Robyn Lawley’s list of accomplishments are exhaustive: model, writer, swimwear designer, photographer, cookbook author, and musician. Oh, and she’s a mother too. Yes, this is impressive. But, really, and I think Lawley would agree, who cares about a list of accomplishments. Whether you’re a multi-hyphenate multi-millionaire, a struggling working mum or anything in between — what matters is standing up for what you believe in. And the true beauty of Robyn Lawley is she speaks her mind — with thoughtfulness— and she firmly believes you can and should too.
I spent the day with Lawley in a small studio in Queens this August with an (almost) all-female crew for her first day back at work since she experienced a seizure at her home and fell face-first down a flight of stairs. An incident she has widely shared with the public to shed light on the poorly understood disease that she suffers from: lupus. She understands how the world is intricately woven in its magic and troubles, and in our conversation, and discusses how her health and body is connected to a history of women’s rights, women’s health, body-image, and the fashion industry.
Sweater Maggie Marilyn
Jumpsuit Zero + Maria Cornejo
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Western Sydney, in Australia.
When did you move to New York and why?
I moved to New York when I was around 19 or 20 because an agency wanted to see me because curvy modeling was finally becoming a thing.
And was it a thing where you were back and forth for a little while, or you just decided to take the leap and move?
I decided to take the leap and move.
How did you get your start in modeling? Did you always want to be a model or was it accidental?
My auntie was a fashion model briefly, so I knew about it. And my sister wanted to model and she had the right body measurements, so she tried to coerce me into doing it. I was way too curvy to do the mainstream modeling, and then eventually, I did just regular modeling but with my actual body.
Have you noticed a change in the industry since you started?
There has been such a monumental change in the industry from when I started until now. It’s kind of gargantuan. I never thought it would happen the way it has. Now, looking back, you think we all sound crazy that we were obsessed with becoming anorexic basically for absolutely no reason. So yeah, I’m super stoked that body diversity is finally happening.
Did you feel pressure, in the beginning, to try to slim down?
Did I feel pressure, in the beginning, to slim down? Yes, 100 percent It was always not enough. Maybe you could just diet a little bit more or just lose a few more centimeters. And my bone structure is quite large, I’m 6’2”. I’m not like a small person by any means. So it was just virtually impossible to do that for them.
And when you say they, do you mean the agency or clients, or just kind of everyone?
Everyone, and they’re direct. They don’t cushion around it, so they’ll tell you, and send you home sometimes. They’ll tell your agents all kinds of stuff. So it’s a bit of both, really.
It’s a funny thing, modeling. You can be treated really like, you’re not a person, or invisible when being spoken about in castings or on-set. Have you noticed that that has changed, as well as the conversation around body diversity? Or do you think that’s something that is still being worked on?
I think it depends on the situation and the age of the model. I think as you get older, you start realizing your boundaries more, and I think when you’re younger, unfortunately, you have no idea what you’re doing. So you just allow everything to happen, and I think with age, I know what my boundaries are now. I think other girls do too. But yeah. There’s definitely a whole bunch of skeezy, sleazy male situations, but it’s such a great opportunity. You can travel the world with being a model; there are very few jobs that will offer you the world like that. And I thought, what an opportunity.
So in reading about you, and spending the day with you, you come across as unafraid; you’re very outspoken about the things that you’re passionate about. You have endless creative pursuits like writing, photography, music, modeling. For some of us, it can be overwhelming, to imagine putting our ideas or our creativity, or ourselves, out into the world. Do you have any advice for women who want to but are nervous to? The internet can be scary to face sometimes.
Don’t hold yourself back, girls. Like, Do Not Hold Yourself Back. I think girls, unfortunately, in this day and age, have to work a little bit harder, and that just shows the unfortunate sexism within our industry. I’ve been empowered lately because I’ve actually shot more with female photographers than ever before. Especially this last year alone, I’ve shot with more women photographers than in my entire career. So I think it’s going to change, and eventually, we’re going to be equal to men. And I think, yeah, don’t hold yourselves back; you’re just as good, if not better most of the time, and you just have to believe in yourself. You have to be your number one fan.
How is the experience of photographing with women different than men?
It’s different and yet the same. It’s easier to share a comradeship and to speak up if you’re not ok with a shot, or a pose you’ve been asked to do for example. Last year when we shot #inherownwords for Sports Illustrated, whenever someone felt uncomfortable, we took a break and asked how we could help and that they didn’t have to do this if they didn’t want too. We wanted women to feel comfortable. We also, the photographer, Taylor and I participated in the shoot, we had an all female crew and editors something that was a first for me.
So speaking of being brave, you have lupus and you recently shared on social media, a pretty harrowing experience as a result of that diagnosis. Can you talk a little bit about what happened and why you decided to share it?
Unfortunately, I had a seizure on a staircase, and I landed on my face and lost a tooth as well, hence my new lisps. But for me personally, I decided to share the experience because Lupus is so underdiagnosed. It’s really confusing, and there are no real statistics. The main problem with Lupus is people have heart attacks, and they have strokes under 40. And there’s no statistical evidence of it because a stroke is a different thing from a Lupus diagnosis. So I’ve had strokes and I’ve had seizures, and that’s all due to Lupus. I got diagnosed after my baby was born, and I wanted to bring more acknowledgment to the actual disease. It’s incurable and it’s for life. And the more people know about it, the more they can actually seek help themselves. If you’re starting to feel like your body is not working the way that it should and pursue doctors it can be incredibly sexist. They’re like, well, maybe it’s just women’s problems. You’re like, no dude, something is really not right with me, I need to get some help. I was fortunate enough I got diagnosed pretty quickly, thankfully.
