In 2012, former Olympian middle distance runner and motivational speaker Suzy Favor Hamilton was outed as a Vegas agency escort. Recently, Favor Hamilton published her memoir, Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness, telling the story of her childhood, her athletic career, her stint escorting, her family life, and her struggle with bipolar disorder. After reviewing the book for Tits and Sass, contributor Katie de Long had a conversation with Favor Hamilton over e-mail about the New York Times bestselling autobiography. The dialogue below is a condensed version of those e-mails.
What motivated you to write your memoir?
When I was outed, I was contacted by several writers within the first couple days. I was still in a heavily narcissistic mode, which […] can be pretty common with bipolar mania, especially when untreated.
At that time, I wanted to pretty much write a sex book, detailing my adventures in Las Vegas, capitalizing on my misfortune, so to speak. No mental illness aspect at all. No running, no childhood, just Vegas. At this time, I had no idea I was bipolar…and saw nothing wrong with me.
As time went along, my motivations changed, and I grew unsure I wanted to write a book at all. My parents were making it clear they did not want me to write a book. Others were advising me against it. Things had settled down, so why bring it all out in the open again?
As I began to achieve more clarity, and what had happened to me began to make more sense after diagnosis and treatment, my motivation for writing a memoir grew again. Before the escorting, I was speaking quite a bit about my brother’s suicide and my experience with anxiety and depression, so that desire to make a difference had always been there. I saw a memoir as the most effective way of making that difference, being better understood, sharing what is admittedly a complicated story, and doing so on my terms. I thought a book could have a more lasting impact on a bigger platform.
What do you hope people will learn about bipolar disorder from your book?
I wanted to show the common elements of denial, silence and stigma and how they prevent good people from getting help, and getting well. I want people to be aware of behaviors to look for, so they can help others or perhaps motivate those not yet diagnosed to seek help for themselves.
There are many people out there who don’t buy the whole idea of mental illness and bipolar and how bizarre behavior can stem from it. The “convenient excuse” argument. I hope my story might open a few minds.
Now that you are receiving treatment and establishing a new normal for yourself, do you find yourself being treated differently? Do some people expect you to be able to return to who you were before the disorder worsened?
My parents want the old me back, but I think they are accepting that won’t happen.
There is that perception that I’m not well, mainly when I speak about sex, dress a certain way, hang with a certain person, use my voice. Or, quite frankly, if I happen to be a little manic or depressed on a certain day (especially manic). I’ve learned with certain friends and family, I…stay away from certain topics…sit on my hands and smile, otherwise…they’ll just give me that concerned look. Others, they like “this me” who’s not afraid to be myself. [They] know my moods might change from day to day, even minute to minute. Those are the people I tend to gravitate to these days.
Those who don’t get mental illness think you have to be a non-functioning zombie when you’re manic…In many ways, you can be more productive, more creative, and go, go, go, etc. I believe my mania was a big reason I was a desired escort…My clients loved my mania. Disney, who hired me for their racing series, also loved my mania when I think about it. Zero inhibitions. Bubbly, sparkly. Life of the party. I had no off switch, no ceiling.
I am that imperfect girl, and I want to be that imperfect girl. What’s the bipolar? What’s the real me? I just know I want independence, [to] do what makes me content. I still want to live life to the fullest, live it with a little edge. Don’t want to live by others expectations. Be myself. But admittedly, I’m pulled into old habits often where I do what others expect of me. People are so accustomed to the old me that they think I’m not well when they see someone else.
Let’s say I were to want to go to Burning Man, go hiking with a couple of escort friends, post a beautiful nude portrait of myself that was done for me…many around me would raise red flags. I’m having to be something to please others and doing what drove me to craziness in the first place. So am I going to get criticized on occasion or told I’m not well? I suppose. Dr. Phil said as much when I was on his damn show.
What one thing do you wish the public understood better about your time in sex work?
I wish that every time I express my pride in my own sexuality, or speak with any degree of positiv[ity] about my experience, about fellow sex workers, or about consensual sex work in general, the public did not immediately go to the “she’s not well” assumption.
Listen, I’ll always be bipolar. I’ll be manic some days. I’ll be depressed some days. I’ll be “off” some days. But the whole idea that any degree of support I offer for sex work and sex workers means I’m not well is insulting.
What similarities and differences did you find striking between escorting and being an athlete?
Competitiveness, the drive to be the best. The performance aspect of it and always having to bring [your] “A-game”.
But, escorting, at that time for me, was like the race where you always win the gold medal. I felt no pressure, no anxiety like I had in competitive running… From the very first appointment, I was completely at ease and comfortable.
I loved the concept of TER rankings and was extraordinarily obsessed with it. It enhanced the competitiveness of it all. But the thrill had to get greater and greater. Had to up a tick each time…This is why I’m convinced I would have been in big trouble if I had continued.
You’ve described your sex work as a negative choice made during a bipolar mania. Did you have down-periods between manias while you were escorting? If you did, during these down-periods, did you ever ask a loved one to talk you out of working for the agency? Did you ever try to talk yourself out of it?
