From Toxic Modeling to a Second Childhood: Melissa Baseman’s Journey to Self

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From Toxic Modeling to a Second Childhood: Melissa Baseman’s Journey to Self

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“I had six days of glamour and two years of suffering.”

This unvarnished, harrowing recollection comes from Melissa Baseman, a current Williston junior, about her modeling career in Brazil prior to becoming a Wildcat.

Born in São Paolo in 2001, Mel, 18, lived in the most populous city of Brazil; when she was 11, she began modeling after enrolling in a class to improve her posture. She initially loved it because “it was very similar to theater and I have always loved doing theater.”

By 14, Mel signed to the São Paolo-based agency Way Model Management, through which she was booked on mostly local jobs. She also modeled for fashion week in Lima, Peru, and did international campaigns.

On paper it sounds glamorous, especially for a teenager. But the reality of Mel’s day-to-day life wasn’t what it appeared. In addition to needing to work out twice a day, beginning at 5:00 a.m., her food intake was severely restricted.

She told The Willistonian she lived off “three tablespoons of quinoa, soup, chicken, protein shakes, and yogurt” every day. The diet affected her ability to concentrate, and added another burden to the already busy life of going to school.

Her parents were supportive, at first. “They supported me because they knew it was my dream, and also so many people told them I had a bright future,” Mel said. “But then my dad started to see how toxic modeling was and he was afraid of what might happen to me.”

Her dad, Mel said, was wary of telling his daughter to abandon her dream, but the business took a toll on Mel and he couldn’t ignore it.

“He saw that people were treating me like I wasn’t human,” she said. “He saw me complaining and falling into a deep depression.”

Mel’s agency, she explained, manipulated her emotionally. “It was kind of like blackmailing,” she explained. Quoting Machiavelli’s The Prince, she explained the agency’s approach was “It’s better to be hated than loved. They would make you think they loved you, but they would treat you with fear. You would be scared of them. I was so scared of them all the time.”

The fear, Mel elaborated, resulted in her feeling overwhelmingly judged.

“I would go there [to the agency] and they would look at me head to toe and judge my clothes,” she said. “If they didn’t like my outfit, they would make me change. Every week they would also take my measurements and weigh me. They would always judge my body and treat us like we were less. They always made me feel really bad and always compared us to other models.”

Thankfully, her friend’s father sat her down and explained the harsh realities of the business she was in, the one making her feel so terrible.

“He said, ‘Mel, you can’t do this. What are you going to do when you are 25 and there is no more work for you because there is someone skinnier and younger than you? You can’t do this anymore, you are so smart, you can’t waste your life always living for your body.’”

Though she didn’t want to acknowledge the situation at first, she said she “came to terms with it. I already had this feeling I couldn’t do it anymore.”

“I was a wreck, and I was depressed but I didn’t know it,” she said. “I was going deeper and deeper into depression. I knew I wouldn’t have a future if I went down this path. I couldn’t be 16 and already ruined.”

With help from her parents and a psychiatrist, Mel was able to “get out of that dark place,” though she said it was a challenge. The modeling world had gotten its claws into her emotionally. That fear her agency had imbued in her years before still resonated.

“I was always scared of what the fashion community thought about me,” she said. “I was considering my image even though I wasn’t modeling anymore.”

Mel said for a long time she would look in the mirror and wouldn’t recognize herself. “It took me a long time to heal. It still hurts, but not on the same level,” she said.

“I wouldn’t be the same if I never modelled,” she elaborated. “I think I learned everything I needed in the process … I grew up even though I lost my innocence.” Mel said she doesn’t regret quitting the industry, because “I am in a much better place.”

Although the modeling world was toxic, Mel said she “enjoyed working with creative people with different backgrounds” that allowed her to grow out of her private school shell.

Once she got her young life on track, Mel began looking for a school environment that would provide what she needed, not just academically but emotionally.

“All of the other schools [I looked at] gave me a preppy feeling and they made me feel terrible,” she said. “I came here and Ms. Greener said that I needed a place to be a child again. And that got me because it is true. I needed to be a child.”

Arriving at a new school, in a new country, had its own challenges, including preconceived notions of who she was. “When I first came here, I didn’t want people to already have an image of me,” she said. “I came here, and a lot of people asked me if I was the ‘Brazilian model’.”

According to Mel, it took some time for her to get adjusted to the Williston way of life. In the past, “I was always working, so my parents were like, ‘Go live your life.’ Coming here freaked me out.”

It didn’t take long, however, for Mel to find her place in the community. She channeled her creative passion into photography, a skill in which she’s become proficient.

“It only started after I quit modelling because I was so used to being in front of [the] camera,” she said. “I started to see how people felt good when they took pictures. I just want to empower them because in magazines there is always a stereotype of women.”

Katherine Garrity was Mel’s advisor last year, and still is. When Garrity read about Mel, she recalled, “She was nothing like what I thought she would be. She was nothing like I expected. She was very quiet and cautious because this is a very different type of school. She had a lot of questions. It was cool to watch her figure it out.”

Anaya Akpalu ’21 had a similar experience with believing she knew who Mel was before she actually met her.

“We saw that she had 13,000 followers on Instagram and were like, ‘Whoa.’ We saw that she was a former model and we had preconceived notions about her,” Anaya said. “I thought that she was going to be a mean person and she was going to be stuck up to everyone. But then we met her, and we introduced ourselves and she was super chill. Mel is just cool.”

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