Sweat, Sleep, and the Sea: Navigating Work and Wellness with Natalia McDonald of Freedom Models

There is perhaps no one who personifies the hustle of the industry better than agents. The Hollywood archetype portrays them as turning schmoozing into an art form and perpetually placing frenzied phone calls, yet in reality it’s one of those shapeshifting jobs that seems determined to defy definition. It’s part organization, part negotiation, part crisis management, part professional people person. It requires the shrewd mind of a businessperson, the gentle touch of a therapist, and the strong stomach of someone who can ride out the rocky highs and lows that accompany “talent” in its many forms. Behind every starlet and supermodel is a team of agents who know their schedule like the back of their hand, are on call at all hours, and probably answer more emails in an afternoon than you do in a month. The fashion industry in particular is notorious for hectic schedules, heightened stress, and a constant sense of hustle barely concealed by the glimmering facade of glamour, and the agents are the ones on the front lines of the battlefield.

It’s the kind of compelling and all-consuming career that could wreak havoc on your mental health, even in our sun-soaked self care mecca of Los Angeles. It’s the kind of job that makes you wonder incredulously how they manage to balance it all, how they keep from burning out, how they have a seemingly boundless supply of grace under pressure. This is why we jumped at the opportunity to chat with Natalia McDonald, the Women’s Director at the LA based Freedom Models agency and the driving force behind in-demand models like Cara Taylor, Luna Bijl, and Lara Mullen, about her experience as a veteran agent in the industry and how she learned to make wellness not only a priority, but a daily practice.

Hot on the heels of Mental Health Awareness Month, it feels more important than ever to talk to the people around around us about what mental health means to them and what wellness looks like to them, because every time we do, we shatter the stigma a little further and open up the safety net a little wider. True wellness is both a journey and a destination, and sharing the things that we do to keep burnout at bay and take care of our minds and bodies, from sweating to sleeping to therapy, is a powerful and pertinent reminder that we are not in this struggle alone. Plus, if a high-powered Hollywood agent can find the time to infuse wellness into her everyday, than it bears repeating that we probably can too. Natalia was kind enough to chat with us about the common misconceptions surrounding her job, the beauty of setting boundaries, and the power of sweating daily (preferably in an infrared sauna). She also spilled her favorite self care spots all over the city. Dive in below!

Live FAST: Hi Natalia! I want to start by chatting a little bit about your impressive career. Tell us a little bit about what you do and how you got to this point.

Natalia McDonald: I found myself in this job in a really roundabout way. I moved to London to go to university and honestly didn’t even want to go to. I didn’t really believe in university but I felt pressured by society. I was interested in fashion and wanted to live in a big city so I moved to London and did loads of internships – buying, marketing, merchandising, styling – and then from there, someone suggested I work for a modeling agency. I was like, “I’ll give this a go,” and interned for two weeks and never left. My skill set just really fit with the job.

LF: What would you say is the skill set needed to be a successful agent?

NM: I would say being super organized and problem solving. Basically 50% of the job is problem solving and sort of crisis and conflict management. You are constantly dealing with problems and making things work for everybody. You need to be able to deal with people, because everything can be great – the client can be great, the model can be great, etc – but if somebody has a bad day, it’s just like a chain reaction.

LF: The fashion industry is known for constant hustle and stressful schedules, which is one of the reasons I was interested in chatting with you about mental health, because your job puts you in the trenches everyday. Was your career what inspired you to make wellness a priority in your life?

NM: It’s always been a priority. I’ve suffered from different things throughout my life and I’ve always been interested in how to heal myself in a natural way. Ever since I did the raw food diet for a year when I was 17 or 18, I’ve been looking for different ways to look after myself. There are so many different aspects of wellness that exist here in LA. My job is extremely stressful and it has taken awhile, but now I’m really good at balancing.

I was a teenage girl who went through a rough time, and I can really relate to my girls about how hard it is to grow up. We have girls from age 14 and up, but I generally deal with 18-22 year olds, and that’s tough. You’re growing into your body, you’re learning to like yourself, and you’re learning to look after yourself. And, you know, LA is a fun place so there’s lots of opportunities for them to go out and party. My job is to help them stay as sane as possible because teenagers are going to be teenagers.

LF: Do you feel like mentorship is a big part of your job?

NM: Definitely. I try to make sure I’m giving out good and positive messages to the girls and inspiring them and always being there for them. As a young model, sometimes you can get caught up in everything that’s going on and you can feel really alone. I would say my job is part model agent and part therapist.

LF: What would you say is your favorite part of the job?

NM: Making money! The best emails you get as an agent are when you wake up in the morning to one “confirm” after another. I’m not even making the money for myself, I’m making the money for the girls. It’s fun knowing that you’re changing lives. We have girls who come from nothing and they make this money and buy their parents a house.

