When you’re scouted at age 17 — the same day you take your first airplane flight — and a few months later dropped into New York City to fend for yourself as a model, it can be easy to lose sight of who you truly are. So one can forgive supermodel Erin Heatherton, 30, for taking some time for herself now, after 13 years of posing for Mario Testino and walking the runway for Dolce & Gabbana, Zac Posen, and the like. “Everything changed in a blink of an eye that day,” the 5-foot-11 Heatherton says as she strolls along the Riverwalk.
It’s one of those final warm, sunny days of early autumn, and Heatherton, having recently moved back to her hometown of Chicago, is dressed in a simple tank top and cutoffs, hair pinned into a tight bun. The laid-back look is part of her transformation from global mannequin to down-to-earth Midwest model. It will start with the basics, like working with local photographers to update her portfolio, meeting potential new clients, and rebranding her image from sexpot to accessible beauty.
She’s signed with Chicago-based agency Select Model Management, the fastest growing modeling network in the world, and her agents assure anyone who asks that fans will be seeing Heatherton in ads and even on the runway soon. Still, her life back here, close to where she grew up in Skokie, contrasts dramatically with the world she left behind in New York.
“I was just a junior in high school when I was scouted. That part of my story is more relevant to me now, because I realize how much of myself I was not accessing by diving into work at such a young age,” says Heatherton.
Living in Manhattan, she worked relentlessly, achieving mythic status as one of Victoria’s Secret’s “Contract Angels” from 2010 to 2013 and landing covers of every major glossy magazine, not to mention lucrative advertising campaigns with Karl Lagerfeld, Michael Kors, Versace, and countless others. She traveled the world, became the godmother to model Lily Aldridge’s daughter, dated Leonardo DiCaprio — capturing the world’s attention at an age when she was still finding her way.
At the time, the Solomon Schechter Day School and Niles North alum was unsettled. “I had terrible stage fright before shows,” she admits. “There were some girls who were peacocks, and I would literally pray, why can’t I be a peacock?”
Eventually Heatherton learned to tap into her years as a basketball player and view modeling as another way to “get lost” in her body, to imagine it as a performance sport. “My confidence came from being good at school and at basketball. So, going from being super timid to mastering modeling from good old experience and watching others who thrive in the spotlight taught me that I can learn to do anything,” she says.
Along the way, she discovered her femininity (she is a self-described “science jock”) and maybe even her inner peacock, but she also realized her deep desire to please everyone around her, at all costs.
And then it fell apart.
In 2013, she lost her Victoria’s Secret “angel wings.” She has said she left of her own volition because she no longer could live up to the ideal of perfection the brand demanded. And though she was working out twice a day and eating healthfully, her body was no longer responding the way it had before. For long periods in the years that followed, she found herself unable to get out of bed and deaf to the voice inside her saying it was time for a change.
“I lost my light,” she recalls of the darker days of 2016 and 2017, even though she was still doing Sports Illustrated Swimsuit editorials and makeup campaigns. “I didn’t know who I was anymore. I couldn’t get out of bed. It was hard to work out, and hard to shine in front of the camera.” As someone who tied her self-worth to others’ perceptions of her, she sunk into depression. “It’s not something I’m ashamed of. A lot of people go through that,” she says.
No longer a size 0 at a time when that’s what was demanded of swimsuit models, and knowing that turning 30 would mean she had aged out of the consideration set for some modeling gigs, Heatherton was then dealt a final blow: A business partner sued her for a reported $10 million for a failed clothing line, and the former Angel was forced to file for bankruptcy earlier this year. (Heatherton declines to comment on the ongoing litigation.)
She needed to turn her light back on, and relocating to Chicago, the family girl decided, was the answer. “Coming home and having unconditional support from my family … I didn’t realize that would be so helpful,” she says. “In New York, it felt like I was only valuable to people if I was crushing it at work, and otherwise everyone was disappointed and ashamed. But with my family I don’t feel that way. I needed to spend time with people who cared about me for me.”
