Michelle Roger is an older Disabled Model, Advocate & Fashionaista – This is her story

I want to see people like myself, over 40 and Disabled in fashion imagery and this is coupled with a desire to find, savour and create joy in my life. Life with chronic illnesses is predictably unpredictable, you have to seize the pain-free moments.

Our Covergirl, Michelle Roger, is a self-taught Disabled model, fashion stylist and photographer with a focus on self-portraiture, a love of fashion and exploration of life as an older Disabled woman. She predominantly photographs her high fashion looks in her suburban backyard using her phone and a battered tripod, with the help of her Great Danes and chooks. When her chronic health issues permit, she can be found in Gippsland high country and waterways striking high-fashion poses and looks that wouldn’t be out of place in the pages of Highend fashion magazines, although created on a non-existent budget and items sourced from her wardrobe, linen press and, on occasion, her Christmas decorations! Through her #UpAndDressed series, which commenced in 2015, Michelle has continued to create images of Disability Representation in fashion that she had wished existed. Her model stares straight at the camera and unapologetic inclusion of her wheelchair or artfully embellished walking sticks in her images, can be read as a challenge to the fashion industry.

“If I can do this with my limited resources, why aren’t you?’”

2018 Michelle first rolled on the runway and spoke at Melbourne Fashion Week about future directions for inclusive fashion. Michelle joined international inclusive talent agency Zebedee in 2021 taking the next step as a professional mature Disabled model.

Tell us about your background

Like many women over 40, I have worn many hats in my life, all of which (along with chronic illness) have culminated in my current focus on art and disability representation in fashion. A career in neuropsychology was interrupted in 2006 after collapsing at work and my calendar of work meetings and assessments was replaced with years blurred by rounds of medical tests, hospitalisations, and ever failing health. The professional career that I loved and had directed most of my future plans outside of my family, was no longer viable and I was negotiating a body and self that I didn’t recognise and a system and society that was not overly welcoming, particularly when I didn’t get better and could no longer participate in society as expected.

Thankfully, a hospital social worker in 2009 picked up on my younger self’s love of words and suggested I utilise writing to work through my frustrations and grief. Through blogging I connected with the wonderfully supportive Disability community, which led rather naturally to Disability activism. The Disability community grew my understanding of not only the ableism of many in the medical establishment, but the interplay of ableism and misogyny within those systems.

My pain and other symptoms were frequently doubted, questioned, and minimised by (male) doctors purely because I was a woman, often without tests being undertaken to verify my assertions. This was both infuriating and utterly disillusioning, and almost impossible not to internalise as it batters your self-esteem and sense of identity. It also fires your passion to fight – fight for yourself and others in similar situations. In addition to the support of the Disability community, I have been endlessly and enthusiastically supported in my creative endeavours by my two sons, and my husband David whom I often enlist to help realise my vision.

What led you to create your work?

In many respects it feels like much of my earlier work has always been leading me to this point, though not necessarily with some conscious path mapped out before me. I work with what is available to me in the moment whilst living in a body that is experiencing progressive physical and cognitive changes. But there is always an underlying theme that has always been at the heart of my work that I think holds my disparate parts together even on a bad day.

I take those elusive times and try to wring every last drop I can out of them, as I never know how many days, weeks or even months until they arrive again. The unpredictability of my health, means my creations are not planned ahead of time. Some days you might find me on a runway, others you might find me striking a pose wrapped in a swathe of fabric (my old doona cover!) in a High Country river. On the days at home when my body permits me to dress in something more than pyjamas, I could well be found in tulle and high heels next to my back yard chook shed.  

The fashion images I take are shared on Instagram, often with captions challenging ableism or relating my own experiences in the hope that it makes other Disabled people feel seen. Fashion, as something most people can relate to, provides a gateway, if you will, to make people think, reflect and change their behaviours. And I like to push the boundaries of what is deemed fashionable, simply by being a visible greying Disabled woman beyond forty – activism can take many forms.

Over 4 million Australians live with some form of Disability, yet we are critically underrepresented in many industries.

