Confessions of a fashion model

From the ramps and studios of the world's fashion capitals to obesity, eating disorders and addiction, Sam Pegg has known plenty of ups and downs. Here, as told to Nandi Ndlovu, is how she survived - and got her groove back.

‘You have middle-age obesity,” said the head sister at the clinic I’d visited to find out why I was suffering from indigestion. Middle-age obesity? That was one phrase I’d never expected to hear. After all, I’d been a model for almost 20 years.

A recent shoot entitled "Sam Pegg Revisited". Picture: Gavin Furlonger, courtesy of Sam Pegg; Hair and makeup: Kevin Epstein; Dressed by HabitsSam Pegg aged 22 and dressed in Errol Arendz for an ad campaign shoot.Sam Pegg with her daughter Noa-Sunshine in 2014.Sam Pegg at a bar in Langebaan two years ago.Sam Pegg with group of children at a 2011 Youth Day march at a Thusong Service Centre.The August issue of Glamour magazine.

But there was no denying the charge. At 91kg, I was 19kg over the medical definition of normal for my height. And after decades of designer dresses, tight skirts and short tees, my wardrobe had deteriorated to nothing but long tops and baggy bottoms. The reality sank in slowly and I was hit by a wave of self-loathing. How on earth had I reached this place?

The answer wasn’t simple. It involved all sorts of issues – my career, my history, my chemicals and my emotions. The problem had started two decades ago, and it would take a huge change in my mindset and lifestyle to tackle it.

I was 12 when my mom dressed me in my Sunday best, took pictures on her Instamatic camera and sent them to an agency. I’d got the idea of modelling from a friend who was doing amazing shoots and making money from them. Luckily, the agency liked my look and signed me.

For my first job, a Huisgenoot shoot, I was dressed like Madonna in her Like A Virgin music video. It caused quite a stir; from a newspaper story to my mom’s friends giving her flak for allowing it. But I didn’t understand the negativity – I was just happy to be in a magazine!

It was then that my body-related issues began. A shocking number of my friends at my all-girls school in Cape Town were bulimic. The mentality was “Let’s throw up so we can eat what we want and not get fat.” I succumbed to peer pressure and learnt fast. I used public bathrooms or the one at home when my mom wasn’t there. She had no idea what was going on and I took advantage of the fact that she was a busy, working single mom.

First stop: Milan

I was 14 when I went to Milan, travelling alone for the very first time. My mom couldn’t afford to come and although the modelling agency promised I would have a chaperone, there was none. It was exciting – and nerve-wracking. With up to eight castings a day, I used public transport, coping with a place where everyone spoke, dressed and ate differently. I mainly did catalogue and editorial work; the ’80s was the time of Brooke Shields and Monica Bellucci, and my Sicilian heritage worked in my favour.

By 15, I’d dropped out of school and moved to Europe to pursue modelling full time. I lived in Munich and then in Milan in agency model apartments with other models.

Some girls were great, and some stole my clothes, including a gorgeous Jean Paul Gaultier bustier that I cherished after it was given to me on a shoot. It was hard to be a teenager alone, learning to cook, clean and take care of myself, but this was my dream.

I loved the work: German and French catalogues like La Redoute and Mondi, and commercials for Cacharel and Linx. One of my favourite moments was appearing in a CNN special on Gianni Versace: how incredible it was to walk down Milan’s cobbled streets, dressed in Versace, for the cameras!

By now, being “model size” was much harder. I wasn’t naturally thin and I still had puppy fat. I’d do print work and then, for runway season, I’d drop 10kg in two weeks with a diet I’d formulated – half a grapefruit and black coffee for breakfast, soup with chilli for lunch, vegetables and fish for dinner, and the odd few raisins. I took my job very seriously and put a lot of pressure on myself.

Paris to panic attacks

I was 19 when I moved to Paris, and that’s where I met my first real love, a gorgeous South African man. We started dating and soon moved in together. I was at the height of my career, travelling between cities, going from one shoot or show to the next, and not getting much sleep or food. Eventually, in agony and totally overworked, I saw a kinesiologist who looked at me suspiciously and asked, “Are you anorexic?”

I was baffled; I thought I just looked like other models. He said I had the skeleton of an anorexic person, and his comment hit home when I did a commercial that involved a beautiful green Versace gown, straight off the runway. It was a UK size 32, and it was too big. Looking in the mirror, I noticed my frame properly. “Oh dear, I am very thin,” I thought.

