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Kathy Ireland is 'grateful' for a career that 'has nothing to do with my appearance': 'I want to be free to age'

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The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Kathy Ireland is a firm believer in not being put in a box, and it's little wonder why. Though she rose to fame as a supermodel who graced 13 consecutive Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue covers, Ireland has dared to branch out into numerous other fields: acting, writing, fitness, music and retail — the latter venture seeing billions of dollars in sales. 

Most recently, the model-turned businesswoman has turned her attention to rehabilitation and health advocacy. In September she launched the kathy ireland Recovery Center in Laconia, N.H., the first in what is expected to be a nationwide network of outpatient recovery centers providing treatment for mental health issues and substance abuse regardless of a patient’s insurance policy or ability to pay. 

"This program is to expand access to equitable, affordable quality care on a larger scale through synergistic collaboration," says Ireland, who plans to open five new locations by next spring. "Physical and mental health disorders are an exponential crisis. And it's wonderful to work with such great people who are making a difference."

The center, she adds, aims to break the "vicious cycle" of substance abuse and mental health challenges like anxiety and depression that's been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. When it comes to putting her own mental well-being first, the devout Christian tells Yahoo Life that leaning on her faith is paramount. 

Kathy Ireland opens up about mental health. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Kathy Ireland opens up about mental health. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

"Without it... I'm a disaster," she says. "I don't impose it on others, yet it's everything to me. I can't compartmentalize. I can't just have it be a part of my life — it's my overall life, my faith in Jesus. And it just grows every day. He's my rock. So when the world is crazy and everything around us is out of control, he's my rock and he's the anchor of my soul... He gives me strength to do things that I certainly can't do on my own."

Looking after herself means "keeping my priorities in order," namely, her faith, her family and her service to others through her work. "And when I don't honor those values, I'm a mess. I'm just not effective at anything. And I don't cope very well. So it's really my faith that centers me."

Getting a good night's sleep, taking on meaningful projects and spending time doing an outdoor activity, such as hiking or surfing, also bring the seventh-generation Californian joy. But the mom of three understands that she can't help others unless her own basic needs are met. 

"It's like when we get on an airplane," she says. "The flight attendant says 'put on your own oxygen mask, then you can help those around you.' If we don't take care of ourselves, we're not going to be any good to anybody."

When it comes to business, Ireland emphasizes that people are more important than profits. Being able to turn down an opportunity when something isn't right has also served her well as she oversees a veritable empire. 

"I was 40 years old before I learned that 'no' is a complete sentence," she says. "'No, thank you' is better, but 'no' works. We can't do everything at every moment. I think our life really comes in seasons, and we've got to prioritize at each season what that looks like. And oftentimes we have to say 'no' to good things in order to say 'yes' to great things."

Ireland is well past the season of her life that was devoted to modeling, something she always saw as a way to earn money toward a future business rather than a long-term career. The former cover star says that perspective helped her navigate the industry, one she's been outspoken about. 

"I never took my appearance too seriously because I saw early on how fickle people were and the look of the moment was always changing," she says. "I mean, beautiful girls were not making it as a model because the look at the moment would just change. And so I made a decision early on [that] I wasn't going to take criticism or compliments too seriously. I was going to do the job, get my paycheck, and that was that."

When she launched her own retail business, the company had an "internal document" devoted to "the aging of Kathy Ireland," she reveals. 

"So when I was in my 20s, I was planning for what was life going to be like in my 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond, however many years I get," the 58-year-old says, calling the document a plan that addresses how "I'm not going to try to look like I'm 20 when I'm not. I want to be free to age."

Today, she's "grateful" that her career has "nothing to do with my appearance," noting, "I always knew that I belonged on the other side of the lens." Whereas she started out with a "job description that was once 'shut up and pose,'" she's spent the last several years relishing the opportunity to use her voice and elevate projects close to her heart, whether it's tackling substance abuse, bringing quality goods to the public or sponsoring productions like the upcoming The Waltons: Homecoming special airing soon on The CW.

There's a lot of irons in the fire, but she wouldn't have it any other way. 

"Don't let anybody put you in a box," she says. "Don't let them put limits on you. And don't let anyone's opinion of you define or destroy you. I'm just way too odd-shaped. I don't fit in anyone's box."

—Video produced by Anne Lilburn; additional reporting by Kevin Polowy.

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