LF: What are some common misconceptions people have about your job?

NM: My family literally thinks that I make people’s appointments for a living. I think people really underestimate how difficult it can be dealing with people, and especially teenagers. I mean, ask any parent who has a teenager. I have about forty. You deal with so many different personalities. People also don’t realize that, even in LA, which has a smaller market than New York or London, we still work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

LF: How do you keep your mental health balanced with that level of 24/7 commitment?

NM: Boundaries. You’ve really got to be good with boundaries. I’m firm with people. If it’s urgent, I will whip out my computer and deal with it come rain or shine, but if its not urgent I will tell the client that it will be done tomorrow. Sometimes people will be incredibly persistent and you have to remind them that it’s Sunday and you’re on the beach and you don’t have a printer or scanner with you. It’s taken a good few years to learn to say no. It’s hard!

LF: Especially with women, it can sometimes feel like there’s this endless pressure to take on everything and not let anyone down. Saying no feels like one of the hardest skills you have to learn, and it’s definitely bound up in the mental health conversation.

NM: For me, over the past couple of years, it has been about learning to know yourself and knowing what you need. For me, I need sleep. If I don’t get enough sleep, I’m just not as good at my job, not as good at being a friend, and I spend way too much money. I’ve definitely found it hard, especially with friends who want to hang out, but I try to look at it like I’m busy. I have plans. I have plans with myself to sleep in my bed. My job is so full on and I speak to people all day everyday. I need time on my own. You don’t have to explain yourself. I would also say that nothing good happens after 1AM.

LF: What does wellness mean to you?

NM: Wellness is being the best version of yourself. It’s just when you feel your best in your own skin. For me, that’s waking up on a weekend when I’ve had a full night of sleep and being able to jump out of bed and feel good.

LF: How do you practice wellness in your everyday life? 

NM: Find a good exercise that works for you. For me, it’s sweating. I have to sweat everyday. I really like being hot – that’s something I find very calming. So I do a lot of hot yoga, especially early in the morning. I find it really good to do some movement in the morning, and then sweat. Also the infrared sauna – that is literally my favorite discovery of the year. Growing up, I had really bad acne so anything related to skin, I’m like, tell me more. I’d read a bunch about the infrared sauna – it’s much hotter than a regular sauna and the infrared light promotes your cells to heat up and then the cells push their own toxins out, because any sort of disease or inflammation is just a build up of toxins in your cells. The infrared sauna just speeds up the process. It’s about 150 degrees. My favorite spot is Pause on Washington Blvd. They have sensory deprivation tanks too, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet because I love the infrared sauna so much. It’s 30 minutes and you just lay there and sweat an insane amount. Don’t go when you’re tired – you need to have some energy to get through it. You sleep really well and it helps with jet lag and anxiety. I’ve recommended it to so many people, I should have a loyalty card. It’s like you’re in airplane mode. No one can speak to you, which is also what I love about any exercise class. Sometimes I need that space and silence.

LF: Is setting aside time for yourself a big part of your wellness practice?

NM: Definitely. When I wake up, everyone around the world has been awake for a long time. I often wake up at 6AM and already have a full inbox. Mondays can be really hard for me.

LF: What do you do if you find yourself overloaded on a busy Monday?

NM: Just leave the office. Go get some food. Reset and re-attack it. When I was younger, I used to worry about not getting back to people right away, but you just have to remind yourself that you are not Wonder Woman. There’s only so much you can achieve in a day. I know I’m really good at my job, but I only have two hands.

LF: That’s the complicated dichotomy of this whole “you have as many hours in the day as Beyoncé” idea. It’s motivating to a certain extent but then there’s a point where it flips and starts making you feel bad about yourself. Do you ever meditate?

NM: I like the Unplug app. There are some good ones for helping you fall sleep. I actually really like going to Unplug in Santa Monica because they have some good group meditations – there’s a particularly good one that’s an energy detox on the weekends. But I will say the more hot yoga I do, the less meditating I need to do. I also love essential oils for calming and grounding yourself. I love vetiver.

I live by the beach, and the ocean makes such a difference. I try to go sit on the beach and just get my feet in the sand. Grounding is an important thing. Having some sort of a physical connection to nature just calms you.

LF: It’s so true. What is the most out there thing you’ve tried?

NM: Not long ago, I took one of my friends from London to the Integratron in Joshua Tree and we did a sound bath. I’ve done loads of sound baths but the backstory of the Integratron is that the guy was trying to prepare for aliens and make a time machine that would act like a fountain of youth, and my friend was just like…no. My friends in London have this notion that I’ve become a total hippie, with my surfing and my crystals.

