Model 'was always focusing on the light'

Eight years ago, Lauren Nicole Zussman was on a path to destruction.

She’d had success as a model, but she was an alcoholic and had just finished a binge while on a Memorial Day vacation at Lake Havasu. She ended up in the hospital, near death.

Days later, she walked into a local bank and told her story to an OCC counselor who worked at the bank.

“I want you in my office at 4 p.m. tomorrow,” Zussman’s mother Lynda recalled the counselor telling Lauren.

Zussman, who died unexpectedly Monday, turned her life around after that meeting with the counselor. She dedicated the last eight years of her life to telling her story to youths so they would avoid the same troubles.

Zussman, 26, died of apparent heart failure while jogging through New York’s Central Park.

“She was always focusing on the light instead of the darkness,” Lynda Zussman said. “And she brought that to the people she helped.”

Zussman was mostly known within the modeling world as a designer fit model, working for various agencies and modeling clothes for designers Thakoon, Proenza Schouler and Jill Stuart, said Ford Models Inc. Vice President Wendy Ford.

“She was very professional with a lot of technical experience, which made her a desired fit model in the business,” Ford said. “She was an awesome model and got to where she was meant to be and did her job really well.”

Zussman worked closely with designers, trying on clothes before they went to the runways to make sure they fit and looked perfect.

Proenza Schouler said she was just the model they needed when they were trying to get their designs ready.

“With Lauren’s contribution, we would turn our design ideas over to the big world,” Proenza Schouler designer Weronika Olbrychska said. “We miss the time we have spent with Lauren and feel grateful to have gotten to know her in her bright, if all too short, life.”

But it was her work outside modeling for which friends and family will remember her most.

“She didn’t want her beauty to be a distraction,” said Lynda Zussman, who is a teacher at Newport Harbor High School. “God gave her a second chance, and she found herself. Her death wasn’t in vain.”

Zussman graduated from her Calabasas high school early and attended OCC at 16. Zussman’s parents remember their daughter prior to her near-death experience as often nervous and angry.

Their relationship was strained, and they worried about their daughter.

But Lauren turned herself around after she got help. Compassion became her first priority, and her relationship with her parents began to flourish.

She was eight years’ sober when she died.

“She had a lot of tumbles,” Zussman said of her daughter. “But when she was down and out, all she had to do was help a girl.”

She attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly. When she was younger, she would fly to New York to work as model, but would always return to Costa Mesa to attend meetings and speak to struggling local youths. She spoke at Costa Mesa High School in 2001, and was doing a lot of public speaking during the last five years while she lived in Manhattan.

She had started at New York University to get her degree in life coaching more than a year ago.

“She was a real natural at modeling,” Lynda Zussman said. “She loved the fashion and posing, but it wasn’t fulfilling.”

What Zussman did find satisfying was her work with others. She would often sponsor four people at AA at one time, helping them on weekends with their 12 steps.

Her mother remembers her Thanksgiving visit and spending half her time helping shelters or others in need.

“She knew she had a higher calling,” Lynda said. “She gave her strength. Her biggest lesson in life was to use your muscle — self-determination.”

“I loved my daughter very much,” her father, David Zussman, said.

Lauren Nicole Zussman is survived by her father, David; mother, Lynda; sister, Ashlie; her fiance, Alex Scott; aunts Judy Ticktin, Pat Brown and Tami Zussman; and uncles Harold Ticktin, Roger Brown and Marc Zussman.

Services will be at the Hillside Memorial in Los Angeles on Friday.

In lieu of flowers, the family is asking for gifts to be donated to the Orangewood Children’s Foundation at 1575 E. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 619-0200.


DANIEL TEDFORD may be reached at (714) 966-4632 or at daniel.tedford@latimes.com.

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