Teacher, podcaster, disability advocate… Sinéad Burke is a woman of many talents. Stylist hears what she has to say.
In a world where everyone and their dog, and their dog’s best friend, has a podcast, the space can feel a little saturated and overwhelming. But Sinéad Burke’s new weekly podcast, As Me With Sinéad, reminds me why I love podcasts in the first place.
In it, the academic and disability advocate speaks to celebrities including Victoria Beckham, Jamie Lee Curtis (her mentor) and Jameela Jamil asking them four key questions which allow a candid and intimate conversation:
1. How do you describe yourself personally and professionally?
2. What’s the monologue in your head?
3. What’s it like to live in your body?
4. What gives you hope?
Burke, who is a little person – she stands at three foot five – trained as a teacher. It was while at Trinity College that she started her fashion blog Minnie Mélange and since 2017, her voice has got louder and reached further as she has advocated for accessibility in the fashion industry – and the world at large.
She has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos (also the catalyst for her distinctive bob: “I was going to Davos and felt I needed a more serious haircut”). She has given a TED talk called ‘Why design should include everyone’, which has been watched 1.4 million times on YouTube, and sat in conversation with Oprah Winfrey and New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern.
The 29-year-old also appeared on the cover of the Duchess of Sussex’s Forces for Change issue of Vogue. And, for a fashion fan, wearing custom-made Gucci to the Met Gala in May, and being the first little person to attend the prestigious event, was another ambition ticked off.
Burke understands, more than many people I’ve met, the power of words and communicating. She is smart, engaging and, something that is particularly rare, a great listener. No wonder the world of podcasting came calling…
Let’s start with a big question: who is the best Spice Girl?
I have been a fan of Posh Spice since I was six or seven and I don’t think my loyalty has changed. In so many ways [the Spice Girls] were this visual representation of what women could do and be. Being able to see this group of women from different walks of life who, from an external perspective, were narrating their own agency [was powerful]. It was a diluted version of feminism but I think it’s where my interest in feminism took off.
You recently interviewed Victoria Beckham. What was it like to sit with her as an equal?
If I could go back and talk to my seven-year-old self she would not believe anything that has happened in the past two decades. I spoke to Victoria before her [London Fashion Week] show about our shared interest in fashion and this idea that as individuals who have a platform, what more can you do with it? I’m so grateful to her for being so vulnerable and trusting me.
You said of Victoria that you valued her “authentic kindness”. Are we evolving into a world where kindness is valued?
I think it’s the same with resilience and vulnerability. We had seen them as weakness and I think that’s because so many of our definitions of power have come through a masculine lens. I think there’s real power in vulnerability. It has the potential to connect with others, to change hearts and minds. In relation to the podcast, the opportunity arose to explore what happens when we realise that so much of what we’re challenged by is universal. What happens when we don’t feel alone? What happens when we realise that it wasn’t just me who was bullied in the playground, it was [also] Victoria Beckham?
You talk about the podcast being a place to humanise people. Why is that important in podcasts and the world more generally?
I have grown up with a body and with a disability that I didn’t choose but I’m very proud of the person that I have become and the disabled person that I’ve become. As a little person, I spent a lot of my life with other people assuming a narrative for me about what people in my body get to do. For me, the internet was a catalyst in being able to tell my story, and being able to advocate for myself in my own vernacular. I am most comfortable when I have that sense of agency and I wonder what it would be like to give that to others who perhaps have a very different lived experience to me.
What are the other podcasts that inspire or empower you?
I love Jessie Ware’s Table Manners. Still Processing from The New York Times. I love Annie Mac Presents, I love Fresh Air hosted by Terry Gross. I listen to Desert Island Discs. I love hearing people talking about what interests them and who they are.
You once said, “My ambition has never been to scale.” Does the scale of what you want to do ever feel overwhelming? Or is that what drives you?
As an advocate – and speaking to other advocates – you often ask yourself: how much can you give of yourself to something in the hope that it will change? I always come back to the idea that I don’t just do this because I’m a little person. I have skills and qualifications that help guide the work I do.
I wanted somebody to be doing this work when I was 16. What I don’t want to happen is that 16-year-olds who look like me now have to participate in the same conversations about what they get to do when they are my age. And I think if anybody has the ability to change things, it’s an honour to step up, but you have to mind yourself within it because it’s emotionally draining. It’s physically draining. Which is why it is so important to have my family keeping me grounded.
You seem fearless in the way you approach life. Does that description ring true?
[Laughs] I would have said bold. Particularly when I was younger. There was so little risk to saying hello to somebody like Anna Wintour or Edward Enninful. I live by this mantra of, what’s the worst that can happen? That they say no? There’s always a risk attached to those things. But I’ve been very fortunate to have been brought up to realise the value in that opportunity, too. And there are still moments when I have to psych myself up but I think there’s a reason why I’m in those rooms. I’m not in those rooms to be complacent, to allow things to continue. It’s part of my responsibility to say, “How did this happen? How can we do better?”
Whenever people comment on your interviews they frequently talk about how you speak clearly and engagingly. Has communication always been so important?
I’ve always liked words. And I see language and fashion as two similar vehicles. They were tools that I could use to tell the world who I was. There is power in having a vocabulary and using my voice. People would be challenged on their perceptions of what I look like if I used the word ‘ameliorate’ in a sentence correctly. Whenever I read a book – and this is something nerdy – I keep a notebook and if there’s a new word I write it down. I’m still my eight-year-old self.
Who are the people who have a beautiful way with words?
Everything Zadie Smith does I want to dive into. I’m reading Jia Tolentino’s book of essays, Trick Mirror, and she has beautiful turns of phrase. And I’ve just bought Saeed Jones’ memoir, How We Fight For Our Lives, which I’m excited about.
Have you ever thought about moving into politics?
Not in the immediate future. I often wonder if you can have more influence outside of the system, or internally? And if internally how do you not become conditioned by the system? When you begin to look at politics in a linear fashion, you have to contemplate which political party and what views of your own would you have to sacrifice. So I wonder if you can actually have more of an input from the outside.
You recently met Jacinda Ardern. How was that?
I loved New Zealand, I want to go back. The landscape was so beautiful and the people so welcoming. And I just want to be Jacinda Ardern’s friend. Which probably isn’t appropriate.
On the podcast you always direct people to someone they should know about. Who should Stylist readers know about today?
Aoife Martin is an incredible advocate within the trans community in Ireland. Ireland has been transformed by lots of people, particularly women, putting themselves forward and sharing vulnerable stories. Aoife Martin has been facilitating important and challenging conversations about living as a trans woman to allow us all to reflect on the biases we have.
What other ambitions do you have?
I’d love retail to be more accessible. I’d love for the legislation around protected buildings to change – so many beautiful buildings aren’t allowed to be made accessible because it will lessen the aesthetic of the building. I’d love to do US Vogue’s 73 Questions video. I’d love to spend more time with my family. The list keeps getting added to.
Photography: Getty Images, @thesineadburke on Instagram
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