Grace Woodward was one of the UK’s most powerful and successful superstylists, fashion director on The X Factor and spiky judge of Britain’s Next Top Model.
But behind the scenes she was falling apart, starving herself and taking diet pills, while her mother was dying of anorexia.
Now, in a searingly honest letter to YOU readers, she reveals how the industry she was so much a part of nearly destroyed her.
Photographed naked with no retouching, she wants to make amends for the part she played in giving women a false body image to aspire to.
This is her unconventional, but nevertheless deeply moving apology to women.
We need to talk. I owe you an apology. I feel as though I stitched you up. I didn’t have your best interests at heart – in fact, I don’t think I even liked you for a while.
All the time I was flying high as a fashion expert on TV, I didn’t really care if my work was affecting your happiness, confidence or mental wellbeing. I was cruising around the world doing cool things with beautiful people. Why would I need Girl Power or the sisterhood when I was flying solo, carving my own path in the most glamorous industry on earth? I was doing it my way, in the most expensive heels possible. I didn’t need your approval or friendship – I had success.
Having grown up watching my mother fail spectacularly, succeeding was all that mattered to me. My mum couldn’t handle life, she couldn’t like herself, couldn’t stop her eating disorder, couldn’t fulfil her potential, couldn’t stop losing her mind. No way was I going to end up like that. And I would do anything it took not to, even if that meant getting models to ‘show a bit more’ or asking them to take their knickers off; casting too-thin models or retouching women’s bodies. Hell, why not? I wasn’t hurting anyone.
If you’re thinking, ‘What a cow’, you would be somewhat right. But even when I was at the peak of my career – hosting TV shows that were all somehow to do with forming how women feel about themselves – privately my own mental health and self-image were a mess.
Yes, I played up to the stereotype of cold-hearted fashion bitch when I got my first big break as a judge on Britain’s Next Top Model in 2010. I handed out snippy judgments on how beautiful or not teenage girls were by industry standards, regardless of how it made them, or me, feel. I found it such an easy mask to wear: look at me all dolled up and on TV, just don’t scratch the surface and see the mess I’m in.
By this point I was into aesthetic injectables [Botox and fillers] in a big way and so not only was I lying about how I felt, my own image was a lie, too. But the premise of fashion to constantly reinvent, to be defined by the newest, coolest thing, was the perfect excuse not to have to actually deal with any of my shortcomings.
It’s extremely hard to have empathy or compassion for anyone else when you have none for yourself. I chased ‘fame’ because I was crying out to be accepted. I was trapped in a cycle of inherited self-loathing and addictive behaviours and so by choosing fashion – possibly the most unregulated industry – I’d gone from frying pan to fire. Fashion made it look as though there was a camaraderie among a bunch of creative misfits, but whenever I looked for loyalty or sisterhood what I found instead was raging narcissism, unchecked bullying and sexual and mental abuse from men and women alike [in her 20s Grace was assaulted by a well-known photographer].
Growing up in an eating-disordered house, for me working in fashion was perfect (where better to keep playing out those dynamics?) – the only industry where being thin and beautiful was the currency, no matter how you achieved it (my go-to was diet pills). It was so easy for me to distract myself from the inconceivable reality of my mother slowly choosing to die when I could dress up and go to free parties. If I pretended hard enough that life was fabulous then surely it was.
If we fast-forward to now, having had a complete and epic breakdown five years ago, which included: moving out of London as I was broke, having spent all my money on just trying to keep up with the fashion machine; my mum dying when my son was eight weeks old; me mentally falling apart for two years and my career turning to tumbleweed (once you leave a gap, you can be sure that someone will be queuing to fill it).
When I unravelled so spectacularly, I realised that, thanks to my own choices, I was now all at sea with no work, no identity and no support network. I’ve had a lot of therapy and although it’s been a long, painful process, I came to the conclusion that I had to leave the fashion industry. I studied fashion, forged hard-won success in it and I’m clearly addicted to the escapism of it. I went through thick and thin (literally) to keep jumping through the ever-changing hoops, but ultimately it took everything from me spiritually, mentally and financially.
I realised I just couldn’t cut it in fashion any more – I didn’t have the time, money or energy. But who on earth do you become when you’re 37 and starting over? Thankfully the universe had a plan, because I didn’t. Slowly, at a very unfashionable pace, I put the pieces of myself back together in a less style- and self-obsessed way. Lovely, life-enhancing women started to force their way into my life as only women can. Female friends saved me. I realised I’d actually been terrified of women all along and that everything I had done in my career so far had been defined by that.
Like leaving any co-dependent relationship I tried many ways of ‘sort of leaving’ – working with morally less corrupt brands, opening my own sustainable shop, which eventually failed, and haranguing everyone I knew with my new-found ethical zealotry.
Strangely it was Instagram that gave me the confidence to finally make a clean break from
the fashion circus, to find some answers about why, as a woman, I feel so bad about myself. And to ask, is it just me who feels like this?
It was when I saw all the body-positive and #MeToo movements start to really take hold on social media that I thought, ‘Hang on, there are people out there who might understand what I’ve been through’; I realised that maybe the mental health issues that had broken me – all my supposed weaknesses – could actually be my strength. Like other people who shared their experience for the greater good, could I make myself heard above the noise of people trying to sell us stuff – and if so, how?
Well, it’s both complicated and really simple. It seems that the naked female body still has a shock factor even in our Love Island-obsessed culture. So I have decided to take some of the best (creativity) and worst (narcissism) elements of my former career to create a project called ‘Body Of Work’. I am going to revisit photographers who I have worked with over the years and ask them to shoot a nude portrait of me, with my new MO: no insider secrets, no retouching, no specially formulated diet and no specially planned workout schedule.
This is just me laying my own body bare, with the aim of opening up a dialogue about the process of image-making, about the pressure to conform and the constant messages to control our bodies. I want to see if, by baring all, I can heal my own damaged body image. Will it help me to work out why I never feel good enough, or to tackle the raging curse of comparison? Can the new me be seen and heard, post-40 and beyond, and not just be retired into another unpaid, undervalued role – motherhood?
I want to see if there is a better, kinder way forward for us all and imbue the next part of my career and life with that. Hopefully, if all goes to plan, I’ll be back here with the results for a follow-up piece and the confidence of a Kardashian (minus the surgery; I have managed no injectables for a year now. I’m not going to lie – finding that level of naked honesty has been one of the hardest things). And while I’m working this stuff out for myself – can I age ‘naturally’? Can I learn to like my imperfect body? – I hope I’m doing it for you, too.
I want to say that I finally get it, that everyday life is hard so can we make being a woman – and everything that entails – just that little bit easier by not pretending we are perfect?
Follow my journey on Instagram @gracewoodward.