From Fashion Exec to Health Coach

Former Chanel VP Holli Thompson suffered from an array of illnesses; then she discovered the healing power of food. Now she helps people live healthfully by eating right

By Lynn Rosellini
Photograph: Katherine Wolkoff

One morning last January, Holli Thompson’s country kitchen in rural Virginia hummed with activity. A juicer whirred with a blend of organic kale, romaine and celery; containers of rice milk and flaxseed crowded her wooden countertops; and a TV crew from WUSA9 in Washington, D.C., readied equipment to film Thompson, a nutrition coach, for the evening news.

As the camera clicked on, Thompson, a bubbly blonde, cheerily explained to a reporter the best ways to detox after the holidays. She touted the benefits of water infused with cardamom seeds, cinnamon sticks and star anise as well as the cleansing power of nutrient-rich smoothies. Pouring a glass of green liquid from the juicer, she handed it to her interviewer. “This will make your skin glow,” she said with a confident smile.

Ten years ago, Thompson was decidedly not glowing. She was depressed, overweight and suffering from a number of illnesses; she’d walked away from a glitzy corporate job and wasn’t sure she’d done the right thing. But after hitting bottom physically and emotionally, Thompson rekindled an earlier interest in nutrition, transformed herself and built a new career teaching people how to change their lives by changing their diets. “I had to go down the rabbit hole and crash first—and then get educated to help other people,” she says.

Now a holistic health counselor, she advises clients, teaches nutrition workshops and appears frequently in TV news segments on healthy eating. She expects her income to top six figures this year.

In the 1980s, Thompson’s life was a sophisticated swirl. As a buyer of fine jewelry for Macy’s and later Tiffany & Co., she lived in Manhattan and regularly flew to London and Hong Kong to buy gems and attend jewelry fairs. When she left Tiffany in 1989 to become a vice president at Chanel and launch the company’s fine jewelry and watches collection, she often hopped the Concorde to Paris to meet with designers. “It was a totally glamorous life,” she recalls.

While working at Chanel, Thompson began to ask herself whether there might be more to life than selling fabulous earrings to gazillionaires. “I was dedicated to my career,” she says, “but I wondered if this was really my calling.”

In 1994 she married Moses Thompson, an international management consultant from Middleburg, Virginia, whomshe’d fallen for on a business trip in Paris. For the first year of their marriage, she continued working in Manhattan, spending weekends with him in Virginia on their farm. The difficulties of a long-distance relationship made her question her career choices even more.

Then, one gray winter day as she sat in her sleekly modern office on the 44th floor of a midtown high-rise, with its distant view of polar bears frolicking in the Central Park Zoo, she realized that the thought of another year of seeing her husband only on weekends was too depressing. “I was approaching 40, and I really wanted to have a baby,” she says. So Thompson quit her job and moved south, with plans to get pregnant.

At first, she relished the change. Middleburg is a tiny 18th-century village about 40 miles west of Washington. Thompson could walk the dirt roads for an hour and never see another human being. But before long, she found country life lonely and isolating.

She’d begun helping her husband at his company, managing the payroll and accounting, when a battery of health problems—allergies, chronic sinus infections, mononucleosis and migraine headaches—began to overwhelm her. On top of all this, Thompson struggled to get pregnant. By 1999, unsuccessful in vitro fertilizations and three miscarriages had plunged her into grief.

Thompson and her husband eventually adopted a baby from Russia in 2000 and called him Ormsby, which was the family name of Moses’s mother. Though very happy to have a child, Thompson was weak from unrelenting illnesses, and fertility treatments had further sapped her energy. She quit working at Moses’s office, stopped exercising and gained 40 pounds.

By the time Ormsby was in preschool, Thompson spent most days at home alone and depressed, often racked with migraines. In her bedroom, heavy blackout drapes blocked the sunlight. “I was living on this beautiful farm, but I was broken,” she says. And as much as she enjoyed being a mother, Thompson missed her days working in New York. “I didn’t know who I was anymore.”

Over the years, doctors prescribed migraine medication, antibiotics for her sinus infections, nasal sprays for her allergies and an antidepressant. But the drugs brought Thompson only temporary relief. One evening she was out with a concerned friend who suggested she
try strengthening her immune system.

Earlier in her life, Thompson had been interested in nutrition, and she remembered from reading books on the subject that certain foods promote strong immunity. She decided to consult a holistic nutrition coach, who helped revamp her diet. Thompson eliminated dairy -products—which, she had read, may promote congestion in some people—along with gluten and most processed foods. Under the coach’s guidance, she concocted protein-rich smoothies and high-antioxidant organic juices; she even began raising her own chickens.

Gradually over the next three years, Thompson started to feel better. She lost weight, and her sinus infections and migraines cleared up. She no longer needed her medications. As her mood lifted, she dusted off her business skills and volunteered in her community, chairing two local charity events that netted $100,000 each.

“I remembered that I know how to organize, to raise money, to lead people, to be creative,” she says. She started to think about going back to work. “I considered every career known to man: Maybe I’ll open a jewelry shop, become a lobbyist or start a store on eBay.”

