Hana Mayeda is a high fashion model who is also a role model. She’s transforming the modeling industry and how women are portrayed in fashion by choosing to work for companies that do not Photoshop their models. Instead, her birthmarks and scars are visible for the world to see, because this is part of who she is: real-ly beautiful.
Hana also teaches yoga and works with young people in the United States and Haiti, spreading education and empowerment–making a difference in the world. She also makes a difference in her day-to-day life by being a person of integrity and confidence, a leader in kindness and courage. It’s been so nice getting to know you, Hana!
Ariana Page Russell (APR): How long have you been modelling, and how did you get your start?
Hana Mayeda (HM): I began modeling after being scouted on a beach in Southern California at age sixteen. Though I thought it was neat to to leave school for a week and shoot for Abercrombie and Fitch, it was there that my interest in modeling ended. After one year of college I went on holiday in Berlin and was scouted again. With this came the opportunity to live in Europe and have an adventure that seemed like a now-or-never type of thing. My father had recently passed away and that hugely influenced my decision to stay. So, after many conversations with my reluctant mom, I unpacked my flip-flops and remained in Europe for the rest of the year. That was the beginning of many future choices to continue to ‘ride the wave’ and keep modeling. My life has been a series of saying ‘yes’ to one opportunity after another and it was one of those yes’ that got me here in NYC. It’s been almost ten years and I am having an absolute blast.
(APR): Can you please talk a little bit about the ups and downs you’ve experienced in the industry, and how that affected your self-esteem?
(HM): I’m very clear now that when I began modeling I carried a great deal of guilt. My father, a WW2 vet, once a physicist for the CIA and basically an utter badass, raised me with a focus on the importance of education and strong character. Looks weren’t even secondary, they were irrelevant. After my move to Europe it felt like I was sacrificing school to choose a career that did not place a great deal of value on either of those. There was more of an emphasis on the color of my eyes or the size of my hips rather than my morals or my intellect. I was told I lost jobs because of my skin or my measurements. I was eighteen and my body was changing. Being rail thin as a kid it was the first time in my life I was ever “too big.” I remember wishing I could be anorexic thinking it would make things easier. My skin was terrible and I was so embarrassed. It’s been quite a journey from then to now.
(APR): Yeah seriously, what a journey! Do you have any skin conditions or things you dislike about your skin? If so, how has that affected your career (if at all)?
(HM): Oh my skin! On set sometimes I call myself a speckled Easter egg because of all of my little oddities on my body. Let’s see… besides my break-outs (which by the way, I struggled with for the past five years and recently disappeared completely after cutting out gluten and sugar in a 60-day health challenge called the Whole 30 based on the book Starts With Food. I have many unique characteristics about my skin. I have a large, sometimes subtle, sometimes pronounced birthmark on my collar bone. I also have another large discoloration (it turns blue when I’m cold and red when I’m hot) on my back, AND I have a deformed right ear that I have had multiple surgeries on because of my lack of hearing. I never cared much about my birthmarks, though sometimes (rarely) make-up artists would heave a sigh at having to cover them up. (I once had someone tell me that in her country they called birthmarks angel’s kisses but it looked like an angel threw-up on my chest.)
My main journey with my skin has been my break-outs. For those who have struggled with pimples or acne, you know how emotionally upsetting it can be. Imagine a crew of people standing around a computer screen zooming in on your biggest insecurity! My first word in German was “pickle” which is “pimple.” I tried everything under the sun to heal my skin – from facials and treatments, to products and medicine. In hindsight I realize that I made my skin issues a much bigger deal than they were to anyone else.
(APR): I think that’s what we all do–make our stuff an issue when nobody else sees it as such. And wow angel vomit on your chest?!?! That’s crazy! But I like thinking of birthmarks as angel kisses (not vomit ;’). And that’s so cool your acne has disappeared completely since cutting out gluten and sugar. Doing this has helped my dermatographia as well. So, what do you like about your skin? Do you find your skin inspiring?
(HM): My skin tells a story. I’ve had many surgeries, including a stomach surgery because until age six I threw up nearly everything I ate because of a limp sphincter at the base of my esophagus. I have belly scars and acne scars. I recently shot a campaign for Aerie called #AerieReal where they didn’t photoshop any of the pictures. This is unheard of in our business. Even after booking the campaign and having a mild freak-out upon learning the news a few days before the shoot, my agent reassured me telling me that surely they would photoshop slightly.
The campaign has taught me to come out of hiding. There were so many “imperfections” on my body that would become smoothed away with the click of a retoucher’s mouse. I began to relate to myself as needing to look like those girls in the magazine pages. There’s a great quote circulating the web that says “even the girl in the magazine DOESN’T look like that girl in the magazine’s pages. It’s true (except for the Aerie Real campaign). I recently had a hard time with a billboard that went up on the intersection of Houston and Broadway in NYC. An unflattering angle after a week of the most insane food in Mexico and my little belly was relaxed and out for all of the world to see. While it’s perhaps not my ‘best’ shot, it’s my hope that a 12-year old girl will see it and say, “wow, I kind of look like that, maybe I’m beautiful just the way I am.”
(APR): Yes! It’s about time we have reality portrayed in the media, and young people see that so-called ‘flaws’ are natural and beautiful, and unique. Other than this, is there a message you’d like to spread with your career?
(HM): Empowerment. To be – being empowered looks like being the source of oneself where we are fully self-expressed, completely authentic, open and vulnerable for the whole world to see. There are many movements out there that are empowering women and girls and transforming societies definition of “beautiful.” I want my career to be a stand for all that is truly beautiful about what it is to be both a woman and a human being.
(APR): Well, you definitely embody empowerment, and are a total knockout, truly beautiful. What other projects are you working on?
(HM): Last Tuesday we had a hugely successful event, to raise money to buy land and build a school for an organization I work with in Haiti called English in Mind Institute. We raised over 30k (our goal was 20k)!! In June I will go back to Haiti and this time I’m bringing a number of friends with me to teach English with EIM and volunteer with some of their partner organizations. I also have the honor and privilege to work with group of remarkable 5th and 6th grade girls at Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy in New Haven, CT. We started a movement called the ‘I Matter Initiative’ where we have conversations that focus on subjects like self-esteem, bullying and giving back. I also teach yoga.
When I get back from Haiti I plan to ramp up these conversations and start tackling issues that women face on a larger scale. What my projects have taught me is that if you want use your life to make a difference for others you absolutely can – and what I’ve learned for myself is that making a difference for others is the key to not only getting everything you want in your life and more, as well as having a life that you f***ing love.
(APR): Wow Hana, thank you so much for sharing your story! I really admire your caring and the difference you’re making in the lives of many young women (and hopefully men too). It’s an honor to know you, and to see that in person you really do embody all these wonderful things you speak of. You are a stand for living a life you love!
Images courtesy of Hana Mayeda