Monica Elena had a thriving career as a fashion model, but something still wasn’t right.
Though the Romania-born, Canada-raised Elena was modelling full-time in Germany, frequently travelling to other parts of Europe for work and living the dream (on paper, at least), she didn’t feel like herself.
“I had disordered eating and I wasn’t nourishing myself. I just didn’t know how to,” she says over oat-milk lattes at Buro cafe in downtown Vancouver. “I was going from diet to diet to diet, just switching all the time if something wasn’t working. So I went from vegetarian to vegan to raw vegan to pescatarian, just all these different things. And I didn’t feel 100% myself. It wasn’t even just the nutritional side that I was losing—I also felt like I was losing my self-esteem in the industry.”
So she set out to heal herself.
While still modelling in Europe, she began taking classes at the Edison Institute back in Canada by correspondence, specializing in holistic nutrition. The only goal was to learn about nourishment in order to better herself, but as she became more knowledgeable and confident, her attitude began to positively affect others.
“I started healing myself and then opening up to other models in the industry about what I was going through. We were best friends, some of us were travelling together for jobs—but some things were still very taboo,” she explains of the disordered-eating and self-esteem issues that are so common among models. “And we wouldn’t really open up about these things because you almost felt embarrassed or that you’re not doing something right. So when I started opening up with them, I think they started seeing, ‘Ok, there’s more that I can do for myself as well.’” Chatting with her fellow models and even with makeup artists and stylists that she worked with, Elena realized just how skewed the fashion industry’s views on eating and health really were.
It’s how she began to see the need for positive nutrition conversations rooted in holistic wellness—no diets, no calorie-counting, no being scared of anything with sugar or fat. Just simple, helpful ideas like bringing snacks to set, learning to eat more mindfully, and not feeling bad for craving (and enjoying) a slice of pizza. As these discussions continued, Elena started to feel more passionate about them than the actual modelling; eventually she moved back to her hometown of Vancouver, furthered her education with courses at The Institute of Holistic Nutrition, and launched Holistic Heels: a comprehensive, one-on-one consultation firm focusing on healthy eating and self-esteem—particularly for the fashion community.
But just like her struggles with her health, starting her own company wasn’t easy. “It was really difficult at first because I had never owned a business before,” she admits. “But it’s been nearly two years, maybe a year and a half, since I launched Holistic Heels—and I still don’t know what I’m doing.” She flashes a big smile and lets out a carefree laugh. “There was someone who asked for this specific way of paying me and I was like, ‘Yeah sure, no problem,’ and then I had to research what that even meant,” she continues. “I have those days all the time, when I just don’t know what I’m doing. You kind of just have to put on a face and keep on going.” Resilience is undoubtedly something she learned from a career in the often cutthroat and unforgiving world of fashion—and while she does dabble in the odd modelling gig now (see her in vitruvi’s Spring campaign), Elena is happiest when she is helping others in the industry. Especially young women who are just starting out. “I don’t want to sugar-coat things; I want to show them how it truly is. It’s an incredible experience, but it’s also really tough,” she says. “There are all these really young girls who are off on their own in these foreign cities, and some of them don’t even know how to make a hard-boiled egg. So that’s where I want to come in and I want to not only teach you how to make that egg, but tell you why eggs are good for you.”
And while her fire is fuelled by helping other models, Elena takes clients outside of the industry, too; we are all suffering, she argues, from an “epidemic of self-hate.” So aside from her consultations focusing on the actual nutrition side of things—educating on the benefits and properties of different products, eradicating the guilt of wanting “junk food,” and showing how to eat more mindfully to properly enjoy what’s on your plate—Elena spends a lot of time preaching and teaching self-esteem.
“Self-confidence and self-love is so huge,” she says adamantly. “One of my steps for self-love is stopping the comparison game, and one way you can do that is to look at your Instagram account, and take a look at who you’re actually following and how they make you feel.” Her suggestion? If looking at a person’s posts or a brand’s messaging sparks insecurity or negativity, hit the Unfollow button. It’s simple teachings like these that she focuses on in a series of Vancouver self-care workshops that are open to the public; she also hopes to bring her work to high school kids (a demographic that, thanks to social media, grapples with self-esteem now more than ever before).
At the end of the day, Elena wants to help as many people as she can to learn the tools necessary for lasting health. It hasn’t been a straightforward journey, and it would be safe to say that her path is still unrolling before her—but her insatiable energy, relentless passion, and open heart make it clear that she will succeed in creating better conversations around body image and nutrition, in the fashion industry and beyond. Working on oneself is indeed work, but she proves that it doesn’t have to be a chore.