Lauren Helm

Photo: Alessandra Petlin

3 of 5
From Model to Psychiatrist
Lauren Helm, MD
50, New York City

In 1982, as she stared down the idle summer months between high school and college, Lauren Helm decided to find a job—preferably one that didn't involve desk work or early mornings. Helm's mother, a former model and actress, suggested she visit the thrumming Ford modeling agency. By September, Helm had been photographed by Richard Avedon for the January 1983 cover of Vogue.

Elle and Vogue Italia covers followed. "I decided to postpone college for six months," Helm says, "which turned into 12 years." She lent her angular face and full lips to campaigns for Versace and Valentino, whiled away interminable hours in airports from Milan to Tokyo, and, over time, even became comfortable in front of the camera. "I was pale, with a big forehead," she says. "I thought I looked like a squid. But that's not what others saw. The first thing modeling teaches you is that you have no idea what you look like."

Helm's vision of herself evolved in other ways, too. "No one thinks they can model permanently," she says. "I wanted to do something challenging and useful, and I wanted to take the attention off myself." When an acquaintance said offhandedly that Helm would make a good doctor, "I thought they were right," she says. After graduating from Norwich University, a Vermont college whose adult degree program allowed her to keep traveling for work, Helm left modeling at age 31 and enrolled in Columbia's postbaccalaureate premed program, then its med school. During a rotation in psychiatry, she discovered a deep satisfaction in treating psychological pain. "This felt like home," she says. Helm now works with the psychiatric team at a hospital in New York City and also runs a private practice with an emphasis on eating disorders. "Nothing is ever redundant in this job," she says. "You see extraordinary things, life-affirming, dramatic, poignant things. You get to talk to people, hear the narrative of someone's private universe. It's human. It's life, unfiltered, in all its range. And it doesn't involve sitting around an airport twiddling your thumbs."