The sex work was a conscious choice. I knew what I was doing, but I don’t think of myself as thinking with any kind of clarity…It was kind of a perfect storm of circumstances and events over several months that got me there, and kept me there. I grew up with this obsessive and unhealthy need to always be the perfect child, the “good girl”…I believe part of my choice to become an escort was an underlying desire to be the “bad girl” for once…For once, I could have control of my life, my body.
But I think it’s naïve to ignore my going on an anti-depressant in early 2011 which I and my doctors believe triggered the huge mania/hypersexuality and kept it relatively constant until I was finally diagnosed with bipolar in early 2013. So unlike most who are afflicted with bipolar, and unlike how I…feel today, my mania was almost always present during that time (before Vegas, I was mostly down, with very [few] manic episodes as I look back, so medication was prescribed with that in mind). If there were “down” times, they tended to come when I was not in Vegas, arguing with my husband about how I was acting, having to deal with my deteriorating marriage, my job, the real world, etc. I wanted to get on a plane back to Vegas almost immediately where I knew I would feel myself again, that feeling I often describe as “sparkly”.
Not everybody loves the mania. I did. Fueling it came above everything else, even my daughter, and if you know how much I love my daughter, you get it. That’s how powerful it was. To the point where I could spend a month away from my daughter, without much thought of it.
I never asked anybody to talk me out of escorting. My husband tried. A regular client, seeing how out of control I was getting, even tried. But that was the last thing I wanted. I never had second thoughts during this time period. This was now my life and I saw it as my true calling. I didn’t understand, for the life of me, why my husband was trying to pull me out of it. I did tell him, “only for a month”, then “one more month”, etc. I would convince him, I was sure of it.
I have indicated in every interview I have done that I take responsibility for my actions but I don’t believe for a second I would have become an escort…if I were not given Zoloft for my undiagnosed bipolar. Constant mania, resulting hyper-sexuality and grandiose thinking led to a six month series of choices that got me there (threesome, male escort, sexting, hooking up, hooking up for gifts, escorting). Everything in my mind was suddenly SEX during that period.
Too often the way it’s presented by the media is, Suzy was bipolar, so she became an escort.
But listen, not everybody [who’s] undiagnosed bipolar goes to Vegas to escort. I know that. It’s complicated. How the hell did I get where I got? Why did I fall in Sydney? Why did I have to be the perfect child, with the all American image? Why didn’t I have a voice? Therapy has helped me get to the root of this, but I’m constantly thinking about all this. I think people sometimes forget, I’m still recovering.
I get this. When I was first diagnosed, they had me on Zoloft, and others. That was back before they started talking about its negative effects on children and teens. It did not go well.
Were there any positive aspects of escorting for you?
I enjoyed getting to know my clients, hearing their stories, which they would inevitably tell. So many of them were hugely successful, but unhappy, and were looking for emotional satisfaction perhaps even more so than the physical side of things. I often felt [I took on] the role of a therapist (Marriage Counselor).
The money, the gifts were a HUGE thrill for me, and it was easy. It’s a tough one because my mind at the time saw everything with extreme rose-colored glasses. I saw everybody in their very best light. It was a fantasy playground. I saw no elements of risk (even though I was engaging in riskier and riskier behavior as I went along…)
But even today, dealing with a healthier mind, yes, there were positive aspects looking back. It was the first time in my life I was independent, had a voice, and felt I could take care of myself…I try to carry some of what I got out of escorting with me today, especially the independence and confidence aspects.
What other ways have you found to assert your independence?
I’m simply speaking my mind when appropriate. It’s taken those around me some getting accustomed to. Sometimes I’ve found I overdo it…My actions are not as “please others” focused. Writing the book was certainly a huge example where I used my voice.
I speak up when I’m not comfortable with something. When somebody is pissing me off, I let them know. I used to let people walk all over me. Not anymore. I wear what I want, I say what I want. It’s liberating. Just wish I had it long ago. Where I could have said: ”I don’t want to compete anymore.” ”I don’t want to work in real estate, it’s killing me.”
How did your outing impact you?
Devastated. The life I loved was taken away from me. I was so angry and wanted to end my life once everything blew up. I wanted to keep escorting, but I realized I would lose my parents, family, husband, and daughter if I did so. Initially, when I was first contacted by the reporter who outed me, my plan was to keep escorting and simply raise my rate. I didn’t see another option. Then you have the phone call with your parents to tell them what’s coming, and it changes everything. Now, in retrospect, I’m grateful I took a different path as I was anything but a healthy escort.
Did your coworkers also feel that your relationship with the work was unhealthy for you?
I think most of them liked me and thought I was good at what I did. However, what I have been told (by Jami Rodman [the agency manager]) is that especially as my escorting progressed, I was getting progressively out of control, often late or not showing up for appointments, staying with clients far too long, making girls I was working with uncomfortable. Jami [had] to put out fires I [created], most notably when they involved my true identity.
