By Mark Ellis
She overcame a damaging skin disease to grace the covers of Harper’s, Vogue, Elle and other fashion magazines. Then her jet-set European lifestyle began to unravel after a coercive abortion and a series of tragedies that left her searching for answers.
“I was diagnosed with psoriasis at eight years old,” says Karin Holstein, author of her own story: Cover Girl Uncovered. The inflammatory skin disorder caused red scaling patches to form on Holstein’s hands, elbows, knees and ankles. “When I turned into a young woman, it was very sad and upsetting,” she says.
Holstein developed coping mechanisms to deal with her appearance. “I only wore long pants and gloves and became eccentric,” Holstein says. At school in Germany, she sometimes heard the word “leper” whispered as she passed through the halls.
At 13 her emotional world was rocked by the discovery that her father had a girlfriend. Unable to believe it at first, the sense of betrayal left a wound that would fester and reopen years later.
At school in Paris, a friend invited her to visit the set of a movie starring Brigitte Bardot. She says Bardot was “amazingly beautiful,” capturing the attention of every eye when she entered the room. She met Roger Vadim, the famous director, and was asked to be an extra in his film, If Don Juan Had Been A Woman.
“In Paris I was studying and had no intention of modeling,” Holstein says. But when she visited a fashion show one weekend in the Park de Versailles a designer approached, who said he wanted to book her for his next show.
“I can’t. I’m just a student,” she said with bit of trepidation, partly because of her skin condition. Holstein’s friend Elisabeth took over the conversation.
“She would love to do it,” Elizabeth said. To overcome Holstein’s sense of fear, she was assured they would only be modeling winter clothes, and her psoriasis would be completely hidden.
After she began modeling part-time, she fell in love with a doctor in his fifties, Jean-Louis. He was “well-read, romantic, and handsome,” she says. The younger men at school seemed silly and immature by comparison. The two spent weekends at his cottage on an island off the south of France and another home he owned in the French countryside.
The older man began to mold Holstein into “his ideal image,” and convinced her that exercise and an improved diet would help her psoriasis. Prior to this, she admits her favorite foods were cheesecake and chocolate. The new regimen seemed to help, and her modeling career began to soar. “In a very short time I worked for magazines such as Vogue, Marie-Claire, and Elle,” Holstein says.
Still, she was protective of her skin condition. “They thought I was eccentric because I’d say, ‘I can’t do this or I can’t do that,’” she says. “I didn’t do underwear,” she says. “They thought I was trying to be difficult.”
The love affair with Jean-Louis created an intense emotional bond between the two. “I was clinging to him,” she says. His adoration for her turned into an obsession marred by jealousy.
On one of their vacations in Tunisia, Jean-Louis accused her of infidelity when she lingered too long at the beach. His temper exploded after she returned to their bungalow. The incidents got worse.
On their third New Years Eve together in Paris, Jean-Louis took her to a favorite Russian restaurant, then to a place in the student quarter for dessert. He ordered Sangria for the two of them, as well as her favorite—cheesecake. The combination produced a terrible reaction.
“I got violently ill,” Holstein says, and she excused herself to the ladies room. “I had no idea how long I was in there until I heard someone banging on the door,” she says. “When I finally opened the door, I was shocked to see the expression on Jean-Louis’ face.”
“Before I could say a word, he began hitting me,” Holstein says. “I thought he’d gone crazy,” she says. “He accused me of having someone with me in the bathroom. I didn’t know what to think.” Was he unraveling mentally?
An unexpected development leads to tragedy
A few days later Holstein discovered she was pregnant with Jean-Louis’ child. “After the shock wore off, I was filled with a quiet joy,” Holstein says. “I wanted this child, and I was sure Jean-Louis would feel the same way.”
“I went to his office to tell him,” Holstein says. “When I told him his face turned ashen; he was frightened,” she says. “He just stared at me in dismay and for a moment I thought I saw a look of defeat.” He sat down with a sigh.
“Without anger or emotion he said, ‘You can not have this child, Karin. It is out of the question, impossible.’”
Holstein pleaded with him. “But this is our child. I thought you would be happy. I know you like children…” But he would not listen.
“We have to get rid of this child,” he said, “or I will have to end this relationship.” Afraid to lose the love of her life, she consented to his demand.
“The next day he did the abortion himself,” she says sadly. “When the procedure was over, I stared at him feeling absolutely nothing. I felt as dead as the child that had been inside of me.”
