In October 2012, Lauren Wasser woke up with an off-feeling, like she had a cold. After countless doctor visits and consultations, she was officially diagnosed with Toxic Shock Syndrome — a rarely-discussed but often fatal condition — which ultimately led to two amputation surgeries.
Often associated with staph, or as the medical textbooks call it, Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, Toxic Shock is a rare, but life-threatening condition that first made headlines in the late 1970s, around the same time that super absorbent and scented tampons became popular.
Not-so-coincidentally, your bathroom stash of tampons is probably where you recognize the term from, as the high dose of chemicals used in feminine hygiene products create an ideal breeding ground for staph bacteria.
Lauren Wasser's Vice interview in 2015 marked a sea change for the way we collectively speak about TSS. It was no longer a cautionary tale or a distant threat discussed in hushed tones. Lauren used her platform to bring awareness to TSS in a way that felt wholly unprecedented. "A fire lit inside of my heart that didn't exist before," she says of her drive to educate people and especially young women about the condition.
On an ivy-covered balcony overlooking Times Square, Wasser sat down with Refinery29 to talk about her road to recovery, her passion for spreading awareness, her latest beauty obsessions (she stars in the new Origins campaign as they re-release their Ginzing Energy-Boosting Gel Moisturizer), and that one time she walked in the Savage X Fenty Show.
Refinery29: You've been modelling for nearly your entire life. Can you start off by telling us how you got involved with the industry in the first place?
Lauren Wasser: "Well it wasn't my choice. My mom and dad are both models. I was probably four months old when my mom shot with Patrick Demarchelier for Italian Vogue and I was thrown in the mix. Ever since then, I was doing Gap campaigns with her and traveling the world. So I grew up like London, Paris and New York — all over."
You're a Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) survivor and you said the experience inspired you to spread awareness. What should women know about TSS?
LW: "I almost lost my life in 2012. I lost my legs. Toxic Shock Syndrome has been an epidemic for over 30 years, killing and injuring women. I'm just the messenger, though. I'm now just trying to get as many women informed and educated about what they're placing inside of their bodies and giving them a voice to fight for change because it's imperative. Otherwise we're just losing little girls. And these companies are continuously, you know —"
Hiding it from the public.
LW: "Hiding it and not being transparent about what they're putting inside of these products that we place in the most vulnerable part of our bodies at a very sensitive time. And especially with all the hormones in food nowadays, these girls are getting their periods at such a young age — 8, 9, 10 years-old. They don't even have the antibodies to fight the toxins that are in these tampons, so they're the ones who are most susceptive to getting it. I'm working closely with Carolyn Maloney, a congresswoman here in New York to help where I can."
"There's a bill that's been trying to be passed for literally 10 years. It's called the Robin Danielson Act. It's based on a woman who lost her life in 1999 and it's just for us as women to know what's going into our feminine hygiene products. It'll answer questions like, if we use the product for five days, five years, five months, what is it doing internally? We should have that information, but somehow, it's been shot down by Congress 10 times."
It doesn't seem like the bill is asking that much.
LW: "It's not. All it would do is make us more alert. [Carolyn] said herself that had that bill been passed, I probably wouldn't have lost my legs. There was another little girl that just passed away two years ago in New Jersey, and I had Carolyn actually speak to her mother. It was really hard, but it was also so important because she needed to realise that this is still a huge epidemic that's not talked about and other than my story, no one else has spoken up. It's really important that we as women wake up and realise that we have to demand change."
It's hard because you're asking for change from a Congress that's majority —
LW: "Male. And they have no idea what this is like. They're always telling us what to do with our bodies. That's why I think it's so important to get as many women aware of this issue — and the fact that it's not something that has gone away or that is only going to happen to a small percentage of people. This can happen to anyone at any time."
"Feminine hygiene products are so toxic. I mean they have chlorine, bleach, dioxin, all these synthetic fibres that we're placing in the most absorbent part of our body."
The worst part is that when you go into a store, there really aren't any other options.
"Exactly, and then you have Thinx and other startup brands — they're great — but they're also not available to everyone. They're not available to that young girl who doesn't want to use a tampon, or doesn't want to ask her father how to use it, or whatever. Who knows? They might not even have access to the Internet to get a pair of Thinx or to do the research. It seems obvious, but why doesn't everyone have options?"
Right. Who did you turn to to help cope with your diagnosis? What helped you get through it?
LW: "My support system, my family, God — my faith, definitely. But also just trying to find the real beauty. I think the real beauty is within us. It's not on the outside. It's who we are as individuals, what we can leave behind, what we can do on this planet, and how it can affect others and change other people's lives. And I think that's what I really learned after losing something physical that I could not hide. I had to accept it. It was very tough and it was hard, but I did it. I'm so grateful that I'm even alive and breathing, let alone having this opportunity to speak with you."