I’ve also always been interested in food and how it affects you. The whole office just got into the Blood Type Diet. You can buy these blood tests on Amazon and the book suggests foods that would be good for or bad for you, based on your blood type. When your body is working like it should, you have so much more energy and that immediately affects your mood. Every person’s system is so different.

LF: It’s the same for wellness. We’re all trying so hard to reach optimal wellness that the wellness culture itself sometimes feels fad-driven. Consistency is key, even if that’s not the sexy answer.

NM: You don’t go to the gym and get a six pack in one day. I always tell the girls if you just change one thing and do that thing every day – like get a juice instead of a sugary coffee – over time its going to make a massive difference. There’s such a pressure to change every part of your life all at once. You have to make a few small changes that will add up and make you feel better. And then cut out the things that don’t make you feel good.

LF: What about combating creative burnout? How do you recharge?

NM: Sleeping. Sometimes I just need a Sunday to myself. I just turn my phone off and I don’t leave bed. It’s such an indulgent thing – I don’t do it very often but if I do feel mentally burnt out, that’s my top thing. Order yourself some nice food, get your Netflix on, and take that time for yourself. And take a bath! I’m all about the salts, the oils, the candles. All the girls in the office laugh at me because I’ll get 20 kilograms of bath salts delivered, but I use them everyday.

LF: Can you spill some secrets about your go to wellness spots in LA?

 NM: Pause, the infrared sauna, is definitely #1. I really like Modo Yoga, too. Their hot yoga is not too hot – I’m not trying to die. I also really like The Now. They’re really calming for a quick 30 minute massage. Sometimes I’ll do that on a Saturday night while my friends are going out or doing a dinner. We all try to squeeze our wellness into the cracks in our busy schedules, but it’s so much better if you make it into a real treat, like this is my fun Saturday night out. There’s also a spa called Raya, which is a European day spa, but they do great facials. They’re quite serious. They’re not nice massages. They get some work done. And then Osea, that’s more of my relaxing place. I like to do a mixture of both.

LF: What’s on your bucket list, professionally or personally?

NM: I love to travel. I always have a running list of places I want to go. I want to go to Guatemala to surf. I just went to Panama and did a surf camp. When I was younger, I was crazy about my career and how I was going to get where I wanted to be, and then when I took a step back and started looking after myself, things got a lot easier. If you’re good at your job, you’re going to get there. When I was in my mid-twenties, I was really concerned about where I was going to be at 30, and then I turned 30 last year and decided not to plan so much. I’m just enjoying.

LF: Why do you feel like talking about mental health is important?

NM: Therapy is such a great thing. I’ve had plenty of therapy. I would suggest it to anyone. You can never talk about how you feel too much. Often, everything that you’re feeling inside is the same as someone else and as soon as you share it, all that stuff gets broken down. I’m really into Brené Brown at the moment and all the stuff she says about shame and guilt and the things we as women think all the time, especially about our bodies. I’m like, “Wow, I felt like that but I didn’t know anyone else did because I didn’t tell anyone.” If only I knew!

 LF: As soon as you recognize something and talk about it, it releases its hold on you. As much as I cherish the wellness community in LA, I do feel like sometimes it misses the mark because it doesn’t get deeper than surface level.

NM: Especially as a model agent, it’s important to me that we represent all girls and all women. We have all different shapes and sizes. It’s important to remember that there are so many different bodies out there, especially with social media. I’m the biggest fan of muting. Don’t look at things that don’t make you feel good!

LF: What advice would you give to your younger self ?

NM: Stop worrying. Worrying doesn’t go anywhere or do anything. You can worry about something or not, but it won’t change the outcome.

LF: What are three things you couldn’t live without?

NM: Oh my god. Avocados, wine, and a good mattress. There’s so much self care you can do in terms of healthy things, but you also need a good bottle of red.

LF: Who inspires you?

NM: Gwyneth Paltrow. She’s always been challenging people’s ideas about wellness. And I love that she looks great but she looks her age, which I think is inspiring. There was a time when I was worried about turning 30, but actually I feel more and more like I’m becoming myself. All that anxiety and all those fears are gone – you’re never going to be that spring chicken you were when you were 21 again – but it gets so much better.

LF: How fast do you live?

NM: A big part of me wanting to move from London was me wanting a better lifestyle. London is intense, whereas in LA my job is fast-paced and stressful, but there’s also the beach. You can only live fast for like eight hours here. It helps even to just see the sea. On my drive home, before I turn onto my street, I can see the ocean, and it’s like the work day is closed.

Natalia’s Top Wellness Spots:

The Now Massage

Pause Infrared Sauna Venice

Modo Yoga Venice

Cycle House Weho

Wax on Melrose

House of Intuition for crystals

Unplug Meditation Santa Monica

Sally Hershberger Weho

Osea Venice

The Solution Weho for vitamin shots

Earth Bar Weho for smoothies

L’Agent Goodies…