She went home and removed all the pictures of him from her photo album. Scarred by the ordeal, Holstein left Jean Louis and fled to London. She immediately signed with the agency Models One who gave her an assignment with Vogue.
Life with a well-known photographer
“I want to warn you,” the booker said. “The photographer doing this shoot does an excellent job, but he is an absolute wild man. He has quite a reputation as a womanizer, and he hobnobs with the famous.” When Holstein arrived, she confirmed the advice.
“When Clive swept into the room I understood what she was talking about,” Holstein says. “He exuded so much energy that everyone else in the room seemed to disappear,” she says. “He takes over the whole room.”
After the shoot, word got back to Holstein that Clive was smitten with her, but she was warned to steer clear. “They said his last girlfriend totally lost her mind and ended up in a Hare Krishna center.” After their second photo shoot, Clive asked her out for a date. “He was very funny and entertaining,” Holstein says, “and I laughed more when I was with him than I had in a long time.”
Despite dating an older man previously, Holstein at age 22 was still naïve about life in the fast lane. “This was a world I’d never seen before,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about the drug world. He was taken by my innocence. I was everything these people had lost.”
“On the third date he asked me to marry him,” Holstein says. “I had no idea the power this man would have over me,” she says. “I said yes.”
On the day of the wedding, she forgot her shoes and wore ivy around her toes. The reception took place at a villa owned by Lulu, the singer once married to Maurice Gibbs of the Bee Gees.
Days later, she broke the news to her parents that she married a 34-years old photographer with five children, who had been married three times.
Her mother let out a gasp on the phone. “Karin! What have you done?”
Holstein says she wondered herself.
Their life together settled into an odd routine, because he liked to stay up late partying with friends, while she worked during the day on modeling assignments. “I was tired in the evenings and wanted to sleep,” Holstein says. The house was always full of people partying, often until 4 am.
“I knew after three months I shouldn’t have married him,” she says.
She discovered he had a problem with alcohol. One night at a dinner they shared with actress Sigourney Weaver, Clive fell asleep after drinking too many Grappas.
“Do you think we can wake him up?” Weaver asked with some concern. Holstein says Weaver was gracious, despite Clive’s behavior.
A trip to Israel
On a fashion shoot in Israel, Holstein visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for the first time. The trip to the Holy Land stirred her soul, as she walked in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. “I thought, ‘What is happening in my life?’”
Holstein realized she abandoned her childhood beliefs “by neglect rather than decision,” which left an ache in her heart. She says she felt Christ’s presence as she stood near the place where he rose from the dead.
“There was a moment when I thought, ‘Where am I going…where is this God?’” But she had no Christians in her life to show her the way.
As the marital strain mounted over Clive’s drinking, Holstein’s health began to suffer. “I came to a point and I had a nervous breakdown—I really lost it,” she says. She checked into the famous Bircher-Benner health spa in Switzerland, but didn’t expect to meet a Christian there.
“I met this woman during my deepest despair who started to read the Bible and pray with me.” When the woman read from Psalm 118 Holstein remembers she felt peace.
“They gave me a Bible and I went home,” she says. At home, Clive and his friends viewed her sudden spiritual interest with disdain, and her Bible as an unwanted foreign object. “He ridiculed me and laughed it all off,” she says. “I didn’t have enough strength as a person to stand up to him.”
As Clive’s drinking worsened, Holstein made a painful decision to leave the marriage. “In the end I left him lying drunk on the floor,” she says. “I was devastated.”
Holstein went back to Germany, the place of her roots, and developed a relationship with a wealthy businessman named Rolf, who was married, but separated from his wife. The former East German’s family lived in Monte Carlo, and he would visit his children on the weekends.
“I enjoyed this time, but then it went really bad,” Holstein says. “His 13-year old daughter found my diary,” she says. A sense of conviction overwhelmed her. “It was terrible what I did,” Holstein says. “I should never have been with this man,” she says. “I broke it off because I didn’t want her to experience what I’d gone through.”
Holstein traveled to Florida for sunshine and an escape. In Florida, Holstein began to notice some strange health symptoms. “I felt like I was falling to pieces,” she says. “I had pain in my knees, hands, and neck, as well as fatigue. It was like arthritis but it was worse.”
“I almost went blind that Christmas,” Holstein says. Her eye doctor diagnosed iritis, an inflammation of the iris. He told her it had to be treated in 24 hours or she would go blind. Further, he told her the eye condition was connected to an autoimmune illness called ankylosing spondylitis (AS). AS is a progressive inflammatory disease of the skeletal joints that can lead to complete fusion of the spine and scarring of the heart and lungs.
