Pamela Cook and Lauren Wasser
The Power of Love
Story by Diana Addison Lyle
Photography by Curtis Dahl
Hair/Make-up: Kathleen Hagan
Location: Nicki & Karen: Sotheby’s Southern California Luxury Real Estate
The cover shoot of Pamela Cook and Lauren Wasser had a profound impact on our team. Far beyond Pamela’s and Lauren’s obvious beauty, what struck us enormously was the power of their love for each other, and the depth of their fortitude and strength. It was beautiful to observe and immensely uplifting. Five years ago, Lauren was struck down by Toxic Shock Syndrome (caused by synthetic tampons). She edged close to death as her organs shut down and her heart surrendered. The miracle of her survival is largely attributable to Pamela’s resolute determination to give her daughter the strength to defy death. Lauren eventually woke up from her coma but lost her right leg, left heel and toes. Pamela never left Lauren’s side – nursing her back from the unfathomable depths of physical pain and emotional trauma. Their story is vitally poignant as we approach the holiday season and all that it represents. This is a powerful story about the most important aspects of life: love, commitment to family, and purpose in life.
Pamela’s professional résumé holds its own distinction. While working as a Ford, Elite and Zoli model, she appeared in Vogue, Mademoiselle, Elle, Italian Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. In 1983, she won the “Look of the Year” alongside Cindy Crawford and Stephanie Seymour. On the runway, she represented Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Ungaro, Channel, Thierry Mugler and Versace. Her advertising campaigns included Estee Lauder, Christian Dior, Oil of Olay and Range Rover. She worked with famed photographers Horst, Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel, Arthur Elgort, Pamela Hanson and Patrick Demarchelier. Her acting credits include Billy Idol’s “L.A. Woman” music video, Steve Martin’s “The Downer Channel” and “Passions” soap opera.
Q: You grew up in San Diego. Your dad was your rock. Your mom was ill for most of your life and that was difficult. Your grandmother was a famous dancing teacher. What are your poignant memories from that childhood in San Diego?
Pamela: I grew up in a middle class home. My father was a draftsman in the aeronautical industry and my mother was a homemaker. Unfortunately, my mother struggled with severe depression and was hospitalized frequently during my childhood years. She was a beautiful, gentle and loving spirit. Anyone who knew her loved her. It was extremely difficult as a child to witness the struggles she went through in her efforts to live a normal everyday life. I would do her hair, her makeup and nails, or anything just to try and make her feel special. I willingly took charge of the cooking, cleaning and ironing around the home with my older sister and younger brother. Over twelve years separated me from my younger brother, so my sister and I took charge.
My maternal grandmother was a member of the Rockettes back in the day and traveled with the Vaudeville tour. She eventually opened her own dance studio and my sister Bonnie and I spent at least 3 or 4 days per week learning to dance and teaching others to dance. I learned to appreciate it even more as I grew older; Dance was one of the only things that kept my sister and I separated from the somewhat chaotic reality at home. As we were growing up, my grandmother kept us involved in several activities. We were very fortunate to have her.
My dad was the best. He was our rock. He worked full time and carried the weight of the world on his shoulders most days. He often felt frustrated but he was so in love with our mother that he stayed with her until she passed away in 2001 of lymphoma at the young age of 59. As a little girl, I always felt sorry for dad because he deserved happiness too.
Q: In 1983, you won the “Look of the Year” competition with Stephanie Seymour and Cindy Crawford. You rocketed to the top of the modeling industry and became one of that decade’s super models. Describe the whole experience from New York to getting kidnapped in Italy.
Pamela: Wow, seems like a lifetime ago! I was so young and naïve, living in a model’s apartment in New York. My very first job was a 4-day editorial trip. When I arrived at the hotel, I decided to take a nap in my room. I woke up a short time later only to find the photographer in my bed, naked. I attended nightly private parties that were always filled with celebrities like Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, Madonna, Boy George. I even danced with Prince one evening! I socialized at some of the most prestigious nightclubs because models were always encouraged to attend. I would party all night and on most occasions leave the club and go directly to a job that morning. It sounds bad but I was just doing what everyone else was doing. It wasn’t any different in Europe except that the language and cultural barrier sometimes made it worse. Being a young girl working in a foreign country meant there were more opportunities for predators. At one point I was tricked along with another model to take a train to Florence, way out in the country, “for a job”. We were picked up by a man (who wasn’t the person noted on our call sheet), but he pretended he was replacing the person we were expecting (red flag). He drove us to this huge private estate out in the middle of nowhere. There were drugs and sexual interactions with other models. When the other model and I figured out what kind of “job” we were really there for, we begged to leave. We were taken out of the house and put in this dark shed out in the field where we were told that he would be “back” for us. Luckily the model I was with was brave because she said the only way out of this was to run. So we did. We ran and followed the tracks back to the station and went back to Milan.
