Culture

SPICY Q&A: Aerin Creer

AVM survivor, activist, and model from the Bay area keeps it real IRL and URL.

I first learned about Aerin Creer on Instagram, where she was a well-known model working with impressive photographers, responding to comments from celebrities like SZA, modeling for huge brands like Puma… but that’s not what drew me to her. Her bio read “Model. California. AVM survivor.” As a sucker for Bay Area bad bitches, I followed her, and instantly noticed the magnitude of her confidence. She was Vogue serving looks in a hospital bed, extremely candid about having AVM (arteriovenous malformation): it was a part of her life that she was documenting, she’s equally as candid about her sex life, and her overall opinions on society. Her confidence is mirrored in her photos’ captions, and takes many of her activism and beliefs to social media. And then I noticed her posts about outfits all based on color theory… curating outfits based on theories fine artists use… brilliant. A young black woman, who is a petite model in the industry, and an activist, and an AVM survivor? Now that’s Spicy.

Aerin walked into the small San Francisco café in clear heels, a short skirt, and a denim jacket. She walked in one foot in front of the other with certainty. As I approached her, she groaned “sorry I’m late,” rolling her eyes in a brief disappointment with her punctuality, as she opened her arms to hug me. I sized her up, her larger-than-life confidence and unapologetically smooth personality neatly packed in her petite 5’3” frame.

Aerin is very deliberate in the way she speaks. She doesn’t need much time at all between a question being asked and answering it; she knows what she has to say. Though her agency requested I not include her age in the article, it is important to know that she is eloquent and articulate beyond her years, each word spoken with deliberation.

Tell me about your upbringing.

I have two parents, two brothers, and one sister. I grew up very eccentric. I was always an artistic kid, so I was put into a lot of arts when I was young. I took a lot of private art lessons, ballet, music lessons, a little bit of everything because my parents wanted to make sure I sampled everything so that when I grew up I wasn’t lost and trying to figure out myself, they wanted to make sure I knew what I did and didn’t like. I was also always a really shy kid too, so engaging in those types of things kind of forced me to become more outgoing and come out of my shell because I was forced to interact with other kids.

What interested you in terms of a career?

For a long time I thought I was going to go to dental school and do that, but as I got older I got really invested in politics, and environmental sciences, and wanted to do that as well, so I was kind of confused. A lot of my high school life, however, I knew that environmental politics and things of that nature like environmental racism, was just way too stressful for somebody like me. I have anxiety and depression, and it would make me very upset to be reading about things that were so massive and big that I couldn’t change. Even reading about things that I actively participate in, and have no idea how to undo, or uproot my life without changing a really big part of myself—things like fashion and consumerism. I engage in that all the time; even just owning an iPhone affects a lot of people, so I felt really conflicted. I felt like a hypocrite. I couldn’t just up and change my life; it’s very hard to do that and society kind of forces you into capitalistic ideals.

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Tell me a little more about why you chose modeling over activism.

I didn’t know if I wanted to be a model or an activist. I started off with activism on Instagram which garnered a lot of following because I had something to say. But then I didn’t like that so much because it just started to turn into call-out culture. Instead of actually being progressive and waiting for people to say things and just having different ideas as long as it’s not hurting someone fundamentally, people would just like to call people out and just kind of like nitpick and the community with get toxic.

I just felt like a hypocrite. Although I was really passionate about activism, I felt like I couldn’t be at the frontier of it because if I got on stage and just started to really talk about it, someone could call me out like, “Well you used these things and you like leather bags and you buy these things.” I don’t know if I can make it my life, and I don’t like being a hypocrite, so I just kind of put activism on the backburner.

I started to talk a little less about it and do more behind-the-scenes action. I want to make a real difference. We can argue all day on Instagram, and a law still won’t be changed.

“Are you calling your senators? Are you registered to vote?” That’s kind of my message now. And even beyond that, “are you getting tested for STDs? Are you are you fighting for comprehensive sex education or are you being candid about that on your social media platform?”

How did you find your way to modeling?

I like [being a part of] visions. I like to be living art. I used to paint girls that look like me all the time and I didn’t know I was doing it, but people see them and say “oh, she looks like you,” and I didn’t even know I was painting myself. So at some point I was just like “man, I actually want to be in this picture; I want to be what I just painted.” I don’t want to paint girls with flowers in their hair anymore; I wanna be that girl with flowers in my hair and there’s literally nothing stopping me.

I tell people, “Be yourself and like monetize your own ideas.” If you have a talent, if you have something you can do, monetize that if that’s what you really want to do.

How would you like to see the modeling industry change?

Tokenism. Recently I noticed a lot of people now cash in on this newfound pride within communities of color. So I don’t believe a lot of it is genuine. That’s really where the issue lies: a lot of it is ingenuine people behind the scenes, genuinely wanting to work with these models. They’re either not trying to get called out or they’re either trying to finally make money from them, so people will be like “Oh yay! You put a Black girl on this thing! Oh my God I’m going to buy everything!” So they’ll put a really, really dark skin girl on something, which I think is good, but then she’ll be the only dark skin girl in there, she’ll be the only Black girl, to add on to that… I just don’t find it genuine, and that they genuinely want these girls in there. Especially when I get to a set and they don’t have my foundation color… I’m like, “why did you hire me?” Or sets where there’s a Black makeup artist and a white makeup artist, and they make the Black makeup artist do my makeup and although I’m pretty sure she’s more well equipped to do it, I just find that weird.