Recent years have seen a push in the fashion industry to showcase racial diversity, ageing, the gender spectrum, more queer families and more representative body shapes and sizes. A quick glance at the social media, websites, or runways of fashion brands shows improvement on many of these fronts, however, brands utilising Disabled models, especially on a consistent basis continue to be few and far between. A deeper look shows that older visibly Disabled models are virtually non-existent. Each step towards true Disability representation feels painfully slow. 

Images of Disability are also often woefully conservative, or medicalised. I search for representation that reflects me, that reflects the actual vibrancy and diversity of the olderDisabled community that I know and love. Despite what our media suggests we age and we continue to live our lives. We embrace fashion and style, artistic creation and sports. We watch movies, eat out, drink wine and dance. We hang out with friends and family. Raise children and find love.

We are political and loud. We Loose ourselves in books or the glory of a warm Spring evening. There is hardship and pain but it is not the total sum of our experience. We may do these things differently to others but we are not the limited and negative narratives that society pushes upon us. We have futures. We live them.

Now we need to see them. It is often only in the content created by others in the Disability community that I see myself reflected. We need Disabled people in art direction, management and all aspects of production as well as in front of the camera.

What are you passionate about?

For those of us who can, we process visual images 60,000 times faster than words. As such authentic inclusive advertising, and media in general, has immense potential to aid in challenging how society relates to Disabled people and how Disabled people relate to themselves. Fashion imagery is everywhere. From our phones to billboards to our televisions, we are bombarded with images. It currently is a largely untapped market that could aid in the change that needs to happen. But it goes further. The Australian Fashion Institute estimated the value of the fashion industry in Australia as roughly 27.2 billion dollars (2020-21), or roughly 1.5% of the Australian economy, and employing roughly 489,000 people.

The opportunities such a large industry could provide for employment and representation of Disabled people across all employment categories is huge. While better representation in the sense of models before the camera lens is required, opportunities behind the camera are vast and inclusion at these levels from onset photographer and stylist to boardroom, or designer would only enhance the industry while providing opportunities for Disabled people across many different industries. Time and again research demonstrates that diverse businesses are fundamentally more successful. Now I want to see disability actively included in that diversity.

I also want to be providing an example of one possibility for other Disabled people. When I first became ill and looking at requiring mobility aids there were no visibly disabled models in advertising campaigns outside of a drab medicalised context. Eventually, Disabled models such as Jillian Mercardo and the late Mama Cax arrived and it was a revelation. Here were beautiful, sexy, confident, models with various aids looking amazing.

Their examples altered my perceptions about myself and my mobility aids and gave me confidence to explore fashion more. Now as an older Disabled woman I find I am once more struggling to find representation I can relate too. Older representation has increased and disability representation has somewhat increased, but older Disabled representation remains slim pickings. Yet I know I am not alone in wanting such representation from both young and older Disabled people who see hope for a future and possibility for the now in the images I create.

Photo Credit: Michelle Roger

What advice do you have for other women 40+ who are wanting to make an impact in the community or the world?

Connect with others already working in the space that you want to become involved in. Take the time to see where you fit in the space, which groups or ways of working resonate with you. It won’t be everyone or every organisation but you will find your groove and your people. You will always be learning. Be open to that. It can be uncomfortable at times. Embrace it. Make sure to include space for joy. Early on in my activism, I was consumed by the work and an overwhelming pressure to carry the needs of others.

Working within a global space in which there is a lot of trauma and grief and no switch-off time, it became overwhelming and my health, both physical and mental, suffered. Building boundaries, creating support networks, and allowing yourself joy are vital to being able to do the work for any length of time and to do it well.

Your activism doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s and the more unique and diverse voices the better. Get creative. Living in a body that doesn’t function like other bodies and a world that is largely inaccessible to me I have had to get creative over the years. Much of my practice has also been a process of reinvention as my condition has progressed. It hasn’t always been easy but it has challenged me to think outside the box and in turn provided unexpected opportunities to further my goals. Your activism doesn’t have to be of the brass bands and show girls variety. One life changed for the better. One community improved in some small way. It’s all equally as valuable. So much of the rewarding work happens behind the scenes over the long haul, without fanfare and photo ops. But for those impacted it can change the world.