IN CONVERSATION WITH LAUREN WASSER
Interview by Jana Letonja
Fashion’s girl with the golden legs, model, actress and activist Lauren Wasser represents to the world that beauty can be found in diversity and in a person’s uniqueness. She shows the world to never stop chasing your dreams. After a life threatening experience, Lauren became the woman who opened the conversation around women’s feminine hygiene safety.
Lauren, your life turned upside down in 2012, when you nearly lost your life to TTS (Toxic Shock Syndrome). You spent 3 months in the hospital and had to have your right leg amputated. Can you share with us a bit more of how difficult this chapter of your life was and what actually caused it?
I think the older I get, the more I look back and realize how close to death I really was. It has begun to hit me harder more and more. I was almost murdered, killed by something that is that dangerous, that I used since I got my first period. That something is a normal, common product that women have been generationally taught to use. And guess what? This product has been killing and injuring women way before it tried to kill me. A tampon.
After a full week, I woke up from the coma and I was huge, full of water that was flushed through my body. I was pumped up with 80 pounds of fluid to try and flush all the toxins out of my system. There were tubes and machines everywhere. I had a tube in my throat, so I couldn’t speak. I was so confused. My mom was there and I was trying to communicate. I had to try and write on paper, but even that was hard. My feet were just on fire. The pain was so intense, burning as if someone was lighting my feet on fire with a blow torch. Gangrene was developing in my right leg. I got into UCLA’s hyperbaric chambers 3 times a day and tried anything and everything to salvage it, but it was moving too quickly. It was my life or my leg.
full look OTTOLINGER
I was sent home from the hospital in a wheelchair to a world I didn’t know anymore, to life that was moving by so fast while mine stayed in this nightmare. My left foot was severely damaged as well. The doctors said there was a 50/50 chance that I would be able to use it. They had to amputate my toes and my heel was damaged to the point of having an apple graft, which is like baby skin and not comparable. Nothing on this planet is like your heel skin and fat. Nothing can mimic that, but an apple graft was my only option. Once back in my room, the depression and reality of what just transpired hit me. Being in a wheelchair 24/7, no right leg, questionable left foot, severe pain that never stopped, was 200 pounds and my head was shaved. Everything about who I was just 3 months ago was gone. My whole identity was stripped. I wanted to not exist. I wanted to not have to put my family through it anymore. I was angry. I hated everything. I didn’t know how I was ever going to just be normal. I wanted to kill myself every day. But something inside, I believe it was God, told me to hold on.
After years of agony and pain after the hospitalization, in 2018 you then decided to have also your left leg amputated. How hard was this decision for you and was there really no other way of solving this pain?
Honestly, it was the best decision I could have ever made for myself. I was in massive pain. I was severely depressed and I felt like it wasn’t worth salvaging something that had so much damage, that was irreversible. It was a no brainer. I didn’t want to feel stuck anymore. I was turning 30 and I wanted my life back. I wanted to feel like a normal person. I remember the moment I woke up and I had no pain, I just cried. I thanked God. I was so excited that I could get back to being an athlete and to be able to be active. Literal freedom.
Losing one leg must be very hard for a person to accept, let alone both legs. What feelings were you dealing with when you had to go through this?
The first leg wasn’t my choice or even an option. It was my life or my leg. I chose life. I didn’t know how I was going to make it. With the second leg, I decided to change the narrative and take charge and set my future right. Social media was so instrumental in my healing and being able to see and connect with amputee athletes. One in particular is a kid named Hunter Woodhall. He’s a double amputee running track against able bodied guys. It helped me know that I wasn’t limited and that I had a life to look forward to. Thank God I’m living in a day and age where technology and innovation are so advanced and are only getting more high tech.
dress JW ANDERSON
boots PACO RABANNE
When you embraced your new legs, you made them a spectacle of gold for everyone to see. You became the fashion’s girl with the golden legs. Why was it so important to launch your new legs in such a big way, at New York’s Fashion Week?
That was ages ago and I just know that it was a moment when I took my power back. I wasn’t hiding anymore. I was owning this new me. It was also shocking, because coming from the fashion world I knew someone like my new self didn’t have a space there. I was literally creating it, living it. It’s been a beautiful story that continues to unfold and I’m just beyond grateful for my life and my career. I am grateful to have this platform to remind people of their strength and hopefully be an inspiration to face anything head on and crush it.
Your impact in the fashion world is not going unnoticed, as you work with many high fashion brands. You’ve also been surrounded by models and rare beauty while growing up. What attracted you so much to modeling and fashion?
The best part of my story is modeling wasn’t at all anything I wanted to do. I grew up with my model parents and was surrounded by that 1 % real rare beauty of perfection. My mom had a pretty epic career and it’s only because of her that I know my angles and how to move. She was really interested in photography at one point while I was growing up. She made my brother and I sit for hours, teaching us how to model even though we didn’t care. My dream was to be in the WNBA or play pro overseas. Basketball will always be my first love, but I love modeling now and what a dream I get to live.
Your personal style exhibits your own eclectic mix of name-brand pieces and second-hand purchases. What do you like the most about second-hand fashion and why do you think it is important?
The beauty of fashion is that you make it what you want. It tells a lot about a person. I personally love dressing like a tomboy in baggy jeans and a vintage tee. I love vintage tees because if you find a good one, it’s gold. It’s unique and special and is a reminder of something dope, a good memory that you can connect with.
