International fashion model, makeup artist to celebs, author, and advocate—Jacqueline Cioffa has done it all. She reflects on her unconventional journey and her struggle to put her life back together after a “manic breakdown.”
Jacqueline Cioffa was an international model for 17 years and a makeup artist to celebrities before she turned to storytelling. A courageous and bold advocate for women and mental health, Cioffa, now 52, most recently published The Red Bench: A Descent and Ascent into Madness—a memoir about her breakdown from mania and struggle to pick up the pieces of her fractured life—and The Shape of Us, which explores the complexities of beauty, authenticity, and being a woman.
What was it like to be a successful model in the ’80s and ’90s?
Lonely and isolating—there was no FaceTime, cell phones, or social media. It was also empowering and exciting to make a ton of money, have complete financial freedom, and meet artistic and cool people. I was photogenic and really lucky.
Did you show signs of bipolar before your diagnosis?
I have always struggled with depression, anxiety, and mania—I didn’t know what it was while growing up, but I could manage it. Then, at 35, while living in New York City with my brother, my ongoing symptoms escalated and I was diagnosed. I had a psychotic break due to mania and underwent electroconvulsive therapy and a hospitalization. Now I know I have rapid transitions between both moods.
How did you handle your illness while working internationally?
I wasn’t modeling as actively when my symptoms became problematic, so I didn’t really have to deal with bipolar and modeling at the same time. I certainly didn’t share my diagnosis with the fashion world at the time—whether modeling or working as a makeup artist—because there was definitely more stigma attached back then.
Why did you transition to writing?
Modeling finally retired me, or “aged me out,” and it felt superficial. Writing has always been a passion and, in time, became a purpose and a powerful way to use my voice: to advocate, to heal, and to speak out for myself and others.
In The Red Bench, you write convincingly about bipolar. What lines best convey its message?
“Now pay attention. The next sentence will be the most important words I write. I have loved being alive. I’d like you to pause and remember it as we move through the uncomfortable.”
What is the significance of the red bench in the title?
The red bench is actually near where I hike. I write that it gave me “a new perspective and unobstructed view.” Nature and hiking are so important to my mental health. Everyone should have a bench, a place they can go that’s solid, where they feel secure and unafraid.
You describe yourself as a dog lover, crystal collector, and stone crab enthusiast. Why those?
They’re all tied to emotional memories. Dogs are about unconditional love, and I’ve loved many. I share my life with a mini Australian shepherd named Lupe, who is half blind and has a chronic health condition. She gets me out of the house. Stone crabs bring back memories of the beach, and of modeling, margaritas, and a happy time. And crystals are grounding, important when you have bipolar. Holding a stone in your hands can bring calm, lighten the mood, and boost hope.
What else grounds you?
In addition to hiking and nature, I also get grounded with activities like yoga, regular walking, swimming, going to the gym and using the elliptical machine, and jumping on the trampoline. Mindfulness, breathing exercises, visualization, and essential oils also help.
As a writer, do you feel more empowered in the current social environment?
I want what I say to mean something, so I am taking even more time now with my words. I don’t want to censor them, but I want to be mindful and not throw them away. When I’m manic or depressed, writing becomes even more important—I go into another realm.
What takeaways do you share in The Shape of Us?
It’s important to find a group of women who can lift you up, feed the core of who you are and feed your mind. I learned how truly beautiful surviving with a mental illness is, along with using your voice and being your authentic self. No makeup, no money, no designer clothes, I’m just me with all my flaws and strengths. I’m never going to be perfect. I just want to be healthy and strong.
Printed as “Back Chat: Jacqueline Cioffa,” Fall 2020
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