11/08/2001 AT 12:54 PM EST
As a child, Lauren was striking. With raven hair and mesmerizing blue eyes, she looked as though she had stepped out of one of the picture-perfect American-lifestyle ads for which her uncle is known. In fact, at age 7 she modeled for his company runway shows. "People would gape at her and say, 'My God, look at that beautiful child,' " says her father, Jerry, 67, Ralph's brother and head of the fashion dynasty's menswear division. "She didn't understand that attention and it upset her."
Then, at 10, Lauren entered a world where she was considered less than perfect. At summer dance camp in Lenox, Mass., she noticed that, while she was talented, her muscular frame did not measure up to the slim figures of her classmates. "I was looking in the mirror feeling this intense loneliness," Lauren says. "I thought right then that I was going to starve myself." In retrospect she believes she got the idea from the 1981 TV movie The Best Little Girl in the World, about anorexia. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, I could do that,' " she says. "It was about having control."
"I started getting letters from her," recalls her brother Greg, 31, a Los Angeles actor and painter. (Another brother, Brad, 34, is a film editor in Manhattan.) "They would say, 'I'm really nervous because the other girls are skinny, and I'm scared about how many calories are in toothpaste.' " Back at home Lauren continued to be plagued by thoughts of having an imperfect body. Her family's involvement in the fashion industry didn't help. "I got mixed messages," Lauren says. "They would say, 'We want you to be healthy,' then, in the same breath, 'Oh my God, you look so beautiful, so chiseled.' "
By ninth grade Lauren was exercising obsessively, running six miles a day and doing calisthenics at night. That December she dropped to 85 lbs. "My lifestyle was so tiring," she says. "I went from being a popular, fun girl to just not caring." Soon after, she met a bulimic classmate who introduced her to Ipecac, the vomit-inducing medication usually intended to treat accidental poisonings. "I thought, 'Wow, I can eat all this chocolate and then just get rid of it,' " she says. Instead, dehydrated and weak after two days, "I got really sick. My dad found me lying on the bathroom floor," she says.
Still, Lauren continued using Ipecac, and in the winter of 1987 her family had the 11th grader hospitalized for four months. "I was so upset," says Lauren's mother, Susan, 59, a guide at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "You want to tell her, 'You can't do this, you're going to kill yourself.' "