Bollywood actress and Indian model Viveka Babajee, 37, was found dead today, Thaindian News reports. She allegedly hanged herself from a ceiling fan in her suburban Mumbai apartment. According to The Calcutta Telegraph, the former Miss Mauritius titleholder and one-time face of Coca-Cola and Kama Sutra ads in India, suffered from severe depression.
Babajee's death adds to an ever-growing list of recent model suicides, loaning credence to what Jezebel contributor and ex-model Jenna Sauers posited last month: "Suicidal models are fashion's worst trend."
Indeed, in the past two years, a hauntingly high number of models have taken their own lives. There was 20-year-old Korean superstar Daul Kim, of course, who stalked down runways for Alexander McQueen and Chanel before hanging herself in her Paris apartment last November. French model Noémie Lenoir tried to kill herself in May; and last Friday, one day before the men's fashion shows kicked off, 22-year-old French model Tom Nicon plunged from his apartment in Milan, in what authorities suspect was a suicide. And that's to say nothing of the deaths of Russian Vogue cover model Ruslana Korshunova, Colombian model-turned-TV presenter Lina Marulanda, Canadaian bombshell Hayley Kohle, not to mention Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow.
But are any of these suicides really connected, or just a tragic coincidence? Do they speak to the tremendous pressures of a looks-obsessed industry, or inadvertently glamorize the act as noble in some sick way?
Dr. Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology in Washington D.C., says that in the month following Marilyn Monroe's fatal overdose, the numbers of young women dying in the same manner spiked. They were most likely victims of a “non-specific loss of hope,” he says, plagued by the idea that if someone so successful couldn’t make it, how could they?
But Dr. Berman is hesitant to judge the rash of fashion suicides in a similar light, saying that “if you then suggest that there is a cluster going on of imitative suicide, you then influence the problem." To prove that these are indeed copycat suicides, he adds, models would have to have shown undue interest in, or looked up to those peers who took their own lives — "otherwise the evidence is coincidental.”
Sauers thinks it's important to recognize the "extremely high-pressure environment" that models exist in. “When you’re successful, you’re sort of surrounded by people who have a financial interest in your career, who want you to be working hard all the time,” she says, further noting that agents “may not necessarily look very kindly on the notion of taking time off, even to deal with an obvious mental health problem.”
Preston Chaunsumlit, a freelance casting agent and close friend of the late Daul Kim says the model once told him she took 17 flights in three weeks. Four days before she died, she wrote on her blog, “Oh but how lonely it is. then and now.” Chaunsumlit, who met Daul in New York in 2007 at an Ohne Titel casting, and says he spoke with her almost daily, also wonders if his industry was somehow complicit. “I’m kind of responsible for these young people and one of them I am really close with is not here any more,” he says, “I asked other casting people, ‘Are we doing something weird? People are dying all around us.’”
Charlotte Ronson sees campaigns like the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s 2007 “Beauty is Health”, which asked designers to avoid using rail-thin models, as a step toward alleviating job-related stress. “There are pressures of any industry, but when it’s that transparent and it’s all about your exterior,” says Ronson, it “is effecting how you feel about yourself.”
Certain industries do have higher rates of suicide, says Dr. Berman, though he was not aware of any studies of its prevalence in fashion. “But even in industries where suicide rates are higher than others, it’s always going to be the most vulnerable,” he says. “You never want to leave the impression that this is something that healthy people do."
But Gaspard, Tom Nicon’s agent at Next, says the model seemed healthy enough. “Sometimes, you know, you have some kind of fragile kid,” he says, “but [Nicon] was the last person you would expect [to commit suicide].” Though Chaunsumlit says Kim griped to him about her day-to-day annoyances, it all sounded pretty normal — “growing-pains.” Neither Gaspard nor Chaunsumlit knew how either model truly suffered, until it was too late.
Now that Kim's gone, says Chaunsumlit, "it [just] feels like she is on a really busy, busy schedule. The difference is that I’m not going to see her in the magazines anymore."