Since your life-threatening experience, you have relaunched your career by dedicating your life to educating women about their hygiene products. What are some of the ways or channels that you use for educating women about these important topics, as they obviously are not educated on them properly in schools or at home?
The only reason I shared my story was to save lives. To save someone from ever having to go through or face the horror and trauma that my family and I endured. To warn women around the world that if this happened to me, it could happen to you. No one is off limits. I’m just the messenger. TSS has been killing and putting women’s lives in danger since the late 70s. Nothing has changed. Nowadays kids overall are developing at such a young age. Girls are starting to get their period at 8, 9 and 10 years old, but they don’t have the antibodies developed to fight the toxins that are in these products and on the shelves at our local stores.
My advocacy is to be loud and shout out and get the world upset because women and little girls deserve better now and in the future. We deserve the same fundamental rights as men. We are super humans, we are the vessel that creates and nurtures new life. It’s 2023. There needs to be change and accountability from the big companies to be forced to tell us what exactly is in our feminine hygiene products and the long term effects they will have on our bodies if we use them. There was a bill named after a woman who died of TSS in 1998. Her name is Robin Danielson and she died when she was 44 years young. It was a bill that had been introduced and tossed out by Congress more than 10 times. And since Robin, imagine how many women have been killed or injured before and after her, including me.
I’m working with a mother who lost her teenage daughter due to TSS. Her name is Dawn Massabni and she lost her Maddy to a tampon. She died in her arms. Since Dawn and I have joined forces, through the losses we have found strength. Dawn has started a foundation called ‘Don’t shock me’ to help raise awareness and save lives. But we still have so much to do. Be aware of what you are putting inside of your body at such a delicate time. Never sleep with a tampon in. And if you are sick, don’t use tampons. Your body can’t fight two things at the same time.
You are also in the process of filming the documentary on your comeback journey, which is being produced by an Oscar-winning team. Can you share anything more about tis documentary and what you want to show the world with it?
Making this documentary, with such a dream team is just God’s work. I’m making this documentary because it’s important that people see me as that innocent, healthy young girl having to sign the rights to have my legs removed. You see me being wheeled into surgery. My legs marked yes and no. I had to scream for my mom not to allow the doctors to take my leg. Real-life trauma and a living nightmare for any human being to have to go through. I want it to have people asking the question: Why is this being sold to our young women and women around the world?
Even though you’ve had to relearn how to live and do things, you love staying active. You love playing basketball, doing pilates or going for a run. You are also planning on running the Los Angeles Marathon this month. How are you preparing for it and what are your goals for this marathon?
It feels really good to get back into a routine. I was going to run this year, but I’m actually running the LA marathon next March. The reason being we want to film the process of the build up. I want to share with the world what it takes for me to run. It’s a whole science. It’s fascinating technology.
You are also a huge lover of animals and have three rescue dogs. What made you decide to rescue them instead of just buying them from breeders? And why do you believe rescue is such a hot topic currently and why more people should realize its importance?
I am a proud mom of 3 furry babies. Luna is me in legit dog form. She’s going to be 7 this year. I rescued her from a homeless guy dragging her on the concrete in the parking lot of a Ralph’s. She was only 3 months old and I had to basically stalk him and offer him cash. It took him 2 weeks to do the right thing and give her to me. She’s been with me through a lot. I always say I want to travel to Italy with her and share pasta.
Then we have my boy Lloyd, named after my favorite actor Jim Carrey in ‘Dumb and Dumber’. I bought him off Craigslist after my other dog Leroy was shot and murdered by my neighbor because he was a pit bull. In front of my house, he shot him through the back. For no reason. That man still has his gun and lives on my street. It’s unbelievable. What is America? The issue of guns in this county is a whole other conversation.
And last but not least we have Love. After my cocker spaniel Madison went to heaven, I just had Luna and Lloyd. But then I walked into the pet store to get some pumpkin for my dog’s tummy and heard and saw Love. She was a young pup used for her puppies, abused, scared and literally broken. Her nipples were still fresh from the puppies she had and I could see all her ribs. I saw myself in her. The brokenness I once felt. So, I thought I’ll just foster her, but then I ended up falling in love with her spirit. She’s funny and sweet as can be, especially after people hurt her. She’s the best. She’s only 2, so she and Lloyd are the young ones.
Saving a life and seeing in real time in real life the positive change and impact you are building with an animal that has had no way of speaking up for themselves, it’s priceless. Animals are so intelligent and feel and have emotions just like us. Being able to build a bond and relationship and heal the dog or yourself with a dog is so fulfilling. Having a dog is definitely something I recommend. They are my best friends, honestly. I hang out with them rather than with people.
talent LAUREN WASSER @theimpossiblemuse
photographer BRIAN BOWEN SMITH @brianbowensmith
stylist MARGARET GALVIN @meg_galvin
styling assistant TARA BOYETTE @tcarb
hair DOUG MENGERT @TheOnlyAgency @_douglasjack @theonly.agency
make-up TAYLOUR CHANEL @TheOnlyAgency @taylourchanel @theonly.agency
production ALEJANDRO RESTREPO
editor TIMOTEJ LETONJA @timiletonja
cover design ARTHUR ROELOFFZEN @arthurroeloffzen