In the past year since Heatherton has been home, she’s quit smoking, met a live-in boyfriend on Hinge, and signed with Select. For the first time, she’s living in Chicago proper and taking full advantage of the city — going to concerts, running outdoors, gazing up to see the architecture, and looking around to spy the people on the street. There’s a lightness to this woman who spent so many years weighted down by angel’s wings, striving to be the ideal of femininity that others foisted upon her.
Erin Heatherton circa 2019 is focused on strength-building workouts and comfortable being a healthy size 6. Even more, she’s moved past any residual disappointments she carried during those last years in New York. “Those dark feelings are valid, and they guided me out of a situation where I wasn’t happy,” she says. “If it wasn’t for them, I never would have left New York and turned over a new leaf. I can’t even imagine how much more sustainable and how much more I can bring to the table now.”
She is a bit cagey about next steps — maybe writing a book, maybe doing a podcast, maybe working with youths — but meanwhile she’s still lining up advertising campaigns and swatting away her cat, Morty, from her face at 5 a.m. She half-jests she’s “living my best life,” and truth be told, her positivity is infectious.
“How do you know that the best things in your life have already happened?” she asks rhetorically on the steps to the Wrigley Building. “Of course, I’m thinking about all the things I could do next, but first I want to take my body back, take myself back, and be the best version of me. And that takes work!”
She is determined to end her modeling career on her own terms, when she is ready, and to live “a whole life, with a family and many chapters.” Heatherton, no doubt, will be the author of her own destiny. “This is going to be a happy story. I’m going to make it one,” she insists. “That is just what is going to happen.”
When she’s not home cooking a grain-free diet and reading “Sweat Equity,” Jason Kelly’s investigative dive into the wellness industry, Erin Heatherton is out in Chicago, which she sees as a vast gymnasium, full of possibility. “I’m in love with this city,” she says. “Have you noticed how many people walk around holding hands?” Find here at these spots that do her mind and body good.
The cardio blast from the treadmill/bench-press fitness studio gives her a tough workout. She’s trying to reach a super fast speed of “10” during the 30-second sprints. 11 W. Erie, 312-202-0840; barrysbootcamp.com
“It’s so hard,” Heatherton admits of this super slow form of Pilates. It combines cardio, strength, balance, and flexibility on a Megatransformer machine, and guarantees shaky legs after a 50-minute class. 24 E. Erie, 847-433-8658; studiolagree.com
She got lessons at this indoor rock-climbing gym for her birthday in March, and now she’s hooked. “I’d never been rock climbing before!” It’s open late, so can double as a date night adventure. 100 S. Morgan, 312-268-0002; brooklynboulders.com
The subterranean Japanese bar in the basement of Momotaro has shared plates, a long list of Japanese whiskeys, and a narrow lounge that transports the model back to the streets of Tokyo. 820 W. Lake, 312-733-4818; momotaro.com
True Food Kitchen
The fast-casual lunch spot turns out interesting plant-forward dishes that still fill the tall and muscular model, who doesn’t eat grains. “I started eating that way when I first began modeling, and it just worked for me, so I stuck to it,” she says. 1 W. Erie, 312-204-6981; truefoodkitchen.com
Sanders Family Restaurant & Pancake House
“Oh yeah, this is essential,” says Heatherton of her hometown diner that’s been her family’s gathering spot since she was born, five years after it opened. Traditional Jewish food, burgers, meat loaf, eggs Benedict — there’s something to make each of her three siblings happy here. 5320 Touhy, Skokie, 847-673-2626; sanderstogo.com
AT THE SHOOT
Erin Heatherton showed off her hammock skills at AIR Aerial Fitness in Lincoln Park for our cover. It came naturally to the supermodel, who attends classes at the studio. We also photographed Heatherton in the pool at Fitness Formula Clubs in Lincoln Park, where it was clear that a reemergence as a swimwear model is on its way. Now back in Chicago, Heatherton is focusing on inner and outer strength and beauty.
Photographer: Maria Ponce
Hair: Angie Chavez
Makeup: Lynee Ruiz
Wardrobe: Jessica Mouzami
On the Cover
Yoga bra and leggings Beyond Yoga