She absolutely loved being Miss Kentucky, but the long days were grueling, and she almost always worked by herself.
So Mallory Ervin turned to two crutches for help, doctor-prescribed pills that nearly destroyed her — Adderall and Ambien.
Adderall, a stimulant, helped keep her focused during her 12- to 14-hour workdays. The sleeping pill Ambien was the light switch that powered her down overnight.
“It shut off my mind,” Ervin said. “I really liked the way it made me feel.”
In her upcoming book, “Living Fully” — and in a three-hour interview with The Tennessean — the lifestyle influencer with 740,000 Instagram followers decided to be specific about her addiction to prescription pills.
“I can’t talk to you about living fully and be part of any motivation and keep any part of me behind the curtain,” Ervin, 36, said in her Green Hills home.
“And I can’t just dance around something so important and what could be so life saving to people.”
But it’s a tough move for Ervin, who has eight years off the pills.
“I’m still nervous about telling this part of the story because I don’t know how it’s going to be received.”
That fear might come from three decades of being in the spotlight, first as a child performer, then a pageant contestant and a three-time competitor on CBS reality show “The Amazing Race.” Three decades of being judged by strangers.
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When she was a toddler, Ervin started singing for her grandparents, aunts, uncles and 23 first cousins.
They all grew up together as neighbors on bucolic farmland in Union County in northwestern Kentucky, where the Bluegrass State borders Indiana and Illinois.
Ervin, the oldest of her three siblings and her first cousins, eventually sang at local weddings, fairs, funerals and festivals. She started working with renowned vocal coach Kim Wood Sandusky, who helped her score bigger and bigger gigs.
At 11, Ervin sang the national anthem for a sold out NBA playoff game in Houston between the Rockets and the Utah Jazz. The highlight for her: Houston superstar rebounder Charles Barkley — “the ‘Space Jams’ guy!” — clapped at the end of her performance.
When she was in eighth grade, Ervin again headed to Houston to perform the national anthem for a nationally televised playoff game. This time, local TV news crews from the tri-state area came to her school to do stories about the local girl capturing a national spotlight.
The adulation was dizzying, the praise, effusive.
“My music teacher told one crew, ‘When God sprinkled cinnamon and sugar on all the little kids, she sprinkled a little more on Mallory,” Ervin said, blushing.
Ervin said she avoided alcohol and drugs during her teen years, and she graduated in 2004 as valedictorian of her high school.
Her first adult beverage — strawberry champagne and vodka — came her senior year at Sewanee: The University of the South.
Ervin can’t remember exactly when she took her first Adderall, just that many of her classmates had prescriptions — and those students shared pills with nearly any peers who asked, she said.
She does remember exactly how it made her feel.
“Everything came into sharp focus; it feels like a fire lights up inside you. You feel high energy, but focused energy.”
Ervin, a theater major, remembers studying French for six straight hours in the library after taking a 5-milligram dose of Adderall.
She only got the stimulant from friends once or twice a month after that. But when she graduated in 2008, Ervin said she sought her own pills from hometown doctors.
“When I was in college, I took this drug that helped me focus on things,” she’d tell them. “Do you think I cold get a prescription for this?”
The answer, at first, was always yes.
Early on, her hometown pharmacy accidentally gave her 30 mg pills instead of the 10 mg pills the doctor prescribed. But Ervin kept the 30s.
“I wasn’t going to bring it back. Oh, they gave me eight chicken nuggets instead of four? I’m not doing back through the drive thru!” she said, laughing.
That first 30-milligram pill?
“I felt like I could do anything in the entire world.”
Ervin went back and forth between Kentucky and Nashville, babysitting for wealthy clients like (now U.S. Sen.) Bill Hagerty and plastic surgeon Dr. Pat Maxwell, and competing back home to become Miss Kentucky, a title she won in 2009 on her third try.
That’s when her Adderall use escalated, with dosage up to 20 mg a pill, because her days got much longer.
