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Roxane B. Salonen, Published March 21 2014

Role model: Former ‘Next Top Model’ contestant brings message of seeing worth through God’s eyes to youth

DENVER - In her post-modeling days, Leah Darrow, former New York City model and “America’s Next Top Model” contestant, wants most of all to help others see their dignity as children of God.

“I hope to bring that true message of the gospel to the hearts of youth,” she says. “I want to tell them, ‘You’re unique and unrepeatable, you’re called for greatness, and you’re not the sum of your sins but of the Father’s love for you.’ ”

For a while in her own teen and young-adult years, Darrow had begun losing sight of this vision. Though having grown up as the oldest of six kids on an Oklahoma farm in a dedicated Christian home, she soon became lured onto a path of fame she thought would bring true fulfillment.

In the fall of 2004, Darrow was part of the reality television show, “America’s Next Top Model,” hosted by supermodel Tyra Banks. After being eliminated in the second episode, she turned toward New York City, where she began successfully pursuing a professional modeling career.

But soon, she says, she became disillusioned, and during a shoot in which she was asked to wear next to nothing, Darrow had an epiphany and left the modeling world forever.

“I’d been seeing my worth through the world’s eyes,” Darrow says. “I understand now that I am unique and unrepeatable in the sight of God, and I’m embraced by God’s mercy. The hope that I was called for greatness was ignited in that moment I walked away from modeling.”

After several intense years of becoming immersed again in the faith of her childhood, Darrow began stepping into her new life, which now includes being a wife and mother as well as speaking throughout the country on the joys of living a life steeped in Christian values and virtue.

Darrow will bring her story to North Dakota next month with the aim of stirring hope in others.

Brian Herding, pastoral minister for St. John the Evangelist Church in Grafton, helped pull together resources to draw Darrow to his parish at no cost to participants, and says it was “a God thing” that she was able to come.

It’s also especially fortuitous her visit will come just after Easter, he adds.

“That’s the ultimate time when we dive into the mercy of God and the joy of the resurrection,” he says. “I just think the timing of that is going to be so beautiful for people just coming off of Easter. Why not top off the joy of the resurrection with another experience of hearing of God’s mercy and forgiveness?”

Herding says he was impressed with Darrow’s story because she, like many of us, started with strong faith roots but had grown lukewarm in living them out.

“At some point you just start going through the motions,” he says, noting that Darrow helps exemplify the dangers of a halfhearted faith in a vital way. “She’s very energetic and it’s enjoyable watching someone present when they’re very passionate about what they’re sharing.”

This will be Darrow’s second visit to North Dakota. Kathy Loney, youth and young adult ministry director for the Diocese of Fargo, invited her to a rally for middle-school students in Hankinson several years ago and witnessed Darrow’s spirited presence firsthand.

“At that age, they’re so taken by what they see in magazines. They’re already looking for this perfect look, but the perfect look doesn’t necessarily exist,” Loney says. “Here is someone who has lived this life and image of the ‘perfect’ body, and she has a story to tell.”

Loney says she was transfixed at the way Darrow “sucked in” both the girls and boys into her presentation because of her attracting, authentic personality and the message at the heart of her talk – conversion to Christ.

“I’ve been doing this long enough to see which speakers are most effective and she was one that blew us away,” Loney says, noting that the kids flocked to her afterward. “They pulled her over after lunch and a lot of them were asking, ‘How can you help me?’ Young people don’t generally search out a speaker like that but she really impressed the group. She’s just a beautiful woman inside and out.”

Darrow says her upcoming talk will be a slight shift from past presentations due to her changed perspective as a wife and mother, but that the core will remain.

“When I talk about the mistakes I’ve made, especially in trying to find love, and now with the experience of how (my husband) Ricky loves me,” she says, “I’m able to share with my confidence rooted in the reality that the fantasy of love I imagined was no match to the reality of God’s plan of love for me.”

If You Go

WHAT: Former top model Leah Darrow presentations

WHEN: April 22-23

where: 2 p.m., Sacred Heart Church/School, East Grand Forks, Minn. (April 22), 7 p.m., St. Michael’s Church, Grand Forks (April 22); 7 p.m., St. John the Evangelist Church, Grafton (April 23)

Info: Free and open to the public

Online: www.leahdarrow.com

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com