A special interview with Leah Darrow–former contestant on America’s Next Top Model–who had a radical experience of conversion that unexpectedly changed her life
I grew up simply, working with my family on a beautiful farm. We had no neighbors; but I wasn’t lonely because my brothers and sisters were my best friends. My parents shared their strong Catholic faith and devotion to the Blessed Mother, bringing us to Sunday Mass and praying the Rosary with the family every single night. But I don’t want to give people the impression that we were like the children of Fatima. My parents always put the effort into keeping faith in the home.
It was a really beautiful upbringing. My good and faithful parents loved Jesus wholeheartedly and prayed together every day. Their example laid a firm foundation which helped me later in life. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop me from falling away from my faith. In high school, I made some really poor decisions that culminated in me losing my virginity at 15. It wasn’t what we thought it would be. Timing does matter. If the act through which we share our bodies with one another is divided from its purpose, it leaves us with a sense of overwhelming shame. That interfered with my view of myself as a woman and irritated me so much that I tried to push away everything that reminded me that I was a sinner. Instead of repenting and seeking God’s mercy so that I could start over by giving Him all of those unfortunate parts of my choices, I listened to the voice of shame and allowed that to dictate how I navigated my life.
From that point on, I walked away from my faith and the practice of it, although I still believed it was true. I just didn’t think there was a place for me in the Church anymore because I thought that I had let everyone down, especially my faithful parents who had given me all that was good.
I allowed shame to totally remove the compass of God from my life and looked
to the world for direction. Women in our culture right now have a lot of voices telling us exactly what we should do, who we should be and even what we should look like. I listened and took my spiritual direction from culture, instead of Christ and that led to choices that were definitely far from God and far from faith.
We live in a culture that’s ironically obsessed with beauty, but it’s not the beauty that lasts. It is filtered, contrived and fake. God is the author of beauty, but we seldom look to Him to find it. We have fallen for a fabricated, empty version. When I was young, I remember the thrill of flipping through the pages of magazines showcasing women from movies and TV shows who led glamorous lifestyles. They don’t just sell beauty. They are selling a lifestyle—an ideology or a way of life, especially for women, that says family, marriage and children are definitely outdated, an obstacle to your aspirations to happiness. They confine your happiness to depend solely on exterior qualities— your looks, your clothes, your job, your status…Sadly, I fell into that hook, line and sinker. I began modeling at a young age which led me to audition for season three of the TV show, America’s Next Top Model. I was so excited to be chosen, but I wasn’t ready for the traumatic experience of being on a reality TV show which manufactures drama by manipulating participants and broadcasting the footage out of context. After I was finally eliminated from the show, I decided that I deserved to use my hard-won high profile to stay in New York and further my career.
At this point, I had abandoned my faith for about 10 years— not going to church, not receiving the sacraments and not praying at all. I desperately missed the deep spiritual connection. My soul was craving for it, but shameful thoughts held me back, “You screwed up when you were younger and you’ve continued to screw up, so there’s no hope for you. Just lean into this new life and make the best of it.” So, that’s what I did, ignoring the pain in my heart that could be healed by Jesus and trying to paper over how dead I felt inside.
On the inside, I was desperately unhappy, but I was amazingly good at pretending to be happy while I was modeling. In reality, my life in New York was quickly deteriorating as I was plunged into a lifestyle that is so isolating. Everything about it was fake, propped up by stuff that is meant to make you happy, but only simulates what true joy is. I had neither true happiness nor peace and felt overwhelmed by deep depression and suicidal thoughts.
The first answer is the grace of God that strengthened me to make that courageous decision to really walk away from it all. It happened right in the middle of a photo shoot. I literally heard the words on my heart, “I made you for more…” and I could not ignore it. Suddenly something deep in my conscience ignited—something that I had totally forgotten deep in my soul. I knew it was a voice of truth. It was the worst timing on the planet for some type of spiritual moment to happen, but I just couldn’t ignore it. I looked at the photographer and just said, “I have to leave…” Everybody around me on the set was flabbergasted. I’m sure they were thinking, “You’re crazy, or you’re just having a weird moment.” They encouraged me to just drink some water and come back, but I refused. I grabbed all my things, left the photo shoot and walked out of that lifestyle and all the way home.
