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Erin O'Connor: From supermodel to role model

By George Webster and Stefanie Blendis for CNN
  • Supermodel Erin O'Connor is world renowned for her strong features and determined attitude
  • But perhaps less known is her work reforming industry practices behind the scene
  • O'Connor is co-founder of both 'Model Sanctuary' and charity aimed at promoting diversity

(CNN) -- Strikingly symmetrical and impossibly elegant, British supermodel Erin O'Connor is one of the most recognizable and acclaimed figures in the fashion world today.

She's been the face of Versace, Dior, Armani, and Gaultier -- and after 16 years commanding catwalks around the globe, the porcelain-skinned belle is still at the very top of her profession.

But beyond the extraordinary physique and angular, painterly features that define her appearance, O'Connor has emerged as a vocal proponent of change within the pressurized, often exploitative industry she inhabits.

Driving to increase diversity among models and improve industry-wide working conditions, the down-to earth Brit is co-founder of "All Walks Beyond the Catwalk," an organization that encourages designers to embrace women whatever their age or size.

Video: Erin O'Connor: Revealed
Video: Fashion icons on Erin O'Connor

During London Fashion Week in September, the 32 year-old ran the "Model Sanctuary" -- a non-profit retreat that aims to address everything from eating disorders to self-esteem issues, employing a combination of therapy, pampering treatments, and lots of food.

In an interview with CNN, O'Connor reflects on the achievements of her career, the motivation behind her campaigns and reveals how, as an up-and-coming young model, she was actively encouraged to undergo cosmetic surgery.

CNN: Has your look always been so unconventional?

Erin O'Connor: When I first began modeling, I was very conventional looking, I had hair down to my waist in a side parting -- almost church-like. But beneath the sheath of hair lay this Amazonian, strong-looking frame.

About two years in, I went into a shoot with a make-up artist who happened to be very famous and very influential and I'd been grooming my eyebrow and been trying to do everything right, doing all the things I thought were expected of me and she said "grow your eyebrows back, and look how you're meant to look and cut all of that hair off it's doing you no favors."

A new identity was born, and with that a new movement in the fashion industry: quite tough and very unapologetic.

CNN: Did you face challenges growing up due to your appearance?

EO: My story wasn't one of those clichéd stories of being an ugly duckling, I had a pretty good time at school. But then I think being six foot by the age of 15 meant that I couldn't help but be noticed and that was when my physical being felt quite painful -- I could not any longer walk into a room without being noticed.

CNN: At the start of your career, you were told to have a nose job and breast implants?

Being six foot by the age of 15 meant that I couldn't help but be noticed. That was when my physical being felt painful
--Erin O'Connor

EO: In the early days, there was all sorts of banter like "if you just get your nose reduced you'll work" or "if you just get your breasts expanded, you'll work." But I didn't reduce my nose and I didn't enlarge my breasts and by God I'm glad I didn't.

I think most of my career has been built on conviction and the personality to carry that image or stride confidently on the catwalk. That was my beginning and, hopefully, my legacy.

CNN: How important is it for the fashion industry to embrace diversity?

EO: The fashion industry recognizes creativity, but in terms of the beauty of diversity among models, I feel we're lacking. It's very easy to experiment with imagery and clothing, but with models I think there has always been this set idea of what they should be like. In many ways, it's potentially quite compromising.

CNN: What is the Model Sanctuary?

EO: The Model Sanctuary is a place for models of any age, but generally we appeal to young people in the early stages of their career. We have a life coach, an osteopath, a physiotherapist, a nutritionist and generally good people who have experience in life who can just stick around and be there.

It's a brilliant way for young people coming through to learn from each other, to learn the pressures they face on each side in equal measure, but also an opportunity to gain respect and understanding of what we're all up against.

CNN: Do you have a fear of your career ending?

EO: I think most models fear growing old, but from a tender age I had always chosen to play someone grown up. I am slowly but surely catching up with the people that I have spent the last decade and a half trying to portray.