Nicole Weider never did make it big as model. She hated schlepping all over Los Angeles, where she moved from her hometown of Salem, Oregon. Her Elite Model Management agent made her quit the high-school team because her legs were too muscular. The other aspiring models seemed catty and rude, and she wasn’t landing many jobs. The work she did get made her miserable: A shoot for Maxim as one of its “hometown hotties” made her feel “humiliated.” A dream job as a stand-in for Adriana Lima at a Victoria’s Secret shoot was disillusioning: The women, Weider’s idols, were shockingly skinny, and yet the photographer’s assistant bragged to her about retouching Gisele Bündchen’s thighs on site. “I just thought, ‘Wow, this is so false,’” she recalled recently. “After that I was like, ‘Wow, I have to share this news with everyone!”
And share she has. A large, devoted audience of young evangelical women now visit her popular site Project Inspired, where she describes herself as a successful model and actress who “ditched her former life.” Though she wasn’t raised in a religious home, she found God at 23 when a friend brought her to a talk by former Miss USA contestant Sheri Rose Shepherd, a popular evangelical speaker and author, and gave her a copy of The Purpose Driven Life. She went to community college and then launched a career similar to Shepherd’s, as a writer and inspirational figure. She got a PR boost last year by launching a campaign against Cosmopolitan magazine that was enthusiastically covered by the Christian press: “This magazine has the devil written all over it,” she wrote online. “He wants to kill and destroy young girls' hearts and minds and Cosmopolitan is just a vessel for that.” Her site now earns about 100,000 visits a month and she just sold a book to a “well-known Christian publisher.”
Weider is just one of a runway’s worth of women who are making a second career for themselves in religious communities by speaking out against the evils of the fashion industry. These women boast different levels of industry success, but many describe a crystallizing moment of abject horror at the fashion world’s vices, which they may or may not have dabbled in. Most of them struggled with eating disorders or depression, and now preach a message of modesty and self-esteem. And they do so while keeping a traditionally feminine look: They’re all slim, almost all of them have long hair, they wear plenty of makeup and jewelry, and they choose stylish, if not fashion-forward, clothing. As a slice of Christian culture’s much-discussed “modesty movement,” they represent modesty at its sexiest and most successful. Many of them are getting far more attention as ex-models than they ever got as professional posers.
There’s cycle three America’s Next Top Model contestant Leah Darrow, who was raised Catholic but drifted away from religion until experiencing a dramatic vision of God during a lingerie photo shoot; she now speaks to Catholic audiences on topics like “how to live out your faith with your everyday fashions.” There’s Jennifer Strickland, who walked the runway for Armani in Milan in the mid-nineties; after a suicide attempt at the height of her success, she met people handing out Bibles in a Munich park. She currently lectures to tens of thousands of women and girls each year at conferences and churches all over the country, with her next book Beautiful Lies warning women not to let “men, mirrors, and magazines” define them. (“You had to be anorexic to be an Armani runway model,” she told me. “I don’t see any other option.”) Pat Robertson’s talk show The 700 Club has featured at least six models and ex-models in recent years, including Britt Koth, who appeared on MTV’s Miami-based modeling reality show 8th & Ocean.
Most famous, at least in recent months, is 23-year-old Kylie Bisutti, who made headlines with her decision to give up lingerie modeling and move to a small town in Montana with her new husband. Bisutti wore a cross necklace on the Today show last month, where she told Savannah Guthrie, “I’m just thankful that God changed my heart earlier on, rather than being five or ten years down the road.” Victoria’s Secret accused Bisutti of exaggerating her affiliation with the brand, pointing out that she won an online amateur contest and only worked with the brand twice. Her book title, I’m No Angel: From Victoria's Secret Model to Role Model, suggests otherwise.
Rachel Lee Carter, now 38, stands out from this group because she still works regularly as a model. Carter was represented by Wilhelmina in New York, and has appeared in print ads for Revlon, Tommy Hilfiger, W hotels, and Reebok. After moving to New York in the mid-nineties, her new job nearly crushed her faith. She moved upstate to attend a Bible college, lost weight “naturally,” and felt called back to modeling. “The Lord was saying, ‘Go back, but go on my terms,’” she recalls. “Unbelievably, I worked more than I could have ever imagined.” But she declines plenty of work, too: “No alcohol advertisements, no cigarettes, nothing provocative, no lingerie or anything see-through, or anything homosexual in nature,” she told me. “In the book of Daniel, it says in the first chapter that Daniel ‘purposed in his heart’ not to defile his body. That’s the cornerstone of my work in this industry.” Detailed standards may make modeling tougher, but they don’t rule out success: Devout Jehovah’s Witness Coco Rocha, who told DuJour last year that “faith is everything,” won’t do nudity or lingerie, or hold a cigarette for a shoot.
Carter has continued to work steadily ever since, picking up a Mrs. North Carolina sash along the way. (Her “platform” was modesty, and she wore a one-piece in the swimsuit competition.) She maintains the website Modeling-Christ.com, wrote a 2011 book aimed at teen girls, and frequently speaks to large groups of women and young people, with fees around $3,000 per appearance. She says she would like to see the industry aggressively combat eating disorders, employ more plus-size models, and label photos that have been retouched, “so people would know no one’s perfect.”
If those ideas sound familiar, that’s because there’s real overlap between these Christian models’ causes and the kind of body-positive pop feminism prevalent in the broader culture. Weider’s site features a Jane-worthy “Me Without Makeup” section, and Carter’s anti-Photoshop crusade sounds like something you could find praised on Jezebel. Strickland emphasizes the Dove-like message that “real beauty has imperfections and flaws.”
“The language they use is really a feminist language, a straight-up feminist ‘my body, my choice’ language,” says Christine J. Gardner, an associate professor of communications at evangelical Wheaton College, who wrote a 2011 book about the rhetoric of evangelical abstinence campaigns. Not that modesty advocates use the f-word, of course. But Gardner sees power as the essential message of these movements: In a sex-saturated society, withholding sex and sexiness preserves that control instead of relinquishing it to men. As she puts it, “Modesty is the new sex.”
Why the profusion of ex-models on the modesty circuit? Gardner sees it as a classic conversion narrative, akin to the best-selling sixties memoir The Cross and the Switchblade, about a New York City gang member turned evangelical Christian: “For those stories to ring true, to be both coherent and dramatic, you have to have the storyteller be able to say, ‘I was part of this other life, but now I found Christ,’” Gardner says. A gorgeous woman who claims to have given up the charm, fame, and riches of the fashion industry for her faith is a more powerful spokesperson than a dumpy hausfrau badgering you to put a sweater over that skimpy sundress.
In spreading this message, many of these former models have found their greatest prestige as outsiders speaking truth to glamour. If they’ve found the thing modeling may have failed to provide them — an audience — why go back to the world of catty agents and degrading casting calls, not to mention risk violating their own values? Weider dipped her toe back in the industry again last year, but after going to ten commercial auditions and not getting any jobs, she decided that was the end. “As soon as I left the audition, I felt bad about myself,” she said. “This is not inspiring at all.”