Today, 26-year-old Gabi Holzwarth is a professional violinist frequently seen on the arm of her boyfriend Travis Kalanick, Uber’s billionaire CEO. But before her days of dating a tech billionaire, Holzwarth struggled during her teens with family violence, sexual abuse and eating disorders that have manifested into health problems today.
Now, like her boyfriend in the tech sector, the half-Chinese half-Caucasian violinist aims to disrupt the entire culture of mental health disorders and addiction by leading an open conversation — beginning with her own story.
Holzwarth revealed during a 2014 Tedx event her childhood filled with violent fights between her parents and abuse:
“Violent fights between my parents, plates, punches were thrown, tears and screams rang throughout the house. My mom would always take the keys and leave — I never thought she was coming back.
“When I was 10, I was sexually abused by my tennis instructor but I didn’t tell anybody because I was embarrassed.
“When I was 15, the eating disorder got really bad. I took a glass one day and I smashed it into my dad’s head and he punched me in the face. He went to the hospital to get stitches and I walked around with a black eye.”
Holzwarth revealed that during the first 13 years of her life she strongly identified as Asian. Her high school, whose orchestra she was highly involved in, had a student body that was 95% Asian.
Holzwarth’s eating disorder worsened during her transition from junior high to high school. Social pressure to wear makeup, date and hang out with the popular crowd even led her to steal as a teen.
In response to the stress, she developed bulimia and anorexia and was consequently sent to therapy and a clinic. Though she was monitored and put under surveillance, her eating disorder continued. She recalled:
“Soon the bulimia transformed into anorexia. My life became a series of calculations. I had excel spreadsheets and journals of calories ingested, calories burned. I counted gum and diet coke, two calories, one calorie, everything obsessively […] When I was cold and I was shivering, I would met myself shiver in bed because that meant I was burning calories.
“By the time I came back to school junior year I was the walking skeleton in school and people were scared. Now I didn’t finish junior year. I got my GED from home schooling because I was in and out of hospitals and treatment centers. I went to college at UC Davis and I had to leave after two weeks because I was binging in the dining halls.”
Without many options to turn to, Holzwarth took her violin and began performing on the streets of Palo Alto, Ca.
“I started playing violin in the streets of Palo Alto. I was sick. I put out my box because I didn’t know what to do. I quit my job in sales. I was living at home. I was 21. I didn’t know what I was doing. I put down my box one day and I started to play.”
Holzwarth would perform in front of places with heavy foot traffic. When Apple launched a new iPhone, she would play outside the Palo Alto store for the people waiting in line. During one New Year’s Eve, she made $500 in one hour performing on the street.
In Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley, Holzwarth found herself surrounded by Silicon Valley executives who would invite her to play at parties and other events. When she was hired to play at a party hosted by venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar, she met billionaire Uber CEO Travis Kalanick — they would eventually begin dating.
Holzwarth began sharing her story with others and says that she wouldn’t have made it without Kalanick’s support. She told Business Insider:
“Travis, he’s been so helpful in my recovery. He’s been such a rock. That’s a side that no one really sees about him.
“I told him absolutely everything and that I was 30 pounds underweight […] He checks on me every day. He rushes home — he can be in the middle of ridiculous crazy at the office — and he comes home if I need help.”
In her Tedx talk, Holzwarth explained that despite how happy her life may seem now, looks can be decieving:
“Most people will look at me and they see somebody who is really healthy, happy and vibrant. The truth is that for the past ten years to this year I’ve been struggling with an eating disorder, which has kept me a prisoner.
“The truth is I now have osteoporosis because of it. My organs have been weakened, I have to get blood work quite often and I’m on a lot of medication.”
Holzwarth gave insight into the complex nature of eating disorders. Though many may believe eating disorders result from poor body image, Holzwarth said that isn’t the whole story.
“Eating disorder is an addiction like any other addiction. When you binge and purge or when you don’t eat your serotonin rises and then it plummets […] I go to AA meetings now because it’s an addiction.”
According to Holzwarth, a second important fact about recovering from addiction is that it can’t be done alone. She said that it was Kalanick who helped her overcome a decade-long eating disorder that could’ve killed her.
Today, she continues to perform with her violin at tech events, galas and parties. She is available for booking on her website.