DePaul student overcomes obstacles, starts modeling

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DePaul student Miguel Zambrano achieved his goals and signed to a modeling agency after facing years of adversity for his sexual orientation and weight and overcoming an eating disorder. (Photo courtesy of MIGUEL ZAMBRANO)

DePaul student Miguel Zambrano achieved his goals and signed to a modeling agency after facing years of adversity for his sexual orientation and weight and overcoming an eating disorder. (Photo courtesy of MIGUEL ZAMBRANO)

Last spring, DePaul student Miguel Zambrano stripped down and submitted his bare photos to several Chicago-based modeling agencies as a “why not?” effort. There was always a part of him that hoped for a result; he had dreamed about being a model since he was a kid, but he was just taking a chance.

“When I was in middle school, I would always go to the socks and underwear sections at Target or Meijer and see men posing on the packages that were insanely ripped,” Zambrano said. “They just looked so confident. They looked like they were proud of themselves.”

He never believed it would be easy. Reminders of how hard it was going to be surrounded him.

“In sixth grade, we had to share our dream careers, and I said underwear model. A boy in the class said, ‘You could never do that,’” he said.

His desire to be like the men on the plastic undergarment packages sparked his early love of the spotlight, but the dream was tarnished by obstacles he faced as a child. Zambrano was overweight growing up, weighing 160 pounds at the age of 12.

“I was already being bullied for being gay in middle school, but then it started being about my weight, too,” he said.

Zambrano was raised in what he called an extremely conservative, upper-class part of Naperville, which is why he felt he found himself standing out often. The attention only increased when Zambrano joined the cheerleading team.

“I was one of the only males, so I stood out. I was the only Hispanic, so I stood out. I was the only gay person, so I stood out,” he said. “It was hard for me to not feel uncomfortable for standing out.”

He was stuck in the spotlight, but not in any of the ways he wanted. He continued cheerleading and faced his bullies with the advice of his ever-supportive mother.

“It was hard as a mother to watch my son go through so much. He kept things so quiet,” Miguel’s mother, Laura Thomas, said.

It was his mother’s compassionate words that kept him going, helping him become a confident person. But being the active cheerleader and aspiring underwear model that he was, Zambrano still found his weight and body image to be a hindrance.

Then he got sick.

He was diagnosed with endoplasmic pneumonia. It killed his appetite. He routinely did not keep food down. Every couple of days, he would drop a little bit of weight. Zambrano graduated middle school with just over half his initial weight at 89 pounds.

“Later, I would blame the pneumonia for my weigh loss, even though it was already gone,” he said. “When I started to turn yellow from malnutrition, I was admitted to a hospital and fed through an IV.”

It wasn’t until this hospital visit that a doctor proposed Zambrano was suffering from a mental illness. The doctor suggested that Zambrano was depressed and should be sent to a facility for other kids facing the same problems. Zambrano was still a minor, not even 15 years old yet, and begged his mother not to sign off on it. Trusting her son, she refused the doctor’s order.

“His doctor told me he might’ve been depressed. I got scared. We took him to a social worker just so he could talk to a professional,” Thomas said.

Zambrano’s body was still shrinking upon entering high school, where he became isolated.

“I thought the name-calling and teasing and bullying would stop. I didn’t want anyone to look at me,” he said.

There’s a stigma among mental illness and eating disorders. They often are not recognized or detected because they simply aren’t believed to exist, and Zambrano’s parents were no exception in refusing to acknowledge his problem.

“I couldn’t talk to my dad, who’s an immigrant from Mexico, because he didn’t know it was an illness,” he said. “I didn’t even know if it was part of puberty or being a teenager.”

One weekend, Zambrano’s godmother, who hadn’t seen him in over a year visited, from New York. She thought he was out of earshot when she expressed fear to his dad about how skinny he looked.

“I always heard these things coming from people who didn’t like me, but hearing it from a person who cared about my well-being made me realize that it had to stop,” he said.

He started to work out in his basement. He kept cheerleading. He turned to a healthy diet. It was hard work, but he wanted to change. He crafted the body that still struggled to be on the cover of Calvin Klein packages.

“I overcame my obstacles because the people I look up to aren’t on the cover of ‘GQ,’ but those who support me,” Zambrano said.

He finds solace in the fact that he is still growing and learning. Zambrano says he’s still an individual recovering from an eating disorder. He can still recite the number of calories in a chai tea latte by heart, but he’s confident when he says that he didn’t let himself become a victim, which is why he’s advancing in an industry so reliant on appearance.

“He is such a remarkable young man. I swear, Miguel has enough confidence now for three men his age,” Thomas said. “He has this aura to him that people feed off of, and it’s amazing. My son is an inspiration to me.”

When an email response from Prestige Du Monde Models found its way to Zambrano’s inbox a few months after sending in his photos, he initially avoided reading it out of sheer nervousness. His aunt had to coax him into reading it, and by the end of the email, he was a sobbing, signed model.