What happened next? When did you decide to return to the modeling industry and use your platform to spread awareness?
LW: "Once I really knew about TSS and I realised that this has been killing women, affecting them even before I was born, a fire lit inside of my heart that didn't exist before and I knew that someone needed to do something about this, someone needed to say something."
"That's when I chose to share my story with Vice. I was sharing myself for the first time, my shorts that I had previously never shared before, and kind of unveiling myself. Seeing myself in pictures and videos, I finally realised that I don't look messed up or different from anyone else. I just look like I went through some really crazy stuff and I came out on top. I'm using the way that I look and my connections to truly elevate this change."
"Now, because I have my new golden legs, I'm able to bring something that's never been seen before to a world that's been one dimensional for so long. Also, I love being able to share my story, fight for a new side of beauty, and try to open people's minds and eyes."
Would you say that the modelling industry has become more inclusive over the years?
LW: "I definitely think so. Ten years ago, had this happened, I wouldn't have been accepted. There's no way. I think the timing is everything. Changes are coming. We're not there yet, but I think it's definitely moving in a direction that it's never been in before. It's not going to happen overnight — nothing happens overnight. But doors that were nailed shut are finally opening."
I'm glad that you think so as someone on the inside. You mentioned your gold legs. What made you decide to paint them gold?
LW: "Well, I love gold and I was trying to figure out how I was going to make these prosthetics mine. Honestly I love them — they're my jewellery piece. They're so cool."
"It's funny, I often forget, like I'll have them and sometimes people are staring and I'm like, 'What are they looking at?' I'm actually going to get them chrome-dipped gold soon. And I just got my high-heeled feet, as well. So I'm going to start being able to wear heels again, which will be sick, some gold legs with heels. It's going to be a game changer."
Has your experience changed your sense of style? How would you describe your style?
LW: "I'm an athlete first and foremost. So I've always been that sneakers, kick-back vibe kind of girl anyway. But yeah, I think that my experiences have kind of made me more tomboyish. But now that I'm getting to have the heels back, I think that's going to bring more femininity to the game. I'm excited about that."
It'll look great. What fashion brands are you loving right now?
LW: "I just did [Savage X] Fenty, which was amazing."
What was it like to work with Rihanna?
LW: "It was literally a dream. Like I just remember walking on the set and just being blown away by even the set-up, let alone like the environment, the lights, the dancers, the vibe. The energy from the whole room—"
LW: "Even the run-through was so crazy. Sadly, I didn't get to meet her, but I saw her at the rehearsal for the finale. I was standing there next to Bella [Hadid] and then all of a sudden the lights went off and she walked through and immediately, I was in shock, I literally just stood there. She's the most perfect, beautiful human I've ever seen. I was just like, 'Wow. I can't even believe this.' It was unreal."
"And she's so cool. She just seems like such a good person and I really love that about her. I love that she's using her platform for good, which is why I love Origins so much too, people and brands that are using their platforms to bring good to this industry — an industry that's been one-sided for so long — and break down those barriers and those taboos and say, 'Hey, it's not cool anymore to not make a difference.'"
Speaking of Origins, how did you get involved with this campaign?
LW: "I love the fact that they're natural. I'm very minimal and I love the moisturiser because I work out so much, I usually have to reapply, so the [fact that it stays on for] 72 hours is pretty amazing. And also the fact that they're giving back to the environment and planting trees with the 72 Hour Challenge: 72 hours, 72,000 trees. Just the fact that they're actually doing something is why I'm so excited to [partner with] this brand."
It's frustrating that so many massive brands don't use their platforms to promote worthy causes, it's more just to promote —
Right, and with so many causes that need —
LW: "Attention. But it's great that big brands like Fenty and Origins, are getting with it and saying like, 'Look, this is so boring.' You know? This is so plain, this is not what I want women to feel. I want to make women feel beautiful because they are beautiful. I think that's really such an important message."
When it comes to balancing everything, how do you find a little bit of calm in the midst of your chaotic schedule?
LW: "I love taking breaks from social — I think that's really important. Everyone should give themselves a break and allow themselves to be in the moment and be around the people that they love."
"It's easy to forget that we need to be connected — really, truly connected. That means getting off your phone. Running really helped me because it's just me, myself and my thoughts and it allowed me to process things on my own. That's been key for me."
What advice do you have for young women facing similar circumstances?
LW: "I would just say to believe in yourself. You know? I think believing in yourself and having faith that it's not the end is super important. The hardest moments of our lives are preparing us for better ones to come. Just realising that this moment won't last forever and that there will be others. I think for me, it was always just literally surviving in the moment, getting through that single day. Had I given up in those moments, I definitely wouldn't be in this position. We all want to give up on so many different things every day. I mean, sure, it could be the smallest thing possible or the biggest challenge ahead, but it's just about how you approach it, how you deal with it and how you don't let it define you."