She woke up at 3:30 a.m. to work out, hit her first school to speak and sing to students at 7:20 a.m. and visit as many as five more after that. In the evening, fittings, interview coaching and parades and other community event appearances.
The frenetic pace and the increased Adderall made it harder and harder to fall asleep overnight in the four-hour window she had.
So Ervin found another doctor to prescribe her sleeping pills, which, at first, worked great.
“Sleeping medication fixed the problem immediately,” she said.
Uppers during the day, sedatives at night, in higher and higher doses. But Ervin wasn’t concerned: “My name’s on it! A doctor prescribed it. It’s fine!”
Until it wasn’t.
After her reign as Miss Kentucky ended, she shot a season of The Amazing Race with her dad, and a second season right after.
Ervin did a third all-star season of the show later in 2010 — and suddenly found herself out of the spotlight.
Ervin, fueled by expectations from her hometown friends and herself, shot TV pilots that networks never picked up while babysitting and starring in local car dealer ads to pay the bills.
“I could not, would not get a normal job. I was always holding out for the next big thing,” she said. “As these things didn’t pan out, that’s when it became a problem.”
The pills weren’t doing much anymore, and Ervin began doctor shopping, looking for more and more prescriptions for stronger and stronger doses.
Ervin’s weight dropped to 90 pounds, her blood pressure skyrocketed and her vision often became blurry. She became edgy, anxious, annoyed.
One Nashville doctor who turned her down for pills told her: “I don’t know what you’re doing, but if you continue to do this, you won’t be here much longer.”
Ervin groaned, knowing it was true.
“I thought, I’ve lived a good life, and I’d rather go out like this. I knew I couldn’t stop taking this medication, and I’d rather die than everyone find out what was going on.”
When Ervin went back to her parents’ house to do an event nearby, her mom immediately confronted her, asking her what was wrong.
“What is it you’re taking again?” her mother asked.
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Her mother and her aunt, a nurse, started online searches for drug treatment centers.
Ervin pleaded with her father, saying she was fine, she didn’t need rehab, throwing out her arms, declaring, “I swear, Dad, I don’t do illegal drugs! You can test my blood!”
Legal or not, Ervin knew drugs were destroying her.
“I was very hopeless. I saw no light in my future. I felt terrible every day. I felt like my insides were withering away,” she said.
“But nothing could stop me from taking those medicines.”
Her parents took Ervin to the Caron Pennsylvania Treatment Center in the rural town of Wernersville, between Philadelphia and capital city of Harrisburg, Pa.
Ervin didn’t sleep for seven days, often soaking her sheets with sweat overnight, shaky, on edge and confused.
After two weeks, she had the feeling of “coming alive.”
“It was the first time I felt like myself in years. Joy was not chemically manufactured. I felt so much better.”
At the end of 30 days, Ervin felt alive and grateful, and all doubts about going to rehab had melted away — until they told her she needed to stay for a few more months.
Counselors wanted her to work on the mental health issues underlying her addiction, and that, Ervin said, was worse than coming off the pills.
“They start chipping away, and I’m like, ‘I’m done! You have to stop hitting on that!’ They are digging, and they’re going to get to things you don’t even know are buried.”
The two most impactful and emotional things Ervin experienced in treatment — the staff had her remove all her hair extensions, and an administrator banned her from singing at Sunday services in the chapel.
Both cut deeply into her self identity and forced her to re-evaluate her priorities.
During a family gathering toward the end of treatment, a nervous Ervin stood up and told all those cousins and aunts and uncles about her battles with pills and her launch into recovery.
“It was a big vulnerability jump into the deep end,” Ervin said, but she got the dream response.
Her relatives clapped, asked questions, said they were proud of her and offered support.
Ervin left Pennsylvania 30 pounds heavier and feeling good.
