How Yaya DaCosta Healed After Reality TVThe actor, doula, and ‘America’s Next Top Model’ runner-up shares her mental health journey.
Actor and model Yaya DaCosta became a household name in 2004 after weathering the ups and downs of America’s Next Top Model and finishing as the runner-up on Cycle 3. Of course, her career stretched (and continues to extend) far beyond the controversial reality competition. Since wrapping up ANTM, Yaya has appeared in series like Chicago Med and The Lincoln Lawyer on top of playing the titular role in the 2015 Whitney Houston biopic.
When she’s not on screen, DaCosta channels her passion for helping others by working as a doula, advocating for better maternal health, helping to educate and coach others on healthy communication in relationships, and speaking about the importance of mental wellness. “I think if people are open to just sharing and inviting in support and not being embarrassed, then we would realize that what we think we're going through alone is actually providing a mirror for so many people around us when we speak about it,” she tells Wondermind.
Here, DaCosta shares more about what it was like healing after reality TV, the importance of being honest with yourself, and the power of simple affirmations.
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WM: How are you doing lately? How's your mental health?
Yaya DaCosta: I'm doing really well. I'm really proud of where I am right now and how I am flowing with the inevitable changes occurring in my personal life, in my work life, and just on the planet. There's a lot going on right now and a lot of input and a lot of invitations to step outside of ourselves and get caught up in what's going on. …. That can create a lot of desperation and helplessness in people. I am proud of how I've been able to not tune into that vibration and just kind of stay present and stay faithful and [in my] purpose and tap into the parts of my purpose that go beyond the medium of screens. So, yeah, I'm feeling good, a bit tired, and just really excited about what's next. I'm feeling very anticipatory, very full of potential.
WM: What’s your purpose, and how does it drive you in your day-to-day life or your career?
YD: My understanding of it has evolved, and the details of how, when, and where it gets expressed can change. But at the core, I understand that I am here as a physical emanation of the divine feminine. I'm here to be a catalyst and inspire people and contribute to the healing of the world through art, beauty, and magic.
So when it comes to my work as an actor, I'm now getting choosier with the roles that I accept. When it comes to my work with other people, whether it's birth work or mediation, I'm tuning into who they are and making sure that we're aligned and that it's a place where I can be my truest self. [I’m] making sure that everything I do, whether it's a new friendship or a new romantic relationship, feels aligned with the truth of who I am. And I can do that because I haven't done that in the past, and I know how detrimental that can be. So I'm newly and fully committed.
WM: When you reflect on your mental health journey, what time periods or moments stand out?
YD: The first one is my introduction to the public. … I would do these educational films when I was in junior high school in New York City, so I was introduced to the work early on. But I was introduced to the public, which is a very different thing, in 2004 when I participated in a reality show. That was really difficult for me because I only realized afterward that … they were leading us to places that felt inauthentic to ourselves in the moment.
When watching it air, it was even more of a dissonance between our realities, our memories, and what we saw and what the world was responding to. Because it was before social media existed, there was no outlet to speak up for ourselves. There was no way to lend our voice and share our truth in the face of public ridicule or blogs that existed in order to dissect and often criticize the participants. That took many, many years to heal from and shaped the way that I interact with the public even now. It took a lot to come to a place of feeling safe.
After such a period of feeling lost, of confused, betrayed, I definitely had to tap into my tools and then gather more tools, prioritize my self-love, prioritize forgiveness of myself for having made that choice and allowing myself to kind of get taken, but also forgiving others who I felt had wronged me at the time. And [I gathered] the courage to show up repeatedly in front of that same public—not as Yaya, but as whatever elements of my being showed up in different characters that I embodied. Acting had always been my dream, and I was just committed to not allowing that trauma to stop me from pursuing it. I'm really proud of that.
The other moment, which was way more impactful in my mental health journey, was my introduction to motherhood. Being responsible for a tiny human really showed me that I had to be in [good] health in order to show up for them with as much attentiveness as possible, as much patience as possible, as much joy as possible. When little babies look at you, when a child looks at their mother especially, it does a world of a difference if they're met with a smile versus a frown.
WM: What are some ways you've prioritized your mental health so you can show up better for your child and the other parents that you're helping through birth work?
YD: All of these things that I'm interested in are acts of service where I'm lending my time, my energy, my tools, my wisdom to others. With that much output, there has to be an even greater amount of input, what people will call “filling your cup.” When the cup is full of rest, when the cup is full of self-love, when the cup is full of confidence, when the cup is full of nourishing foods, all the things I do to make sure I feel ready and capable to show up wherever I'm going are less taxing. It’s easier to do those things with enthusiasm because it doesn't feel like it's draining me. And that's not always easy.
When my son started eating solids, I was like, “Oh, he won't eat this. He won't eat this.” And [my mom was] like, “Don't stress out so much about what he's eating each day, but try to look at the whole week. If he had broccoli on Tuesday and Friday, he's good. He doesn't have to have it every single day.” Take a step back and give yourself the grace of a greater amount of time to assess whether or not we're getting what we need. … As long as I have that balance throughout the year or the season, then I feel like I'm still on track.
