'Are you the stylist?' The reality of being a 54-year-old model.

I've lived 54 years and stand at 176cm. I have blue eyes and long blonde hair. In the British comedy series Absolutely Fabulous, Eddie quips a line about her cheekbones holding up her face. Same here, however their coathanger-y effect is borderline ephemeral. I can mostly squeeze into Australian sample size clothing and I’m still dining out on being captioned as The Surfer In The City in's Style section mid 2021.

For 36 years I’ve worked continuously as a full-time, professional model.

Image: HQ and Health Magazine, Australia.

This opener is not to big myself up, rather, it’s helping you appreciate what I’m about to share. So, with all that said, I’ll set the scene:


Late afternoon, I arrive at a gorgeous home on Sydney’s upper North Shore for a night shoot. One of Australia’s most recognised department stores is celebrating the upcoming holiday festivities. The shoot theme is ‘party’. Hellos and introductions are made, I sit next to a beautiful 20ish-year-old guy.

Prior to the job, I’d checked the call sheet, looked up a few peeps on Instagram. But it didn’t take social stalking to know this handsome young man was a model. Even before hair and makeup magic, he looked like he’d stepped out of a billboard.

The following conversation ensued: 

Him: "So, what are you here for? Are you a hair and makeup artist? Stylist?"

Me: "I'm here working as a model today." (Smiling, stomach starting to knot).

Him: "You? You're modelling today?" (Face surprised, sitting back in his chair appraising, eyes still questioning). 

Me: "Yep." (Losing interest, feeling passive aggressive and can’t be bothered to talk to this dude anymore).

Here’s the rub that keeps itching. Should I have kindly explained to this nice enough guy, "Y’know how sexism and racism are things? Well, there’s such a thing as ageism and that’s what’s happening here. There’s no reason other than my age that you think I shouldn’t be a model. Why does it seem improper to you I promote brands? Your thoughtless response has made me feel uncomfortable."

Similar situations have played out for decades, as I’ve become less and less ‘obviously a model’. I’ve spent years squirming when asked "So what do you do?" each time receiving the same confused consternation, often followed with "Do you get much work?"


Watch: How to be a woman in 2023. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

When I started working in the late 80s, a model’s career life maxed out at 30. So I often found myself fielding the question "What are you going to do after modelling?" What twenty-something gives ageing any serious thought? We honestly think it will not happen to us. The question always flummoxed me. It made me feel anxious and unsteady. In most other professions you wouldn’t be asked, "What are you going to do, after doing what you’re doing?" at 20, let alone at all.

Yet to borrow from Elton John, "I’m still standing." Though progress is slow, I’ve directly experienced the gentle rise of women in all areas of the fashion and advertising industries over the last few decades, and with it a change in the kind of imagery and the kind of people used to sell. The fact I’m still modelling full time precisely correlates to aesthetic decisions made by female art directors, female brand managers and other female creatives. Their choice of model, campaign conversation and brand direction is not about selling sex. They know women on the ground don’t respond to teenagers cooing lustily at them to help in their skin cream selection. We respond to empowered female imagery and inspirational brands doing good things for the planet and her people.


However, just by the mere fact of existing in these industries, there’s no doubt I challenge the dominant aesthetic. At times, this doesn’t feel pretty. On several occasions I have turned-up for national brand campaign shoots, (we’re talking big budget, with top tier creative professionals working on it), and I’ve sat down in the makeup chair, only to be relegated to the assistant makeup artist, or the assistant hair artist to work on me. The doing of my 50+ head has not been deemed worthy of the professionals booked for the job. Just one word: demoralising.

Afterpay Australian Fashion Week 2022 opened with 50+ supermodel Emma Balfour walking for Australian designer Bianca Spender. I made up one of the other five mature models in this runway show. However backstage, syndicated and freelance paparazzi, (who were for the majority, middle-aged men), vied frenziedly for the young beauties’ attention. I had noticed this phenomenon in previous years and it left me feeling like when you pull out the bath plug, my self-confidence slowing seeping down the drain. Bolstered by a buddy, another model of my vintage newly ‘back in the game’, we could joke about it. She was so astounded and literally threw herself in front of their uninterested cameras to prove our point. Unsurprisingly appropriated images would not represent the show’s actual age diversity. In saying that, change is afoot. This year, designers across the entire event, employed more mature models than any other year.

Even in the notoriously superficial world of high fashion, being less than youthful isn’t such a faux pas anymore. Recently in Europe, inroads were made towards age equality in the Fall/Winter 2022 shows, with Saint Laurant, Max Mara, Chloe and Prada presenting their collections on models of varied ages. Earlier last year in Paris, Spring/Summer, Valentino’s show kept to standard 25–30-year-old models on the runway, strategically placed and gloriously gowned Helen Mirren and Sharon Stone stole the show.


Which brings me back to Mr Billboard. Confidence comes with age and my 36 years of modelling experience kicked in. I rocked those festive frocks alongside my decades younger workmates, but I knew I’d reached a tipping point. Instead of swallowing my weird age shame, I felt the need to push back and set right. I couldn’t let the conversation go, it was an on repeat in my mind, and I played a nutcase game of making up new replies. This led me to writing a short story about Billboard vs Ageing Kate, that mused on how I could have dealt better with the situation. I finished with the line "Can you help me?". Teamed with an image of the shoot, I put it up on Instagram. A tsunami of replies...

"Maybe he genuinely needs glasses, and his look of surprise was actually him trying to focus?"

"I probs would have slapped him to be honest (the ignorance of the young)."

Bolstered by the hilarious and kind instructive comments I received, I’ve resolved to have my big-girl pants on next time, dig deep and speak my truth. If the Billboard gracers and other such questioners are cool, they’ll take it on board, and fingers crossed never again make anyone feel alien because of their age.

I’m all ears if you’d like to share some spicy one-liners to add to my growing list of replies.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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