Op-shopper and former supermodel Mercy Brewer is a finalist in the World of Wearable Art awards for her Baroque period costume of an ape carrying a woman's severed head in a cage.

1 Where are you from?

I was born in Paisley, near Glasgow. We're council house people. I was raised by my Gran and Papa. Mum wasn't married when she had me at 20 and it was rare in those days to keep your child. In fact, when Mum was in the maternity ward she found out they'd whisked me off for adoption. Because I was illegitimate no church would baptise me, so my family left the church. Papa just read his Bible at home. He said, "It doesn't matter where you are."

2 Were you close to your mum?

Yes, but she played a more secondary role in raising me. When I was 10 she married and moved away to live with my stepfather. He drank and gambled so it was thought best for me to stay with my grandparents. As an adult I can see the reasoning but as a child you feel betrayed and abandoned. Mum had no self-esteem. She'd been deaf and dumb for most of her childhood. She miraculously got her hearing back but when she learned to speak again she sounded a bit different and people thought she was stupid.


3 Do you have an early fashion memory?

I used to love dressing up when I was a wee girl. My family were all working in factories so I had to stay in the house by myself and I'd get stuck in to my gran's make-up and petticoats. I've always had a very strong aesthetic. When I was 3 or 4 years old, Gran got me one of those sheepskin Del Boy-style car coats that were the fashion but it was made out of frog green brushed nylon that I knew was just wrong.

4 How did you get into modelling?

If you're tall - I'm 5'11" - people will always say, "You should be a model", but I never, ever thought I could dream of it. I broke my tooth in school and Gran told me no man would ever have me. My hair was never as shiny as Elaine Sweeney's across the road. I wanted to get close to that arty world of design and creativity so I moved to London with a group of friends. We were punks, living in squats with no money and modelling was a foot in the door of that world so I did it. Needs must and all that.

5 Were you in that top bracket of highly paid 'supermodels' with the likes of Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington?

I did get in there. I worked with all those girls apart from Linda Evangelista. I loved Jerry Hall because she's so funny and camp. I love the theatrical style. Modelling styles change over time so when you're as old as me you've been through quite a few. In the early '80s it was big, space-taking, graphic poses. When the supermodels came along in the late 1980s it was very camp and glam. Then we had to stop playing to the audience and it became straighter and straighter until the vacant style we have now.

6 How did you come to live in New Zealand?

We moved here 13 years ago. My husband just fancied an adventure. He's English and works as a printer. We've always been in this little house in West Auckland. We're still doing it up. Our daughters are 14 and 26 now. My husband and younger daughter would consider themselves Kiwis. I don't but I love it here.


7 You've just done New Zealand Fashion Week at age 56. Why did you get back into modelling?

I did a picture for a friend who wanted me to see an agent she knew. I was thrilled when Dan Ahwa chose me for the Viva fashion shoot last month. It was because the Absolutely Fabulous film was coming out. I bet he thought, "That's Patsy Stone right there". We laughed all the way through that shoot. He got me to camp it up and give some outrageous poses. It was like a wee party.

8 Do you prefer the catwalk or photo shoots?

The catwalk. I never thought I was worth taking a picture of but I could move. Funnily enough, now I'm older it's the print work I'm wanted for, mainly editorial and advertising. They just want to see an older woman I think. I'm enjoying myself the second time round because it's a bit of fun rather than my livelihood.

9 How long have you been a costume designer?

I've always made things since I was very young. I get itchy and angsty if I can't be making. Fashion-wise, I'm interested in history. I love all the great eras and civilisations - the hairstyles, the make-up, the music. I'm an avid op-shopper and I've been picking up odds and sods like lace, braids and broken jewellery for years. It was all crammed into my daughter's bedroom but now she's moved back home I've got no clue where to put it all.

10 How did you get into the World of Wearable Art?

The first time was a few years ago when a friend asked me to help with her entry and my husband suggested I go for it myself. I ended up winning the first time entry award. You go into overdrive thinking of all these fabulous things you're going to do but I'm crap on a sewing machine and I have no formal training so it's hand stitching and cobble it as you go. This is only my second time entering WOW because the house is upside down for months and the concept has to strike me right between the eyes.

11 What's the concept behind your WOW entry this year?

It's based on Louis XV's mistress Madame du Barry. Exotic pets were fashionable in those days so I had this idea that the king gives her a little monkey which she dresses up in a coat and hat. But he soon grows out of his wee cage and gets put in the menagerie at Versailles. When she gets guillotined he's bereft. He breaks out and makes his way through the heckling crowds in his finest coats to claim her severed head and put it in the cage he carries with him. It's about the loyalty and devotion of pets. It's a white knuckle ride waiting to see if it gets accepted because when I'm doing it, it's all-consuming.

12 Do you call yourself a designer?

No, that's sound too important. I have dreams of being a costume designer but when you're a wife and a mum you're there for everyone and you're down that list of priorities.

• The World of Wearable Art awards show is in Wellington on September 23. worldofwearableart.com