From ‘America’s Next Top Model’ to Lobbyist for Chastity

Former New York model Leah Darrow quit on the spot when she realized she was about to ‘lose her soul.’ Now she’s helping others avoid the trap of unchastity.

Portrait of the artist as a chastity speaker
Portrait of the artist as a chastity speaker (photo: Courtesy of Leah Darrow; Clyde Thomas photo)

Gospel singer-turned-pop star Katy Perry recently raised the ire of some parents when she performed a segment for preschoolers on Sesame Street in a dress that appeared to have a plunging neckline (it was actually a flesh-colored mesh that went to her neck).

Singer Lady Gaga, in one of her many outrageous publicity stunts, appeared on the September 2010 cover of Vogue Hommes Japan wearing only pieces of raw meat strung together to create a skimpy bikini (she also turned heads when she wore a somewhat more modest meat dress to MTV’s Video Music Awards in September).

The entertainment industry has long presented attractive young female performers in various states of undress to millions worldwide, often to young people on whom it makes a significant impact.

It’s scandalous, and a waste of time and talent, says model and Catholic speaker Leah Darrow: “There is no benefit in watching circus freaks perform. They’re using their God-given talents in unproductive ways.”

Says Darrow, “When I ask teens, ‘Are their outfits appropriate?’ They say No. But I tell them when they watch their videos over and over, they’ll begin to think the way they dress and act is no big deal. In one of Lady Gaga’s videos [Alejandro] she dresses as a nun and eats a rosary. That’s not entertainment; it’s just a bunch of sleazy images.”

Darrow herself was once a part of the upscale fashion world in New York City and was a contestant on the reality TV show America’s Next Top Model, but had a change of heart and now works speaks full time about chastity, modesty and women in the Church.

“My focus is on helping women be the best they can be,” she said.

Farm Girl

Darrow, 31, grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, the oldest of six children. Her father worked in the technology field during the day and on the farm in the evenings. The Catholic faith was important to the family, including Sunday Mass and daily family Rosaries. When her grandfather was murdered during a robbery, her parents took the family to church to break the news and pray.

“They didn’t know how else to do it,” Darrow said. “For me, it reinforced the message: When things go bad, come to the Lord. He understands.”

The family moved to St. Louis, and Darrow began modeling in college. She auditioned and was accepted for America’s Next Top Model and became one of 14 girls who made it on the show.

“It was stressful and uncomfortable,” she recalled. “You didn’t know anyone on the show, and there was a lot of pressure to be perfect. The girls could be very catty.”

Camera crews followed the girls around the clock; Darrow remembers when they filmed her sleeping (actually praying the Rosary under her blanket, but the rosary beads never made it on the air). There was much tension as the girls waited for their turn to be called for their modeling segments. Darrow was both hurt and relieved when she became the second girl to be eliminated.

She left home and went to New York City to pursue a modeling career. Although she went to Mass and carried her rosary with her wherever she went, she drifted away from the practice of the faith. Her parents were unhappy with many of her lifestyle choices.

Darrow said of the modeling world, “Although not all modeling is bad, much of it is dehumanizing. The dignity of the person is of little importance. You’re just a body. And it’s also very important what parties you go to and who you are with. A lot of people are sad in the industry, although they cover it up. You’re just supposed to do your job, be a professional.”

Time to Go Home

Despite the money and notoriety, Darrow was unhappy and tired. It was on one particular modeling shoot for an international magazine that she decided it was time to go home.

She met with the photographer and was given a particularly skimpy outfit to wear. She was embarrassed to put it on, but went ahead, telling herself it was just a job and she had to do it.

As the shoot was nearly complete, she had a mystical experience of sorts, which she called a moment of grace. She pictured herself before God after her death and had nothing to show for her life.

“I knew that the way I was living, I wasn’t being authentic to my faith,” she said.

She quit on the spot and went home crying.

“I called my dad and said, ‘If you don’t come and get me, I’m going to lose my soul,’” she recalled. “He said, ‘Sure, baby’ and drove all the way from St. Louis to New York City to get me.”

Since returning to St. Louis, Darrow has become a full-time speaker, delivering as many as eight talks each month. She addresses all age groups, but most presentations are before high-school and college audiences. Modesty has become a favorite topic.

“Modesty is more than just the length of a hemline,” she explained. “It’s about our conversations, how we treat people, and how we love others. Modesty protects our purity and the mystery of a person. In our society, it gets a bad rap. It’s actually quite attractive.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2522-2523) has much to say about modesty, she points out, including, “Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.

“There is modesty of feelings as well as of the body. It protests, for example, against the voyeuristic explorations of the human body in certain advertisements or against the solicitations of certain media that go too far in the exhibition of intimate things. Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies.”

‘The Positives of Purity’

For Darrow, modesty includes not gossiping or saying bad things about others. It includes chaste dating relationships with men, which has made dating for her much easier. In fact, for her personally, she has resolved that the only romantic kiss she will share with a man will be with her future husband.

Chris Stefanick, director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministries for the Archdiocese of Denver, is on the chastity speaker roster with Darrow. He has found that discussions of chastity and modesty are a particularly effective way of teaching the Gospel.

“It provides me with an opportunity to discuss the longings we all have and how we often try to fill them in the wrong ways,” he said.

Even when addressing audiences in a secular venue, he has ample statistics to demonstrate that chastity and the modest lifestyle that goes with it leads to better health, happier marriages, greater financial success and more spiritual fulfillment. He said, “Despite the fact that I’m speaking against the culture, the reaction I get to my talks has been amazing. People don’t realize the positives of purity.”

Darrow has become involved in Pure Fashion, a faith-based program affiliated with Regnum Christi designed for girls age 14 to 18. The eight-month program teaches teens about fashion, runway style and personal presentation. Pure Fashion groups are found in cities nationwide, as well as overseas, and put on fashion shows that are both modest and tasteful. Darrow has helped put together the first Pure Fashion team in her adopted hometown of St. Louis.

Her focus now is on being a good Catholic, learning her faith better (she’s currently working on a Master of Arts degree in pastoral theology from Ave Maria University) and reaching out to others through her public speaking. She has found speaking on chastity and modesty both heartwarming and heartrending: “When I speak, I often have girls coming up to me, crying and saying, ‘I just lost my virginity.’ It breaks my heart. That’s why I’ve dedicated my life to being an advocate for women.”

Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.