Monday 17 June 2019

'I knew I had a problem because I turned into this really angry person' - Roz Purcell reflects on learning to let go

Rozanna Purcell talks to Liadan Hynes about overcoming an eating disorder, learning to let go of control, and how CBT changed her life

Roz Purcell photographed by Tony Gavin
Roz Purcell photographed by Tony Gavin
Maria Walsh
Amanda Brunker
Pamela Flood
Andrea Roche
Aoife Cogan
Miss Ireland Rozanna Purcell (R) poses during the Miss Universe 2010 Pageant final at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas on August 23, 2010
Roz Purcell in 2010
Rozanna Purcell in 2010
Roz Purcell at The Peter Mark VIP Style Awards 2019 at the Marker Hotel, Dublin. Picture: Brian McEvoy
Roz Purcell in a collection of photographs with her sometimes social media-shy partner Zach Desmond
Roz Purcell in a collection of photographs with her sometimes social media-shy partner Zach Desmond
Rozanna Purcell at at Miss Universe photocall in 2011 with Donald Trump and other winners

Liadan Hynes

'I think that as a society we associate losing weight as a good thing, and gaining weight as a bad thing," Rozanna Purcell reflects.

 "I know when I was at my lightest weight, I was really unhappy, and that's when people used to say 'you look unbelievable, what's your secret?' When I accepted that I had a problem with food and an issue with my body and started to get help, I had to break up with the idea that people preferred me when I was smaller. That that was the better Roz, the Roz that was going to be successful." Now, she urges people to think before they pay someone a compliment based on their physicality, in case the person uses it to feed into a sense of self-worth based purely on appearance.

Rozanna Purcell, food writer, cook, television presenter, former model, is now 28. She began modelling at the age of 18, entered Miss Universe, met Donald Trump, travelled the world. It was about two years in, that things started to change; her confidence and DGAF attitude crumbling under the pressure of her new career.

"I always knew I had a problem," she says now. "It was during my modelling days that it started to get bad. I think there were a few years where I was very much able to put it to one side. I was so confident. Then, I don't know what happened along the way but I just completely lost that. It felt like the only thing I could control was my food."

Miss Ireland Rozanna Purcell (R) poses during the Miss Universe 2010 Pageant final at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas on August 23, 2010
Miss Ireland Rozanna Purcell (R) poses during the Miss Universe 2010 Pageant final at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas on August 23, 2010

She recalls now how her entire personality changed. "I knew I had a problem, because I turned into this really angry person. Do you ever get that lump in your throat, when you're really anxious, or upset about something? I had that the whole time. I had this really bad anxiety about food. And even though I knew I had a problem for a really, really long time, I didn't want to let go, because, I thought if I let go, I'd lose all my control. I didn't want to lose control; it was my safety blanket, having control."

Having grown up on her parents' farm in Tipperary, one of three sisters, the fashion world was utterly new to her. "I had such naivety when I started modelling. And I think once I started to realise everything, it just made me feel like I didn't belong there. It all came down to thinking I didn't deserve to be there, because I wasn't a certain size. I don't blame the modelling industry, because what do you expect, you're going into modelling? But my life was so out of control, in that I had left college, I had left my friends, my security blanket, I was travelling all over the world."

The Purcells are a close, loving family, and Roz says that her parents and sisters are aware of what is going on, and try their best to help. "It would really show up when I was on holiday, because my family would see me at every meal. I used to think 'I wish I could be like my sisters; eat something and not overthink it. Eat something and not feel guilty. Not have this anxiety around every mealtime. And I kind of just accepted that I was going to be like that forever."

Her older sister came to her during one family holiday, with what Roz now describes as an intervention. "But I just took it in a really bad way, and didn't want to speak to her. I avoided it, because I knew I had a problem, but I felt stuck."

When she got professional help, and eventually got over it, as she describes it, her family's relief was immense, she recalls. "They were all like 'oh, thank God you're back'. They honestly thought that I had just grown up into my personality, and I was this really aggressive, anxious person. I had a good relationship with my family in my early 20s, but in comparison to now, it's completely different. I go home more, I'm an actual sister to my sisters, not so focused on what else is going on. I used to just never talk to anyone. Now they say 'you're back to the Roz that you were as a teenager'."

That, she says is "really nice, but at the same time it's really sad, because I wasted so many years. I feel like this other person took over my body, from 20 right up until 25. "

It was her beloved sister Rachel's diagnosis with chronic myeloid leukaemia three years ago, that for Roz, changed everything.

