As a six feet tall teenager in Walsall, Erin O’Connor found it difficult to accept her lanky physique. On a school trip to The Clothes Show Live she was scouted by a modelling agency. Within a few years she was heralding a new wave of models that contradicted the stereotypical male fantasy, prompting Jean-Paul Gaultier to state, “She isn’t only a model, she is art.” Cruelly nicknamed Morticia at school, Erin used the escapism of fashion to overcome an almost crippling shyness, taking control of her fears and, eventually, her career. Erin allowed women’s fashion to be seen with new significance, and became one of the most successful supermodels in the UK.

In 2006, Erin, amongst other high profile British models, unwittingly became embroiled in the global size zero debate, with attention being drawn to her lean physique. Rather than watch her career and self-confidence drain away, she used the exposure that the media’s personal attacks gave her as part of a project with the potential to change the future of fashion – The Model Sanctuary.

She has since spent her career questioning the fashion industry’s rigid ideals of feminine beauty, and opened up forums for models to explore their sense of self – her self included. Erin may have influenced the direction of female fashion in the 90s, but it is her work off the catwalk that has seen her labelled as an inspiration. The Model Sanctuary has been running at London Fashion Week for the past four years, and she has teamed up with Caryn Franklin and Debra Bourne for All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, addressing the standardised size of models and mannequins. “I think we undermine the consumer by insisting on having such a strict remit of body ideal and appreciation of beauty.” Erin has also designed a range of organic cotton t-shirts with Kate Halfpenny:

“I don’t underestimate the power of fashion as a communicator and it’s about time we consider where our clothes have come from and at what price. Everyone should have the right to work in an empowered and dignified way. There’s no reason why style and conscience cannot coexist.”

In July this year, Erin took a leap back into the modelling world after a one-year break, walking for Jean-Paul Gaultier in Paris. No longer a girl hiding behind the disguise of an androgynous, industry identity, the 33-year-old is embracing her feminine instincts, by modelling and nurturing the next generation.

The Hunger: It’s interesting that you requested to have no cameras present during this interview.

Erin O’Connor: When there’s a camera in my face, I shut down and go into diplomat mode. It’s a sure way of not telling the whole truth. I’ve done that for 15 years. At a young age, I learned to be diplomatic to put other people at ease, because there was a real divide between the way that I looked and the way that I actually was. I looked determined and strong, so I felt that I had to be very gentle in the way that I spoke.

Why has that changed?

It feels like I’ve had a bit of a coming out party. I’ve realised at the tender age of 33 that this is my life and I can’t worry about offending my Granny. I’m not a people pleaser but I always aim to satisfy expectations. I have to deliver 100 per cent. If my brain’s not engaged, I’m not interested.

I’ve always found you to be a very focused model.

I feel a necessity to express myself – to unburden my very long body and just let it go. I knew when I began at 18 that I wasn’t the best looking, but I realised that wasn’t the point. It was about the drama and conviction that you can convey in a photograph. It’s about giving yourself, and translating what a photographer or designer want. The interpretation can be ambiguous, but you’ve got to have a human being inside the item to make it desirable and functional – to give it a pulse.

I’ve got a love/hate relationship with fashion because I’ve always felt on the outside of it, and I think it can be shallow.

Does it feel like fear or reservation? I’ve felt that, too. I’m never happier than when I’m going through the process behind the scenes, that’s what makes me tick. I love the transformation, trying to understand who I am on that day. You can jump from a 2D page in quite a powerful way, but it’s also nice to be a person in a room who can hold their own, which does often conjure up fear for me because I’m incredibly shy. It’s a constant battle, like the shoot we did in Whitstable. The climate and everything was tough, and yet that’s when it kicks in – I want to make it work.

The photographs are strong and sexy, which is very different for someone known for being androgynous.

I think there’s a massive difference between feeling or conveying sensuality and looking overtly sexual. As a woman today, I don’t want to conform to a sexual cliché and I don’t think excessive nudity is as empowering as it is often portrayed and even celebrated; I certainly wouldn’t call it a replacement for creativity. I felt really comfortable on the shoot, like I owned it. I don’t know whether that definitely comes with age but I’m in a happy place. I’ve always been incredibly feminine, but I’d get up for a modelling job and not know what gender I was playing that day. They saw my physical form and worked to the contours of my body. I’m like a walking illustration, I get it, but there are certain things that I’ve got to preserve, like my very realistic, round bum. I would leave a shoot, take the men’s suit off and have a nice time being a woman. Now the two are merging: the woman and the model. I’m in a new phase of my life where I can express that side and the power that I feel.

