Sarah DeAnna: Super Model U

The Supermodel In You

Sarah DeAnna may be one of Oregon’s most exotic creatures. Standing 5’11” with measurements of 34-25-35, it’s clear to see why an agency photographer in Los Angeles spotted her, and why she’s a favorite on the catwalks of Italy and Paris. DeAnna works steadily in what can be a fickle business, gracing the pages of Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, Amica, and many more.

But it is DeAnna’s backstory that blows away the stereotype of a spoiled, superficial, leggy blonde pouting in pictures.

Let’s go back to the start, where DeAnna grew up, just outside Salem near the same exit so many Oregonians take to the mythical “Enchanted Forest.” DeAnna’s small, crowded home in Jefferson, Oregon, was anything but enchanting.

Her father was an addict and an alcoholic who was imprisoned for a crime DeAnna would rather not talk about. She remembers the night when there was a knock at the door and her older sister, who was baby sitting at the time, answered. Police and social service workers stormed in and scooped up the children, taking DeAnna and her brother and sisters into state protective services. She describes the memory as “nightmarish.” A first grader at the time, DeAnna had absolutely no idea who these people were that invaded her home, or what she had done to be separated from her parents.

DeAnna’s mother fought for custody and the children were returned home, but the trauma was just beginning. With the family breadwinner in prison, DeAnna’s mother began to drink heavily. The family fell into abject poverty.

She remembers being “invisible” at school. She didn’t have the “cool” clothing or friends that she could bring home for play dates. A sensitive and cautious child, she remembers watching the social workers’ cars as they drove past her house, and running to designated hiding places when social workers came looking for the children and their mother.

It’s the making of an all-too-familiar tale. A kid whose parent is an alcoholic and/or imprisoned has the potential for a litany of lifelong psychological problems, many of those described by Dr. Janet G. Woititz in her bestselling book, Adult Children of Alcoholics, in 1983. Among the hazards—self-abuse, extreme feelings of inadequacy, becoming terrified of abandonment and extremely low self-esteem. Children of alcoholics can also end up becoming perfectionists, perhaps to avoid criticism or the anger of their alcoholic parent. They may become overachievers or workaholics. DeAnna indeed ended up pouring herself into her studies so that she could escape the turmoil of her family history. She graduated from Jefferson High School with honors.

College for DeAnna was not a time of carefree sorority parties and measured studies. She worked at a fast-food joint and took shifts at Joe’s Sporting Goods in Albany to put herself through college. She had a singular goal: getting out. And she did.

DeAnna says she was in Los Angeles planning to start school at UCLA’s college of business when an agency photographer spotted her and offered to take her picture. She never looked back. How does she integrate her troubled past into her promising career? She recognizes that it taught her empathy, street smarts and the value of hard work. She shares her other tips for beauty—inside and out—in her book Supermodel You.

“See yourself in your most beautiful light.”

Supermodel You
Supermodel You

Congratulations on your book. I want to know more about that title, it’s interesting.
Supermodel You: Five keys to channeling your inner supermodel. It’s basically a guide to looking and feeling great, and being the most empowered version of yourself—not looking at models or actresses, but actually just embodying yourself. Embodying your most beautiful, supermodel, gorgeous self.

 There have been a couple of books that have been written recently, including one from the editor of Vogue magazine in Australia, spilling on the dangers of the modeling industry—anorexia, exploitation, extreme working conditions, etc.
There are two sides to everything—to every story, to every situation, to every argument, to everything. In my experience, and I’ve been all around the world—New York, Milan, Paris, everywhere—I’ve seen it so rarely.

I’ve seen it so rarely, and you know you’re more likely to see a girl with a kale chip addiction or with a yoga addiction. There’s so much more good, so many more girls who are healthy. Almost every Victoria’s Secret girl—they work out, they eat healthy, they’re not dieting. You’re selling health and beauty, and anorexia or any of these other eating disorders—they aren’t beautiful. They’re disorders. You get brittle hair, your hair falls out, your skin gets dry, you have premature aging.

Was part of your mission for helping girls overcome low self-esteem and lead healthy lives a result of your background?
I had a pretty traumatic life. And at a certain point, I heard my teachers at Jefferson High talk about education being the way out. It stuck with me, and I studied really hard. I was really driven to get out of there, to make a different life for myself.

And you received a double degree at OSU?
Yes, International Business Marketing and Spanish. I also studied in Norway and in Spain.

At what point were you discovered as a model?
Not until I finished school and I went to California. I always loved the sun, and I had family there. All I knew was I had grown up poor and I wanted a different life. I thought business school was my life. I was going to go to UCLA’s college of business. So I was hanging out in LA—I think it was January, and school didn’t start until September—and then I was discovered there by a photographer at Starbucks.

