Why Paulina Porizkova’s honesty around mental health added up to a groundbreaking year: ‘We relate to her’

Paulina Porizkova's authentic social media posts have helped redefine modern fame, warts and all. (Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic)
Paulina Porizkova's authentic social media posts have helped redefine modern fame, warts and all. (Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic)

Paulina Porizkova isn’t just a supermodel — she’s a widow, a mental health advocate and a survivor. And she doesn’t mind if you know all the details.

Over the past year, the 55-year-old has grieved the death of her ex-husband of three decades — former Cars singer Ric Ocasek — and had the trauma compounded by being the one to find him deceased in their New York City home. She also launched a legal battle for a share of his $5 million estate, per court documents that revealed Ocasek cut his estranged wife from his will during never-completed divorce proceedings because she had “abandoned” him, claims the model denied.

But it’s Porizkova’s vulnerable social media posts that keep us riveted. She’s shared the “incredible hurt and betrayal” of Ocasek’s advance directive, which “made the grieving process really, really tricky,” and humored the aging process with bikini shots and makeup-free selfies. “Now how can I help to make all this — what we consider flaws — to be seen differently, to be seen as confidence and beauty of a mature age rather than something that needs to be eliminated?” she pondered in one post. And she’s turned the camera on herself amid very private bouts of anxiety, depression and panic attacks, despite a self-admitted history of containing her emotions in public. Though Porizkova’s platform is no pity party; every post is a reminder to seek help, that beauty is fleeting, that no one is alone.

Transcending fashion and diet, celebrities influence everything from people’s spending habits to voting choices and even healthcare: Following Angelina Jolie’s 2013 announcement that she carries a variant of the BRCA1 gene (placing her at increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer) and underwent a preventative double mastectomy and breast reconstruction, rates for both procedures were “significantly higher” among women in New York state and South Wales, according to an 2018 observational study.

“In developmental psychology, [we know] it’s helpful for people to have heroes or someone to emulate,” clinical psychologist Donna Rockwell tells Yahoo Life, adding, “We look toward celebrities to understand their lives but, more deeply, to understand our own.”

There are mutual benefits to celebrity disclosures, according to Katrina Gay, who oversees strategic entertainment-based partnerships at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “We click on these stories because they encourage discussion of topics that are often shamed or misunderstood,” she tells Yahoo Life. “As a listener or reader, it’s a safe way to lean in without having to necessarily respond.

“However,” she says, “sharing can also be empowering for the person posting, helping them own their condition and the process of recovery.”

Often, there’s backlash — Chrissy Teigen, for example, defended posting photos of her 20-week-son who was stillborn in September, after her diagnosis of partial placenta abruption (“I cannot express how little I care that you hate the photos,” she wrote on Medium, an essay she admitted was necessary in order to heal). Likewise, Porizkova has responded directly to fans who questioned her integrity — just as, in 2017, Lena Dunham refuted accusations that her weight loss negated her body-positive platform. For what it’s worth, she wrote on Instagram, the fluctuation reflected her battle with the pelvic disorder endometriosis. “I'm proud of what this body has seen and done and represented. Chronic illness sufferer. Body-shaming vigilante. Sexual assault survivor. Raging hottie. Just like all of YOU,” she wrote.

Gay contests a common judgment that celebrity confessions are histrionic. Opening up to strangers, she explains, requires “high-level courage, a commitment to one’s own journey and a willingness to help others” at the risk of negative publicity. “Sometimes agents with clients who struggle to hide their conditions encourage them to share,” she says. “And sometimes they’re cautious and question whether the issue is relevant to their client’s brand.”

Rockwell adds that celebrity revelations “normalize suffering and trauma and allow people to incorporate others’ experience into their lives,” pointing to mirror neurons in the brain that activate when a person feels empathy. Reading about a celebrity marriage like Porizkova’s, she says, can trigger memories of a shared experience. “It brings us back to [a particular] moment and that’s why we relate to her.”

Sometimes, says Rockwell, a darker phenomenon called ‘tall poppy syndrome’ occurs when people celebrate their idol’s downfalls, essentially ‘chopping them down’ when they’re emotionally hurt. Slamming struggling celebrities can make people feel “normal” and “safe” in comparison.

Celebrities might share more these days to meet the growing responsibilities of fame. “[Today], it’s almost as though you can’t really relate to others without exploring yourself as a whole person,” says Gay, adding, “We’re in a moment that has everyone, including celebrities, asking, ‘What really matters to me?’” And with the coronavirus pandemic keeping everyone home, social media can best express authenticity.

“Hearing someone like Porizkova share in this way is encouraging,” says Gay. “When you admire a person who says, ‘Here’s what works for me,’ you hear it differently.”

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