Is that why you’ve started the Model Sanctuary?

Definitely. When the size zero debate hit London, I was initially unnerved, but I welcomed the debate. I was singled out, and I wasn’t surprised, but I was hurt by the negative comments that were being bandied around. I realised that if I had caused any harm to people because of my image in the media, I wanted to do something about it. It was disconcerting to say the least, seeing myself being spoken about by doctors, feminists and shrinks, telling me that I probably couldn’t have children, that I wasn’t bright and that I was a negative example. It’s always been important for me to identify with people in my pictures. I’ve never wanted to alienate an audience. I’ve never understood this need for fashion to be a closed world.

This debate was necessary, but I feel vulnerable at times, and I knew I had to turn it on its head and do something positive. The Model Health Inquiry was formed by fashion industry insiders. There were so many things being said about models, but we weren’t hearing from the models themselves. I believe in health and wellbeing, and it’s important to take responsibility for ourselves as young women.

During the size zero debate, the model was blamed for being a certain body shape and then the designer was blamed for producing unnecessarily small, unrealistic sample sizes. It was a vicious circle, and I didn’t feel comfortable being the villain or the victim. The Sanctuary is a non-profit organisation, providing models with a team of experts, from osteopaths to physiotherapists to nutritionists. It feels very philanthropic. It’s keeping me alive. I’m a bit of a fighter and I’m definitely a stubborn cow.

How do the model agencies feel about it?

There was resistance at first, but allowing the models to air their concerns in a confidential environment benefits the agencies, and I think they can see that. People need to appreciate the pressures that are faced on both sides. That’s why All Walks Beyond the Catwalk was born. It was conversation around the kitchen table that generated the one question that has never been answered: What is the problem with diversity in women? We call ourselves a creative industry, but we really need to expand, whether that’s in sample size, mindset or creative outlook.
We speak through the power of imagery in the fashion industry, which excites me. It’s universal and has an impact, whether you think that fashion is futile or not. This is not about alienating anyone. It’s about inviting everybody in and actually dealing with the issues that people have raised in a talented, creative way.

Do you think designers will want to take it on board?

They are already. We have got great people out there that are championing diverse women. It’s always the designers with personality, like Giles Deacon, who brought the theatrical element back to London this September. It wasn’t surprising at all, he just happened to be the man that had the conviction and the talent to do it. There were boobs and bums, Amazonians and slender women. It was all over the place, but also an arrival of what should be considered normal.

How do you feel about retouching? I find the debate bizarre, because I don’t think it should be banned – I think we should go to schools and explain the process to the kids.

It’s a really difficult argument, because if Man Ray were here today, he’d have pioneered digital, wouldn’t he? When retouching was instigated, it was considered a real art form. It’s a creative movement, so therefore it is really relevant. I thrive on performance, though. If I’m caught up in the superficial – “Has my arm got to be 45 degrees to the right?” – I lose that freedom and it’s really difficult to get it back. People have wanted to retouch me to death during my career. When I first came into the industry, it was, “Reduce your nose and pump up your boobs and then you might work.” Cue stubborn cow, and thank God, because if I had a pair of boobs and a polite nose, I probably wouldn’t have a career or a platform for expression. But I‘m certainly not infallible to my own self-criticism.

When people morph away from being human, when women lose that sensuality, it’s a crying shame. People are now looking at the monitor and missing the point of the moment, because they’re too busy trying to perfect it. When you are working with film, you have to wait for that magic to unfold; it’s like a dance. The spontaneity is something you can’t digest. Models don’t get rehearsals; I don’t think many people know that. I’m all about the performance, and I’m not interested in critiquing my performance afterwards. My parents came to see one show, the McQueen show, in the lunatic asylum. I was really scared. My mum came out with a classic statement, which I will eternally love her for: “I get it now, I get what they see. It’s like you’re the meat with the veg.” My dad just burst into tears. I couldn’t look at them. I guess with my Mum and my Dad, they know that I have this insatiable desire to be seen but by the same token, being looked at makes me feel uneasy.

