Nicole Weider: Countering Image Conscious with Image Conscience

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Nicole Weider

Nicole Weider has a passion. A former fashion model, Weider has taken to the Internet with a message for young girls, urging them to reject the messages of promiscuity and unrealistic definitions of beauty. Through her website, Project: Inspired, Weider is not just reaching out to young teens -- she's waging a war on the top magazine in the industry: Cosmopolitan. Where most models would give their eye-teeth to be on the cover of the foundation of Kate White's masthead, Weider seeks to give the cover a different look -- from inside a plastic bag.


There have been several films in the past that follow the plot of "small town girl moves to Hollywood, discovers seedy life of vice." Movies like "Valley of the Dolls" come to mind. Did your real-life experience compare to these fictional representations?

Completely. It's almost too realistic. The expectation to be sexy from the get-go is so rampant. I was only sixteen, and my first agent was all, "Oh, you could do this swimsuit job, and these models are doing catalogs for Victoria's Secret!" Marissa Miller, who was one of the main models for Victoria's Secret, was signed with my agency; she was 26 at the time, and I was 16. And he said, "Look, she's so successful, etc." So the pressure to be sexy right away is very strong; they place a high emphasis on that.

So it stole some of my innocence at first. I felt like I grew up too fast. I was being all sexy in front of a camera instead of being a normal high-school teenager.

I dated this producer -- he was the president of Fox -- and he told me that I had the quality of a "superstar" and an "it girl," and that I had a "star quality" that you don't see very often. And he told me that he would introduce me to the casting person at Fox, and for me to take some new head shots. I dated him foolishly -- I mean, I did like him; I wasn't trying to use him -- but I dated him also with the high hope that he would do what he said he would. And then to found out that it was all just a bunch of crap, I was really devastated.

I think that was sort of one of the last straws. Hollywood is so phony and cut-throat and a "What are you going to do to get ahead?" industry. I felt like I was not meant to only do that.

The Internet never forgets. There's so much out there, and it won't go away. With that in mind, were any of your earlier modeling sessions something you later regretted doing, and do you use them to illustrate a sort of 'before and after' parable to the girls who come to your site asking about them?

(laughs) That's one of the things I always tell the girls: "Never take a picture of yourself in a compromising manner." Don't take a picture of yourself with no shirt on, or posing in lingerie, and send it to your boyfriend, or send it as a sext. And for sure there are so many pictures of me in lingerie -- especially from the Maxim shoot. They have video of me posing in lingerie, and it still haunts me. I am so embarrassed when I see the pictures. Like, "Oh my gosh, I can't believe I did that!" My brothers now are fourteen and twelve, and I don't want them googling me and seeing me. It's just really embarrassing. It's weird. Part of me, I'd say I most certainly regret it. But at the same time it's a constant reminder of how pictures show up forever. Be careful girls! Don't do anything where you show too much skin, because it's going to be here forever and you never know whose hands it will wind up in.

And also, it made me feel really self-conscious on set having to look sexy and suck in my stomach and make sure my poses are right -- it felt really demeaning.

Part of what gave you your new outlook was your reaffirmation of your Christianity. Many can tell the story of how they became one, but I'd like to ask you, why are you a Christian?

I just wanted to be in front of the camera, and be recognized and well-known for my own sake and my own purposes. But everything wasn't falling into place correctly. My self-value was crumbling inside. I was doing compromising photo shoots. I was looking with a selfish point of view on how to get ahead in a dark industry.

I realized this is not what I meant to do. I felt my whole life like I was supposed to be an entertainer in some way, and I felt, "Why does this feel so wrong? Why is this such an internal struggle for me?" I was twenty-three, and stupidly I didn't go to college because I was busy modeling in high school, I was pursuing different acting things on the side, I was in acting school, and I just thought, "Oh, I'm going to make it no matter what. I'm talented. I can be in front of the camera. This is my chosen career path, I will just find a way and make it work."

That's part of the reason why I did compromising things, because I had no other options because I didn't have an education. I was struggling to get ahead, and it just wasn't working, and I fell into a really deep depression. I had no money, and I just felt like a complete failure: if I'm not acting and performing in front of the camera, what am I supposed to do?

