Dancing With The Stars finalist Jess Quinn wants more real bodies represented in the media. The model and cancer survivor uses Instagram to promote diversity among her 188,000 followers.
1 You're often described as a 'social media influencer'. How did you become one?
It happened accidentally when I did a photo shoot with a photographer friend two years ago. I wanted to tackle this cookie cutter mould of the 'perfect' body portrayed in the media. My dream was to see people like myself with real bodies represented. I'd recently got a cool new prosthetic leg, so we took some pictures and put them on Instagram. I only had friends and family following me at the time. It went viral and I got 10,000 followers overnight. I thought it would plateau but it just kept going. I was getting calls at work from media wanting interviews and companies wanting me to be their brand ambassador.
2 How did you handle that?
I was still working full-time doing bespoke product design in acoustic installation at Autex. I didn't know much about social media so I got advice from The Social Club and We Are Tenzing Management. They help people who have a profile to find their message and purpose. You do an exercise where you identify your main pillars; things you're passionate about, charities you support and bring those together to prioritise your decisions. I wanted to use my story of what I went through as a kid to inspire others to show resilience and overcome adversity. I left my job about six months after it went viral to become what I think of as a storyteller.
3 How often do you get approached by companies wanting you to promote their brand?
About five to 10 a week. My manager and I work together on these. My priority is working with brands that have a message that resonates with mine. Their budget size is less important. It's interesting, the more I've understood what I really want to do and prioritised that, the more opportunities have opened up. This year has been the craziest of my life. When I got to carry the Olympic torch in Korea in January, I did not see how 2018 could get any better and then Dancing With the Stars came up. That's led to public speaking, a TED talk and now Christmas in the Park.
4 What's been the scariest thing so far?
Dancing on national TV. I said no at first. I didn't think I could do it. Walking is hard for me, let alone dancing. That was the furthest I've ever pushed myself outside my comfort zone. But it was a huge opportunity to give back to Child Cancer Foundation. We raised $55,000. Seeing the effect my message has had on all these kids who ask me to have photos with them is an awesome feeling. My goal is to do a nationwide speaking tour of schools next year.
5 What was high school like for you, growing up on Auckland's North Shore?
I went to Carmel College and moved to Kristin for my last two years to study fashion. I loved high school but it was definitely the time that I struggled most with body image issues. It was four years post-amputation and I was coming to terms with the implications it would have for me for the rest of my life. I'd think, 'Why did this happen to me?' I was lucky to have really good friends but internally I was struggling. My surgery scar is quite unusual looking which was hard to come to terms with as a teenage girl wanting to wear shorts.
6 What was unique about your surgery?
It's called rotationplasty — I was the first in New Zealand to have it. They amputated my leg really high into my hip socket, got rid of the upper part of my leg, rotated the bottom half of my leg 180 degrees and attached it at my hip so my ankle became my knee and my calf became my thigh. It took me eight years to be able to wear shorts. I did a campaign with my LA modelling agency recently called 'Wear The Shorts' with all these girls with two legs who wouldn't wear shorts for other reasons such as being plus sized. It showed me that we all struggle with body image in different ways.
7 We're often told to love our bodies as they are but that can be hard in practice, can't it?
Yes, you don't have to love your stretchmarks, you just have to live with them. I don't think my leg is the most beautiful in the world but I love it for what it allows me to do and the fact it's given me a life. It's about putting your worth in something aside from your physical appearance. Our bodies are literally just the house we live in. We should focus on the things that we can achieve instead of allowing our insecurities to hold us back.
8 You've just done a TED Talk. What did you speak about?
I talked about my body image journey and what it was like seeing a Photoshopped image of me in the press. I did a news story on it at the time — just after Fashion Week — but I didn't name the company involved because I wanted to educate people on the fact it's still happening rather than just shaming one player for what is an industry-wide practice. When the TED talk goes online it'll reach a platform of 14 million people so hopefully it'll lead to more public speaking.
9 Will you continue modelling?
Yes, modelling's a way for me to physically put into play what I'm speaking about. I want to work with brands that are passionate about using real people and getting these images mainstream.
10 You're about to host Christmas in the Park. What does Christmas mean to you?
Christmas Day 2001 was the sickest I got in my whole cancer journey. It was definitely touch and go for a while that day. Dad told me recently that a boy who had the same type of cancer at the same stage as me was also admitted to hospital that day and he didn't make it. I remember my parents going to the funeral. They told me they were going out to lunch but I knew it wasn't true. That really brought home how lucky I was. Christmas is a very special time for our family. We're really close.
11 What else do you have planned for 2019?
I'm about to launch my own online clothing label called 'Be Your Label' which is all about helping women feel good in their skin. All my size tags say 'the perfect size'. I'm starting with T-shirts, made in New Zealand sustainably and ethically.
12 Looking back to your younger self from where you are at age 26, what would tell her?
I wish I could tell my younger self where I would be now. I'm in a position now where I can genuinely say I wouldn't change what I went through because of what it's led to, all that I've learned and the people I'm able to help. It has daily challenges but I'd be a completely different person had I not gone through it.
• Coca‑Cola Christmas in the Park on Saturday, December 8, at 7.30pm in the Auckland Domain and broadcast on Three on Saturday, December 15, at 7pm.