Committed to focusing on her future, Thompson attended the inaugural MoreReinvention Convention in 2007, where several hundred women—many of them wrestling with the same career questions—came together in New York to explore new directions. Thompson was particularly impressed by a panel of enthusiastic entrepreneurs who talked about resources for women in business. “It was like a lightbulb,” she says. “It made me think that I was perhaps brave enough to start my own business.”

The right idea came from an unexpected source. Ormsby, by then seven years old, was having health problems of his own. He had developed sinus infections and a chronic cough and often had colds. Doctors diagnosed asthma and prescribed medication, but his symptoms continued. Alarmed, the Thompsons had him tested for a range of infectious diseases. The doctors found nothing.

Finally, Thompson decided that what had worked for her might work for her son. She eliminated dairy, gluten and processed foods from his diet and started feeding him organic and locally grown food. Soon his symptoms began to disappear. “You keep up with your home remedies,” Thompson recalls one of Ormsby’s doctors telling her. “They’re working!”

Thompson’s next step was clear to her. “Honey,” she told Moses, “I’m going back to school to study nutrition.”

After researching programs, Thompson enrolled in the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN), a licensed vocational school in New York City, in 2008. The program attracted people like her who were returning to school in midlife, and its mix of live and online study fit her schedule. Thompson would commute to Manhattan one weekend a month for classes.

Although she didn’t receive formal training in dietetics, Thompson studied dietary theories (about, for example, the relative merits of organic foods), how to take health histories and how to start your own business. She signed up for cooking classes at the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan, where she learned to make a raw “meatloaf” from nuts and mushrooms. After a year of study, Thompson received a certificate in holistic health coaching from IIN.

Back in Middleburg, she launched her new business with a free screening of the documentary Food, Inc.that drew several hundred people. In an effort to win new clients, Thompson decided to charge a bargain price of $95 a month for a six-month customized program based on interviews and an extensive questionnaire. The program included sessions with Thompson and phone and e-mail support and her own recipes. She hoped to earn $20,000 her first year, the bulk of it from private clients—and she met that goal. Within a year, she had raised the rate to $290 a month.

Thompson took great pleasure in watching her clients’ health improve. Two women in her first group each lost 30 to 40 pounds, and one man’s cholesterol level dropped from 240 to 180 in six months.

Not every customer was a success story, of course. “I’ve had clients who don’t want to do the hard work of changing their diets and exercising,” Thompson says. “But you can’t push people too far.” For clients who have trouble following her recommendations, Thompson suggests “baby steps”: A woman reluctant to give up her nightly glass of wine, for example, could try sparkling water with some bitters.

Thompson hired a marketing consultant to help her with social media. They set up Facebook and Twitter (@Nutritionista) pages and last year started a website she named Nutritional Style (nutritionalstyle.com), a nod to her fashion past. The consultant also helped her build an e-mail list of potential clients. Thompson volunteered to speak at parents’ association meetings and “girls’ night out” gatherings. At every event, she added names to her mailing list.

To encourage people to sign up for her services, she began publishing a biweekly free e-zine that included recipes and cooking videos. Before long, she had a list of 1,000 subscribers. Last year she started hosting live and online workshops like the 7-Week Nutritional Style Makeover: 20 clients paid $397 each to dial into a central conference line and hear Thompson teach a class.

But the core of Thompson’s work has remained private coaching, and many of her clients consider her a miracle worker. “How do I start to explain a process that has changed my whole life?” wrote Katherine Berger, a Berryville, Virginia, woman who lost 35 pounds, in a testimonial on Thompson’s website.

The majority of her clients are women over 40 who sign up for her $197 initial consultation. Some have illnesses like cancer, Crohn’s disease and colitis, but most just want to be healthier.

“Most of the women who work with me are getting ready to start the second half of their lives. Their hormones are changing; it can be scary and depressing,” she says. “But when they start paying attention to what goes in their mouth, most health issues get easier.”

Sometimes Thompson recalls the person she used to be—the overweight, depressed woman who shut herself in her bedroom, sick and suffering. “I feel so sad for that person now,” she says. She wants to encourage other women to take control of their health the way she did, by maintaining nutritious diets. “I feel I’m meant to inspire other women. I want them to know they can transform their lives through food.”

 

Lynn Roselliniis a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

 

Running the Numbers

$1,997  Cost of Thompson’s Goddess Program, in which clients talk with her once a week for three months to revamp their diets “and come out feeling amazing,” she says

7 to 8 Number of private
clients in her practice at a given time

2,306  Friends on Facebook, where Thompson offers nutrition tips

$15,000  Start-up costsfor her business (includes marketing consultant but not education)

$100,000-plus  Estimated incomein 2011

17  Number of recipes in her file for quinoa, a protein-rich grain

$1,497  Cost of her Nutritional Style Wellness Retreat, a day with Thompson,where clients learn to cook and shop for healthy foods

First Published Thu, 2011-03-03 11:54

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