Q: You were careful not to let the industry corrupt your core values and sense of integrity.
Pamela: When it came down to who I really was as a person, I knew I had to like myself. Dance played a huge role in my life as a child. My grandmother taught us to keep focused, not allow distractions to get in the way of our goals, and to be respectful and helpful to others. My grandmother never had a problem calling us out when needed and she always held us accountable for our actions. When she would get mad at me, her favorite line was “Pammie, there’s the front door and there’s the back door”! And she meant it.
Q: Playboy approached you 3 times to pose for them, and you said ‘no’.
Pamela: I don’t have anything against Playboy and or anyone’s desire to pose for them. This was how I felt at the time. I was a single mother, raising a daughter, and didn’t think it was an appropriate choice for me at the time.
Q: You became a mom to Lauren first, and then Christian later. Describe motherhood and your best memories.
Pamela: I was fairly young when Lauren was born. I was a single mom and still very involved in my career. I traveled quite a bit, so many times I was away or I had someone to help me with caring for her. I had to have an emergency cesarean when she was born and I knew right away that this little girl would be a fighter (two years later, I almost lost her again in a drowning accident). My best memories are watching her play basketball and traveling around the world with her by my side. Christian was born 10 years later and I was much more settled into my life as a mom. Both Lauren and Christian have done modeling with me and on their own. My children are my life and the 3 of us have an incredible bond.
Q: Lauren was struck down in 2012 with Toxic Shock Syndrome. It was a devastating time for your family and particularly for you, since you were Lauren’s rock and caregiver. Describe what you and she went through.
Pamela: There are really no words to describe the feelings that I went through when I found out that Lauren had Toxic Shock Syndrome. In the beginning, we did not realize why she was so sick. She had flu-like symptoms and was unable to get out of bed. I was 90 miles away and recovering from surgery. At one point, I sent law enforcement to her home to do a welfare check and she was found face down on the floor and near death. She was rushed to Saint John’s hospital and was given less than a 1% chance of survival because her organs had begun to shut down. She suffered a heart attack and had a fever of 108. The only way to describe what I felt when I arrived at the emergency room was pure horror and panic. A nurse encouraged me to hold Lauren’s hand and to talk to her. I remember hearing this screaming, this horrible screaming, and I didn’t realize it was coming from me.
Lauren remained on life support for 8 days and the chances of survival were still not good. She had hundreds of visitors. Family and friends were a constant presence in the room and they overflowed into the waiting room, often sleeping there overnight to be there with her and pray with the family. Hour by hour, Lauren began to stabilize a little bit more and we were told she might have a chance of survival. We were also told that the tissues in her limbs were dying and that an amputation was most likely on both of her hands and legs. When she was strong enough to be taken off life support, she was transferred to UCLA where she was put into hyperbaric chambers in order to try and restore some of the blood flow to her limbs. We were very fortunate that her hands could be saved from amputation but unfortunately, the doctors gave us the devastating news that amputation of both legs below the knee would be necessary. The gangrene in Lauren’s right leg was worse than her left leg. I fought tiredly trying to save as much of Lauren’s left leg as possible. Even though I knew she would face numerous skin grafts and the possibility of losing her leg anyway, the left leg was saved but the doctors had to remove her heel and all 5 of her toes. After the amputation of her right leg, there were countless hours of therapy, pain management, and a 3-month long stay in the hospital. Lauren was eventually transferred to Cedars -Sinai where she received physical therapy and counseling in order to deal with her new situation.
Q: Your faith has been critical to both you and Lauren in getting through this ordeal. Describe the various stages that you both experienced.
Pamela: Faith is very crucial when you are dealing with a critical situation and you have to have faith in a situation like this. Emotions ranging from anger and frustration to sadness and depression overflow in you. Lauren was extremely depressed when she came home from the hospital and I became her punching bag. She would scream these horrible words at me, “Why did you have to pray so hard for me to survive, mom? I don’t want to live!” The grief I felt was unspeakable.
I have had a lot of guilt that I have had to deal with on my own. I am going to be missing a part of her for the rest of my life. I know that I did not cause this to happen to Lauren but as a mom, you always want to protect your children and when something happens to your child, you can’t help but feel like you should have done more to help save them.