So I moved to Tucson for a while, and tried to find work as a waitress. I was navigating around a city where I had no idea where I was going. It was really scary for me. I didn't have any family there. The only reason I went there was because my grandpa had a house there that he didn't live in anymore. I was isolated and alone and I fell so deep into a depression I didn't want to leave my house. I'd cry all the time. And I was like, "God, why is this happening to me? Why am I feeling like this?" And it was honestly then that I gave my life to God, and I just asked questions: "Why am I going through this?" "Why am I discovering that I'm not meant to do this?" "Why are my morals and values coming into play and I'm realizing that Hollywood is not at all glamorous?"

I would pray every night, "Lord, show me what I'm supposed to do with my life. Give me a clear plan of how I can find love, be in love, be successful and have a purpose other than going after what I want."

I convinced my mom to come back to L.A. while I was in Tucson, because being depressed in a city where I didn't know anyone was not really helping me. So I convinced her to let me move back. The very same day I was moving back, with all my stuff packed in my little Acura, I was turning onto the freeway, talking on the phone to my mom. And I stupidly made a U-turn, and got into a terrible car accident. My car was totalled. All my stuff was messed up. I got carried out of the car and had to go to the hospital. So it wasn't my time, and it wasn't meant to be. God was showing me clear signs that what I was doing was wrong and that He had a different plan for my life.

So I was living with my mom, and I was twenty-three, and God slowly put this plan in my heart to use everything I went through, the good and the bad -- mostly the bad -- and how messed up and superficial models... I saw them up close, dieting and doing all these crazy things to stay skinny... Hollywood is not glamorous. I don't care what celebrity says what they're wearing, it is such a dark industry and I realize that my experiences can really help young girls realize that it's really unhealthy, and how damaging it is.

This would be what then kicked off Project Inspired. And part of that is the anti-Cosmo campaign. Can you define that a little -- why Cosmo specifically, and what is it you'd like to see done?

I used to read Cosmo when I was a teenager -- which was not that long ago. I would take the sex tips to heart. I would think that being ultra-sexy and doing these things would really make a man fall in love with me. So I placed a high emphasis on being sexy and doing sexual things when I was a teenager. The reality is that you won't be respected if you do them.

I don't know at what point I realized to stop reading the magazine. It was probably about two to three years ago. I just realized, 'This magazine is giving all the wrong advice.' It's placing such a high emphasis on sex when that's the wrong message to send to girls, because if you give it up right away guys will not respect you. That will be the only thing you have to offer a man.

The reason I'm going after Cosmo is because -- people don't know this, but it's the number one selling women's magazine in the U.S. by far. They sell an average of three million copies a month, but out of that three million copies, fifteen million people get their hands on it and read it. You see Cosmo at a doctor's office, or a nail salon, or a hair salon. So there are several different people reading each issue. And the sex tips are so graphic -- so pornographic -- it's so disgusting. And parents, I don't think, know how bad it is because obviously they're not picking up Cosmo and reading it, and kids these days just think this is normal. They package it in such a cute, girly, glamorous way; they have Paramore's Hayley Williams on the cover, or Scarlett Johansson, or whoever, and these actresses are sometimes eighteen, nineteen, twenty -- so who's going to be reading it? Teenage girls, obviously.

So they read it thinking it's cool and fun, and they think, "Oh my God, this is what couples are doing? This is normal? I should be doing anal sex in order to keep a man?" And the language it uses is like, "My hookup did this" -- they use the word 'hookup' very loosely, like its cool to hook up with lots of people. They never say "my husband" or "my spouse." They don't use that type of lingo because it is marketed to younger kids. The language they use is very adolescent-targeted.

Also, the new layout -- it is terrible! This January 2012 issue [see video, inset left] is the worst one, because not only does it feature all of the gross... you know, it tells girls to go watch lesbian porn... but they did a whole new redesign and layout. Editor in Chief Kate White hired an outside design company called Pentagram -- which is really ironic and creepy, because that's the symbol of the devil, a pentagram. But Pentagram redesigned the whole magazine, and now it's very obviously geared toward young girls. There's really big text, exclamation points after all of the titles; there's very little text on the page, and bright colors, and the fonts are like Tahoma or Book Antiqua -- very girly, young, kid-friendly... it's not like an adult woman's print magazine. I've bought so many past issues of Cosmo, starting from the very earliest copy, which is from 1890, to the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1990s, early 2000s, and now. Not only has the material gotten more and more dangerous, because of the words used and the tips mentioned, but the whole mentality -- to hook up right away; to engage in lesbian sex -- the material has gotten too dangerous over the years.