Sometimes, they’ll want me to be very Afro-centric, and I’m like, “I’m from America;” I don’t feel comfortable adopting these Afro-centric ideals that not only did Americans make fun of for a long time, but when dealing with colorism, Black people would make fun of their dark skin Brothers, and it’s not really their fault but I just feel bad to [adopt those ideals]. I didn’t grow up wearing dashikis, and that’s not really my culture, so I’m not going to cash in on it so you can make sales and let you feel like you’re all into the culture. I also want to see that change in the industry: ingenuity. Why can’t there be an American Black girl, an African Black girl, a West Indian Black girl, a Jamaican Black girl all on set at the same time? Sometimes people will go out of their way to find the same looking Black girl to use over and over again, and monetize over it. Like Duckie—she shot to fame after getting kicked off Australia’s Next Top Model, and after that I noticed them picking girls that look like her because they couldn’t afford [her] price tag, so they go get a young aspiring model. Like I see what you’re doing, you want “the Duckie effect,” you want people to think you’re cool and diverse, you want her following, you want all of that stuff without actually liking Black girls and Black people in the meantime.

How did you discover your AVM, and how was the surgery process? (CW: blood, surgery)

So an AVM is arteriovenous malformation you’re born with, and you don’t really know if you have it unless you randomly get an MRI or CAT scan. It is when you have some blood vessels that are fused together that are likely to burst, causing hemorrhage or a stroke. It’s in your brain; mine was on my right side. I don’t really know what happened that made it burst. Some people’s never burst; some people go their whole life and they just have to be a little more careful.

I had had a really great day that day. I’d seen all my friends and everybody I loved, which I now think was fate. And then I woke up with the most pounding headache. The only way I could describe it to [my boyfriend] was as if someone took an ice cream scooper and scooped the middle of my head out and was pouring hot, hot water in it. It felt like lava, because it was thick too. He was massaging my neck. He irritated me so much so I just went home; everything was making me sick. The only time I felt any type of relief was when I was asleep, so I just chalked it up to being dehydrated. I didn’t know what a migraine was because I’ve never really been sick before, besides the flu. I don’t remember even having the chicken pox. So I’ve never dealt with anything that was a major illness. And so I went to sleep, and that’s kind of the worst thing you can do. Guys, if you feel like you have a head injury, don’t fall asleep! Because it will feel good… and you could very well die in your sleep.

Luckily that morning the mom woke me up early; it was the day before Mother’s Day and she wanted me to go to church with her. I just told her “I can’t do it, I can’t go.” She gave me an Excedrin and told me to lie down. My headache would not go away. I texted my sister-in-law, and that’s why I always tell everyone that she saved my life. I was telling her my symptoms and asked her if it sounded like toxic shock syndrome, and she said “No, this doesn’t sound normal at all.” And she said “I’m sending your brother to you so he can pick you up and take you to the emergency room.”

When I got there, because I look so young, they chalked it up to a “period headache” or just a headache. And so I was trying to tell the doctor that I don’t just have a headache and needed help. I was reiterating that, screaming in my room. He gave me an Aspirin, which is the worst thing you can give someone with blood issues: a blood thinner. So it exasperated the issue. And so the last thing I remember telling this man is “If you don’t help me, I’m going to stuff this stethoscope down your fucking throat.” Then, I didn’t know what I was hearing but I was hearing a seizure; you can hear the sound of it. I said to her, “Mom, what is that sound? Make it stop!” Then I was just screaming “Make it stop! Make it stop! I’m going out! I’m going out!” And I’m gone.

I woke up in the back of the ambulance; I went batshit crazy in the hospital room because I was strapped down. I was fighting, knocking stuff over, because I was angry that no one was helping me. After having my seizure, I went out cold; I died for a minute. They brought me back and did an emergency CAT scan.

I woke up strapped down and very confused. I wiggled my way out of the straps and found my phone. They said I need to lay down and I resisted. I sent my other brother Anthony a picture of me; at the time he didn’t know anything about the situation, and he responded “What the fuck?” So I asked him, “Do you know where anybody is? Do you know where mom is?” I couldn’t find anyone so I was trying to get all these answers through my phone. The nurse who was there said something that was [really offensive] to me. She said, “These teenagers can never get off their phones!” I’m over here dying… So I just start screaming for my mom, and she screamed back “I’m here, you’re okay!” I fell asleep again and don’t remember much of that day.