Q: Lauren has always been humorous, vivacious and strong, but you must be bursting with pride at how she has turned this tragedy into something so valuable for herself and others. She is now an educator for women on the dangers of highly synthetic tampons that cause Toxic Shock Syndrome, and her ability to inspire and encourage young people who are facing their own trials in life – is so powerful. Describe what Lauren has done since almost losing her life.
Pamela: Since Lauren’s life was changed in 2012 she has used her own experiences and strengths to educate others and to let them know that there were warning signs. Her goal is to help others be more aware of these signs and in so doing she can save others from the same thing happening to them. She is educating young women about the dangers of synthetic tampons and even though they are widely used around the world on a daily basis by millions of women, they can be a hazard to a woman’s health. Lauren has appeared in magazines and talk shows bringing awareness to the subject of Toxic Shock Syndrome. She has gained many followers and has even met and talked with other women who have suffered from Toxic Shock Syndrome. They thanked Lauren for saving their life! You can’t get much more inspirational than that.
Q: Looking back on your life, what are 3 top memories that bring you absolute joy?
Pamela: The two top joyful memories would have to be the birth of my children. The third top memory would be the day when Lauren awoke from her coma and scribbled the words “Hi Mommy” on a pad of paper.
Q: What does the Holiday season mean to you and your family?
Pamela: My family is extremely important to me. The Christmas season reminds us that above all things we need to love one another. Whatever life brings, we have family and we can get through anything together.
Q: Favorite place in the world?
Pamela: My dad’s backyard. His presence is so strong. It’s the one place I can go to and feel comfort and peace.
Q: Favorite Indulgence?
Pamela: To sit down in front of my favorite soap, “The Young and The Restless”.
Q: Favorite color?
Q: What’s on your bucket list?
Pamela: To buy a farm and rescue as many animals as my husband will allow!
Q: How do you relax?
Pamela: Spend time with God.
Q: The greatest lesson that Lauren has taught you?
Pamela: To forgive myself. I’ve had a lot of guilt and I blame myself for what has happened to her. Though I didn’t actually cause this to happen, as her mother, I feel responsible.
Lauren Wasser grew up in the modeling industry. Her parents were both professional models and at 4 months old, she appeared with mom Pamela in Vogue Magazine. Her modeling career took off when Toxic Shock Syndrome struck her down and shook her world upside down. Miraculously, it has given Lauren the opportunity to spotlight beauty in its much deeper forms. She has emerged from her chrysalis as a dynamic leader for young women who are struggling to find purpose and meaning in life. She has taken the stage both as a model and public speaker – raising awareness on issues that affect women’s health. Moreover, she’s generously sharing the depths of her acquired wisdom – borne out of a preventable tragedy. Her long, painful journey of recovery has honed her into the beautiful young woman she is today. Lauren’s story is one for the ages and her message touches hearts worldwide.
Q: You grew up in L.A. with your Mom and Dad both models. Your Mom did a shoot with you at age 4 months with Patrick Demarchelier. What was the experience like to grow up in a pretty unique home?
Lauren: To be honest, I didn’t know any different. This was my life. I traveled a lot with my mom and when she wasn’t traveling, she would bring me to work with her – sometimes with a nanny and sometimes without – depending on the client. I was very social as a child, very outgoing and I loved being the center of attention!
We moved to Los Angeles when I turned 4. I attended The Little Red School House in Hollywood. My mom was friends with Billy Idol and his son went there, so I guess you can say I had “pull”! Ha Ha.
Q: In the fall of 2012, you were struck down by something life-threatening and devastating: Toxic Shock Syndrome. Tell us the story of what happened and how you were close to death.
Lauren: It was October 3, 2012; my mother was concerned she hadn’t been able to contact me and the police were called out to my house. They broke in and found me unresponsive on the floor covered in my own feces and vomit. I was rushed to the hospital in grave condition and placed on life support. Doctors couldn’t figure out why this young, healthy woman was so sick. It was a race against time because I was plummeting; all my internal organs were shutting down. Finally an infectious disease specialist tested me for TSS (results took 24 hours to confirm). Once I was diagnosed, I was given the proper antibiotics that took a while to kick in. I contracted pneumonia, was fighting an extremely high fever, suffered a heart attack and was constantly being given blood transfusions. I woke up about a week later in ICU, unable to speak and still on a respirator. I was so confused but even more confused looking down at myself and all the weight I had gained..200 pounds of it! This was due to all the pressers that had kept me alive. When I hear about all that I went through, it’s hard to believe since I don’t remember any of it.