"Louise McSharry said to me around the time of my sister being diagnosed, that when she got cancer, she realised that she had always looked at her body as a negative thing, but she realised that her body had a much bigger role than just being for show. That it does so many things we don't even think about, and going through that experience, Louise realised her body was playing a blinder. I suppose my sister Rachel getting cancer, and her body being able to still function and fight it off gave me a whole new list of priorities." Previously, she explains, her top priority in life was being small, being skinny.

NEW MINDSET: Model Roz Purcell says she went to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to deal with control issues around food and her attitude towards her weight. Photo: David Conachy
NEW MINDSET: Model Roz Purcell says she went to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to deal with control issues around food and her attitude towards her weight. Photo: David Conachy

"I thought that was all I ever wanted. That shifted to just being healthy, and making sure everyone around me was healthy and happy. Fostering good relationships with my family and friends. I had let this one obsession ruin so many things."

She realised she needed help, that changing this mind-set was not going to be something she would manage on her own. "Going to seek professional help was huge," she reflects. "I always thought it was something I could deal with myself, but I couldn't let go of the control. I didn't want to. In any kind of circumstance where you're having a battle with yourself, there's nothing wrong with going to get professional help. They will give you the proper tools you need to help heal your relationship, and manage it."

She successfully tried CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). "The first few times I remember not really telling him why I was in there. Saying 'I'm just here because I'm not feeling great about things,' or 'I'm really anxious'. It took until the third or fourth session before I actually said 'I have really bad anxiety with food; I don't eat certain foods, I haven't been eating and I've been over-training'."

On opening up, she broke down in tears, and recalls now her embarrassment at confessing to how she was really feeling.

"My eating disorder had nothing to do with food, it was all down to being in control of something. Knowing there was a reason for it, made it easier to start building myself back. A lot of people don't talk about this, but it actually gets harder before it gets easier," she cautions. "Once I started to eat foods that were restricted, or started just not punishing my body anymore, but being nice to myself, that voice that was always at me to be a certain way actually got worse. Also the fact that I was gaining weight, I found that really difficult. I know this sounds really stupid to some people, but I felt like a failure. It's definitely an up-and-down road, but it gets easier the longer you do it," she says of the battle to silence that voice. "Now it's just automatic, whereas before it was something I had to really, really try to do."

She first began talking about her own journey at cooking demos; intimate settings that encouraged such honesty. Now she regularly posts online about body acceptance. At the time though, she had become adept at hiding what was going on. "I think some of my friends were like 'oh my God no way', when I told them, because I was very good at hiding it. If we ever went out for food, I'd just go home quickly and get sick."

Throughout those five years, she went from dieting, to bingeing and purging, to a punishingly healthy regime. "I started with dieting, so that made me yo-yo, up and down, and binge and purge, because I'd feel really bad because I broke my diet. Once I decided I was going to stop bingeing and purging, that I was going to be really healthy, I became orthorexic, in that I became obsessed with being healthy. That's probably when I started Natural Born Feeder," she says, referring to the online platforms, community, and recipe books, she created.

As we speak, she has just finished putting together her third cookbook, which will be full vegan.

Roz, herself, is not vegan, although cooks mainly plant-based foods at home, both by preference, and from environmental concerns.

"Starting that, and talking about food the whole time, it made me realise 'I need to get better, because I don't want to be a hypocrite'. When I was orthorexic, I thought 'I'm finally here, I'm finally really in control, I'm not bingeing.' It sounds terrible, but I think anyone who has gone through an eating disorder will recognise this, you almost feel like you are in this elite group; 'I have that will-power now', even though it was actually just really bad control problems."

It is only now, three years after she first began to deal with all this, that Roz considers herself truly recovered. "From 25 to 28, it's taken me that long to get to a stage where I know I'm fully over it. I'm not sitting here being a hypocrite. And I'm able to speak about it without breaking down."

She has since done several CBT courses, which have helped with addictions; over training, and controlling her food intake. Before Rachel's diagnosis, Roz's attitude to training was vastly different, she explains, describing how training twice a day would be a regular occurrence for her.

