GWAS Book Shelf: The Gal Behind the Book – Carolyn Donovan, author of Chooks In Stilettos
We've already established that I adore Carolyn Donovan's Chooks In Stilettos. But she has an amazing life story to tell beyond the cute anecdotes about eating a "huge slab" of lasagne on the kitchen floor in the nude (with a TV crew outside).
So now a few questions for the lady behind the book. Make yourself a cuppa and enjoy our chat about modelling, marriage, glossy magazines and the meaning of life beyond fashion.
Penning a book on chooks in stilettos...
Where did the idea for the book come from? Too many girls and women undervalue themselves and put themselves down because they don’t think they measure up to the current interpretation of the ideal woman, whatever that really is! We have this strange idea that to be validated as a female is to be this incredibly sexy, supermodel type, with a wardrobe full of stunning clothes – regardless of whether you are 16 or 60!
I never really wanted to write a self-help book. I just started collecting all the hilarious moments that happen when you are TRYING hard to be all these things with a couple of kids hanging off your designer skinnies (okay, they were Target, but no one would know the difference from afar!)
I just wanted to yell “step away from the mirror!” Nobody scrutinises you quite as ruthlessly as you do to your precious self. We are so scathingly mean to ourselves. We get so depressed about how our butt cheeks look – when everyone else is thinking what gorgeous dimples we have on our face cheeks.
The way we think about ourselves affects everything else we do in life. I have managed to get that down from an immobilising paralysis rating, to a more workable annoying distraction – but it is still something I have to regularly address and deal with.
What did you want to get across with the book? The common concept that modelling is all about champagne and limousines, pimple-free bodies and perfect hairdos just got the better of me. I will often relate something hilarious that has just happened to me – on the quest to this illusive perfect image – and the response is usually, “Every girl needs to hear this… I can’t wait to tell my friends.” Having the word “model” worked into your job description title doesn’t exempt you from all the icky things in life; far from it!
How long did it take to write and how did you fit this into your schedule/family life? It took the best part of a year to put it all together. The hardest part was labouring over what to leave out so it didn’t end up the size of an Encyclopedia Britannica volume!
I now understand the “zone” writer’s talk about. Once I got started, I would begrudge any interruptions, which everyone found quite weird (see industrial ear muffs pic!), as I love having people around and am usually happy to be distracted. My family was relieved when I finally finished and their eyes widen in fear when I talk about my next book – so I must have been horrible!
What inspired you to write? My parents got bored easily and we moved house every couple of years, so I was the perpetual new girl at school. I became an avid people watcher from a young age. It was something that would keep me entertained later on when I found myself stuck in airports on long waits, and possibly even kept me safe when I was alone in foreign countries. Being a keen observer of everyday life has now bubbled over into my writing – I never even planned to write books, but now I look back, it was a natural progression.
Glossy serving suggestions – take with a healthy spoon full of wisdom
On glossy images...
Some of my favourite photographs of yours truly are so heavily photoshopped that I hardly resemble myself at all. But I know I could never look like that in real life. My son and daughter know I don’t look like that in real life. Their friends know that. So I am doing my bit for educating the kids around me, simply by informing them. So they can appreciate art, appreciate a beautifully presented shopping guide and appreciate reality.
I often relate it to looking at the picture on a cereal box, deciding you like the look of that cereal, purchasing it, and then when you get home saying, “Oh, no. I can’t possibly eat this cereal. I don’t have a bowl with two blue stripes like the one in the picture on the box. I don’t have a spoon with a handle shaped quite like the one in the picture. And I don’t have two sliced strawberries to serve on top, like it has in the picture. I can’t possibly eat this cereal!”
The picture is a serving suggestion, for goodness sake. And we have to tell it to our girls – these are digitally altered, manipulated images. They have been created to make the clothes look nice. Don’t worry about trying to actually look like that. Even the model in the picture doesn’t look like that!
