Real Talk with Djouliet Amara: Pressures of Professional Dance & More Life in Modeling
Throughout this interview, company names have been censored.
Despite the vulnerability displayed in this interview, this was the first time Djouliet and I have met after months of being internet friends! What better way than to break the ice than to take our interview to &pizza and scream across the table at each other over loud rap music and lots of pizza toppings?
To my surprise, hearing about her experience with professional dance felt extremely parallel to the pressures of modeling that are commonly seen. And as a pleasant surprise, those are pressures that Djouliet doesn't face with her agency in New York. *sigh of relief*
So, please enjoy our lovely conversation about her journey! Also, quick shoutout to Djouliet for owning the coolest fork/spoon earrings I've ever seen. You're an icon.
Pojo: So…you grew up in Canada? And you danced in Canada and then came here [New York City] for dance?
Djouliet: I was born in Russia—
P: Wowww! *Owen Wilson voice*
D: Yeah! Grew up in Canada, and came to _____ for dance!
P: How was growing up in Canada?
D: I mean, it was great living there! I loved Canada, but I felt like my art was unfulfilled because I felt like I was already doing really well as an 18-year-old back home. I felt the need to leave… I can’t do very much in Winnipeg, Manitoba. What can I do? I wanted to get better as a dancer.
P: Well, sounds like you did it, ______ is insane!
D: Thank you! I auditioned, and I got in. I went to Paris on a scholarship for dance when I was 17, and when I got off the plane when I got back to Canada, I told my mom, I have to dance. I fell in love with dance all over again on that trip, and I felt like that's what I needed to do. I thought I was going to be a doctor.
D: Yeah, I thought I was going to be a surgeon. I was planning my whole high school, like getting all the best grades in the hardest classes, so I could get into undergrad. But I mean, I’m an artist! I knew if I didn’t pursue my art, my life would be unfulfilled.
P: Sometimes its hard for people to admit that, there’s so much pressure when you’re young.
D: I was blessed enough to get out. But then, I had never experienced such competition like I did at ____. There was a lot of pressure. I learned a lot and had the time of my life, but when issues arose, I found myself surrounded by a lot of male superiors that didn't necessarily understand how to deal with female dancers. They could say that they understood everything I went through, but they didn't. A good example, you would hear from male students, “oh, I have to eat more steak, I have to gain weight, poor me, I just can’t gain weight.” But girls, because of the way our bodies are and our chemistry, it’s natural for us to have hips, have butts, have breasts… You would see how the older men in that facility, that’s what they came from— having to gain weight, gain muscle. And I’m not trying to discredit that struggle and I’m not trying to put that down…it’s a different struggle than mine.
In that school, there was one specific male figure that would say things to the girls, “your thighs are all so big because you aren’t training yourselves correctly” or “not doing the movements correctly” or “using the correct muscles,” or saying we’re “spoiled” with our training because everyone always tells us we’re “doing well” but that it’s “not the truth,” stuff like that… And for me, having a teacher like that, I never like being in trouble, so I’m just going to do everything they want me to do, and I’m going to be stressed every moment of the class so I look perfect and he’s never directly talking to me.
And I took it so seriously because I knew my parents were paying so much money to help me go to school here, and I felt like I needed to prove to them that I could be very successful and I could do this.
And so, I don’t know what happened. I randomly lost weight because it was such an intensive dance program, and people started to comment. Ya know, it always happens this way.
P: “You look so good!” *sarcastic voice* It’s subliminal!
D: Yeah! I didn’t mean to, and didn’t know how I got smaller, but everybody was saying I looked so good. And I never had eating problems before that, ever. When I was in high school, I would eat anything I wanted, I never thought about it! Even as a dancer. Even when my teacher would make comments like, “you guys need to lean up,” I never took it to heart.
P: It feels like the tiny little jabs are the ones that hit you harder than the straight up comments sometimes.
D: Totally! I also noticed I was getting a lot of things handed to me. I was getting parts, getting roles, I was dancing at higher levels. I was getting A’s from my teachers—and my grades mattered because my dance classes were linked to my GPA at [University]. And one day, I decided to weigh myself on one of my roommate's scales.
P: Uh oh!