So after all of that, I spent a lot of time in the hospital waiting and listening and watching. I had a really great doctor, and he broke it down to me and my mom: “You’re going to have to have brain surgery.” I don’t have a lot of fears that I can list off. I’m very fearless. I don’t have anything I’m scared of that I cannot conquer. I asked if it was going to fix it completely, and he said “Yes, it’ll fix it completely. I do AVMs every week,” so right away I said, “Well let’s get going! What do I have to do? How can I get this going?” I wanted him to do it that very day. He said we’d have to wait a couple weeks so my brain could soak up the blood.

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What was the recovery process like, and how did you get back on your modeling game?

Brain surgery took about 13 hours. The recovery was the worst part. If you’re ever in the hospital in an extreme amount of pain and they offer you Morphine, don’t take it. All it does is make you sleepy. It doesn’t make the pain go away; it makes you too sleepy to think about it. So I would be like “Oh my God, I’m in so much pain!” They’d give me Morphine and I’d fall asleep and wake up feeling the same pain. The first night was very difficult; I had to lay on my back for eight hours because when you have an angiogram you cannot move your legs at all.

My doctor came in the next day my face was all swollen. I’m irritated, disgruntled, and I looked like the Michelin Man because I had a lot of food on my face. He walked in like, “Hi Aerin, how are you doing? How are you feeling?” I was like, “If you want me to be real, it feels like you stomped on my head for thirteen hours. What did you do? Did you fix it?” He said “Yeah it’s fixed. I had to stomp on your head for a while.” I spent two weeks in the hospital and two months recovering, getting used to my medicine. I was on a walker for a little bit, so I had to learn how to walk again. My head completely healed, and I started moving on with my life again.  Half my face was numb; smiling was hard. I’d be on set and they’d tell me to smile, and I was like “I can’t.” I still can’t really smile, [it could be permanent], and my eye twitches a little bit, but most of it has dissipated.

I had to learn how to talk again. I had a lot of speech therapy. I could not talk. I wouldn’t make sense. My brain was moving faster than my body was. I was pretty advanced [in speech therapy], so me and my speech therapist started reading articles and medical journals together, because he realized that’s what I like. So he would read the newspaper to me and tell me to look up words I didn’t remember. I also forgot how to tell time. I couldn’t make sense of a clock, and couldn’t even draw one.

[While I was recovering] I had a dream: I was really sad I couldn’t leave the house because I felt ugly, and was asking myself “Yo, why are you just laying at home?” I woke up that same day on a mission and told my mom, “Mom, I’m going to get up and you’re going to help me.” So we went to get some ice cream and I got some makeup at MAC, and this was at that time when my following was still growing, so followers would approach me. My mom was getting me a cupcake and two little girls approached her. They asked her “Oh my God is that your daughter? Can we get a picture with her?” and she was like “Oh, I don’t know, she’s not feeling very well.” But they did get some photos of me, and it just felt very cool. Then after that day I just started doing more and more to get ready and just get back to myself. And I got back to myself so fast I ended up doing that fashion week. I had brain surgery in June and in August I was boarding a flight to New York. And I stayed there for three weeks. I was there completely alone, not knowing anyone out there.

What was modeling like after you returned?

When I [landed in New York] I was really struggling. I couldn’t find my bags and I was still on wheelchair assistance at the airport because I can’t lift things. I was just really upset, overwhelmed, and scared. And the first friend I made worked at the airport and was like, “I follow you on Instagram!” And I was like, “Oh my God, you see me. I’m such a crying mess.” He was like, “I get it. I get it.” And [he says], “I’m a model too; I’m just working here right now, but I model during fashion week.” So I told him to meet up with me. I said, “I don’t know anything about this damn city, so show me around.” And he did. I made another friend—a girl that worked at Bloomingdale’s that showed me my favorite purse ever. After that, my good friend Jenni Riccetti from Project Runway came later and took me to a bunch of Project Runway shows.

The best thing my [former] agent could have done for me at the time was sending me to a bunch of fashion shows, including the Fenty Puma show. At the time it was a very new, almost celebrity experience. Now it’s kind of normal for me to go to events like that, but I was sitting in the same section as Fabolous and Joey Bada$$. It was just crazy. I met Whoopi Goldberg, and she was like, “You are so pretty, you should meet my niece!” I was trying to act normal. Rihanna just rolled through on a motorcycle I’m trying to act normal! There’s motorcycles going around and Kali Uchis walks up to me and says, “You are so pretty! Can I take a picture with you?” I felt like I’m really out here doing it. And outside that fashion show I met some of the best people I’d met ever.

So after that, I dipped back home for a couple weeks to grab some new clothes and I went straight back to ComplexCon and made some of the best business deals that I’ve ever made, ever. I hit the ground running after that. I was rarely ever at home. I went to winter fashion week and stayed there for a couple weeks and did a lot of photoshoots. I went to Chicago alone after that. It stresses me out going to these places that I don’t know, but I would never trade those experiences for anything.

I think my AVM experience made me more fearless than I already was, because I was like, “Well, I’ve literally died, so I can’t get any worse!” Death is the highest consequence you can get in life and I went there and it wasn’t that bad, so I’m pretty sure I can do that.

Photos by Katie Walsh.