Olympian-Turned-Escort Suzy Favor Hamilton Reclaims A Life Rerouted By Mental Illness
Suzy Favor Hamilton had just finished a session with a client. Her six-inch Louboutin stilettos clicked as she strode down the Strip in Las Vegas, a fresh $1,200 in cash in her Louis Vuitton purse -- a gift from another client.
"I was shaking, still riding the rush," Hamilton writes in her new memoir, "Fast Girl: A Life Running From Madness." "Everything around me seemed to pulse and throb, like the blood in my veins. My body was still glowing with pleasure. I wanted more. This is way better than winning a race, I thought. This is better than competing in the Olympics."
She was no longer the former world-class runner who had failed to medal in any of her three trips to the Olympics. No longer the unfocused 40-year-old mother who struggled to keep up with work at the Wisconsin real estate brokerage she owned with her husband. No longer the depressed woman who had nearly run her car off the road a few months earlier in the hopes of ending her own life.
She was Kelly Lundy now, a Las Vegas escort who earned $600 an hour to sleep with CEOs, farmers and rodeo cowboys. She was a "wild girl" who could make any man's or woman's fantasies come true. She was on her way to being the best again, not as a runner, but as one of the top-ranked escorts in the world.
From a very young age Hamilton saw that her successes on the track could help ease the tension at home, where her brother Dan often acted out, causing her family a great deal of stress and pain. She could be the model child for them if she just kept winning, a mindset that left her wracked with self-doubt and panic before each race.
"I always said I was so coachable," said Hamilton, now 47, who splits her time between Malibu, California, and Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband, Mark, 47, and daughter, Kylie, 10. "My whole entire life a coach could tell me what to do and I was on it and I would do it, and I [would] do it the best way possible."
When she became an escort, she felt as though the same drive that had propelled her to succeed on the track was now driving her success in Las Vegas, but without the pressure and stress of expectation. She had won 11 Wisconsin state high school titles, nine NCAA titles, seven USA Track & Field Championships and earned three trips to the Olympics, but says her secret life of prostitution gave her a bigger high than anything she'd ever done as a runner.
"Each time I went back to Vegas," she writes, "I needed the thrill to be a little more intense than the time before. I had to do something a bit more daring."
She would find out later that her hunger for sex, danger and escape was actually driven by bipolar disorder -- a condition that causes extreme shifts in mood, energy and focus. For some, like Hamilton, manic episodes involve hypersexuality -- an unquenchable thirst for sex, especially reckless sexual behaviors.
Hamilton's brother, Dan, who committed suicide in 1999, suffered from bipolar disorder. Doctors who treated Hamilton's depression didn't recognize that she suffered from the same illness. Her medications changed, and her manic behavior increased, much of it focused on hypersexual activity.
"I didn't feel depressed anymore," she writes of starting a new drug. "In fact, I felt great. I definitely didn't want to die. I wanted to live with a capital L."
Shortly after starting a new antidepressant -- drugs that have been shown to exacerbate symptoms in undiagnosed bipolar patients if they are treated instead for depression -- Hamilton persuaded her husband to take a trip to Vegas for their 20th wedding anniversary. Among her plans? Skydiving and a threesome with an escort. Hamilton said she and her husband had always been pretty sexually adventurous and had talked about how a threesome might help her explore her long-held curiosity about women without putting a strain on their marriage. Mark agreed, and a switch was flipped in Hamilton during the experience.
"I lay on the bed, floating inside my own skin," she writes. "Filled up with the pleasure of what had just happened and with all of the sensations and feelings it had released inside of me. ... I wanted every day to be just like this from now on. I was on fire, filled with energy."
When her husband didn't seem as thrilled by the threesome as she did, she decided she'd have to make it happen again without him. She began regular solo trips to Las Vegas, first to see escorts as a client, then, a few months later, as an escort herself.
"It had dawned on me that the best way to take my new life to the next level was to be a part of the thing that had sucked me into this in the first place, " she writes. "Becoming a part-time escort myself made absolute sense."
Hamilton's secret life came to an end when she was outed by the website TheSmokingGun.com in December 2012. One month later, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For years, she didn't speak publicly about her time as an escort. She was understandably filled with trepidation about releasing her memoir and sharing the intimate details of her time with clients, but she felt that being honest about the behavior that resulted from her illness was the only way to truly tell her story.
Scattered throughout the book, which contains racy passages about her time with clients, are are inserts about mental health -- how it touched her family, how difficult it can be to diagnose, and how it feels looking back at her behavior during manic episodes.
"Those little inserts are in my opinion the most important parts of educating people," Hamilton told me. "The reason that there's the sex in the book ... that is the behavior of this illness. That's the risky, crazy behavior. And I wanted to show that. I wanted to show people what bipolar can actually look like. For me, those inserts bring you back, 'cause the craziness can be a little too much at times."
She knows the sordid details of her time as an escort will be what makes headlines, but she hopes to send a bigger message about mental illness.
"The behavior needs to be recognized," Hamilton said. "But we need to focus on the disease."
The exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, but the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) lists several factors believed to be involved: genetics, brain structure and environmental and lifestyle stressors. Hamilton believes the manifestations of her bipolar disorder were partly exacerbated by the stresses of a lifelong need to be the best.
"From being an Olympic athlete and being on that stage performing in front of so many people, I needed the high to be even greater," she told me. "At all costs. And that's where the high of bipolar is so dangerous, because you'll do whatever, without any thought."
When Hamilton was jetting off to Vegas to see clients, her husband and daughter were waiting back home in Madison. Mark knew of her exploits. In fact, she'd often come home and want to talk to him about the details of her encounters. He didn't approve, but he didn't know what to do other than to let her do the one thing that seemed to bring her happiness.
"It was never, ever my intention to hurt anybody," she said. "It was the illness that comes across in such a selfish, selfish way. Because you're trying to please yourself so badly to get that manic high. That's all you're driven to do, that you don't see the world around you."
Hamilton knows that not everyone will forgive her past, even after learning about her illness. And she knows that not everyone will understand why she still maintains relationships with escort friends and believes that prostitution between two consenting adults shouldn't be illegal.
"When my story came out, I was shamed," she said. "I was called a 'whore,' 'slut,' every word imaginable. I was told how awful I was. I was told that I should go kill myself like my brother did. ... I was shamed immensely. [So] immensely that shame almost took my life. I don't want to shame escorts for a path -- we have no idea why they chose that path. I will not shame them, I will humanize them. I think as a society ... we need to understand, instead of crucify."
Managing her illness will be a lifelong job for Hamilton, combining drugs, psychological treatment, the seeking out of "healthy highs" and trying to avoid triggers.
"Can I say honestly, 'I would never do that again?'" she told me of prostitution. "I can't. ... But I hope not. I hope I have the strength and willpower to say, 'No, I'm not doing that. It's not a good thing for me.'"
Mark, her husband of almost 25 years now, will be there to help keep her on the right path.
"Let's face it, this is not a normal challenge to get over," she said. "And we'll never completely be over it. But my husband chooses to focus on the illness, which is an inspiration, I think, to everybody. ... He was the driving force who told me, 'You are not going to get better until you forgive yourself.'"
For someone who always expected perfection, accepting what she's done wrong and what she may do wrong again has been the biggest takeaway from her well-publicized fall from grace.
"I absolutely love that I'm no longer perfect!" Hamilton said. "I embrace it so much now. I was telling somebody, 'I like to be messy. I like to be sloppy. And I like to throw my paint all over a canvas.' That's who I am! And what an exhilarating, freeing feeling it is to now live a life that's truly how you want, not how others want your life to be."