D: They had scales out! I never was one to weigh myself.
P: I literally haven’t weighed myself in a year! I was the same way though, I used to weigh myself. It’s funny that we translate losing weight to looking fitter, but it’s never that. Muscle weighs more than fat.
D: So I step on the scale for the first time in a few months, and I noticed I lost weight, and I was like, “oh, cool!” From there, it became a contest. I would look up ways to get “fitter,” “look even better!” So, MyFitnessPal… *laughs*
D: Oh my god, you’ve heard this story a million times!
P: No, but you’re one of everyone. Everyone has a cringy experience with MyFitnessPal. I had LifeSum…I try not to promote diets, so I avoid all that stuff. I want to push eating intuitively.
D: Oh man, yeah. So I was on MyFitnessPal, I was on the boards, seeing people’s tips... okay, here’s the thing: my favorite snack is the reduced sodium popcorn from Whole Foods. I just love the taste of it!!! But that was the thing I’d go to— I’d bag it into tiny ziploc bags—
P: AH! OH NO!
D: —because if I didn’t separate my food from the big bags, I would eat the whole thing because I was so hungry. I would try for **** calories a day, because, oh, it would make you leaner! *sarcastic voice*
I just saw the number, and thought that’s what I would do. And at the end of the week, I would have my cheat day, and I would have way too much food because I was so hungry. Then, I’d be sick. And feel really lousy. And I’d log it in MyFitnessPal.
My dorm had a fitness center, and I would go on the treadmills and walk really fast for hours a day, while—listen to this, this is fucked up— while watching eating disorder recovery videos on YouTube.
D: I know, and it was awful because I secretly wasn’t looking to get better, I was just looking for tips to thin out through other people's stories. Not admitting to myself that I was sick. Telling myself I would it, but *healthily*.
My cheat days became a struggle. I turned into an awful person, I segregated myself from my friends, I was so selfish, I only cared about myself, I only cared about my weight. And my roommates, they were also trying to lose weight in really unhealthy ways.
I wouldn’t wish that [ED] on my worst enemy. I only suffered for about two years…
P: Still an insane amount of time!
D: Yeah, and now I can say that, I really feel in my soul that I am fully recovered.
P: I’m so, so happy to hear that!
D: Thank you!
Basically in a nutshell, I auditioned to join _____ [school program], and I was being praised by my directors, so much so that one director took me up into her office and she gave me a piece of her old clothing. I look at it now and I’m like, woah, that was a bad thing. It was almost like she was praising my thinness.
I got into [another program] and the director was a man, and the rehearsal director was a women who to this day, I really appreciate her being there. She was awesome. I think the whole time she was there, she knew what I was going through, but she didn’t talk to me much about it but she understood, you know what I mean?
So, I did that for a whole year. I was having troubles that year because my grandma got sick, my family was really hurting, and I felt like everything was out of control, and also my eating issues kicked in, so I wasn’t able to hang on to the **** calorie thing anymore. I was eating more, it was somewhat like a binge-eating thing, and I was gaining weight. It wasn’t even a lot of weight, but to me back then it was “the end of the world.”
You train yourself to think weight gain equals death. Equals dying. You train your body that it’s a fight-or-flight.
It was horrible, I would be skipping class because I thought I was “too fat to go to class that day.”
P: I was filming a video with a friend the other day and she was literally saying the same thing— “I won’t go out tonight because I’m too big.” Which is so dysmorphic, that is your brain making things up!
D: My boyfriend, I met him at my heaviest weight. What happened was, I went from one eating disorder to completely another, and I gained more weight than I ever had. Keep in mind, I didn’t look bad, I was gaining a lot of muscle at the same time because I was dancing, but I was chunky!
I can honestly say it was very comforting to have him there, because I felt like at least someone could love me at this weight. The year before that, my doctor had me come in for a physical and she almost didn’t sign me to dance because I was so small. I cried in her office, begging her to let me dance. She said fine, and signed it. She told me to eat at least 3000 calories. So, I was eating a lot, I wasn’t really caring anymore.
Then came the ____ audition, they kept me to the end of the audition and said they wanted me to be an apprentice for another year… which means, we’re going to give you another year to lose weight because we “love you”.
