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Amputee top model Lauren Wasser champions body positivity

April 10, 2023

The US supermodel once nearly died from toxic shock syndrome, but bounced back. With her golden prosthetic legs, she is now a beacon of body positivity.

Picture of a woman dressed as Joan of Arc, holding a sword and with gold prosthetics for legs, standing on a curved platform with a picture of the sea behind her. The woman is identified as US American amputee model Lauren Wasser.
Lauren Wasser in all her glory in the 2023 Pirelli Calendar, channeling 'Joan of Arc'Image: Pirelli Kalender 2023, Emma Summerton

Some ten years ago, US American supermodel Lauren Wasser, plagued by depression, presumed her modeling career was over.

"When I woke up from a medically induced coma in that Santa Monica hospital room one day in early October 2012, in excruciating pain, it wasn't just that I was unrecognizable: I had been stripped of my entire identity, of the beauty and body that, I thought then, had made me me," she wrote in an essay for British Vogue in August 2022.

She was reflecting on what had happened to her a decade ago when she was 24 years old. She had been found unconscious in her home and was rushed to the hospital where she was diagnosed with toxic shock syndrome, or TSS — a condition caused by excessive bacteria in the body associated with tampon use.

Having suffered two heart attacks and with her kidneys failing, she was given a mere 1% chance of survival. Shortly thereafter, waking from a coma, she was faced with the news that gangrene had set in on one of her lower legs. It would have to be amputated.

Lauren Wasser poses with her golden prosthetic legs
Lauren's legs were amputated due to complications from toxic shock symdromeImage: Luca Bruno/AP/picture alliance

Loving oneself

Her new reality appeared insurmountable. After all, she had grown up among models.

Her parents were both models themselves and Lauren landed her first gig as a two-month-old baby alongside her mother, Pamela Cook, in the Italian edition of Vogue.

In California, Wasser grew up among the likes of supermodels Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford.

Mourning the loss of her leg, she wrote that she would "sit on a stool in the shower screaming at God, wondering why and how this happened. I didn't think I would be loved again; I didn't think I would be wanted — I definitely didn't think the fashion world would ever accept me."

That would prove to be far from the truth in the long run.

Digging deep to discover beauty

Battling depression and suicidal thoughts, "I had to force myself to dig deep to see that beauty isn't just found in the physical, it's how we affect others and the world."
That profound sense of self also led Wasser to create a new sense of style. Losing her second lower leg several years later, prosthetics were the only option for her, but she hated the standard, medical-issue sort.

"I have always loved gold, so I decided to make my legs a jewelry piece, to consciously make something that people look at and are fascinated by. The result is, I believe, something close to art," wrote Wasser, who has been referred to as fashion's "girl with the golden legs." 

Lauren Wasser with her golden legs walking down the catwalk
Lower-leg-amputated supermodel Lauren created her own sense of style on the catwalkImage: QC-Balkis Press/abaca/picture alliance

Now, over 10 years after nearly dying, those golden prosthetic legs have seen her grace the catwalks of Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana, as well as the pages of Vogue and Elle.

As Wasser wrote in her Vogue essay, referring to her fashion show finale of the Spring Collection in May 2022: "Like a knight in shining armour: that's how I felt closing the Louis Vuitton cruise show in San Diego this past May. As the sun set behind the beautiful, brutalist Salk Institute, casting long shadows on the concrete runway, I walked out wearing a floor-sweeping silver coat – my legs as golden as the early evening light, shimmering beneath metallic shorts – leading the way for the army of models behind me."

Major performances on and off the catwalk

That breathtaking catwalk led to other stellar appearances, such as in the 2023 edition of the famous Pirelli Calendar, a British-Italian, limited-edition glamour photography extravaganza.

Lauren Wasser — who has been an avid basketball player all her life, as well as a marathon runner using "golden blades" to spur her on — inspired Australian photographer Emma Summerton, who shot the photos for Pirelli.

For the 2023 calendar titled Love Letters to the Muse, Summerton chose Wasser to embody "The Athlete," one "who does not compete in the Olympics, but in life…A 'Joan of Arc figure' who is never held back by fear. Never held back at all."

Model Lauren Wasser in a white t-shirt and black suit, in front of a starry background.
Model Wasser, amputated from her lower legs down, has trained for marathons in New York and CaliforniaImage: Evan Agostini/AP Images/picture alliance

"I'm an athlete. I'd rather beat up boys and play basketball than be in stilettoes. I've always been that way," Wasser told Pirelli, speaking of her gutsy attitude.

Wasser is using her status in the fashion world to help reshape the industry's definition of beauty and its acceptance of diversity.

Awareness about women's health

Menstruation to fertility: Femtech is booming

"Over the past decade since I contracted TSS, I have witnessed the industry slowly embrace inclusivity, but make no mistake: I've had to fight for my place. There was no blueprint for a model like me. Rarely has someone like myself appeared on the runway. I have had to create my own lane, my own avenue of existence. Walking the Louis Vuitton show felt like I had come full circle," Lauren Wasser wrote in Vogue.

Wasser also uses her celebrity to promote awareness about women's health and the dangers of various feminine hygiene products. "There needs to be more transparency and greater information about what can happen if you use tampons and the onus should be on the corporations to provide it," she pointed out.

Model Lauren Wasser in a profile image with her hair pulled back.
Embracing life: Model Wasser has accepted her fate, and aims to advocate women's healthImage: Luca Bruno/ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

"Take tampon commercials: you see a girl running on the beach, but where is the warning of the potentially fatal harm the product can cause? I always use cigarettes as an example: you see the box and you see what can happen, but it's your choice whether you smoke or not. It should be the same with feminine hygiene products. The question is, when will women's health care be taken seriously?"

To that end, Wasser has shown that it's every woman for herself, but she is certainly trying to be a role model.

"…I have remained true to one simple core belief: that I'm just like anyone else. I can wear anything; I can do anything. The one difference? My legs are made of gold. It is a belief that extends to every aspect of my life — as a gay woman, I think everyone deserves to have someone that fits them, that makes them feel special and loved. We're all human beings and we should be accepted for who we are, not shunned for who we love or what we look like."

DW Editor and reporter Louisa Schaefer smiling into the camera.
Louisa Schaefer Culture editor and reporter based in Cologne/Bonn, originally from the US