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From Milan to Manila, Ambra Gutierrez speaks loud and clear.

During a brief visit to Manila, she talks about respect, Victoria’s Secret, and how to not ask a girl out in an elevator.

Her eyes are large and luminous. Sometimes they seem like the bright eyes of a joyful girl, but at other moments they seem weary, sorrowful, glistening with tears.

Ambra Gutierrez sits across from me with her beautiful eyes, and it’s so easy to get lost in them. They’re the eyes of a woman who’s been around the world, modeled across London, Milan and New York, and now they’re the eyes you’ll see in a Victoria’s Secret campaign. Imagine all the glamor that she’s seen. The parties, the people, the clothes.

But these are eyes that have also seen too much.

I remember the journey she has taken to get here, and I say what I have been wanting to say since I found out we would be meeting her.

I take a deep breath. There’s a little tightness in my heart. I tell her, “Ambra, thank you, so much. Thank you for speaking up.” And we smile at each other, with some pain, some relief, much restraint. I don’t need to explain.

Every woman has a #MeToo story, and hers was one of the first ones. And it’s never easy when you’re one of the first ones to speak up, especially when you’re up against a name like Harvey Weinstein’s.

“After I spoke out, a lot of people didn’t believe me. I was going against a very strong person, who could change people’s views of me. I was called a liar, blackmailer, a prostitute. People didn’t want to hang out with me. I was turned away at restaurants in New York.”

If your reputation is ruined, you can’t work, no matter the truth of your cause. “In New York, my agency told me to take some time off from modeling, because people were scared of me. Brands didn’t want to hire me.

“I started to have eating disorders. I gained a lot of weight. Depression crept in. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I remember asking, why me?”

“After I spoke out, a lot of people didn’t believe me. I was going against a very strong person, who could change people’s views of me. I was called a liar, blackmailer, a prostitute. People didn’t want to hang out with me. I was turned away at restaurants in New York.”

But sometimes, all you need to do is find a safe space. Ambra flew to the Philippines and found sanctuary. “My brother, my mom, they were there for me. Of course, they know me, and they know all of that was not true.”

Eventually, you find the strength to get up, to keep going. “There was something inside telling me to go on. ‘This is why I’m here, because I have to fight for something.’ I kept following this instinct, and I went on with my life. I did the best, knowing that I was starting from less than zero. But I kept going.”

IN HER OWN WORDS

Ambra’s experience has opened her eyes to the difficulties that different people have to deal with. But she has learned that, with the right support, you can cope, and that’s what led to her podcast, In Our Words.

“Why would you feel the need to hide who you are and the problems you have? We all have problems. So, it’s not something you have to be ashamed of. After all those experiences, I felt that I could inspire people. I wanted to have people share their own experiences, because that’s something I did to help myself. I never went to therapy, but I was listening to people, and I heard the craziest experiences. That made me feel lucky, because I felt that I still had possibilities in my life.”

On the podcast, Ambra and her guests talk about their own ordeals and the roads they took to healing. “You can speak out, to help others. I feel strongly about telling different stories, about mental health or something else, of people who overcame those difficulties, who now have a sort of solution.”

PROTECTING HER OWN

Her voice is soft and soothing when talking about the variety of issues covered by her podcast, but when I ask about Model Alliance, she becomes a lot more animated, her speech more emphatic. The movement, founded by Sara Ziff, seeks fair treatment for those in the modeling industry.

Why is there even a need for something like this? “Not many people know the bad side of modeling. Everybody knows that models are very beautiful, very confident. But most don’t know that many models experience so many problems. Health, payment issues from agencies, a lot of sexual harassment.”

Worse, many girls start modeling in their early teens, making them particularly vulnerable to abuse. “If you are fourteen, they will tell you to cut your hair, make it pink, and you will do it, because you don’t know yet if it’s right or wrong.”