How does that happen—you’re just walking in for a latte and somebody comes for you and changes your life?
Yeah well everywhere in LA there are scouts and people claiming to be somebody, but I was very insecure and didn’t trust anyone. I checked this guy out. He paid for everything, took me to the agency and they signed me that day—Photogenics, which is still my mother agency today. We did a promotion for the agency and that picture that we shot became the cover photo in a magazine.

Wow, that was a pretty fast ascent. Was it mind-boggling coming from a sleepy little Oregon town and suddenly you’re on the cover of a magazine?
It was, but you know it was something that I think I always wanted. I was just afraid to admit it.

You grew up in so much chaos, it’s almost as if your imagination for what was possible was stunted. So you have this opportunity, and it’s as if the door in your brain opens up and you’re like, ah-ha! Right?

So you’ve done an enormous amount of work with your career and part of it includes giving back to philanthropic causes that you really believe in. The Flawless Foundation is one of those. Why do you care so passionately about this particular organization?
There was nothing for me growing up. There was no one, and there wasn’t any type of foundation. I went through the children’s services department in Oregon, which to me, honestly, was horrible. Someday I’d like to talk about this in detail, but it is still so painful. In therapy, my parents were forced to tell me things about their lives that a young child should never be forced to hear. I lived in fear of them taking me from my mother again. Even though she was an alcoholic, I knew I loved her. And I didn’t want to live with strangers. Nobody labeled it at the time, but my family lived with mental illness. That’s what alcoholism is. Any time you can’t control your actions you’re living with a brain disorder. I believe we should redefine mental illness to include anything that prevents you from being in control, from caring for yourself or your family. The Flawless Foundation is helping people understand just how common brain disorders are in our society. It’s so important.

And how are your mom and dad today?
My mom—we all suffered. The whole family suffered from everything that occurred. There were so many things that hit my mother hard. She still lives in Milwaukie. She’s still drinking. I wish she could change her life, but she hasn’t. I’d give anything to see her happy.

And your dad?
He’s clean—he’s free from drugs and alcohol. He’s living with me in Los Angeles. For the first time in a very long time, my dad is a part of my life.

So often when you grow up in a dysfunctional household and you become successful and the rest of your family doesn’t get help, there’s this sort of guilt for having succeeded while everyone else is still trapped in a lot of the same patterns. Is that your experience now?
Yeah, it’s painful. I was the only one to graduate from high school in my family. I’m one of five. I just wanted them to find their happiness in life. My sisters both were teenage mothers. My older sister—she’s doing well now. She got her GED and she’s graduating from college. She’s a wonderful mother. My other sister—she’s getting there. I hope for them all that they find their path in life and their happiness.

Oprah was saying that at a certain point, because she grew up in a very similar childhood, you have to just claim your success and wish for the best for your family members. Have you arrived at that point as well?
Yeah. I wanted to carry them with me. I wanted to bring them with me all the time. But that’s a really hard thing to do. You kind of have to just see them for what you know they can be in their highest element. Kind of like the book says, “See your supermodel self. See yourself in your most beautiful light.” I try to see my family in that way. Like my mother—she’s an amazing person. She’s incredible, she’s talented, and she’s got so many wonderful qualities. My mother actually used to model, so in a lot of ways I say I’m living her dream. I have a picture of us together at my house—one of her modeling pictures with one of my modeling pictures—and we look very similar. I try to see her more as that person that I know she is rather than what reality may be.

That’s really beautiful. I was struck when we were first talking about how the business of modeling is so subjective and fleeting, and you say you’re doing it because it is a great avenue for all of your other passions.
I do appreciate beautiful clothes and beautiful things like anyone, but I prefer more natural stuff. I found out right away through this job what my passion was—health and fitness. It was my calling. I was getting calls from agencies and from other models, and I was the backstage girl everyone was talking to about how to maintain health and keep your job. There’s real science behind it and there’s amazing stuff to learn, and that’s what I talk about in the book.

How long do you expect to continue in this career?
It’s going really well. I still book amazing jobs. I still have great clients. You know, modeling has always been this avenue for new things, and it’s awesome that today the curve is going towards health. Also, people are more likely to buy something when they see it on someone their age, on someone more closely related to them as far as their look and everything. I think companies are catching on to this. I think modeling now, as a career—they’re bringing back some of the older supermodels.

What about a relationship? Do you see yourself with your own family one day?
I want to, but I’m so busy. I have so many wonderful people in my life. I want more than chemistry, though. I’m looking for a soul mate, a spiritual partner, someone who will grow with me and challenge me. I want a mutually beneficial relationship that continues to grow. It’s got to last. That’s very important to me. Everyone deserves the feeling of permanence.

photographed by Kevin Focht

About The Author: Sheila Hamilton