“Some days were so bad I couldn’t walk. This was a defining moment that changed my life profoundly. I had never been in a darker place emotionally.”
A friend invited Holstein to the home of Nancy DeMoss to hear German golf pro Bernard Langer describe the way God changed his life, showing Langer what was truly important. “I knew I had been ignoring God’s signs,” Holstein says. “God had been trying to speak to me for years and now I was finally ready to listen,” she says. “I went into my Bible—there was no more escaping it.”
“As I read I saw God’s eternal purposes as He revealed himself to individuals,” Holstein says. “I longed to know Him personally and to find new direction and meaning in my life,” she says. Reading the Bible was “like pouring life back into my veins,” she adds.
After all the years of running and all the suffering she endured, she finally reached the point of surrender. Holstein received Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.
Suddenly, her mental outlook completely changed. “I began to accept that all things have a reason,” Holstein says. “All my suffering, all my drive, all my ambitions, I placed in God’s hands,” she says. Overwhelmed by God’s forgiveness, she recognized she had unfinished business from the past.
“I was asked to attend the International Psoriasis Foundation meeting as their honorary guest in Berlin,” Holstein says. “When I stopped over in Paris, I looked up Jean-Louis,” the doctor who was the first love of her life. A friend gave her his address but didn’t seem to know anything about what happened to him.
“I took a taxi to a beautiful park with what looked like an old mansion at the end of the driveway,” Holstein says. After entering a stately building that appeared to be a clinic, she found the director.
“May I see Jean-Louis, please?” Holstein inquired.
“Have you been to visit Jean-Louis before? the director asked.
“No, I haven’t seen him in years. Is he busy with patients right now?”
The director raised his eyebrows with surprise. “Jean-Louis isn’t here as a doctor. He’s here as a patient. He’s been with us about ten years now.”
Holstein began to feel a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. “Why, what’s wrong with him?”
“This is a psychiatric institution. You are more than welcome to visit Jean-Louis, but don’t be surprised if he doesn’t recognize you,” the director informed.
Holstein was led to a room where Jean-Louis sat alone, staring out the window. “Hello Jean-Louis, I’ve brought you some lilacs,” she told him.
He looked at the flowers vacantly. “Thank you,” he said softly, then there was a silence before he said, “My Karin’s favorite flowers. When is she coming?” He began to smell the lilacs like a little child.
A nurse led Holstein out of the room as tears rolled down her cheeks. “Did you say your name is Karin?” the nurse asked.
“He speaks of you. He always mentions lilacs when he talks of you. So you really do exist.” They proceeded a few more steps when the nurse said, “Wait, I remember a letter that is with his belongings. It has your name on it. When he first came here, he was somewhat lucid but now he has lost all touch with reality.”
Holstein sat outside on a bench outside and opened the yellowed envelope, not knowing what to expect. He wrote:
You have left me with a broken heart. I had hoped to celebrate one more birthday with you. But time has run out…When you receive this letter, I will either be dead or so far advanced in my illness that I will not be able to explain what it is I need to tell you. I have never stopped loving you, ma petite femme, not even in my advancing stages of insanity. Unfortunately, you had to experience some of this.
When I was told that things would only get worse, I had to make certain choices and decisions while I was still rational. I know that you would have never left me even if I had told you about my illness. My little Samaritan child-woman. You were too young to be burdened with such a fate and to have a child with me…
Yes, I know you would not have minded and probably would have loved the child even more. Forgive me if you can. Maybe I should have told you the truth…Ma Cherie, to abort our child and to do it myself was the hardest operation I ever had to do. I closed the practice the next day. I had not only killed our child but also You and Us. The expression in your eyes will haunt me forever. Please forgive me. If there is another life after this I hope to meet you there, my beloved.
Forever Yours, J.L.
Holstein folded the letter quietly, as the memories and emotions of the past sank deeply into her heart. The power of the forgiveness and reconciliation she experienced with God spoke to her. “I had forgiven him a long time ago, but the only way I knew how,” she says, recognizing her understanding of forgiveness was incomplete until now.
“Having shut out the painful memories and feelings of guilt all those years, I had also shut out my conscience—and God’s love. I consider that I’ve been given a new chance of life through Christ.”
“After looking for love in all the wrong places, finally I’m at peace,” she adds. “Without God’s Word, I wouldn’t walk out the door.”