Q: As a result of Toxic Shock Syndrome you had to have your right leg amputated because gangrene had set in. You’ve been using a prosthetic limb on your right side – but soon, you will be having your left leg amputated because you’ve realized that the pain on that side is unbearable. Describe all the transition of feelings you went through from being told that you were about to have your leg amputated to where you are today….and the impending second amputation.
Lauren: This tragic situation has impacted my life in more ways than one. Losing my right leg was definitely one of them. I have flash backs of a nurse at St. John’s talking with another nurse from UCLA about a 24-year-old girl who is going to need a right leg amputation below the knee. I was alone in the ICU and it was apparent that she was talking about me. I began screaming and crying for my mom. I begged her not to let them take my leg. It wasn’t just the right leg; unfortunately, my toes on my left foot and my heel were severely damaged. I was given a 50/50 chance that I would ever walk again on it. It’s been 5 years since I almost lost my life. 3 surgeries later the pain in my left foot is a reminder of how much damage was done. Having an amputation of my left leg is a choice I personally have to make for the wellness and happiness of the rest of my life.
Q: Your modeling career has thrived despite your tragic circumstances.
Lauren: Before sharing my story with Vice in 2015 I hated myself and was so unsure. My girlfriend is an amazing photographer. She used her images of me to show me my true beauty again. It’s called photo-therapy. It wasn’t until I saw myself strong and powerful that I knew I had to use this platform for a greater purpose. Amazing companies and brands like Kenneth Cole, Nordstrom, Chromat, Noisy May (to name a few) have really believed in me and my story and have given me the chance to bring something to a market of a population that hasn’t ever been acknowledged. To me that brings great honor and excitement because then we raise the question “what does beauty really look like?”
Q: Recently you spoke in Israel at their annual Ted Talk Conference. Neurosurgeons are usually invited to speak at this conference. Tell us about the incredible experience you had as a guest speaker.
Lauren: Being able to speak at Ted talk in Tel Aviv was such a privilege and an honor. I have a close relationship with God and being flown to one of the most beautiful and spiritual places was amazing. I had a purpose there. After giving my speech I had a 13-year-old little girl grab me off stage. She was holding me tight. I started to cry because I could sense her pain. She had suffered from bullying and Bulimia and she told me that because of me, she decided not to take her own life. After hearing what I’ve overcome, she too felt encouraged to also make it. I held her and told her I was proud that I could help. What a great feeling knowing that I have impacted so many lives across the world inspires me to keep doing what I’m doing.
Q: You share an incredibly close relationship with your Mom. Describe all that she has meant to you – in good and in terrible times.
Lauren: My mom is my hero! She has always been my world and my best friend. We’re like two peas in a pod. From the moment I woke up from my coma, until today, my mom has never left my side. I was in the hospital for a total of 4 months. She slept next to me on a tiny couch in my hospital room. When I got home and was in the darkest moments of my life, she was right there. When I look back during my worst moments, my mom would always make me feel like it was going to be ok and she would always manage to make me laugh. She is such a sweet, kind person and wants everyone to be happy and feel loved. I’m lucky that God gave me such an amazing woman to call my mother.
Q: ‘Louder Milk’ is a comedy that will be featured on Direct TV’s new shows in October 2017. In it, your acting talent shines through. Tell us about that.
Lauren: Yes, what an amazing opportunity to work with real professional actors. Louder Milk is created by two talented writers and directors, Peter Farrelly and Bobby Mort. Being a part of a show like this with an amazing cast and crew is beyond a dream come true.
Q: What is the best advise you can give young women in their 20’s – after all that you have been through?
Lauren: I would encourage women to continue to talk and have conversations about this subject. I believe knowledge is power and talking about women’s health issues is important especially since TSS has been a huge epidemic for over 30 years. Be aware of what you’re putting inside of your body. Beauty doesn’t come in just one form. We’re all beautiful and have the ability to impact this world in a positive way.
Q: What are your hopes and dreams for your future?
Lauren: God has surprised me so many times with His goodness. He’s showed me that anything is possible no matter the circumstance. I can do anything and everything. I have a lot of great things in the works with both modeling and acting. I’m super excited about life and all my amazing opportunities. I’m living my dream.
Q: Favorite Food?
Q: Favorite Indulgence?
Q: Most important characteristics in friends?
Lauren: Genuine, selfless, dependable, trustworthy.
Q: Favorite movie of all time?
Lauren: ‘Dumb and Dumber’
Q: Favorite actor of all time?
Lauren: Jim Carrey 100%!
Q: What’s on your bucket list?
Lauren: To finally jump into the ocean again..I can’t wait!