lifestyle

Chelsea Bonner is making the fashion industry realise that big is beautiful.

“You don’t have to be a frumpy person because you’re plus size.”

That’s the message Chelsea Bonner wants all Australian women to hear. And although that body positive mantra should be mainstream by now, it was revolutionary when Chelsea founded Bella Model Management 14 years ago.

Chelsea Bonner Bella
Chelsea grew up on fashion shoots — but as she evolved into a curvy teenager, she struggled to feel comfortable in her own skin. (Photo: Supplied-Australian Story/Chelsea Bonner)

Born to a covergirl mother and a well-known actor father, Chelsea grew up on fashion shoots — but as she evolved into a curvy teenager, she struggled to feel comfortable in her own skin.

“It was hard,” she tells Australian Story on an episode set to air tonight on ABC. “It was that whole thing… Where do I fit? Where on earth do I fit in this world?”

She eventually found work as a plus size model, but found herself pigeonholed as the token big girl. That meant being relegated to skivvies and hairstyles more appropriate for a middle-aged woman than the 21-year-old she was.

“I noticed there was a huge difference between how they would dress us and how the size 6 girl sitting next to me,” Chelsea recalls. “She would get made up to get all beautiful and fresh and young and glowy and I’d be made up to look as old and dowdy as I possibly could look.”

“I noticed there was a huge difference between how they would dress us and how the size 6 girl sitting next to me,” Chelsea says. (Supplied: Chelsea Bonner)

Chelsea took a job as a junior booker in a Melbourne modelling agency, and became more deeply enmeshed in an industry that worshipped the ultra-thin, heroin-chic look.

Growing increasingly desperate to see a move toward body diversity in the modelling industry, she decided to take matters into her own hands. In 2002, she founded Bella Model Management.

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It was a business that went on to change the face of Australian fashion, quite literally.

“I wanted somewhere to belong. I couldn’t find it, so I just made it, made my own world,” Ms Bonner tells Australian Story, in an episode introduced tonight by Mamamia publisher Mia Freedman.

Chelsea Bonner Bella
Around the time that Chelsea Bonner began modelling, the fashion industry worshiped the Kate Moss “heroin chic” look. (Photo: Calvin Klein)

Chelsea was motivated, in part, by a close family member’s struggle with an eating disorder.

“I picked her up at the airport and I just nearly died, she was so underweight,” Chelsea recalls. “I thought, ‘oh my god, that is directly attridted to what the perception of beauty is as a size’.

“She was hospitalised many, many times. Watching somebody starve themselves to death is possibly the worst thing you can ever see,” she continues.

“I thought: ‘I have to do something about this. I have to try to help the conversation change about what the ideal or the perceived perfection of women should be.”

Robyn Lawley, who signed to Bella eight years ago. Here, she features in Sports Illustrated. (Photo: Instagram/RobynLawley)

Bella signed size-14 beauty Robyn Lawley in 2008 and at first, mainstream casting agents were slow to accept Lawley’s more curvaceous look.

“The fashion high end did not take us seriously at all,” Lawley recalls of her first months as a plus size model. “Chelsea would send me to castings or send my photos and they just wouldn’t look at them.”

But Chelsea was persistent in explaining her vision to others in the industry. “I said to potential clients, ‘look it doesn’t have to be dowdy, it can be different,” Chelsea tells EngagingWomen.com. “‘These are the statistics: 80% of women in our country are this size right now, so you are missing out on a massive chunk of the market.’ ”

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Chelsea’s agency did something else differently to its predecessors, too: It worked with trendy stylists and makeup artists to present curve models as sexy, modern and young.

 

Morning Polaroids wearing mix and match @robynlawleyswimwear @wilhelmina #makeupfree #retouchfree #polaroids

 

A photo posted by Robyn Lawley (@robynlawley) on

Lawley’s success is one example of positive change within the industry: with Chelsea’s help, Lawley has scored the covers of fashion bibles Italian Vogue and French Elle. And while the industry’s bias toward thin models is far from obliterated, Bella continues to do its part in promoting a healthier, more diverse approach to model representation. Above all, Chelsea hopes that Bella’s work continues to help everyday women realise they don’t have to be thin to be beautiful.

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“We need to have different body shapes as part of our normal culture,” Chelsea tells Australian Story. “I don’t want anyone to feel the way I felt: not worthy, not deserving.”

Brava, Chelsea Bonner, for making the fashion world that big can be beautiful, too.

Chelsea Bonner Bella
Chelsea hopes that Bella’s work continues to help everyday women realise they don’t have to be thin to be beautiful. (Photo: Supplied/ABC)

Australian Story: The Beauty Myth airs Monday, March 21 at 8pm on ABC & iview.