Written by: Lauren Fleishman
Lauren Wasser: A Model of Strength. The California “It Girl,” model and former athlete almost died at the age of 24 from Toxic Shock Syndrome and is now devoting herself and her platform to educating us about body positivity, inclusion and the awesomeness of women.
LF: Lauren, you go by the @theimpossiblemuse on Instagram, when did you come up with this name and what does it mean to you?
LW: The name came from my girlfriend, Jennifer Rovero. Jennifer is an amazing photographer. When we first got together, I was so ashamed of who I’d become and hid from the world. She began snapping photographs of me, and I would get annoyed. Jen used these images to show me that I was still beautiful through what she calls “photo therapy.” I was her muse, but impossible, so she called me the impossible muse.
LF: That is so beautiful! Not a lot of people know this, but your mom was a model, as well. Did you always know this was something you wanted to do? And is it true that you gave up a full ride basketball scholarship to a Division 1 school to pursue modeling?
LW: Modeling was all I had ever known. Both my parents started their modeling careers in the early 80’s. I came along in 1988 and was instantly thrown into the business. I started working as early as two months old. As I got a little older though, I realized that wearing pretty clothes and makeup was not “me.” I was a tomboy.
Basketball will always be my first love. My dad taught me how to play ball at the age of two. From that point on, I playing pick-up games with all the boys (5 on 5), all through school, joined women’s leagues and & tore up old men on the courts! I imagined myself becoming Maria Sharapova of the WNBA, but life had a different journey in mind for me.
Fast forward to the present; I love modeling. I am so grateful for this platform. I am not just a pretty face; I have a story and a message to share.
LF: You had this horrific near death experience when you were 24, almost dying due to TSS, Toxic Shock Syndrome, due to a tampon. VICE did a really in-depth article on this, you had your leg amputated, but can you tell us a little bit about that experience and how it’s changed you in ways we can’t see?
It’s changed my life completely. I live in constant pain. What’s considered my left foot is my biggest challenge on a daily basis. More than likely, I will end up amputating my left leg as well. Not only does it require weekly trips to wound care but it hinders me from enjoying my life to the fullest. I also have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which is something I’ve developed from the nightmare I went through. More than likely, it’s the main reason my relationship with Jennifer suffered so much. When we first got together, I was in no place to be in a relationship. I was extremely depressed because the reality of my new life was beginning to hit me.
LF: Were there any surreal moments where you truly thought you might not make it?
LW: That was an everyday occurrence. When I first arrived home from the hospital, the reality hit me the hardest. Over a period of four months, I was in three different hospitals. My mom moved in my room, and I always had interaction and distraction by others. It was always a party in my room! So many friends and family came daily to visit me. When I was released, I came home and made my dark bedroom my safe haven. I shut the world out. I refused phone calls and visits from many of the same people who came to see me at the hospital. I was confined to a wheelchair, lost all my independence and wanted to die. I was missing my right leg, only had a portion of my left foot, a shaved head and was 200 lbs. of fluid. It was just me in that room and my whole identity, everything I knew about myself was gone. . . I thought, this can’t be my reality. I screamed and cried and tried to think of ways to kill myself, but I couldn’t do that to my little brother and mother.
LF: Did you or do you have any mantras that guide you through those difficult moments, those moments of self-doubt, pain?
LW: I wake up in pain every day. I have learned to adapt. But honestly, I’m so lucky to be alive. As hard as it is sometimes, I know it could be worse. Going through all of this has really opened my eyes to life and its value that we all take for granted. I’m constantly reminded that others have lost their lives to TSS or I know someone who is having six surgeries to repair their limbs or that they recently just got off dialysis. I ‘m able to travel and walk, yes even if it’s painful I am still able. I’ll never forget one particular moment in my life when it all hit me. I had a fitting for Kenneth Cole. I brought my spare Golden leg with me just in case. After my fitting, as I was walked back to my hotel smiling in disbelief of the life I was so grateful for, and here is a man with no limbs in a wheelchair obliterating himself with alcohol because he was miserable. He had no help, no support system, just a bottle of alcohol. I desperately wanted to walk up to him and say, “Here man, have my spare leg, ” but it’s not that simple. It opened up my eyes to the battle we have with Prosthetics and healthcare. Prosthetics are insanely expensive, and it’s not like you just give someone a leg, and that’s it. An amputee needs constant attention and maintenance. Some are just given a basic leg, a peg leg. You need a different type of prosthetic for everything. Running, water sports, or just to have basic mobility. You need a foot and a socket that will allow you that “freedom.” Insurance only covers the basics, and by that, I mean a peg leg. To be an amputee with a smile means not having any limitations. I want to inspire people to make it their own and to be proud, not ashamed. I guess to answer your question, it’s through my experience and the reality of life that has opened my eyes, and I hope to be a big part of this change.
