MY TOKYO MODELLING NIGHTMARE THAT NEARLY COST ME MY LIFE - BY JORUNN HAUGEN
As a model, I rarely stayed in one city, or country, more than a few months at a time. I would alternate between cities around the world, depending on where my mother agency would send me. In January 1989 I went for my second trip to Tokyo. I had been there for two months the year before and loved it, and Japan loved me back. I was not so tall and had dark hair, which was perfect for the Japanese industry. It also helped that I had a good reputation. I was fast, polite and easy to work with.
But there was one problem. I was a bit too “fat” for their liking, so my Japanese agency sent me to a doctor for help with this issue. I immediately liked this doctor. Whilst in Japan I struggled with the language barrier quite a lot, and as this was before the time of the internet, this country on the other side of the planet felt very very far from home. The doctor I was sent to looked a bit like Santa Claus, and he was from northern Europe which felt familiar, making me instantly trust him. It also helped to know that he was the doctor that they used at the Norwegian embassy in Japan. He gave me some pills in an unmarked box and told me to take 3 pills a day for a while.
After taking the first one, I understood that these pills were probably not the healthiest for me. But my God did I love the feeling I got from them. I literally did not get tired or hungry at all. The pills turned me into a working machine that talked a lot. The agency had so much work lined up for my return to Tokyo, I was barely at home. I would often do several different jobs in one day, working through the night. My diet was as follows: cereal for breakfast and chewing gum for dinner. That's all I ate! And of course tons of coffee and cigarettes.
After a month on these pills, I no longer dwelled on what they did to my body. I got really skinny, I had lots and lots of energy, and I loved it. Soon I needed more than 3 pills a day, but then my 'lovely' doctor upped the price. I ended up paying him a small fortune at the end.
In the following months, I continued to work like crazy, travelling all over Japan and also around other nearby countries. I worked at beautiful locations like Saipan and Bali and at one point they even flew me out to Hawaii. The Japanese loved me. Here was a model with an even stronger work ethic than them. First on set, last to go home and had plenty of energy to socialise after work.
FROM 55KG TO 40KG IN A FEW WEEKS
Nobody questioned my lack of appetite or my never-ending lust for cigarettes. I was perfect to them, and so so skinny. Way too skinny! But that is what they liked at the time. When I arrived in Japan I was weighing 121 pounds (55kg) but after a few weeks, I had an insane weight of 88 pounds (40 kg). I'm 176cm tall, so you can see how a body weight of 40kg is dangerously low.
The crazy thing though is that I actually thought I looked good. I got a boyfriend whilst living down there. A super kind American actor. And yes, even with my crazy work schedule I found time for him as well. He got very worried for me and tried to feed me whenever he could, but I just laughed it off. I became obsessed with my weight and even though my 88 pounds was too much.
My agency was ecstatic as I must have become their best-earning model in their agency at this time. One of my TV commercials was voted the best commercial that spring and my mother agent in Paris ended up buying a summerhouse in St. Tropes solely on my commission from Japan. Stupidly I had no clue how much the clients actually paid for me, so god knows what sort of cuts my agencies where taking.
But I got quite rich too. After a few months I called my sister and Dad, and asked them to buy me a car back home in Norway. They could buy whichever car they wanted as long as it was red and had a great stereo. That was such a wonderful feeling. For months I had an apartment all to myself, I had a super successful career and my agency couldn't do enough to please me. But sadly, this story does not have a happy ending.
In October that same year, there was no more free rooms at the model houses and I was asked, very kindly, to take in a girl from Australia. My apartment was beautiful! It had two bedrooms and in one of them, I had windows from floor to ceiling on two walls. It was on the 7th floor in the middle of Roppongi.
I happily welcomed my new roommate. I know the agency thought it nice of them to let me have the apartment to myself, but I was lonely despite my boyfriend and work. My new roommate was super nice. Her name was Nikki and she was the sweetest girl. I had been in Tokyo for 8 months by then, only having had short breaks to renew my visa and contract with the agency.
MY 23RD BIRTHDAY
I remember my 23rd birthday so well. It was at the end of October and I was in this beautiful place, Fukuoka, in the south of Japan. I was working there with a client I knew well and they had made me the most wonderful present - a hand-painted portrait of me. I was so touched by their thoughtfulness and they were very proud. Giving presents is a big thing in Japan, making it a wonderful ritual. We took pictures of wedding dresses and I felt like a princess, but for the first time in 8 months, I started to feel tired. It was such a strange feeling to me by then. For so long I had this enormous flow of energy and didn't really remember the feeling of being tired. I was a bit confused too and had the feeling of walking in a dream.
I was meant to meet my boyfriend that night to celebrate. On the plane back to Tokyo I saw that I had forgotten the beautiful painting they had given me which is something that you just don't do in Japan. I was devastated. My boyfriend had made the most delicious birthday meal for me, but I just couldn't help but feeling a bit down. During the dinner, I ended up falling asleep sitting up.
I woke up the next morning to the heavenly smell of freshly grinded coffee. My boyfriend had called my agency to get my work details for the day, and had a wonderful breakfast ready for me. But again, I just couldn't eat. I had slept longer than I ever had for the last eight months, but I still felt sluggish and tired. I, therefore, doubled the dose of my wonder-medicine and drunk a pot of coffee. After that, I felt a bit better and headed out into the traffic of Tokyo.
