Q: If you had only one wish, what would it be? A: World peace, of course — so 23-year-old model Ollie Henderson is doing something about it. Her hand-painted political slogan t-shirts, gifted to her fashionable friends during this year’s Australian Fashion Week, have triggered a revolution with an impact far beyond the fashion world.
What did you want to be when you were little?
Oh, everything! It changed every day. I was an astronaut, a lawyer, a ballerina… Essentially I didn’t know, but I was excited to find out.
And then how old were you when you started modelling?
I was 15 when I was scouted, and now I’m 23.
OK, so you’ve been in the game for a while. Where did you get scouted?
I grew up in a really small town — like, one traffic light kind of small — and my mum and I went on a trip to Melbourne to shop for my Year 10 formal dress [like prom], which was a very special occasion for us, and someone approached me in the shopping centre.
And now here you are! You’re spending your time between New York and Sydney, is that right?
Yeah, I moved to New York in October. I used to live in London prior to that, but now I’m between New York and Sydney.
What is Start the Riot?
I started it during Australian Fashion Week to encourage young people to become politically aware and, hopefully, involved. I hand-painted 100 t-shirts with positive political slogans to give to my friends and colleagues to wear during Fashion Week. The aim was to sort of create a bit of a stir and get people talking, for people to question what was going on — why were these people wearing these t-shirts? — and perhaps to start a conversation.
Was there a particular political or personal event that prompted you into action?
Yeah! Well I guess the main catalyst was when I was in New York and I got catcalled on the street, which happens sometimes, but this time it particularly aggravated me. So, being the generation that I am, I got on Facebook and ranted all about it, and I had a lot of positive response from my friends and family and everyone was really supportive — bar one comment from an inverted commas “friend”, who said that I should be used to sexual objectification in my line of work as a model. So, obviously this was really infuriating, and it sparked an email conversation about feminism and women’s issues, which was completely unfruitful, and I feel like this was the moment that really gave me the passion that I needed to start sharing my voice and realising that maybe I needed to step up and say something.
Why do you think some — or most — young people find politics intimidating?
Well, I feel like there are no good outlets. I’ve definitely felt intimidated in the past with politics and not really known what to do — you know, you can be frustrated at something, but what do you do after that? It’s very daunting. And it’s also that the public image of politics is really stuffy and dry, and there’s not a lot of friendly information out there so it’s really hard to inform yourself — they’re not speaking your language, so it’s difficult to read. So I feel like it’s really a lack of outlet that’s driving the lack of motivation of young people. And I feel like it could happen. I hope that it will! Mainstream media also dictates a lot of this via what they’re choosing to display to you. How is it that we have so much information on Miley Cyrus but no information on Manus Island [an island in Papua New Guinea where the Australian Government has built a detention centre for asylum seekers] and what’s happening there?
I also work at Oyster magazine, and last issue we interviewed Lina Esco, director of a film called Free The Nipple, which is about two women trying to decriminalise naked breasts in NYC. She met a man who accused her of being a feminist — as if it were a bad thing — and when she said, “Well, do you know what a feminist is?” he said, “You’re man-haters.” So she googled ‘feminism’ on her phone and told him the definition of a feminist was believing men and women should be equal, then said to him, “Do you believe that men and women are equal?” Of course he said yes, so she was like, “Well, dude… you’re a feminist!” It’s such a dirty word! Have you encountered people treating you like that and saying those sorts of things to you?
Yeah, absolutely! I feel like the major issue with feminism right now is how it’s perceived publicly. You know, you don’t have to be an angry lesbian wearing combat boots to be a feminist. You don’t even have to be a woman to be a feminist! Something that really disappoints me that I come across occasionally is women not being into feminism. And, you know, I feel like everyone should, man or woman, but it really surprises me when women aren’t into feminism. But I feel like the big issue with feminism is kind of a branding issue. I feel like it is a dirty work now, and ‘gender equalitists’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it! [Laughs]
That would have its own branding issues. How did you become involved in politics? Did your family encourage debate on social issues? Was it a big thing in the town where you grew up?
It’s definitely not where my political edge came from. My family wasn’t political at all. I think it actually happened when I first came out. Not that I had any issues in my coming-out process, but I saw a lot of people around me in the community having issues with injustice and being seen in a different way because of their sexual orientation, and this was obviously very upsetting as a young person — and I hope it will be as an older person as well. And this kind of sparked my interest in seeking out justice for those who don’t have it.
You’re lucky that you have a job that allows you to get that message out there — and to people who wouldn’t normally be receiving it. You’re going to New York tomorrow. A lot of the slogans that were on the shirts were very Australia-centric — about the Western Australian shark cull and threats to the Great Barrier Reef. Do you have plans to take this worldwide?
Well, it actually already has gone worldwide, much to my surprise! We’ve already been written up in US Vogue and US Harper’s, it was in French Elle — I think it came out last Friday — and I’ve had a few other international magazines call me, so we’re going to be doing shoots when I’m in New York, which is really cool. Patricia Field is going to start stocking the shirts–
And also B-SPACE [http://bspacenyc.com/] in New York. So yes, it was surprisingly global, but I suppose these kinds of issues are happening all over the world — just in different ways.
You mentioned before how difficult it can be to find information. Are there some sites you can recommend for us?
I definitely find Facebook to be really good, just signing up to particular pages. One of my friends Alys Hale has a really great feminist zine and Facebook group called Cuntry Living and it’s kind of like an open forum where people can repost articles and things that are happening in relation to feminism and/or communally discuss them. I find liking or joining these sorts of groups on Facebook really great, because you just log on and it comes into your feed. Also following news sources — I follow Amnesty International, which I feel is a good one, and Al Jazeera, which is my favourite major news source. I feel like their stuff is a bit more reliable.
If you could go back to 10-year-old you and give yourself some advice, what would it be?
I wouldn’t want to fuck with the time continuum here…
There is a ‘no paradox’ guarantee.
Then I would probably tell myself not to worry when the bad times come. Because they always will come and it’s always going to be a bit shit, but when you get to the other side it’s always going to be a hundred times better, and you always need to trust in that — that it will get better, and it will be better in the end.
What’s next for Start the Riot?
Well, originally the project was meant to end after Fashion Week, but due to the encouragement of all my friends and the emails from people all over the world I decided to keep it going. So we’re now operating under House of Riot [http://thehouseofriot.com/], and Start the Riot is just one project of House of Riot. I hope to continue collaborating with artists and musicians, donating money to charity, working with activist groups, and eventually I want to revive the punk movement in more than just a fashion sense. And we’ve also set up a Facebook group [https://www.facebook.com/groups/starttheriotnow/?fref=ts] where everything’s up for discussion.