LF: You are such a part of this change! You have a platform and now you have reached extraordinary heights not only as a human but also in your career- you modeled for Esprit, Kenneth Cole and you even made your debut at NY Fashion Week. What was that like for you?
LW: It’s so surreal. I remember lying in my bed, crying and yelling at God “why did this happen?!?!?” Not for a moment did I ever think I would be accepted by anyone let alone the modeling industry. I’ve had such an amazing support system, and without that, I wouldn’t be here to celebrate. I’m so grateful for the brands that have supported me and help bring awareness to such an important cause. Together, we have shaped people’s view of beauty.
LF: Obviously, you are killing it at modeling, what was it like getting back into the modeling world at first, did you have to fight your way in or were people receptive since you already had a pre-established career?
LW: As crazy as it sounds, I was pretty much welcomed with open arms. Nordstrom gave me the confidence I needed, as it was my first job I booked for their holiday catalog. It’s incredible how the one thing that I was so ashamed of was what everyone fell in love with. My gold prosthetic leg!
LF: Yes!! Your prosthetic leg is baller – it’s a golden one, you’re kind of like the real-life bionic woman. Most people try and make their prosthetic leg look skin colored or as close to natural as possible, but yours seems to make a statement, what made you choose that color?
LW: Thank you for that. Initially, I thought I needed the perfect leg, one that looked real. I wanted to blend right back into society. Before my amputation, I was lying in my hospital bed with my mother. We were watching a Ted talk by Amy Mullins. She had on a really beautiful dress and these legs that looked identical to real limbs with high heels. That’s what I was going to get; I told my mom. I didn’t realize how expensive they were. Later, after I met Jennifer, we decided to create something that was my own. We said, “Let’s make it gold and it can be like you’re ASAP Rocky, but without a gold tooth, instead you’ll have a gold leg!”
LF: Haha, that’s pretty clever. Now on your Instagram, you’ve posted these amazing amputees, adults, males, females, even children! It’s very inspiring. In your activism have you come across any stories that really touched your heart? What kinds of dialogue are you able to have when you connect with others who have overcome similar situations?
LW: I think the first amputee I met in person was a woman named Amy Deluca. She is an amputee below the knee like me. She thanked me for showing my leg because she too had hid it. Amy and I finally got to meet in New York and we gave each other a big hug. She is so inspiring and it’s really awesome to be able to connect with someone who just gets it.
There is also another badass woman who came to visit me in the hospital. Her name is Jami Marseilles. She is a double amputee, athlete, mother of two and a teacher. I wanted a sneak peak of what her life is like, and she is unbelievable. Jami does it all! She is a warrior and on top of it all, she is battling cancer. Jami is so inspiring – just seeing her kick ass is really rad!
LF: Wow, very cool that you can connect with other badass women and have that solidarity. On the topic of menstruation, I find that it’s sometimes accompanied by shame and embarrassment. Do you feel your experience gives you a unique platform to discuss what might be considered taboo?
LW: Definitely. When I shared my vice story in 2015, people weren’t talking about periods or safer options. Now all of that has changed. We all get our period, we all have to do something about it, so why not be knowledgeable and safe. You have brands like Lola 100 percent cotton tampons and the diva cup and Thinx which are period proof underwear. We have the technology to be safer so let’s choose to be safe. The vagina is the most absorbent part of a woman’s body. We need to be aware of what goes in there. Women are awesome, so let’s be proud of who we are and celebrate it by being healthy and safe!
Creative Director/Stylist: B Åkerlund
Photographer: Jordan Millington
Makeup: Nathan Hejl
Muse: Lauren Wasser (Vision LA)