From the Ashes of Addiction and Abuse to an Icon of Women’s Empowerment

Vilma Biliene's rise to fame got sidetracked by her battle with addiction — but a one-way bus ticket to Savannah, Georgia would be her salvation. 

On the surface, Vilma Biliene, the long-legged, exotic Lithuanian model with the perfect bone structure would seem to have had an easy path through life. Her looks helped catapult her into a decade-long run with Ford Models, the international modeling agency based in New York City that started the careers of Christie Brinkley, Naomi Campbell and Jean Shrimpton. However, appearances can be deceiving.

Biliene met a Russian kickboxer when she was fifteen years old, married him at sixteen, and got pregnant shortly after. He was physically abusive, beating her three to four times per week, causing her to miscarry and suffer chronic back pain. The abuse left her body so broken it required mutliple surgeries, leading to opioid addiction in an attempt to alleviate the agony. At nineteen, Biliene had her first child. At twenty-three, she left the marriage after her ex-husband put his hands on her son.

“I could look in the mirror and see bruises on my own body and I could look past it,” she says. “But to see my child hurt, that told me it was time to go.”

In 1995, Biliene followed her mother to the U.S. on a student visa in search of a better life. Her mother died in a private plane crash in 2011. The Eastern European beauty was signed by Ford Models while still in the throes of her opioid addiction. Her struggle grew desperate. She’d been following photographic illustrator Chuck Coleman on social media and felt compelled to reach out. Vilma bought a one-way ticket to see Coleman in Savannah — with the intent to die if she couldn’t figure out what to do with her life.

“Before I met Vilma, I looked at drug addicts as junkies and thought it was their fault. Simple as that,” he says. “When Vilma first came down, my initial instinct was to get her back on the plane, but everything changed in seven hours. By the second day she started going through opioid withdrawals. I went from looking down on her to wanting to help her. When I went to the medical institutions asking them what to do, they just told me that if she didn’t get clean she would die.”

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