She had long struggled with depression, an illness that almost cost Lawless her life. Friends and family advised her to keep quiet, but in 2001 she started telling pageant judges her story—land last june she nabbed the Miss Arizona title. Now recovered, she's taking a break from law school at Arizona State University to campaign for greater understanding of the mentally ill, including the 18 million-plus Americans who suffer depression. "It takes a strong person to do what she did," says friend and former Miss Arizona Leean Hendrix, 27. "In the pageant .world you try to create a perfect image. She just shattered that for all to see."
She also aims to shatter stereotypes. "Bigotry is out there in a big way," Lawless says. "People blame you, your family or your inability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps." By telling her own story at schools and offices, she hopes to demystify mental illness and give it a human face—that of "a very ordinary grad student," she says, "with stale milk in the fridge."
Lawless grew up in the blue-collar New York City neighborhood of Flushing, with her mother, Maureen, and her grandparents Agnes and Thomas. "My dad," she says, "really wasn't involved in my life." Though Maureen, now 54, worked long hours as a registered nurse, her daughter remembers a childhood spent in a "loving, sharing household." At her all-girl high school, she excelled at the piano and in the classroom, if not the schoolyard. "I was a geek," she says. "Buck teeth and hot-pink, plastic-rim glasses." She is still not sure what triggered the crying spells that began when she was 14. Maureen was diagnosed with lung cancer soon afterward, and though her treatment proved successful, Lawless's grandfather died of the same disease in 1995. By then Lawless was 17 and already plagued with insomnia and a crippling sense of worthlessness, and Thomas's death sent her into a tailspin. "She was such a fragile person," recalls Maureen, who took her daughter to a doctor. Once she was diagnosed with depression, Lawless responded well to medication and psychotherapy and recovered sufficiently to attend the senior prom. Defying her demons, she entered her first pageant, the 1996 New York State Junior Miss program, and won.
Her symptoms gone, she enjoyed her freshman year at Harvard, touring with the women's choir and dating. But two months into her sophomore year the old feelings came flooding back, only worse. Last time she could blame her grandfather's death, but now, she says, "I felt like a flawed piece of machinery." Lawless started spending days in bed, measuring time by the sitcoms on TV. She skipped meals, then binged on ice cream and cupcakes; within months she'd put on 45 lbs. Unable to concentrate, she faced academic probation by semester's end. She could barely muster the energy to visit a psychiatrist.
The darkest hour came one night late in 1998, when she decided to overdose on her newly prescribed antidepressants. "I kept the bottle near my bedside," she says. "I would hold it in my hand and say, 'Is this the day?' " That night, "I felt like I had fallen off a boat and was drowning, and no one was throwing me a life raft," she recalls. "But everyone was, I just couldn't reach for it." After speaking to her on the phone, her boyfriend drove to Boston from New York and checked her into a clinic. Her dosage was stepped up, and by the end of her junior year she was pulling A's again and competing for scholarships, winning a total of $25,000 in the Miss America system. "I started relishing the success," says Lawless.
Now unattached and living in Tempe, Ariz., Lawless seems the antithesis of the despondent woman she was four years ago. "She's bubbly and vibrant," says pal Hendrix, "but she is direct. It's like, 'This is who I am—take it or leave it.' " Off drugs and therapy for now, she plans to become a lawyer specializing in mental-health advocacy. And though she knows her depression may someday return, she finds joy in giving people with mental illness a voice. "The crown has been the megaphone through which I speak for the millions in this country who are struggling," she says. "They can forget me, as long as they remember the message."
David Schwartz in Tempe
- David Schwartz.
As a psychology major at Harvard, Laura Lawless entered beauty pageants to help pay her way through college. Her platform was always about removing the stigma attached to mental illness, yet she never revealed that the motive behind her message was deeply personal. "I felt like a hypocrite because I was hiding behind the shame myself," says Lawless, 24. "I was preaching about mental health and wasn't telling it all.