the day before, I mean, does your body just finally get used to it? Does it finally just say, “Okay, well this is all I’m going to get for the day and a whole lot of water.”?  So, do you feel good or do you just feel there’s a norm about this?


Cassie: I honestly don’t know how I managed them. I know that now that my mind is… I think about it so differently. If I try to do that to my body now I just wouldn’t be able to, but back then I somehow managed. And I think this is obviously the issue of eating disorders is that mentally and psychologically, you manage to find a way to starve yourself without physically feeling like to feed yourself.


Lesley: This is absolutely a fascinating statistic I found in researching getting ready for this interview, and that there is more eating disorder diagnosis in the United States than breast cancer. It is an extremely and rapidly rising particularly among double figures in the female side than the male side. So, describe for me when you first started to understand that you were experiencing a disorder in terms of eating as supposed to trying to get your weight to a perfect size for the catwalk.


Cassie: It was after I finished doing the catwalks. So, in September 2011, I went to New York for about two weeks and I did really well in the shows. I walked a lot of the big shows there, and then I came back and I was thinner than I’ve ever been. I’ve lost a lot of weight. I was below the measurement I needed to be.


Lesley:  Now that I know that you do your weight here differently, but what would’ve been the weight you would’ve been?


Cassie: When I came back from New York, I weighed 48 kilograms.


Lesley:  So that would be roughly 90 plus pounds.


Cassie: I’m not sure of the conversion.


Lesley:  Yeah 2.2.  So you’re under a hundred pounds. How tall are you?


Cassie: 5 foot 9.


Lesley: Right. You’re 5 foot 9, you’re under a hundred pounds, let’s just figure that out for e second. So you come back and you’ve lost weight, and now what happens?


Cassie: I go to my agency and they tell me that I look beautiful.


Lesley: So here you are, being the most beautiful that you can be in your career, and you are a walking waif. And I guess that’s what we see and we acknowledge as we watch these fashion shows, and think of how marvelous that must be up there doing that beautiful strut. But the fact of the matter is, is that you’re not well. Did you ever feel not well? You were smoking a lot too, weren’t you?


Cassie: Yeah I was smoking a lot at that point. I knew that I wasn’t well, but I also wasn’t acknowledging it or I was trying not to. I think because I was really successful about going, and I was making a lot of money and I was working for amazing designers. I was with my modeling career, I really felt like it was taking off like people thought I was going to do really well. They thought i was going to be a star. And that is what I had in the back of my mind whenever I was hungry, or whenever I just didn’t want to do it anymore and I wanted to give up. I would remember that. I was so close to becoming someone.


Lesley: So this industry is probably one of the most competitive industries there is. Does that play itself out in amongst the people that you’re working with? Is there an overt sense of competition? Or is there, you’re really competing against yourself?


Cassie: No. You’re competing with all the other models. There are so many models and you really see them when they flock to the castings for the catwalks or fashion shows. Young girls are coming from all over the world trying to make it big in the fashion world. And there were so many castings I went to where there were hundreds of girls lined up just waiting to see a designer.


Lesley:  And how many would they choose out of those hundred?


Cassie: I guess between 10 and 20 for a catwalk.


Lesley: Yeah. That’s still a minimum number compared to how many are sitting there. And do you sit there and compare yourself with each one of these women?


Cassie: Yeah. You really mostly compare yourself, your bodies.


Lesley: Right, your bodies because that’s all you were really selling at this moment.


Cassie: Yeah. There was one casting—I won’t name the designer—that was particularly awful, and I’ve been to few of their castings and they’re always doing the same way. There are hundreds of people, girls and boys, lined up for this casting, and they take the girls in groups of 10 or 15. You go in and they make you change until like our body can slip the kind of thing that you put underneath your clothes.


Lesley: Like sheer? Not sheer but it’s like… So you can see how the body frames.


Cassie: Yeah. And then all the girls line up along the wall, and they make you walk back and forth from corner to corner and everyone watches.


Lesley: Oh my gosh, what goes through your head as you’re doing it? Don’t fall?


Cassie: Don’t fall, walk properly, I’m also completely aware of my body and every curve on my body.


Lesley:  And so, so then, you’re at the peak of your shot to fame, and is this when you head off to Oxford?


Cassie: I came back from New York. I did a couple of shows in London. As soon as I landed, I was referred into shows. So I think I the first day I was back I had to do two shows, and then I crashed and I had to go home.


Lesley: And the crash came from just exhaustion?


Cassie: Exhaustion yeah, I was so tired. I went home, I was really thin. My mum saw me, my sister saw me and they were shocked. And then I had to go to Paris for the shows there, and Paris is especially difficult. I got into one show which was good considering it was the beginning of my career. And because in Paris, most of the lineups for the shows are already… most of the models are already chosen for the shows, all the big faces. And it was after Paris that I went to Oxford.


Lesley: So let’s just think about this for a second. I always think of these models doing the show and then going out of party. Is that true? Do you have enough energy to go out after you’ve done this kind of heavy experience? And then, you must be sought after about from many different people.


Cassie: I never was into that kind of thing. I knew that a lot of models were, but I wasn’t really attracted to that side of it. And I think that’s a big reason as to why I never really fitted into the industry, because I didn’t just see that kind of lifestyle. It’s just wasn’t me at all. And, part of like all of the big faces in the modeling world, in the fashion industry, they do have amazing personalities. They’re very energetic girls, women, and people love them.  And they’re very bubbly, but you know they have this kind of personality and people love them for it. They want to photograph them. And it comes across in the photos, that’s why those models can do so well because their personality comes through. And I don’t think I was ever able to do that kind of model.