"I looked at training as just a way to be smaller, and burn calories. Now, I have educated myself, and trained as a personal trainer. Now I look at it as a means of getting stronger, fitter. As something that benefits me mentally, allows me to be present, and forget about work. It's a total attitude shift. Before, I would have trained in the morning, and then by lunchtime I would have had a really, really unsatisfying anxiety, where I would have to train again. 'I have to go back, I have to go back', and if I didn't, it was like something bad was going to happen. I used my training to deal with my anxiety; to burn myself out so I wouldn't be thinking."

Recovery was not an overnight achievement. "It didn't happen all at the one time, but now I'm just so balanced. Well, I don't like using that word, because what is balance?" she smiles.

"But if someone had to live my lifestyle now, it would be very manageable. Whereas if somebody had to live my lifestyle five years ago, it would have been like 'oh my God, I'm exhausted, I'm so hungry, my body is really sore'. Now, I enjoy life, I still do things that make me feel good, like train, and eat well, but all in a balance."

Growing up on a farm, there was always something to be done. It left its mark, Roz explains now; an inability to sit around and do nothing. "Before people used to say to me 'you need to learn to relax'. And I would think 'but I don't want to be that person. I don't want to be like that'. It's taken me years to go 'I'm just going to sit down today and do nothing', and that's fine."

Meeting boyfriend Zach Desmond, a music promoter and son of Denis Desmond, has helped on this front. The couple now share a home.

"I've never really thought of it, but I don't think I could go out with anyone who is in this world too. Zach led a very different lifestyle to me when we met. He trained, but he might go to the gym twice a week. So I think it highlighted for me that I had this really, really high-pressured life that I had to live by. And it really highlighted things for him, too. So I think we've found a balance where he trains more, he does a bit more walking, but we're able to relax too."

Before Zach, Roz says, she "never watched Netflix, or TV, or anything. Because I thought it was a bad thing to be that person who wasted time. That's how highly strung I was. Now I've watched all of Game of Thrones," she laughs. "It's so nice, that's my relaxing time."

Hiking and baking keep her stress levels down, she runs The Hike Life, an open-to-all hiking group, which in its next series of events will sell tickets to raise funds for various charities. You get the sense of someone who enjoys life with a small intimate circle, a home bird. When you're putting so much of yourself out there, it can be necessary to keep other parts of your world small. "Yeah, my best friends are my sisters, my mum and dad, and obviously my boyfriend. I definitely keep a close circle," she reflects. "My best friends would be the same since I started in the industry."

This is her second year working with Repak, as a member of Team Green. "I'm actually really into recycling," she smiles. "It's probably down to Zach. Growing up, we always had to recycle; you were always really conscious of not wasting. But living in the city you lose the run of yourself for a while because of the bin situation. Now that I've moved in with Zac, I have to say we're fantastic at recycling," she laughs.

Zach, previous to their cohabitation, had already devised a system. "We have a day, once a week. We go through the recycling, because 37pc of the recycling bin is generally contaminated when it gets to the centre. So we're really careful. With soft plastics, we save them up and bring them to a local plant, so we make sure the whole thing is gone. Our black bin weight has gone down, it's practically nothing."

To further her progress down the road towards bodily acceptance, she is launching a podcast this week, Bite Back with Rozanna Purcell, whose guests will include Louise McSharry, Melanie Murphy and performance psychologist Gerry Hussey, talking about their relationship with their bodies, self-love and acceptance.

"I'd be lying if I said 'look every morning I wake up and feel really good and confident, and I'm happy with my body'. Because there are times when I look in the mirror and I think 'oh my God, I can't believe I've let myself get…'. Because the old Roz, at 23, if she had seen me now, she would have gotten really upset, and thought 'oh my God, I can't believe I let myself go'.

"I have to remember after being on social media and seeing all these beautiful, tanned strangers, that that's just not my life, and that's totally fine. Because I'm really, really happy with who I am now. Everyone's different. You just don't know what's going on with someone else's life. We can compare ourselves so easily. Just come back for a second and say you're not going to spend your life comparing yourself to other people."

Repak is a not-for-profit, packaging recycling scheme, created by Ireland's recycling industry, to help companies meet their legal obligation with packaging legislation. Team Green, powered by Repak, was founded to help Ireland achieve its new recycling targets which have been set by the European Commission. If everyone in Ireland fulfilled Team Green's pledge to recycle one more piece of plastic a week, this would result in over 250m more items of plastic being recycled a year, and Ireland's plastic recycling rates would increase by 2pc annually. To join Repak's Team Green, log on to repak.ie/teamgreen

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