Do you think that stigma exists around women being heard and understood with regards to health issues? I feel like it’s a story that I’ve heard a lot recently — endometriosis is another example where women are feeling like something is not right, and they’re just not really listened to.
One hundred percent I mean, it’s so often looked over like it’s nothing, but women’s health is critical. It’s super important and has a lot actually to do with our environment. The fact that plastics are in everything. They’re in every kind of water. They’re insoluble fibers, they’re in clothes, they’re in the air. The environmental implications and damages on our bodies is huge.
What are important lessons that you've learned about your body and popular perceptions of what women's bodies are supposed to look like, or what model's bodies are supposed to look like? What would be advice you would give young girls or women?
Stop buying labels that don’t represent you. I’ve learned over the past 15 years of modelling that you have more power than you think, your power is more in your honesty and acceptance of yourself. I love seeing women comfortable in their bodies just the way they are, I know it sounds cliche but YOU are the change.
Well speaking of the environment, you are extremely passionate about the environment; that’s another thing that you talk about a lot on social media. Where does the love of nature come from, for you?
I would want to be a tree in another life. I love trees, I love nature, I grew up in it and around it. My mother is quite the hippie — I didn’t realize it at the time when I was younger, but now looking back, cloth diapers, reusable bottles, and reusable bags. She was doing that from when I was a little girl — so I just didn’t realize that was different. But I think the environment is the most important and pressing issue that we have today because, without the environment, we don’t exist. It’s such a sad thing that we’re not teaching in schools how to grow gardens, the nature of plants and the importance of bees, and getting rid of like, insecticides and pesticides, which have a lot to do with fashion. Because of cotton and all of the grown fabrics that we use even bamboo.
What role do you think fashion can, or should, play, in protecting the environment?
They should start by recycling more plastics. Currently, right now, only 9 percent of the world’s plastics are recycled; there’s a lot swimming in the ocean. Instead of making new fabric that burn more carbon, and pollute the atmosphere, if we actually combine more efforts to recycling what we’ve already produced that would really help. Not burning clothes like Burberry did. I couldn’t believe I heard that; I thought that was disgusting and malpractice. I think fashion should take acknowledgment of the detrimental effects that it’s causing to the environment. And recycling is probably the one thing that they could do right now that will have a good impact.
Are there any clothing companies that you particularly admire or think that people should know about because of their environmental practices?
Well, I’m very impressed with some of the brands used for this shoot like Zero + Maria Cornejo. There’s also Reformation, Stella McCartney, KITX and Style Saint are a few.
I do wish we had more priorities in this realm and were more conscious about recycled fabrics and more locally made brands. Even recycled plastics can make clothes, but also there are complications with microplastics and our waterways or making clothes from plants like hemp that don’t require as many resources to grow. Unfortunately, this is a complicated issue, waste, workers rights and chemicals in growing certain plants like cotton. Strive towards organic cotton if you can and wool that’s been obtained ethically from the animal.
The best thing you can do is probably shop at op shops, recycling clothes. Buffalo Exchange is a cool one in New York. You can also upshop. You can do up your own clothes; you can take the clothes that you have and fix them up yourself and change them in a way.
As someone who is part of the fashion industry, how do you manage the complicated politics of the industry along with your own personal beliefs, whether it's about the environment or about body image, obviously, you love fashion and you love what you do, but it must not always be easy....
That’s a great and important question. It can be very hard at times. I’m more hurt by people’s apathy to the environment than anything else. It’s the giant elephant in the room. It’s so giant in fact it’s enabled me to laugh at brands that don’t include size diversity for example, because they’re so backward in this day and age and I’m personally aware of much bigger problems at hand. I do wish more brands put more energy into obtaining more ethically grown fabrics or recycled fabrics.
I live upstate New York surrounded by forests, I garden and compost, I try to do my part, however, I’d like to do more. Growing up I would tree plant every Sunday with my mum in local communities. I’d like to start to do that again but in areas that greatly need cleaner air and get the general community involved.
Ring left middle Dinosaur Designs
All other rings The Shiny Squirrel
Ring left middle Dinosaur Designs
All other rings The Shiny Squirrel
How would you describe your personal style?
My personal style has definitely evolved since coming here. But at the same time, I’m still my weirdo self. I like really unique items that I’m not going to find often; that I can feel like have a story. So if someone is like, where did you get that and you’re like, I got it in Hamburg at this really weird shop, and then I met this lady. I like a story. I also like high quality; so I’ll wait a little bit and put my money into something that I actually really do like. And I’m also a normal person, I’ve bought fast fashion too. I’ve bought things that were cheap and fitted well, but I couldn’t help myself. And I think that’s why I want those brands to start embarking on recycling more because that would be just so awesome to know that your whole outfit is plastic, but it’s all recycled plastic.
What’s an item of clothing you can’t live without?
I love giant like comfy coats, I suppose. Especially with New York winter coming up soon, I definitely need my coat.
If you could imagine a fashion utopia, what would that look like, for you?
I think my real fashion utopia would be body diversity, recycled plastics and recycled plastic for fabrics. I believe that companies should probably endorse more into safe practices in growing plants like cotton, bamboo, and hemp, one of my favorite plants. I believe that these are all wishes that could actually happen today or tomorrow. So I know that the fashion world is trying; so hopefully, they’ll get there and they’ll make more effort to do that.
I think they will, I think they’re going to get there. Thank you so much!
Model: Robyn Lawley
Photographer: Lee O'Connor
Stylist: Liz Rundbaken
Make Up: Nancy Siler
Hair: Kiri Yoshiki
Words: Laura Jones
Copy Editor: Sonjia Hyon