After five years, my boyfriend and I broke up. As a way of coping, I sampled the sex, drugs and rock ’n roll model lifestyle I’d never really been into before. My career was at its peak, and I was out of control. Models were treated like VIPs at Paris nightclubs, getting everything for free, and I turned to cocaine for the energy boost I felt I needed to keep going.

At 26 I fell in love again, this time with a French man I’d met in London and bumped into again in Paris. In 1999 we got married, and a year later I moved back to SA and had my first child while my husband commuted to Paris where he was working on a music project.

I went back to modelling after I lost my pregnancy weight, but I started experiencing a lot of stress and hormonal fluctuations, and I just wasn’t coping. One summer afternoon I was driving on the highway when my scalp started tingling, my hands froze and I was terrified that cars would crash into me if I changed lanes. The GP who I consulted misdiagnosed me with bipolar disorder, and on top of everything else, the prescribed medication made me bloat terribly. As if things weren’t bad enough, in 2003 my husband and I divorced.

Rediscovery and reaching out

Two years later, I stopped modelling and had my second child with my third fiancé; a South African model and actor. My body didn’t lose weight as easily as before and I was still on medication, so I got bigger.

When that engagement ended, I started to question myself. As a model, I’d been told what to do and wear, how to walk and act. And my partners had been bossy and domineering. Now I had to rediscover myself. In 2009, I sent my children to my ex-fiancé for six months and tried to piece myself together again. It was time to turn my life around and I became a born-again Christian.

My newfound faith made me want to help others, and I started working with the My Life Foundation and the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children. Then I moved to Langebaan, just outside Cape Town, to work with addicts and domestic abuse victims at the Thusong Service Centre there.

Unprepared for the heightened cortisol levels caused by the emotional offloading and terrible stories I heard, I began to feel overwhelmed. And that’s when I piled on weight, worse than ever before.

I’d get home from the centre, help my children with their homework, make dinner and put them to bed. And then it was crash, burn and cry. I drank glass after glass of wine and ate masses of pasta. Food became my escape.

The road to renewal

It was at the height of this bingeing that I was hit with terrible indigestion and heartburn. And that is what led me to the clinic and the sister who diagnosed me with middle-age obesity.

I didn’t believe it at first – I felt angry and then sad. I finally had to recognise how radically I’d abused my body. It took a week for everything to sink in. I found out that middle-age obesity is an insulin intolerance which results in the body being unable to digest food normally. You gain weight around your stomach because your organs develop a layer of fat.

I started thinking about my nutrition. I didn’t want to go on a “diet” as I associate the word with deprivation, so I decided to make delicious, healthy meals. I cut out starch and ate sweet potato instead. I used nut butters and coconut oil, the only oil that isn’t toxic when heated up. And I found foods that are good for insulin levels and positive emotions: rosemary (for my liver), basil (for overall happiness) and beetroot (for my blood).

A typical breakfast was an omelette with roasted pumpkin seeds, cranberries, red peppers, broccoli and Camembert cheese. Lunch and dinner was protein, like a fillet, with veggies or a salad.

I also began walking 10-30 minutes a day. My counselling work involved boxing therapy with ADHD kids and muay Thai with kids who had anger problems. That added even more activity to my life.

As I lost weight, I began reconnecting with myself. In the mornings, I did prayer meditations; I thanked God for my blessings and family, and asked for guidance. At night, I had cleansing baths with two or three drops each of lavender, eucalyptus and chamomile oils and half a cup of Epsom salts.

My new approach brought many realisations, one of which was that my weight gain was linked to the trauma I’d accumulated throughout my life. I know it sounds strange, but I believe the belly fat so many of us develop has to do with painful experiences that we haven’t processed and dealt with. I’ve definitely noticed this with my own body; physical changes happened after I was able to let go of old emotional baggage.

I also started tai chi, a martial art and wonderful form of exercise, with Dr Lan, an acupuncturist and Chinese medicine man at Cape Town’s Jing-An Wellness Centre. Tai chi releases lactic acid, which I believe relates to anger and the memory of anger, another area I needed to work on.

The combination of exercise, healthy eating, meditation, tai chi and, most of all, my mom’s unconditional love, resulted in a staggering 22kg loss in a year and a half. The last 4kg were tough, but the prospects of returning to modelling and possibly starting acting gave me that extra push.

In October, I moved back to Cape Town to work on all sorts of projects, including Diet or Delish, a recipe book of the tasty, healthy meals that helped me.

I am now happily engaged. And I don’t see myself as a model anymore, but as someone who wants to inspire others. It took a long time, but I’m finally happy and comfortable in my own skin.

Diet or Delish will be available as an ebook from September at [email protected]

This article appears in the latest issue of GLAMOUR magazine, on sale now