Carolyn Donovan has captured the heart of audiences far and wide modelling Goondiwindi Cotton’s effortless lifestyle pieces for women. Over the years, she’s also added writer and artist to her list of career highlights.
On the set of our recent AW19 campaign, we discover Carolyn’s latest project – a once in a lifetime art exhibition in New York opening in May.
Carolyn, you’ve had a wonderfully diverse career over the years – model, writer, artist and most importantly, mum! Where did life begin and how did you get into modelling?
Last week a friend said to me, "You're like a female Anh Do: You write, paint and make us laugh." I promise I don't have a stage show coming up...but I think most mums do a huge variety of tasks every day that would look really impressive on a CV. We are so good at cheering everyone else on that we forget just how much we are achieving.
Life began for me in Sydney Australia. I was born into a very artistic family and we travelled around a lot. Being the perpetual new-kid meant books were often my best friends. Reading - anything and everything - was a way I could immerse myself in another world or adventure. So, my love of words, pictures and imagination probably came, initially, from avoiding loneliness.
Modelling happened purely by accident. As a scrawny, awkward kid, I never dreamed I could be poised or elegant enough to be a model, but a chance meeting with a photographer had him set up some appointments for me at a few big city agencies. I went to the one closest to the railway station and had a casting for a TV commercial the next day…and somehow got the job. I always wanted to be a graphic artist and thought I would just do a few modelling jobs so I could earn enough money to buy nice clothes while I studied - but this new found career suddenly took me around Australia and then the world...and it's incredible how quickly a year goes past, and then two. More than three decades later, I am lucky enough to still be booked on some great campaigns, while painting, writing, parenting, and now preparing for an exhibition across the other side of the globe.
In your two books, ‘Chooks in Stillettos’ and ‘Greenies in Stillettos’ you depict working in the fashion industry as a model and dispel designer myths around clothes - what prompted you to write?
There was this myth that a model's life was all champagne parties, red carpets, diamonds and high heels - when the reality is comically different. When you're trying to pretend you are this glamorous person who has it all together, you set yourself up for the most hilarious things to happen - especially when you throw a few tantrumming kids into the mix, add some hot rollers, escaping hens and a bottle of fake tan, in no particular order, and what could possibly go wrong? After hearing, "I wish you could tell every other female this story," when I would recount my day to a group of girls; I just had to write 'Chooks in Stilettos.'
I didn’t realise how much it would resonate with other women until I started getting messages blaming me for causing them to snort laugh for an entire flight from Melbourne to Brisbane, or nearly wet themselves on their train ride to work.
'Greenies in Stilettos' was born much the same way, but from a real desire to show how easy it really is to live more sustainably without comprising on all my favourite things - namely gorgeous clothes, make up, and beautiful things. There are so many simple ways we can create a healthier, cleaner environment, that don’t involve free-range armpits and weaving your own hemp underwear. Even simple choices like having a pot plant in the rooms you spend a lot of time in: A living plant can completely clean toxins out of the surrounding air…and I list the top 10 house plants proven by NASA to do just that.
Seriously, don't even get me started on that subject! Reading has always been one of my favourite hobbies, so writing even one book was such an honour – and a great way to communicate with an untold number of people at the same time.
Woman often doubt themselves when they think about exploring a new career or following their passion. What would you say to those woman? Do you ever fear or doubt your ability when embarking on a new project? How did you overcome self doubt…
Every day. The most important thing I do is to surround myself with mentors. Often this is through reading about them in books, or listening to them on podcasts. My advice is to seek out people who are doing what you want to do and learn from them. Read about and be inspired by people who have overcome adversity to get to where they are. Learn from their mistakes. Be inspired by their successes. Life is ever-changing and constantly moving - it might as well be in a direction you want to go.
You’re clearly creative and an artist too. Tell us about your latest project in New York and what has inspired your works?
A great uncle and aunt were part of the famous bohemian Norman Lindsay-led bratpack, my grandmother was a milliner, I was raised surrounded by books, fabrics, pencils and paints – so it was no surprise to my mother when I started sketching recognisable portraits at the age of two. Growing up, all I ever wanted to be was an artist, but constant travelling with modelling made finishing projects more difficult. Writing was much easier to pick up and put down again. It wasn’t until my mother passed away suddenly that I started painting again. To deal with the grief, I would try and dwell on all the things I had to be grateful for about her. I was always thankful for how much she sacrificed for us and how she would go without to buy me all the art materials I needed, and so painting again became a healing therapy. I felt close to her when I painted.
Travelling for work, I have been fortunate enough to see some amazing parts of the world – but none quite as beautiful as Australia. And I have always loved seeing things from high above the ground. So I started painting a series of Australian scenes I called a ‘God’s Eye View.’ Next thing you know, I have been invited to take the series to New York for an exhibition in May. It was a pinch yourself moment. It still is. I have never been to New York, so I really am jumping in the deep end for my first solo exhibition…but opportunities like this rarely happen, so I’m representing all the everyday mums who are faithfully turning up day in, day out, wondering if ‘that is all there is.’ And I’m really looking forward to showing Australia to New York!
Last but not least, you’re a working mum! How do you juggle mum, wife, creative! What’s your advice to woman who are creative and work from home?
The whole 'work-life balance' thing just doesn't work for me. I'm not a great multi-tasker. I have learned to focus on what most needs to be done at the time, to ask for help and to admit when I'm struggling. I also find I am most productive when I have something fresh and beautiful around me. Sometimes it’s as simple as a bowl of fresh fruit. For me this week, that meant filling a few vases with bunches of green leafy 'mock orange' bushes. Everyone who has walked into my studio this week has commented on how stunning it is - I cut them from the neighbour's hedge!
And one of my most important tips is to always wear something you feel good in. Regardless of where you are or what you are going to be doing: Put on clothes you love. It really is that simple. I once heard someone say, ‘It’s amazing how much nicer I am when I like my outfit.’ I wish I knew who to attribute that to. Someone wise!