How have you managed to keep a peace about your body in the industry? I think outward appearances can be something that encroaches on just about every arena of the workplace, not just the fashion and advertising industry. As someone who has a TV in my house, a computer, an ever-revolving collection of magazines, newspapers and catalogues, loves going to the movies, shopping, listening to the radio, looking at billboards on the side of the road, I can’t avoid some level of potential angst about being faced with all my inadequacies and shortcomings.
Instead, I find comfort in the fact that my imperfections are probably why I have friends in the first place. I write in the first few pages of Chooks In Stilettos that some of the most comforting words in the universe are “me too.” I love the C.S Lewis quote; “Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’ “
I love working with the amazingly vibrant creative people that make up this industry. But you can’t take it all too seriously, because last season is already…well…”so last season!”. You’ve got to move on. “Curves are in” – now they’re not. “Skinny is back” – oops, too late, it’s already over! It makes me realise the best thing about it all is how different we all are – and how boring life would be if it were any other way!
On modelling, marriage, motorbikes and the meaning of life...
Some of the significant achievements in your modelling career? I only ever planned to do this for a short time after I left school, just until I worked out what I wanted to do and then I was going to study. So the most significant achievement is to still be working in the industry more than two decades later. Still being requested for jobs. Still having photographers wanting to work with me… even though everything you hear and believe about this industry is that you are practically over the hill in your 20s! Somehow I have mastered a couple of those hills, while remaining relatively low-profile and scandal free. Bonus!
When did marriage/kids come into the picture? For me, kids weren’t ever in that ‘life plan’ we often set out for ourselves. I guess I had worn enough princess-y bride gowns on photo shoots to last me a life time. And being the oldest of four siblings, I had seen enough nappies, baby vomit and toddler tantrums to ensure a large dose of reality on parenting. So I didn’t feel like I was either ready – or missing out – on either… for a long time to come.
Falling pregnant with my son came as a shock. I kept thinking “I'll work out what to do soon.” Needless to say, I never quite worked out what I was going to do. It was the quickest nine and a half months of my life! And although I was panicking about how I was going to ‘bond’ with this little person, it was love at first sight and I was irrevocably changed from that moment on.
Harrison’s dad was a racing car driver. A fatal crash left me a single mum when Harrison was just eight months old. When he was four, we met Andrew, the plumber who came to fix our kitchen tap. I often say Andrew and Harrison fell in love and got married – I just held the flowers. Zoe came along a couple of years later and has always loved the fact she has three brothers: Harrison and his two brothers from his dad’s first marriage. They spend a lot of time with us, riding motorbikes, etc. Harrison’s oldest brother has recently starting racing cars professionally, so Andrew supports him and we are always the loudest cheer squad there!
How has your faith/spirituality affected your life and life's choices? How to shorten that into a paragraph? I think I am a cynic by nature. If I couldn’t see/touch/taste it, I didn’t believe it. I always felt life just happened to you and you had no other choice but to drift along in its current. The concept of life having meaning or purpose had never taken up much of my thinking beyond the fact that fate had dealt Australia as my place of birth. Lucky me!
But when I became a mother, a whole new reality opened up to me. Suddenly I was dealing with overwhelming love and care and protectiveness far, far beyond anything I ever thought possible, and they weren’t just random emotions. They were very real. The more I searched, the more I discovered that life wasn’t just random. Life had purpose beyond simply what I saw when I looked in the mirror. What I do – or don’t do; everything I say – or don’t say, has an effect on me and those around me.
Who are some of the women you look up to/admire? In fashion field, I want to see what Kate Moss or Sarah Jessica Parker are wearing, but in the same breath I want to read about women who are battling to hold their family together through a child’s illness, or women who pioneer successful companies. I admire women who look beyond their own incapability – whether that be a disability, or financially, emotionally or culturally imposed – to see what they can do.
Chooks in Stilettos, $22.95, Ark House, out now.
Girl With a Satchel