From Chaos to Couture: A Hollywood Stylist Gets Personal About Mental Health (Guest Column)
"I learned how not to spiral into my familiar miasma of anger and frustration. I accepted who I am," writes Andrew Gelwicks. "What I hated most about myself — my love for dresses and those gold, sequin Mary Jane pumps — paved the way to what I am doing now."
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month in May, Hollywood stylist Andrew Gelwicks — who has worked with actors Tommy Dorfman, Brandon Flynn, KJ Apa and Dascha Polanco — writes about his interest in fashion from a young age, the self-hatred that developed in school and his eventual diagnosis of severe clinical depression and suicidal ideation. In his junior year of high school, he moved to Salt Lake City to a residential treatment center for teenage boys. Afterward, he came out as gay and embraced his career as a fashion stylist.
My sister had a pair of gold, sequin Mary Jane pumps that I loved. They sparkled in the light and made that tap, tap, tap on the hardwood floors that sounded so elegant and sophisticated. Growing up, they ended up on my feet more than my sister’s.
Instances like these made up much of my childhood. Prancing in my sister’s dance costumes, teetering around in my mom’s heels, dressing up as the Wicked Witch of the West for Halloween (or just any random weekday night). My parents embraced my feminine flair, taking photos of me in my sparkling skirts and Beauty and the Beast Belle costume. But this was kept a tightly guarded secret, never to leave the household.
As a young boy in the suburbs of conservative Ohio, my head and heart belonged to princesses, clothes and Pocahontas. Maintaining my Barbie’s reputation as best dressed and most popular required much of my attention. Ken and G.I. Joe languished somewhere in the closet, along with toy race cars and a football. But though I did my best to keep my interests quiet, in the wider world mean names started flying.
Entering middle school, my peers’ words sharpened. The playground became a war zone for sarcastic abuse. I was learning new, specific expectations for boys, which included video games, fart jokes, non-stop sports talk and displays of physical dominance. My passion for all things The Wizard of Oz was not among them.
I played the part as best I could. I bought baseball cards, joined Fantasy Football, struggled while playing second base in Little League and, of course, got a subscription to Sports Illustrated.
Every morning, while eating cereal before heading to the bus stop, my dad would coach me on sports trivia facts from the day’s newspaper. I would share them with my friends at lunch, showing how in-the-know I was. Kobe Bryant? Love him! March Madness was starting? Finally!
All the while, I continued to steal my sister’s Seventeen magazines, watch Project Runway and The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency after school and subscribe to Vogue under my mom’s name.
This never-ending masquerade was not only tiring, but the duality was also a painful denial of my true self. And while it may have been a temporary solution to get me through recess periods and summers at camp, that undercurrent of sadness manifested into deep, raging waves of self-hatred — and increasing thoughts of ending my life.
As a teenager, I learned about my genetic predisposition to depression. It ran strong in my father’s family and was a dark cloud over much of his life. It became clearer to me that, with genetics working against me, in addition to society’s messages blasted my way, I was trapped. And so my mental state in high school became increasingly vulnerable. My emotional life turned desperate.
My world crashed down on me. Social media harassment, vicious remarks in the hallway, being excluded from my group of male friends ... I couldn’t take it anymore. My straight-A report cards were now littered with Bs and Cs. AP classes eluded my focus. Formerly active in extracurriculars and vice president of student council, my social status plummeted along with my desire to live. I could barely get out of bed.
Reading Heart of Darkness in English class, I fully related to Conrad’s argument that there is a fine line between the world of civilized order and pure savagery. My life had descended into its own jungle of chaos.
Eventually, I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression and suicidal ideation. My psychologist called my parents into his office for an emergency session. He insisted they sign a release of liability, so he would not be held accountable if I took my life. He felt he had done all he could.
My scared parents knew they had to lift me out of my status quo. Radical intervention was needed. Thankfully, my parents were not only willing, but financially able, to provide it. I am incredibly grateful they did not have a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. Instead, they believed the cost of getting me proper help would not only let them keep their son but also bring back the son they once knew.
My family and I agreed I should be transplanted across the country, in December of my junior year, to Salt Lake City. I entered into a residential treatment center for teenage boys, who were struggling with similar issues. In this intensive treatment setting, over the course of six months, I was able to get out from under the weight of my hopelessness. I gained valuable tools needed to confront and manage my emotions. Forced to challenge my worst thoughts and rawest emotions, I learned how not to spiral into my familiar miasma of anger and frustration. I accepted who I am.
My desire for death was replaced with a longing for life. Instead of falling asleep at night with hopes I would never wake up, my thoughts were replaced with dreams of big cities, travel, fashion and opportunities.
I returned to my high school in Ohio, and came out as gay with no reservations. I became president of the Gay Straight Alliance and worked hard to change the mindset around me. No shrinking, no apologizing. I later went on to college and joined a fraternity. I studied abroad and I landed fashion-oriented internships each summer in New York City. After graduation, I moved to Manhattan and started working for GQ.
I now have my career as a celebrity fashion stylist. The work is exciting, high-energy and immensely fulfilling. Photo shoots, fashion weeks, travel, glamour. And instead of putting myself in dresses and heels, I work with renowned designers and dress my clients in the world’s most beautiful gowns.
Working in my midtown Manhattan studio, I often find myself thinking of the young boy, hiding in the closet (literally and figuratively), frightened of his own dreams. What I hated most about myself — my love for dresses and those gold, sequin Mary Jane pumps — paved the way to what I am doing now.
I have made it to the other side, where my world revolves around making my clients feel beautiful and confident when they step on to the red carpet, hundreds of cameras flashing and people yelling their name. It is a life I never had allowed myself to believe was possible or within reach. I recognize that maintaining my mental health will always be part of my life. But I never stop reflecting on how far I have come. I am endlessly filled with hope for all I am going to accomplish.
I have happily traded in my football jerseys for Fendi, sadness for satchels and, perhaps most importantly, I have switched out my Sports Illustrated subscription for Vogue — this time, in my own name.