I was there crying, I didn’t want to do another year of school. At the same time, I knew I can’t do this this year. [The rehearsal director] and I, we were both crying, because she understood. So, I stayed another year, but this time I didn’t want it anymore because I felt like they didn’t actually care about me. I felt like they just cared about how I looked in their company. Nobody was asking me how I was doing. They pretended to care on a surface level, but the work they put in to help me was very very minimal—
P: And it’s all advantageous for them.
D: Exactly. I actually got better that year. I was getting healthier, not caring about my eating anymore, because I didn’t have that pressure about my eating anymore. I knew I didn’t want to do this. I decided I was just going to do whatever I want.
I ate whatever I wanted, I gained weight, whatever. I had already “reached death”.
They brought me in for a meeting one day, and they asked me what was going on, and that it seemed like I didn’t “want this” anymore. I burst out, and said I didn’t feel like they actually cared about me. I’m a student here, and you’re supposed to care about your students. I physically came into this school and within a year lost 30 pounds on my tiny body, and none of you noticed?!
They had no idea what I went through, I was sick, all this stuff is happening, I asked, "what do you want from me?"
And they asked, “do you want this?” And I said “No!”
I cared for myself in that moment more than I ever cared for myself before. And I never talk back or anything, so they were shocked. I was being real!
The next week, I didn’t get hired, and I felt SUCH a wave of relief. My peers around me understood without understanding. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been since I didn’t get it because my life is the happiest it’s ever been afterwards.
I grew to be a woman in a year. And at my healthy weight, I got signed to a modeling agency! And I almost booked the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, a dream! I’ve been getting jobs and doing all this stuff that I didn’t think was possible because I thought ____ was the only thing in the world!
In my opinion, they train you to think if you don’t make it in here, nothing else you do is half as good.
D: This is an important conversation to be had! There was a long period of time where I wasn’t being honest, I was saying I was recovered, but I really wasn’t. Right now, I can sit here and be like, yeah I am! I absolutely am. A good example, when I was sick, this pizza would not be here anymore.
P: What would you say to dancers that are in the same situation as you, or were in the same situation as you?
D: Honestly, do you. Be true to your inner self. If you were your own baby, if you were your own daughter or son, what would you want for your daughter or your son? Take care of yourself like you’re your own baby. Don’t try to just please other people because you’re getting what you think you want… Really try to find out what it is you want, how you can healthfully get that, and figure out your priorities… I know it’s hard to know what you want, but if something you want is causing you to do something unhealthy or causing other people to make you do things that are unhealthy, it’s not worth it.
P: Did dance affect your relationships with things like fitness?
D: Yes! There was a lot of pressure to be fit. It was expected of you to do as much as you can to become as fit as possible, especially when you’re dancing at a professional level. Unfortunately, with my recovery, I had to take a step back with working out because—
P: It’s so crucial [to take a break from working out while recovering].
D: — yeah, it was so crucial to me because I had to remove myself from anything that put me into situations to change my body to make it “better.” I had to really forget and let go of the idea that my body could be better, so I had to stop working out as well because I had an unhealthy relationship with fitness.
I never really liked working out, to be honest. Now, I like it more because I do it now when I want to, and because I think it’s fun. For example, I’ll take a SoulCycle class every once and a while because I think it’s fun. Do I do it every day? Absolutely not. I take them when I want to, because it’s an instructor I like and because it will be good for me. Am I expecting my body to change? Not in the same way I did before. I look at it in a way now where I might look stronger, I will have more stamina for my auditions… I don’t think about it in a way like, oh, I’m going to be a “Skinny Tea,” snatched—
P: SKINNY TEA! I’m dead. “Skinny queen”!
D: “Skinny legend”! *insert more cringy titles circulating New York, disguised as “compliments”*
P: —Which kills me. Whenever I hear that, I’m like bruh, can that term just die please?
D: I know! Exactly…So now, I’m very healthy with my exercise. Do I do it a lot? No. Has my body suffered the consequences of that? Unfortunately, yes. When I recovered, I got stretch marks on my butt from gaining weight. I got cellulite on the back of my legs. I used to be devastated about that, but now, I really don’t care!
P: Tiger stripes!!! I’ve got them! We’ve all got em!