I have been told other gals were complaining especially about my lateness [and my] staying too long, as it was forcing them to stay overtime as well if we were working together. [But] you have to remember that none of the girls knew me pre-Zoloft, so I’m doubting huge red flags were going off as far as any huge personality and behavioral changes.
How do you feel about your decision to start escorting now? What do you regret most about your time escorting?
I regret the decision. It blew my world apart. Hurt [my] family. I have huge regrets because of the pain I caused my parents (embarrassment), husband (putting him through hell with our constant arguments, rejecting his warnings, his having to cover/lie to protect me), any potential difficult situations I might have created for my daughter, etc. That’s my greatest regret. Not as much what may have happened to my reputation, the headlines, the loss of opportunities, the financial loss (our real estate business had its income cut by 2/3 following being outed), etc. It was the pain I created for others.
I remember the friend of mine who got to the point of having to medicate her way through appointments, to the point she was clearly addicted, and then she just kind of vanished. Didn’t faze me as much as it should have at the time. Was in such a “me” mode at that time. Now, I desperately wish I [could] have done more.
…I believe you can support sex work and say it’s not good for ME at the same time. I…believe a bipolar escort; especially an untreated one (on a harmful anti-depressant) is not a good combo. You need a healthy mind in that industry that can make sound decisions. Treat it like a business. [My escorting] was anything but.
I like what you’re touching on, that perceptions outside the industry make it difficult to say “It’s not good for ME” without that being read as “It’s not good for anyone.”
I believe it is good for some people, certainly not all. I know some women, friends in the business, who seem to have their heads on straight. Everything isn’t roses all the time, but they generally enjoy what they are doing. They enjoy the camaraderie, being a little rebellious, are proud of their sexuality, see what they do as an art form, etc. Pay the bills. Perhaps support a family. To me, that’s hard to knock.
This type of stuff is why I’m so torn on escorting. I want women to have the freedom to do what they wish with their bodies. To make a living if they so choose, etc. But there is some really messed up shit out there. I don’t wish to glamorize it. I don’t wish to make it look like it’s awful…It’s work. It’s flawed. But the one thing I despise is how women who escort are treated by most of America. The stigma, the shaming, etc. You have to be so strong to be in this business and survive. I…respect…those who can pull it off. Total badasses.
Do you feel that being outed caused you to become more outspoken in regards to political issues, including sex work? Or has it made you more careful about what you say publicly, due to increased scrutiny of your statements?
I know I have become MUCH more compassionate towards anybody who I feel society tends to unfairly stigmatize. I work with LGBT causes, try to speak forcibly about violence against women and any kind of misogyny, have worked a little with SWOP Chicago, but have done so laying low. It’s that balancing act of…standing up for what you believe in while also trying not to invite scrutiny, knowing you have a book out, don’t piss off the publisher, etc. It’s been a challenge I’ll continue to work on.
But my feelings towards sex work and sex workers evolved after becoming an escort. They are a result of being in the business, knowing many sex workers, and this whole new compassion that took over me after what I went through after being outed. I know what it’s like on an intimate level to be labeled a slut and a whore, and stigmatized and bailed on by friends and family. I believe I can accurately advocate for my illness and its effects and support sex workers at the same time.
[…] the review, and the interview can be read on Tits and Sass, one of the best websites out there covering sex work-specific […]
Thanks so much for this interview.
[…] Tits and Sass interviews Suzy Favor Hamilton: […]
I enjoyed the interview and will buy the book based on it. My wife and I are going through something similar and the experience from outside might help us. IMO mental illness has a polarity to it. There are times when it is the best thing for you but is not accepted. And at other times it pulls one down. A support system is healthy.
Just finished your book, recommended by my daughter after hearing of my diagnosis of bipolar, and realizing how many years I suffered, my family suffered, and my marriage of 43 years. Although I was able to remain married and take care of my husband until he passed of cancer, it was after his death and I started dating, that my behavior became so risky. Living in LV, being an escort has always been on my bucket list, knowing I would be very good at it. I still struggle with the thought knowing how much money one can make. Your book makes me look at the profession is many different ways. I am just so angry and the time it has taken and the doctors I’ve seen,m the medications I’ve been on that still today at 64, I still struggle with day to day life, and what medication I need. Zoloft was terrible for me, not sure Effexor is much better, the doctor wants to avoid mood stabilizers and I feel she is completely wrong…and I fight wanting the mania, knowing how destructive it can be…such agonizing pain mentally and physically.
I even live in bipolar towns making myself chose who I am at the time, of course for me LV seems to be winning even when I know deep down how destructive it is for me, and exciting. I dislike being grounded in New England.
[…] circles? Didn’t she stand to suffer from the same whore stigma that’s ruined so many lives (see Suzy Favor Hamilton) ? To the contrary. It would seem that in today’s art world, one Ulman describes as more overrun […]
[…] gave me a heads up about an upcoming episode of Law & Order: SVU that appeared to mirror my story, at least the Vegas part. The preview I watched reinforced what was coming—the episode revolved […]