For two weeks I lived like this. I didn't think clear at all. All I wanted was coffee and my pills, and at this point, I took eleven of them a day. No question asked from either my agency nor from my doctor.
On November the 8th 1989 I was on set in Tokyo feeling absolutely horrible, I could barely finish the job. The makeup artist saw that I was burned out, so he gave me a joint. He told me to go straight home, put on some good calming music and smoke his joint. I was not very familiar with smoking weed, but he promised it would help me relax. In doing this he took a big risk, smoking was illegal in Japan and you could go to jail for possessing it.
I did as he said. I went straight home, played Enya on my stereo, and looked out of my big windows at the nightlights of Tokyo. I took one drag of the joint, then a second drag. Then I thought I heard gong gongs from the street. Thought they had a festival or something of that sort. But then it got hard to breathe, and I realised it wasn't a gong gong. It was my heart! It pounded in my chest like crazy. Harder and harder. Faster and faster. It was impossible to draw my breath. I panicked.
I crawled out of bed, not able to stand on my feet. I needed to drink something, but the only thing I could reach from the floor where I was kneeling was the water in the toilet. I drank that. It got stuck in my throat, I just couldn't get it down, so I crawled out on the balcony for air. I was dying. The only thing I heard was the pounding of my heart. I lay on the balcony and prayed to God. I could not die here in Tokyo.
Suddenly I felt arms around me. It was Nikky. She pressed a sponge with water to my lips, and I heard her voice as if I was under water. 'Hang in there Jo. Hang in there'. She had called the agency. But instead of calling me an ambulance, the boss came himself. I was to famous. It would be bad publicity if this got out. They carried me to the elevator whilst I was scratching the walls in fear. In his car I passed out. My last thought was, not bad to die in a Jaguar.
I woke up on a cold hospital bench after they had just restarted my heart. I don't remember much after that, only that I got tubes in me everywhere and Nikki sat on a chair beside me all night long. My Australian angel Nikky. The next day I woke up with angry faces all around me. They were all from the agency, and one of them held up the joint. Who had given this to me was asked over and over again.
I wanted to say that the joint hadn't put me here. The pills had! But they needed their plate clean I guess, and the joint was their way out. In the end I told them. I was too tired, just wanted them out of the room.
I desperately needed rest but insisted on calling my sister first. It was early Sunday morning in Norway when my sister got the call from Japan. She was about to start a new job the next day, but after hearing what had happened, she knew she had to leave for Japan immediately. Her husband (Sara ́s dad) got on the phone to get her a plane ticket and she paid it with money from my brother's bar. On the way to the airport she called her boss to be. Her husband had one of this big monstrous mobile telephone who was as big as a suitcase.
Few hours after the call from Tokyo, she was on the plane on her way to see me. She was picked up by a limousine and driven straight to me.
I had to stay in Tokyo for 10 more days as I was under contract and couldn't just leave. Even being clinically dead for a short moment didn't change that. My agency put the biggest jobs I had together in those ten days, and I got a representative from the agency and a driver with me for each job. It was horrible. After just a day in the hospital, I was sent home. My sister had not arrived yet, and Nikky was working.
I tried to eat something when I got home but the food got stuck in my throat. I panicked again.
BACK TO THE HOSPITAL
I knew the hospital was nearby so I tumbled out of my apartment, forgot to take shoes on and held a glass of juice in my hand. The people I met whilst stumbling towards the hospital stared at me weirdly. I guess you don't see a super confused girl walking down the street in only her socks, holding a juice glass, that often.
When I reached the hospital they told me I was having a panic attack and gave me valium.
Despite the cheeky smile in this photo, what I went through in Tokyo was a truly terrifying experience.
That became the beginning of a long and difficult road of how to master anxiety. That same afternoon my sister finally arrived at the hospital. I think I have never in my life been so glad to see someone. She has the most calming effect on people, and now she gave me all of her calmness and love. To this day, it is the best medicine on earth for me to have my sister around.
The next ten days became hard for us both. She could come with me to some of my jobs, but not all of them. When she couldn't come, I send her out shopping with my boyfriend. She was so amazed by all that she saw, that my boyfriend eventually tied a string to her wrist so he wouldn't lose her in the sea of people. Every night she lay next to me and helped me through to the morning. Finally, we could leave Tokyo and go back home.
We sat in the airport giggling with relief. And when the plane took off, when I saw Tokyo get smaller and smaller, my sister and I hand in hand.
My spirit lifted, the further I got away from these intense 8 months that nearly destroyed my life.
I really hope that the industry has changed since 1989, and that young boys and girls are more aware of untrustworthy people out there like my corrupt doctor making me believe it was ok to take a large sum off pills in order to get dangerously skinny and sleep a lot less than what is normal in order to work more. I hope my story can be of help to others. I could have been dead at 23. Sadly, being skinny at that point of my life meant more to me than life itself. I have never again taken life for granted.
Quite a lot of heavy stories from me lately. My next post will be a lot more cheerful, I promise :) Have a fab weekend! x