Lesley:  So how would you describe your personality as a model? What would’ve been the description? You’re not bubbly, what were you?


Cassie: I think the other star that I could’ve been was… I guess a bit moody, being boyish.  


Lesley: That’s actually what I’m thinking. You know, that kind of look where there’s sort of this… this kind of stir.


Cassie: That look didn’t work for me because it doesn’t suit my face even though my personality is a bit like that. It didn’t really see my face because in pictures I come out looking very girly like they wanted me to be girly.  


Lesley: So girly was the thing.


Cassie: Yeah.


Lesley: So, did you decided to go to Oxford before all of this took place, or when did your final decision was made to go to Oxford?


Cassie: It was during that summer, and I almost didn’t go to oxford. I got over the place and I was not going to take care, and I was going to model full-time. And then I decided to take the place, I realized it was stupid not to take the place.


Lesley: So you graduated in English Literature?


Cassie: Yeah.


Lesley: And then you went back to the industry?


Cassie: Yeah. I was still modeling during my degree, in holidays when I have time. In summers I wasn’t doing a lot but enough so that I was still involved in the industry.


Lesley:  Yeah. You get to keep your finger in the pie, so to speak. So, as you sit seat hear today looking back at that very heavy time, I mean in total you were five years in the industry from 14 to 21, and what do you see when you look back?


Cassie: I don’t see myself, and I guess it doesn’t make me sad as it used to make me.


Lesley:  When you say it used to make you sad, what was it that emoted for you?


Cassie: Around the same time that I wrote that article. So I graduated in 2014, and then after I graduated I decided that I was going to model full-time. And by this point, I have become healthier, in a sense that I was no longer… I guess I would’ve been diagnosed as anorexic. I was no longer starving myself, but I have found other ways to maintain that way by exercising a lot, by eating really healthily. When I graduated, my agency told me that I had too much muscle.


Lesley: So here you are finally toned, but in the look that they’re pitching you for, you’ve got too much tone to your body.


Cassie: Yeah. And that was the point when I guess I became unhealthy again. I just ate a lot of salad, and I was walking a lot. And the way it was dropping off me, and I could feel myself expired and down again to the person I was a few years before that when I was 18 and I was extremely underweight. And I was really unhappy, and I knew I had to get out. I knew I just couldn’t be involved in that industry anymore and it happened really abruptly. It was just one day I just sent them an email, saying I’m sorry, that I’m out of this.


Lesley: Wow. What did it take to write that email?


Cassie: It was really difficult.


Lesley: For one thing at that face of moving to stardom, you were making a lot of money. So what was it that sort of pushed you to that point of saying no more?


Cassie: I think because it was affecting my personal life, my relationships, and I could see that it was making the people around me unhappy to see me that way. I became a very difficult person to be around.


Lesley: Difficult in what way?


Cassie: Sad, really sad and no one could help me. And every time like I knew that was the big obstacle with my life, I would say to someone, “I’m unhappy, I’m starving myself.” And they would say, “Stop modeling.”  And for a really long time I couldn’t stop modeling, because it was such an amazing opportunity. You know, to everyone else from an outsider’s point of view, modeling is an incredible opportunity not that many women do it, and people see it that’s so glamorous.


Lesley:  Oh I’m in that camp. I mean I totally see that perspective, but you have taken us into a very different side of what that is. So tell me, what’s the future for Cassie Davies?


Cassie: I still don’t know what the future is for me. I want to write. At the moment, I write reviews on book reviews and I work as an Assistant Editor on magazine. At the future, I hope I will be writing fiction, writing books.


Lesley: Well I have to say, you look absolutely beautiful.


Cassie: Thank you.


Lesley: And you look totally thin to me. How much more weight have you gone on your body now compared to your 100-pound version?


Cassie: Another about 15 kilograms more.


Lesley: Oh another 35 pounds. Gosh, ladies and gentlemen, she’s so super skinny still so I can’t imagine what that was like but it must’ve been hell.


Cassie: It was hell, yeah.


Lesley: Well, thank you so much for sharing this time with me.


Cassie: Thank you as well.


Lesley: Delighted.


I found it both fascinating and painful to interview Cassie. Here she is at the tender age of 22, having lived a full career in an industry and her wounds are still very apparent. One could argue that the decision to pursue a top model career was self-impost and therefore one that Cassie had control over, but did she? Who would walk away at the age of 14 from such an opportunity? I actually do not believe that Cassie’s story is limited to the world of fashion. Here, we as women are still objectified in terms of how we look, and I hate to say it but it’s so true. And I’ve listened to many of the women leaders that I’ve interviewed say that if they look a certain part then they feel a certain part. And if they feel that part then they can certainly make it. I find that it is a challenging reality in our world of today where we would hope that our looks did not count and yet they still do. I think the only way around this is to present to the world a being that’s from the inside out, as simple as that sounds, it’s a journey that takes a lifetime. I can’t imagine that there’s any of you out there, who haven’t felt that moment when somebody’s looked at you and you felt “Do I look apart?” My question is, do you feel the part? You can find out more about Cassie Davies on LinkedIn that’s C-A-S-S-I-E   D-A-V-I-E-S. Cassie is currently the Assistant Editor at The White Review. I thought it might be interesting to lead out with a song that’s somewhat reflective of Cassie’s journey, it’s called “Beauty from Pain” by Superchick.


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