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Erin O'Connor: memory lane

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Erin O'Connor recalls the emotional fall-out of her teenage years

"I was child number three of four living in the comfortable ’burbs of Brum protected from a harsh urban reality. We lived as a sort of tribe – there were no boundaries, only happy chaos. The neighbours traipsed in and out of each other’s homes and if someone’s kids hadn’t had dinner, then my mum was always on hand to dish out jam sandwiches.

I first discovered my voice on account of the large volumes of visitors in our house. It was still mighty small; I didn’t quite know where it came from and I did my best to rein it in. Lack of confidence was the perpetrator and I was bound by my master in the form of fumbling vowels and hiccupping murmurs.

One day I left for school one morning as a prepubescent kid and returned as a pre-pubescent kid with a 6ft frame and a newly carved conk. I stood out from the crowd and my own mortification served as ample punishment.

My runaway frame needed to stop growing; to do so I literally severed my roots. Me and my perplexed self didn’t belong at home anymore. I decided to leave the ’burbs and sobbed all the way to London on the bus. How can I ever forget Ma and Pa willing me on with determined smiles, although none of us knew what would become of me?

Me and my borrowed suitcase trundled on to be met by the rest of my life. I was to be self-employed and, better still, to earn money from my looks. Bonkers. It’s important to mention I had zero tolerance when it came to having my picture taken. I had no notion of my appearance having any particular appeal other than yearning for my braces to come off so that I could indulge in the fantasy of getting off with boys without shredding them.

A 22-year-old Erin backstage at New York in 2000

This never-before visited city called London felt like a foreign land. Even though I spoke the same language I didn’t feel understood. I was given 60 quid a week (in advance of earnings) which seemed like a fortune: I was used to a pound an hour in my job as a weekend care assistant in a retirement home.

Memories of my first months in London include not being able to cook, realising the parents were no longer around to cook for me and the joy of junk food on demand. Sleeping arrangements were something of a revolving bed system. Sometimes I’d come home to find a strange girl in my bed, plus her fleeting acquaintance.

Regardless, I was hungry for success and prepared to graft my way towards self-sufficiency and independence. With a bit of luck and a lot of perseverance (aka beating down doors) I made my mark. I became known as the imperfect model – the antidote to the supermodel era – a more attainable beauty ideal.

I wanted to embody the spirit and ethos of a performer. To learn to lose myself on a Parisian runway was to directly challenge the defiantly timid girl within. I loved and still love the creative pulse that drives me: to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Ultimately, fashion isn’t the easiest of industries but it’s a rewarding one. I have made some noise concerning fair work practice and diversity to enable lively debate and, in some cases, positive and sustainable change. As for me, I’ve learnt to stand up straight and speak up when something needs to be said."

Erin O'Connor

Erin graced one of four covers for Stylist’s fashion issue in September 2010 (issue 45) alongside designer Hannah Marshall. She’s the co-founder of All Walks Beyond The Catwalk, which promotes diversity in the fashion industry.

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