“At the end, I felt grounded and rooted, and I felt strong. I really felt free. I’d done a lot of work, and it was good,” she said. “I felt very strong in my recovery and my sobriety.”
As Ervin learned in treatment, though, feelings are fleeting.
She went back home, got back together with her boyfriend, and now husband, Kyle DiMeola, and got back into showbiz — behind the scenes.
Ervin did makeup for the cable TV show “Nashville Flipped.”
She also reconnected and became great friends with former Olympic medal-winning gymnast Shawn Johnson, a judge for the Miss America contest while Ervin was a contestant.
And Ervin started traveling with Johnson, now a Nashvillian, doing makeup and other tasks during Johnson’s media and public appearances.
For a year, Ervin submitted to random drug screenings and did weekly check-ins with her rehab therapists. She stopped hanging out with “bar friends.”
And then, several months into recovery, in summer of 2015, she took a small step back into the spotlight, starting a blog about fashion and beauty.
She did so cautiously: “Being part of the limelight was part of what got me in [rehab].”
The move scared her mom, who told her, “I think you should get a job at [the department store] Nordstrom!”
Ervin started building an online audience through YouTube (141,000 subscribers), Instagram (740,000 followers) and her “Living Fully” podcast. As her audience grew, Ervin’s family did as well. She’s pregnant with her and her husband’s third child.
Throughout her success, Ervin has remained in therapy, and she sometimes goes to 12-step meetings in Nashville.
“As the blog and YouTube started gaining traction, I felt healthy and safe doing it,” she said.
At six years sober, Ervin landed a deal for a self-help book, also called “Living Fully,” with Crown Publishing, a subsidiary of major publisher Penguin Random House.
That book is coming out Feb. 8, and in it, Ervin shares stories about rehab and recovery.
“I could’ve left my story shiny enough. I could’ve left it at, ‘I’ve been through hard times,'” Ervin said.
“But I wanted credibility. The self-help space is very crowded. There are lots of people in their early 20s on TikTok telling people how to live their lives,” she said. “So I need to tell the whole story.”
Ervin also hopes her experiences might connect with others who need to deal with their own addictions.
“I would love to inspire a person reading this to say, ‘You know what, I may be taking too many of these pills.'”
Regardless, Ervin feels her struggles and triumphs inform how she deals with others.
“Recovery is the catalyst to everything I share now.”
Reach Brad Schmitt at [email protected] or 615-259-8384 or on Twitter @bradschmitt.
Mallory Ervin will sign copies of her book, “Living Fully: Dare to Step Into Your Most Vibrant Life,” at two events in Nashville
► From 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 6, at Books-A-Million, 6718 Charlotte Pike; tickets are $26
► From 2 to 4 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11, at The Mall at Green Hills, 2126 Abbott Martin Road; tickets for the signing and live interview are $25 to $45
At the height of her addiction: “I was taking enough medication to kill a cow, so it’s not surprising that my body was falling apart from the inside out. My hair started to fall out, my skin felt like it was crawling, my pupils were the size of my whole eyeball, I weighed under one hundred pounds, and I couldn’t feel the ends of my fingers or toes. What had started as a flame of nonstop energy had become a wildfire, threatening to burn my whole life down.”
On losing “The Amazing Race” by 90 seconds: “[L]ooking back, here’s why it was the best thing that could have happened to me. During that time in my life, the pageants, the racing around the world, the notoriety, all of it, I had become a numbed-out, empty shell of myself. I was quickly approaching the abyss, and honestly, if we’d won, and I’d had all that money in my bank account, I’m pretty sure I would have wound up dead.”
On living in recovery: “Now that I have found my purpose, I get out of bed every day with both feet on the ground, ready to live my best life. It is messy, joyous, and yes, chaotic at times. But I love it and wouldn’t have it any other way. I am living fully, and I can’t wait to help you do the same.”
She absolutely loved being Miss Kentucky, but the long days were grueling, and she almost always worked by herself.