Model of Health

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Recounting her past makes Carré Otis cringe. But her past makes her present so remarkable. Diagnosed with dyslexia when she was a child, Otis, who grew up in Marin County, California, eventually dropped out of high school at age 15. "They didn't know much about dyslexia then and school was really challenging," she says. So was her upbringing, she claims. Her parents weren't the role models she craved, so Otis moved out after leaving high school.

She modeled in San Francisco briefly before an agent sent her to New York City. "I was fortunate to find modeling even though it brought a slew of catastrophes with it," Otis says. From New York, Otis moved to Paris where she enjoyed some success. By the time she was 18, though, she was exhausted by occupational hazards: "I was so freaked out by the industry, the back-stabbing, the catfights, the insecurity," she says. She retreated to Marin and made some indelible friendships that would eventually help her leave the high-fashion industry. "I met a different kind of woman—strong, full-bodied, life-giving. I learned what friendships with women could be like."

But the demons of the modeling world weren't finished with Otis and she returned to the runways 18 months later. After doing some catalog work for Macy's, Otis caught the attention of celebrity photographer Herb Ritts who flew her down to Los Angeles for a shoot with Petra, a German magazine. Their collaboration jumpstarted her career and covers on French Elle and American and British Vogue followed as did contracts with Calvin Klein and Guess jeans.

As her star was rising, Otis's life was crumbling—she alternately starved and purged to maintain a size 2 on her 5-foot-10 frame, she snorted cocaine, and she took heroin. "I had no boundaries," she says. "Terrible things were happening and there was nobody to report it to." In 1990, at age 22, she landed a role in the film Wild Orchid, starring Mickey Rourke. Two years later she and Rourke married, but the relationship foundered on the shores of spousal abuse. Otis never pressed charges, but she and Rourke divorced in 1997.

Otis's career fell apart in 1998. Just after shooting the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, Otis, who was 30, had a seizure and was hospitalized. Doctors cauterized three holes in her heart, a heart weakened by years of drug, alcohol, and nutritional abuse. "That was the last straw," says Otis. "I asked myself, 'How do you want to live your life?'"

It didn't take long to answer that question. "I took myself out of the modeling world," Otis says. "And I started doing yoga." She also started eating again and meditating. And her perspective began to change. She began to reassess the will that got her through years of abuse without collapsing. Now, when she practices Ashtanga Yoga, she can see when her will gets in the way, when it's time to let go and surrender to the pose instead of muscling through it. "I had a total jock approach," she explains, "until I realized it wasn't going to work."

Six years down this new road to health, Otis, who has been celibate for the past four years, practices Mysore every day for two hours and says she cherishes the time to go inward. "My life used to be very outward. These poses are so profound because they help me find the pearl, the essence of my core."