Do your parents want to see you model again?

I won’t let them! It was too hard. They know me too well. I don’t feel that I can deliver with them there, being so much of a loving distraction. I’ve never even had a boyfriend come and see a show.

People think that I’m going to spend my life walking around in a corset and 13cm shoes, but I don’t feel like I need to live my life channelling that persona. I think if I channelled my identity through my work, I’d be in serious trouble with my relationships. I adore men, I really do. My sexuality has been questioned because it’s always been ambiguous. Professionally, that may have been promoted. When we did the shoot the other day, someone said, “You’re having a coming out party!” I said, “No, it’s more of a soft landing.” I’ve always been that person but haven’t shown it, but I trusted that you knew how I felt. We’ve known each other a long time. I remember when we first met!

When was that?

It was one of my first jobs.

I was pissed!

It was to promote an Indian beer. I was doing my A-levels, and had come up on the bus with a rucksack on. I was late and petrified because it was pre-mobile phones. I knew it was an amazing opportunity for me, because you’d been so bigged up by the agency. I said, “Rankin? Is that his real name?” I rocked up, and there’s this photographer getting pissed on the product! I thought to myself, “What am I doing?” Just like that, you turned round and said, “What the fuck am I going to do?” I thought, “Right, I’m leaving now. This industry stinks. I want to be a schoolteacher.” That’s what I was studying for at the time. One day I’d be doing a comparison between Buddhism and Catholicism; the next day I’d be shooting Elephant beer with Rankin, who’d drank the product before I could pose with it!

I was so drunk! The bottles needed to be empty for the shoot I think; maybe that was it?

I remember Jake and Dinos Chapman had made the mannequin dolls, so there were loads of bottom holes and fanny holes lying around. What was I supposed to say when my parents picked me up at the end of the day? I was working with a pissed photographer and these weird mannequin dolls? It was a whole new world – and I was intrigued.

So I made you want to leave the fashion industry?

All the people on set were so funny – and they were looking at me on purpose. How weird is that? It’s really difficult to get your head around. I’d spent all my school life trying to look like Kate Moss. I’m meant to be a Neanderthal with my massive eyebrows, yet I painstakingly plucked them all out and overdid the blusher. I was never going to look like a 90s babydoll – I looked like a raving Trannie! But, somehow, you find your own way. It was quite something to hold my own in a room full of people, poised with expectation.
There’s a precarious line between artistic expression and commercialism, between the fashion industry and the public.

It’s quite a unique set of people on The Model Sanctuary. They come from any walk of life. It doesn’t matter how they were brought up, what opportunities they’ve had, what disadvantages they’ve faced – it’s irrelevant. It’s a certain mindset that’s drawn to our industry. We get people together and expose them to something that’s almost without boundaries in a way. They want to do it, but need that all-important experience to figure out where they can contribute, because they are the next generation. I don’t think we listen to them enough.

You don’t think we’re listening to the next generation?

I’m not saying that exactly, but they don’t think that they are heard enough. I’m trying to create that space for them. There’s nothing like giving somebody that opportunity and seeing them rise to the challenge, whether they’re a media student or a photographer or an aspiring model. It doesn’t matter what medium they work in, it’s about being given that experience and being free to say what they want to do.

You’ve become an inadvertent role model. Do you feel a lot of responsibility?

I’ve never put myself out there as a role model, because I’ve always wanted to be accessible to everybody.

What do you say to aspiring models?

I say, “Can I tell you what being a model is like? If it’s what you want to do, then I encourage you all the way but first you need to know this.” I have those conversations repeatedly with the models who come into the Sanctuary because they’ve got so much to offer, but I want to make sure that they’re well-rounded and know what their potential is. A lot of creative people are drawn to the industry. Part of my real enjoyment is helping to facilitate their trajectory.

My Model Sanctuary mantra is “Leave your coat and looks at the front door”, because I’m not interested in their beauty. I’m interested in the development of their identity. It’s not about surviving the industry – it’s about thriving in the industry. It’s about knowing what your boundaries are, and not allowing other people to impose upon them unnecessarily. People have to remember that underneath that fabric, makeup and wig – and all the paraphernalia and the lighting – there is a human being.

Read more about Erin’s Model Sanctuary on their website.

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