But the day-to-day things are taking those baths, meditating, and praying. I practice self-reiki. I journal. I have a dedicated spiritual practice of ritual, repetition, routine, rest. I’m grounded in nature. I'm from New York City; I've always lived in apartments. I actually have a backyard now, so I make sure I'm always grounding, just walking around barefoot in the grass, being in nature. Getting hugs—oh my goodness, we don't get enough hugs, touch, caress, and eye contact. … We need to be seen, we need to be witnessed, we need to connect. There's not enough intimacy in our lives anymore, so I try to make space for those connections.
When we're living out of alignment, when we know that we're not really being who we say we are or who we want to be, it eats at us. Making choices that are in alignment with our truest and best selves is part of [good mental hygiene]. I think something a lot of women may struggle with or have worked through is owning our needs and our desires. A lot of us were needless girls, right? Because a needless girl is a polite girl, a well-behaved girl, a good girl. But once we start saying, “Oh, this is uncomfortable,” or “I need more,” then we get called names. We get called “difficult” as a woman in the workplace. We might get called “demanding” in relationships. Men oddly like to call women “crazy” in different aspects of our lives. People can look at a woman who knows what she wants and needs and expresses that healthily and look at that as just being inconvenient. It's just too much. Being really committed through stating those needs means that we get to have them fulfilled and be free and not be living with all of this inner turmoil, because it's uncomfortable living out of alignment with what we need and want. We can sustain. … Being honest and being communicative is very, very healing for me.
Lastly, as someone with a lot of water in my chart, as someone who feels very connected to the waters in nature and those elemental archetypes, crying and allowing ourselves to release in any way possible [is important]. Sometimes it doesn't come out as tears. Sometimes I'm dancing; sometimes I'm shouting. But crying is something that I feel is very therapeutic and I've come to enjoy. It's just like if you’re sick and you are holding it together because throwing it up is just unsightly and it's not ladylike and people are going to look at you crazy and goodness, is there even a bag nearby? If you're in your mind about it, then chances are you're going to continue to feel like crap. But if you just take a moment and you release it immediately … I feel so much better. Crying feels the same way to me.
I allow myself to cry when I need to—sometimes even in places that grandma might have told me I shouldn't, because she couldn't. [Whether it’s] in public, at work, whatever. I'm going to take my second. I'm going to go to the bathroom and do whatever I need to do. I'm going to release it because carrying that around is toxic. Alice Walker said, “Tears left unshed turn to poison in the ducts.” I read that in high school, and I always remembered that. I think I'm finally living it.
WM: Yes, crying in public feels weirdly good sometimes. There’s something about just letting it flow and forgetting about what others think for a second or the logistics of it.
YD: Actually, the other day I was in New York, and I was meeting my sister for her birthday on the beach, and I brought her some flowers. We were in Coney Island, which was madness because everybody at the end of summer is there. And my mother was with me, and she was carrying around a big cart, and I was like, “I'm not going to walk up and down the beach with all of this. We need to find out exactly where they are.” There was poor phone reception, but we saw this security guard, and my mother went up to her to ask for directions. When she turned around, we realized that the woman was sobbing.
She did point us in the right direction, but I just took one of the flowers out of the bouquet and gave it to her. The way that she responded, she was still very much in her personal space. She wasn't someone that was trying to get a hug or anything like that, but just being seen and gifted a flower, which represents so many things, was like permission to express herself and let her know it's going to be OK and you are supported by the universe. You're supported in whatever it is that you're going through.
WM: I love that. Simple, small gestures can mean so much, and we don’t have to overthink how we show our support.
YD: We literally did not say a word. I just smiled, and she put her hand on her heart and nodded, and that was it. But I was like, I want that. If I'm having a moment and someone notices, I want to feel that. I want the universe to send me a little angelic support.
WM: What message would you like to leave readers with?
YD: I can be really verbose, but the things that often land are the simplest because when we're in those moments of difficulty, we don't have a lot of room to be like, Oh, let me pick up this self-help book, or Let me do a whole… Sometimes it's just a soundbite. Like, the crack where the light comes in is just big enough for five words or 10 words. So we need to latch onto these things that can become mantras.
One [that could be helpful to share] comes from a woman named Imani Cohen, who's known on social media as @thehoodhealer. One of her quotes is, “If you have breath, you have options.” It's so simple, but it's so powerful because sometimes we feel helpless. I have to remember a lot of people didn't make it today. A lot of people stopped breathing, but I'm still here. My health is wealth. And if I can just have gratitude for that, that gratitude can open up doors of possibilities in my mind, and I can assess what my options are.
Another one comes from a children's book that was one of my son's favorites. … The book is called Close Your Eyes, and the author is Kate Banks. [The baby tiger] doesn't want to go to sleep because he's scared of the dark. And the [mama tiger] says, “Dark is just the other side of light. It's what comes before dreams.” I just love that so much because in times of darkness, we can forget that it's the other side of light, and without one, the other cannot exist.
So if we embrace the darkness, if we embrace these moments of hibernation—just like the animals do in the winter—then what we're doing is gathering up our resources, our strength, our fat reserves, everything that we need to learn and grow through that moment. We can't do that if we are scared of the dark, if we're mad at the dark, if we're berating the dark. The dark has a lot of gifts for us.
And that last part, “it's what comes before dreams,” is so beautiful because I love dreaming. A lot of information gets downloaded in our dreams if we can tap in and remember them. That's also a gift and just knowing that right after that moment of discomfort is where we're going to have the most fun and knowledge of self and adventure.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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