“I was told to look sexy” - the top Norfolk model who found global fame at 13 and left it all behind at 21
PUBLISHED: 11:21 26 September 2019 | UPDATED: 15:38 25 February 2020
Arriving at jobs in baggy jeans and Timberland boots, Sarah Leo felt she didn’t quite fit the mould of a glossy, high-heeled model.
Then just a teenager in the late 1990s, she had been thrust from a normal life in Swardeston into the spotlight of a hugely successful modelling career, appearing on catwalks around the world, gracing the covers of magazines including Marie Claire and Vanity Fair and signing lucrative contracts with major brands.
But aged 21, Mrs Leo - at the time known as Sarah Thomas and hailed as the fashion industry's next big supermodel - decided to leave her jet-setting lifestyle behind, embarking instead on a new chapter as a nutritionist.
Today, now 39, she lives in Surrey with her two young sons and former professional rugby player husband Dan Leo. It feels, she says, "a life time ago" that she shared catwalks with the likes of Naomi Campbell.
Watching her dad Peter play cricket, she was just 13 when she was first scouted by a local modelling agency.
"I was sent on a modelling course," she said, "when I was 13. It was probably too young, but it wasn't bad for me because I was quite shy and it did give me some confidence to some level."
Soon after, she went to a casting for the cover of Company magazine, and said she remembers feeling "so out of my depth".
"I was 13 and was looking at possibly being on the front cover of a magazine," she said. "I didn't get the cover but I remember them telling me to look sexy, and I didn't know what that meant."
Over the coming months, opportunity continued to knock, but it did little to ease her reluctance and guilt that, for others, it would have been a dream come true.
And success came quickly. At 15, she walked in London Fashion Week, and travelled to Paris with her mum after finishing her GCSEs.
"That was quite nice because we had all these family friends that came out with us to look after me, but I just didn't enjoy it," she said. "I had this feeling that I should pursue it so I didn't regret that in the future. But I was really missing home.
"I didn't look like the other models, I wore quite loose-fitting jeans, Timberland boots and checked shirts, and the others were in heels. I just thought 'what am I doing here', but that I'd give it a chance and if it didn't work out then at least I tried."
Soon after, a casting for Chanel propelled her career into the mainstream.
"I went to the casting and Karl Lagerfield pretty much said 'I want her in my show'," she said. "From then it was so strange. One person's opinion and it was an onslaught. The way I was treated changed completely."
The runway show - at the Ritz Hotel - saw her walk alongside household names including Naomi Campbell, which she described as "pretty insane".
After, her face was on the covers of magazines around the world, as she jetted from castings to shows to photoshoots.
Juggling the full-on career with school became challenging, and she quit her A-levels at the Norwich School to pursue modelling full-time.
"That was a hard time," she said. "There was a lot of pressure. In that time I picked up a contract with Covergirl cosmetics, and there was a lot of trying to keep people happy.
"The Norwich School was so good, because I was getting so behind in my work. I felt like I had too much to catch up on and I struggled under the pressure. People were saying 'if you don't do it now, it won't be there in two years'.
"I don't know if that was true, but I went full-time."
The next few years were a blur of fashion shows - in London, Paris, Milan and New York - work with brands including Russell and Bromley and magazine and catalogue shoots, though, with her feet firmly on the ground, she eschewed much of the notorious party lifestyle associated with modelling.
"Over that time I realised it wasn't a long-term career," she said, "and that I just needed to cash in, so I aimed for work that would pay well."
The demand for thin girls to model clothes also piled on pressure.
"I was constantly told I needed to be thinner," she said, "which was not very nice. I was constantly going to castings for shows and having fittings and thinking 'please let me fit into this'.
"I was very slim but naturally so, I wasn't skipping meals or not eating. I never dieted, but it wasn't enough. And it was getting worse - the longer I was modelling the girls were getting smaller and smaller.
"I loved food, and it got to the point where my agency said let's stop doing runway shows, so I started doing more commercial work."
But, aged 21 and with the lure of a normal life growing, the time to call it a day arrived.
"I had a lovely agent in New York who said 'you do realise that you will not make long-lasting friendships in the industry'," she said. "And it's true - I met lots of lovely people, but you are just moving around all the time.
"It was a weird five years. I came out of it with a healthy bank balance, but having lost the last years of school and university."
Back at home, some of her school friends remained - in particular she mentioned close friend Sophie, who she said "isn't fazed by anything" - but some people had drifted, "fed up because I was never around".
"I just wanted a normal life," she said. "I wanted to play netball once a week. Sometimes I'd be away for a long time. I'd been surrounded by these skinny girls and everyone seemed much bigger when I got back - my level of normal was so off-kilter.
"I do remember thinking 'what do I want to do now'? I had lost of a bit of confidence academically, partly because some people do treat you as though you don't really have a brain."
But with an aptitude for science and an interest in food, she embarked on a nutritional therapist course, and later completed a degree in human nutrition.
The meteoric rise to success left its mark, though - aged 25, Mrs Leo said she found herself questioning what would bring real fulfilment.
"People say to you 'wow you've got to the top of the ladder', but when you're there it's actually lonely," she said. "I didn't feel fulfilled."
She explored spiritual avenues and turned to Christianity, which she said had been a "big part" of her life since she was 25.
In the following years, she "massively downplayed" her glamorous past, but said she talks about it openly now if it comes up - though added she does have some friends who most likely have no idea.
When asked about the fondest memories from her stint in modelling, she said: "The first class travel. I'm in economy again now, and it was awesome. I also got to see some really cool places, we did get to experience lots of different food and places of the world I would not have gone to.
"I picked up good people skills too - you're always meeting make-up artists, hairdressers, photographers, advertising agencies, lots of different people."
And of course, the money. Media reports at the time estimated that Mrs Leo earned £6,500 a day.
"I was quite sensible," she said. "I didn't really enjoy modelling, I didn't want the lifestyle and I didn't indulge, I saw it as a nest egg for the rest of my life, which it has been.
"Dad told me to invest in property, which is what I did."
Today, she is enjoying the settled life she long dreamed of - but said it was hopeful to see the shift towards different shapes and sizes on the catwalk.
"It's definitely a positive movement," she said. "I do feel a bit hypocritical because I have certainly benefitted from tall and lean being fashionable. I've got two boys, but if I had a daughter I'd want them to see more of a range of bodies."
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