Ambra herself started modeling at age 19. “When I started in Milan, the first things they told me were, you have to lose weight, you have to do this. But I never followed anybody’s rules. I’m very stubborn like that, and I think that helped me a lot in this industry.”

The Model Alliance set up the RESPECT program to address this and other problems in the fashion industry. “We want models to start modeling only at 18 years old. I started in lingerie, and I don’t feel that underage girls should feel like a woman or should know how to model lingerie. And businesses should not hire young girls to sell something that is for women anyway.”

MEN, TOO

It’s an understatement to say I’m thrilled with her work. For a few minutes, we’re not writer and interviewee; we’re just two women talking. And I ask her a question that I’ve encountered pretty often: What do you think men can do?

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“First of all, listen. You listen, you empathize. Right there, you are already helping someone. Then, learn to act in a way that makes women feel safe instead of threatened. Men and women experience things differently, and men need to understand that women can feel vulnerable in different situations.”

A lot of guys do listen, and genuinely want to help. So now they have a new dilemma: Is it still okay to ask women out? And how can I do that without being a creep?

First of all, here’s what creepy behavior might look like: “One time, I was in the elevator, going up to my place. There was this guy, and he was trying to talk to me. He said, ‘So where are you going?’ I was like, I’m in the elevator, I can go anywhere!” Ambra laughs.

Here’s how it could have gone differently: “Maybe he could have said, ‘Good morning,’ or ‘how was your day?’ Or even ‘You look beautiful,’ and I would appreciate it. Maybe he can just say, ‘Oh this is my business card,” or ‘Can I give you my number?’ Something that can make a woman feel secure.”

Ambra suggests, “Men can learn to act in a way that makes women feel safe instead of threatened. I feel like if you know how to act, you can create a safer, better way of approaching, so that there would not be any misunderstanding.” She pauses. “Then maybe you can get more dates!” she says, laughing.

A MODEL LIFE

She’s been through a lot, and she’s worked all over the world. Her beautiful eyes have seen much. “In Milan, it felt like everybody wanted to change me. It wasn’t something that made me happy. Then I got signed by an agency in London. When I moved there, I felt like everybody loved me for who I was. I was myself, and they appreciated me and what I was doing, fashion or lingerie or whatever else. It was then that I started loving modeling.”

Maybe, like Ambra, a change of venue is all that’s needed. “In the Philippines, they love me for being half-Filipino. In Europe, they appreciated the fact that I was Italian but also exotic. In New York, it’s a melting pot of people, and I was working because of that.”

Of course, you can’t talk to Ambra without bringing up her most recent triumph: Victoria’s Secret. Her eyes light up. “Lingerie, bikinis, that has always been my type of modeling. So, Victoria’s Secret is like the ultimate goal. I did castings around May. They chose 15 models from the agency, and I didn’t hear anything afterwards. I was thinking, I’m still happy I got the casting. After two months, I was in Italy, and I received an email. ‘Are you available on these days? To shoot for Victoria’s Secret?’ I was like, ‘What? They chose me?’ I couldn’t believe it. I thought, maybe they made a mistake.”

She speaks confidently now, but she admits to some fear. “A few years ago, nobody wanted to see me or speak to me. I was always afraid that, because of what happened, people would never choose me to work with. It’s like a sort of trauma. ‘Oh no, they’re going to find out, they’re going to hear all those lies again, and they’re not gonna hire me because they’re scared.’”

As a lingerie model and coming from her apparent exile, this is more than a triumph. “For me it’s a huge achievement, not just for my modeling career, but also as an understanding that my life has changed again, that I’m attracting again the big brands I was working with before. It really makes me happy. I was like, ‘Wow. Finally.’ After three years. Losing everything. Finally, I am getting it back.” It’s a resounding announcement that Ambra is back, and she’s got plenty to say.

“Things are already changing. Many women are talking, and it’s time to start listening. We have a strong power right now, in our hands, in our voice. So, let’s use it.” And you should listen.

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