The first thing I did was call my Dad to come and get me before I lost my soul. It was a true spiritual, mental and physical awakening. God gave me the grace to see the way my life as it really was, and it was crumbling. I had been lying to myself constantly that everything was okay and my life was fine, but it wasn’t. So, it was a grace from God that helped me make that courageous decision. Every credit goes to Him!
Dad dropped everything and came straight away. The very first thing he wanted to do was take me to Confession. I remember thinking, “The Church doesn’t want a girl like me. It’s for only for the holy people who have always been faithful.” But Dad gazed at me tenderly saying, “Leah, you called and you wanted to come home. I am here to take you home. Jesus and the Catholic Church are home.”
At that moment, I realized that he was right. It was true, I had come home and the Father was waiting to welcome me back. Before I left New York, I gave God everything I had been through and asked Him to take me back. That was not easy, and I am not going to pretend it was, but that’s what He asks of us. He wants it all, including all of the mess. Stepping into that confessional was my first step on my way home to the Catholic faith.
After that Confession I literally felt like I had come home—back to the Catholic Church. I reconciled myself saying “Okay, God. You are right. I am wrong. Please help me.” It renewed my confidence and my sense that “I want to do this.” I was no longer scared to say, “I am a Christian…I am a Catholic”. I wanted to look like a Christian, act like a Christian and talk like a Christian. So when I came back, I concentrated on rehabilitating and reinforcing the virtues that I had opposed by my previous sinful actions. I had to rehabilitate chastity in my life—to take courage, say the right thing and be honest. I had to be prudent in my decisions and develop self-control and moderation so my passions couldn’t control me, and so that I could be in control. That’s what we are called to do as Christians.
In the following years, God presented opportunities for me to talk about modest fashion, virtue and chastity. I wasn’t sure if I should do that at first, but then I got a nudge from the Holy Spirit. At that time I was working full-time in a job that used my college degree, and I wasn’t doing any apostolic work. Slowly, my speaking engagements increased more and more until it was clear that God was calling me to full-time work. And I said to God, “You brought me this far and you are going to keep on taking me further”. And He has. I have travelled the world to talk about God’s love and mercy, and how we can make the radical choice to live in chastity and faith.
It’s all about bringing Christ to women where they are. Let’s start with the podcast called “Do something beautiful”. You can grab it from any of the podcast platforms. I interview a variety of people who can encourage women to do something beautiful with their lives by discussing what we can do in the world for Christ and others. True Beauty is a reflection of God’s Beauty and has two attributes—wholeness and holiness—being whole as Christ has made us and intended us to be, and also striving for holiness through the practice of virtues.
A new initiative is the Lux Catholic app—a free app for Catholic women where every single evening we pray the Rosary live with women all over the world. Thousands of women have joined us to pray for each other’s intentions, making a deep connection within the body of Christ.
I am equally excited to share about our new program called “POWER MADE PERFECT”—the first ever Catholic Personal Development Program! Taking the very best of personal development and connecting everything to Holy Scripture, we are about to launch this new venture relying on the Power of Christ to help change lives.
If you are reading through my testimony, know that we are also praying for you today. You are not alone. If you feel hopeless, I want to tell you that Christ is always there for you. He is always extending His hands toward you. All you need to do is reach out to Him and He will draw you close—close to His Sacred Heart.
Leah Darrow is a Catholic speaker, author, and entrepreneur dedicated to creating a beautiful sisterhood of incredible women through her speaking engagements, books, the Lux app and Lux university. She lives with her husband and 6 wonderful kids in Missouri. This article is based on the special interview she gave on the Shalom World program “Found.”
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