D: We all do! And the thing is, when I was trying to recover my relationship with food and started gaining weight again, I started to get more cellulite and it felt like I was dying all over again. I’m sure I had it before, but I just never noticed. I think it was the H&M mirrors. *laughs*
P: That lighting is neverforgiving, it’s not even fair!
Are you ideally where you want to be with food now? Is it something you get excited about now rather than have anxiety about?
D: I’m not excited about food— I’m not not excited, but food used to take over so much of my brain that I would get either really really excited, or really really not excited about it. I’m not saying that if people get excited about food something’s wrong, but I just don’t get that excited about food.
P: That makes sense. It’s like your brain is recovering from all the time you spent thinking about it heavily, in a negative sense. Now you’re getting back to that state of, "it’s a part of my life." It’s one of the three necessities in life! It’s such a huge component in your life that— it’s not something that you have to be like, "I can’t wait for my next meal," it’s more of a, "there is a next meal."
D: One thing I will say is, I don’t necessarily eat as healthy as I guess people should? I feel like I should eat more vegetables— I eat candy a lot!
To be honest, I love getting the little gummy candies from Duane Reade every second day. I wish I was someone who would consciously eat healthier, but for me, eating this way— eating literally whatever I want— is healthier for me...if that makes sense!
I don’t have the energy reserved to be focused on food and exercise like that anymore. I just can’t do it. I don’t want to bring myself to do it again.
P: I mean, you’re already a dancer! That is a full lifestyle.
D: Yeah, I don’t really think of dance as fitness class. Although, you are getting strong.
P: When it comes to the journey of healing your body image, it feels like a mental game. It’s always changing, and it’s never going to be at a stand still. Some people say you never really recover from things like that, but I think it’s more of that it has an impact on you that will always be there, and it’s not that you will never recover. You will just never forget that.
D: I can definitely say people have told me that before, and I’m like, no, I’ve recovered. Will I ever forget that shit? Absolutely not! It ruined those two years of my life!
P: And it shifts you as a person, but you are such a wonderful person! And you’re doing amazing things! I also love that you’re promoting NEDA [National Eating Disorders Association]. I wasn’t really familiar with NEDA until I had people online reaching out to me asking me how to recover— I never felt in the position to give any advice… At the end of the day, people deserve recovery. You deserve an association with people that are specifically there to help you. And it’s not scary, it’s important. They’re such a great helpful resource.
D: Yeah, I feel like it’s bad to tell people how to recover because sometimes people use it as things to avoid so they can stay sick, so always direct them to professional help!
P: Exactly, you never really know why people are reaching out.
D: I have felt nothing but empowered by modeling as the person that I am in my healthy, recovered body today— whatever that looks like tomorrow, whatever that looked like yesterday. Coming from a place of dancing where I felt like my body was hurting and in pain and I was sick, having that experience that I had and having to change myself to have people like me more and give me more opportunities to make my “dreams come true,” and then, getting signed as a model while I’m healthy and having people want to take pictures of me, and me just being myself. It's so empowering. And it’s not even because people like my body now, it’s not about that. It’s that I’m comfortable in my body, and it also is the validation of people saying, "you are fine just the way you are," instead of having people be like, "we want you to change this, or else you’re not good enough for us." People want me for me. This is me.
When I was sick, I didn’t know who I was. I was selfish. I only cared about food. I was like an airhead— I was tired all the time, and awful, and crazy. Now, I am a nourished human, who can form her own sentences and have intelligent conversations!
P: We love a sentence queen! We love!
D: A sentence queen! And I just, I have a personality. I have myself back. I felt like I had lost myself, and now, this is who I am. I might hear “no”s, I might hear a lot of “no”s, but when I get that “yes,” they love me for me! Even castings I go to where they like me and they don’t think they can use me, but they’ll follow me regardless. And that’s such a compliment because I was just being myself.
Pojo: When you’re successfully and whole-heartedly yourself, regardless of a brand’s image or the direction they’re going, you feel like you put yourself out there in a positive way.
Djouliet: Exactly, and that’s all I’m doing— I’m here just to create. If I’m not creating for big things, I’m working on small things. I’m doing things that I love. ♥