So I'm fighting against this magazine because it is the most mainstream magazine in pop culture right now. You see girls as young as 11, 13, 15 reading it because the star of "Twilight" is on the cover, and they don't realize how bad it is until the message is deeply ingrained in them, and they go out and do all these freaky sex acts and then get called a whore at school. So my goal is to get the magazine sold in a wrapper so only those 18 and over can buy it. Because the magazine is pornography, if just in words. And even the pictures are showing girls with their butts and their cleavage spilling out -- it's terrible. So I want it to be sold to only adults.

Part of your campaign has been to approach CEOs of supermarkets which sell the magazine, people like Kroger's David Dillon and Supervalu's Craig Herkert. Have you made much progress in that front?

Yeah we have! When I started, I didn't know what to do, I didn't know how to spread the word. So I made a post on Project Inspired about it. And one of the Project Inspired girls wrote me about this girl starting something on a website called, which is a non-profit website where people take a stand against something that's not good for citizens -- and if they get enough signatures and people rallying with them, then companies take notice and they can change. So I started a petition, and with my web team, Mind Over Media, we discussed who to petition to, and if they were to say they were on board how it would affect Cosmo negatively. So we targeted the Senate; the Secretary of the FTC, Donald Clark; the Chairman of the FTC, Jon Leibowitz; the Senator from California, Dianne Feinstein; the CEOs of Wal-Mart and Supervalu -- they have the power and the ability to take a stand and say, "This magazine is adult-oriented. We should put this in a plastic bag." Grocery stores have the power to do this, so that's why we're petitioning not only the FTC but the grocery stores across the country.

I heard back first from the FTC -- just a general consumer response center reply, something like: "Dear Nicole, thank you for taking interest in the FTC regarding your public complaint. The Commission, however, does not respond to individual complaints, but the Commission can take notice when there is a public threat to society or there are numerous complaints." This is a public threat, but they just don't realize it yet. So I started the petition. Slowly, 100 signatures grew to 2000. 2000 grew to 5000. Now we have over 10,000 signatures. And once the people are petitioned, they get an email notification every time someone signs their signature, and now we've heard back from the Secretary of the Commission, saying they've looked into this and are going to start an investigation against Cosmo. He wrote a formal letter to Kate White, demanding an explanation of the business practice, and why she's doing it, and said she needed to write me a formal letter explaining why -- but that was two months ago, and she hasn't written me back. That's almost like helping our cause, that she hasn't responded.

So you've never heard anything from Cosmo at all during all this?

Heck no! I've been trying to reach out to them from the very beginning! Kate White is also the author of this book called The Sixes, and I would go to her website and try to contact her from the contact form. I sent her so many emails. Me and the Project Inspired girls would storm her Facebook page. One time on all of her status updates there was fifty comments from different girls saying things like, "Kate White, put Cosmo in a bag to protect our generation." Or "Kate White, do what's right and protect us from harmful material." Or "This is pornography, it's disgusting." All these girls were commenting on her page, and the comments stayed there for about a week -- then when she finally checked her Facebook page, she deleted all of the comments from us. So, of course, the girls were outraged. "Oh my God, look! She's ignoring us!"

I would post frequently on the Cosmopolitan Facebook page, where they have over a million people. There would be, "Are you reading the latest oral sex skills? Click here to find out more!" And I would post, "There's a better way! Don't listen to this advice, come here to Project Inspired for uplifting advice on how to be a positive person and to find your identity not in your sex skills!" I would post the website and a positive message to girls on every post they did, and they finally blocked me. I can't post anything on there anymore.

I discovered another way to attack this whole thing was sending heartfelt letters from the girls themselves, writing me: "I was eleven years old and I engaged in sex." "Cosmo told me to do it this way, and so I did, and then I got called a slut at school." I have over 250 personal letters from girls explaining how Cosmo has negatively affected them. So I mailed them off to Kate White -- and obviously, no one has written me back at all. The girls include their addresses, too, and we mailed them to the FTC. We have heard back from the FTC, and it looks good, so we're just going to keep pressing ahead.

