Model Student

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Nothing—not adversity or serendipity—can derail Erica Miller’s work ethic.

Before becoming a political science major at Davidson College, before the law-school track, before the odd twist that shot her into international modeling, life was looking mighty dark for Erica Miller ’19.

A strange ailment hit her during her junior year in high school. She began blacking out, sometimes up to 15 times a day.

Doctors were baffled. She went from being a high school track star to a homebound invalid.

Finally, at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, she got a diagnosis: An unusual and little-understood disorder called POTS—Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome.  

Usually affecting women ages 15 to 50, POTS attacks circulation, keeping blood in the lower extremities and away from the brain. For most sufferers, that means lightheadedness. But Miller’s was a severe case, with fatigue and fainting.

With no cure known, Miller faced the bleak prospect of a cloistered life. She wore a medical bracelet to explain her condition to people who might find her unconscious. 

It made me appreciate that when you see someone with a handicap sticker on the car, not to judge them regardless of how they seem,” Miller says. “People used to give me ‘The Look’ because my condition isn’t visible.”

Then she learned of a medical trial in Newport Beach, California, for a regimen to treat POTS. She was accepted and underwent a procedure that stimulated the veins in her legs, expanding them to help the heart pump blood to her head. 

Small milestones followed. Fainting became less frequent. Three weeks later, she went a whole day without losing consciousness. Then she went three days in a row. Then a week. Then a month.

Erica Miller and photographer Richard Israel talking during a photo shoot on campus
Erica Miller and photographer Richard Israel (Photo by Christopher Record)

Path to Modeling

Miller, 22, the daughter of schoolteacher parents, grew up in a tiny community called Crouse just outside Lincolnton, North Carolina, a town of 10,000 near Lake Norman. It’s a rural area where many people work refinishing furniture.

During Miller’s homebound convalescence, her mother decided her daughter needed a new activity and bought her a camera. Miller began learning photography. Two months after snapping some headshots for a friend who needed them for an acting resume, she got a call from a talent agent in Hickory who told her the headshots were excellent. She wanted to hire Miller to come shoot some for other aspiring actors.

When Miller showed up for the gig, the agent assumed  she was there for a modeling audition. At 5 feet 10 inches tall, and trim from years of competitive dancing, Miller fit the profile. She had to explain that she was the photographer.

She did the pictures, but soon the agent landed her fashion show jobs in Charlotte.

“I kept hearing people say, ‘Thank you for showing up on time,’” Miller says. “Apparently in modeling, it’s hard to find people with good work habits.”

She continued to be professionally reliable and got more and more bookings as word about her spread through the Charlotte fashion community.

She impressed Luis Machicao, a Peruvian designer based in Charlotte who has an international fashion line. When it was time for him to present his creations at New York’s Fashion Week in the spring of 2017, he invited Miller to model there, wearing the closing gown in the pinnacle moment of the exhibition.

Her work ethic impressed others in New York, and she picked up additional modeling assignments during the prestigious fashion gathering.

On to Paris

Artist applying make up to a model's face
Photo courtesy of Erica Miller

Through connections she developed there with producers, she was invited to model in the Paris Fashion Week that autumn. Which is remarkable: Miller had no formal training, had never taken a modeling class.

“Not being a product of modeling schools might have worked in my favor,” Miller says. “My natural walk wasn’t bad, but it’s not what they teach in fashion schools. But remember, they want a model to catch the eye but not outshine the outfit.”

Miller doesn’t know what producers saw in her that launched her international experience. 

“Whatever the ‘It’ factor was then, I guess I had it,” she says. “I just lucked into it.”

Miller returned to New York and Paris fashion weeks in 2018, but doesn’t plan to make a career of modeling. She’d seen enough international models counting the calories of every grape to know that it wasn’t for her.

“I grew up Southern,” Miller says. “We fry everything. For the models, fruit or bread sticks is the meal. That’s not me. I once hid in the bathroom in Paris with a Domino’s Pizza.”

Attracted to Davidson

Two students walking on campus on a chilly day
Photo by Christopher Record

Miller took a year off after high school to regain her health. She looked at Davidson and fell in love with the campus.

“You come see it and it’s so quaint,” she says. “It was so different from where I’d been raised, but it’s only 30 minutes from my home.”

She recognized the college would provide a more personal experience versus a crowded university. And she was interested in the variety of backgrounds she found among Davidson students.

Miller received substantial financial aid from Davidson, and to offset the costs of living, she’s worked after classes as a nanny for two children in a Huntersville family for four years.

She credited religion courses during her freshman year with shaping her academic career. B. Andrew Lustig, the Holmes Rolston III Professor of Religion and Science, stimulated her imagination through his use of the Socratic method on a variety of topics, she says. 

She got particularly interested in the intersection of religion and the First Amendment, the separation of church and state.

It drove her to apply to law schools —she’ll attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the fall.

Dream job? Right now it’s working in Washington, D.C., as a First Amendment lobbyist.

Perseverance Pays

Helping guide Miller has been her faculty advisor, Prof. Brian Shaw of the Political Science Department.

And she needed some guidance from time to time, she admits. “I cried in his office at least five times.”

Miller, who grew up in the rural South and in a middle-class family, is the recipient of the McGowan-Bowers Family Scholarship. 

“She’s got tremendous drive, tremendous energy, tremendous resilience,” Shaw says. “She’d be a great lawyer—I’d want her working for me, not for my opponent.”

He, too, noticed her work ethic. “When she’d leave class, she would go to take care of someone else’s kids.”

Miller’s stamina remains good. She seems to be winning the battle with POTS, though there are occasional—and painful —complications. Medication she takes leads to frequent kidney stones. 

“But I’ve become a pro at those,” Miller says. “I’m so ready for childbirth.”

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