Cosmo did at one time market a sister magazine overtly to the younger readership, CosmoGirl. In 2008, it moved to the Web, and then merged into Seventeen. Is Seventeen any part of the crusade, and have you noticed whether the failure of CosmoGirl influenced Cosmo itself to start skewing younger than it did before?

Oh, completely! It's so obvious! Pick up the January issue, it is completely a "kid friendly" magazine!

I used to read CosmoGirl too, and it did fail. But girls weren't reading CosmoGirl, because they wanted to read the actual Cosmo, and see what the adults were talking about and what was cool because the celebrities were on the cover of Cosmo. They wanted to read the original thing. So CosmoGirl failed, and now Cosmo is still the sex tips, but it's geared toward young girls too, because they don't want to lose that demographic.

Seventeen is also rapidly declining. It's nowhere near as dangerous as Cosmo is -- it doesn't say things like, "Use a vibrating finger on his perineum to make him climax," but it says things like, "Oh, girls, my hookup during the summer wanted to go down on me, what do I do?" And with Seventeen, there are thirteen-year-olds reading Seventeen. Gross. So Seventeen has declined into a more sexually aggressive magazine as well. But CosmoGirl, the fact that it failed made Cosmo realize they need to target and market to young teenagers, because this is what Oil of Olay and L'Oreal and Pure Essence perfume is targeting. If [Cosmo] is for adults, then why all the young celebrities, and why are the ads targeted toward young girls?

Have you had any success stories out of Project Inspired?

You would not believe the things girls write to me! I have a whole folder on my desktop that is thank you notes from girls, saying everything from "Thank you for your website. I was cutting myself and I realized God has a plan for me," and "I realize that I'm more than just my body and what I look like," "Thank you for helping me realize that being a Christian is cool and for giving me advice on how to deal with everyday issues, like what to do if my dad's an alcoholic, or what if my best friend is being sexually active -- and how I tell her it's not healthy." Or, "Dear Nicole, your website saved my life because I was contemplating suicide and I watched your video, 'The Daddy's Letter.'" It's like God's message in scriptures to girls. It's these powerful scriptures in one video. Girls tell me they've cried when they've watched the video.

Girls tell me I'm like the big sister they never had. They appreciate my honesty because I approach issues from a real life perspective. I don't sugarcoat things like a lot of other Christians do. Other Christians may not want to touch the idea of masturbation or pornography, or what to do if you get an STD. I talk about everything you can possibly imagine, because that's what girls need to know. They need some place where they feel like they can get real life answers. They can post questions and comments anonymously -- it's a community where girls give their feedback and they help each other.

Honestly, it's overwhelming and humbling what the girls say to me. It blows my mind every day.

You're still modeling, and I know that your new outlook limits the jobs you're willing to do. Has your work with Project Inspired and your anti-Cosmo stance also limited the number of jobs you're offered?

Completely. It's interesting, because I'm very curvy -- I'm not stick-skinny -- so automatically my agent wants me to do sexy work like swimsuit jobs. I told her right from the beginning -- I just signed with a new agency -- I am not going to do any lingerie jobs, I don't care what it's for. I'm not going to do any alcohol ads. When I first signed with the agency, Maverick, they told me to go on a Budweiser commercial -- they said it was a great opportunity. And my first thought was, "Oh wow, that's so cool!" But then I told my husband, "Wait, this doesn't follow with Project Inspired. Would God want me to do this?" So I don't do any alcohol ads. No swimsuit stuff, no lingerie, and I won't do any work where I'm kissing another man -- whether it's on camera or in a print ad for an engagement ring or something. Anything that doesn't fall in line with what I'm trying to accomplish, which is being a person of values and confidence -- without compromising who you are and to lead a godly lifestyle.

So I definitely don't have as many opportunities, by far. And I'm also not as stick-skinny as I used to be, so that also limits my possibilities. But I do love being in front of the camera now that I've had this realization and this understanding of what I stand for. My self-confidence has gone through the roof. When I go into an audition now, I'm like, "You know what? I don't need this job, because I'm meant for more than just my pictures." It's almost like a hobby for me now. So it's definitely shifted my perspective on modeling.