I am fortunate to keep the company of many artists.
Often those artists and I develop friendships through making beautiful things together. One artist I am particularly fond of is Suzanne Phoenix, whom I have made much art with. Last year, a picture we made together was selected to be a part of the Loud and Luminous exhibition at Contact Sheet gallery in St Leonards, Sydney.
Suzanne was asked to give an artists talk about the photograph of me that was selected, and the audience response to her talk was so positive and eager to learn more about our relationship, that she decided to create a photo story of the relationship that led to creating the exhibited photograph.
I was so moved by Suzanne's words. Some of the pictures in her story I had never even seen before......I didn't even know they existed, and to see them along with the story from her perspective was such a special experience for me that I have decided to use those same photographs, and make a photo story from my perspective as a heartfelt reply and thank you to Suzanne's work. You can see Suzanne's photo story here
The first 3 photographs were taken at the first ever Hear No Evil Feast that I ever attended in June 2016. I wasn't sure I would be able to attend the event right up until the last minute, as I was in the middle of my first round of fertility treatment, and wasn't sure if I would be pregnant or not for the show. Not to say that I couldn't attend the show if I was pregnant, but the menu for the banquet hall included things I wouldn't be able to eat and of course drinking would have been off the cards, and I was nervous about attracting unwanted attention to my situation. Three days before the show, the treatment failed and I made the decision to attend. I hadn't really thought about an outfit for the event, being so pre occupied with my treatment, and managed to throw together a look from an old show costume, a corset and a terribly cheap dress I'd bought on ebay. I was determined to have a good time, despite the events of the week, and once I got dressed and ready I was feeling fabulous. The hormones I'd been taking for the fertility treatment had left me bloated and swollen, but I honestly don't remember even thinking about what my body looked like that night. I just felt really beautiful and quite proud.
A corset is not the wisest choice to wear to a sit down dinner, and I was going to enjoy my steak god dammit, so when sitting at the table became too uncomfortable for me, I got up and ate my steak standing. I had never met Suzanne before, and wouldn't have even known what she looked like. She observed me from across the table and made these first photographs of me, which until now, I'd never seen.
Sparked by how I felt about myself on the night of Hear No Evil, I had a burning desire to improve the relationship I had with my body. I had always hated it, and punished myself often for the physical space I took up. I had noticed a small shift in social attitudes towards fat bodies, and was presented with the crazy notion that I didn't actually have to hate myself....I could exist in my fat body and not only love it, but see it as beautiful. I wanted to be an example for others, especially the children I so yearned for, that body positivity is not a luxury only afforded to the slender.
I attended an open casting for Melbourne Fashion Week Plus. A runway of local and International plus size designers, and to my genuine surprise and utter delight I was cast.
By this stage I was a fan of Suzanne's work, having seen many pictures she had made of my brother, but was not aware she would be photographing the runway.
The experience for me was challenging, I was incredibly confronted by many things and it was a real mission for me to get through the show. I doubted myself, and questioned if I deserved to be there. I doubted whether I was beautiful enough to be walking alongside actual 'models' and really punished myself terribly.
One designer I was walking for gave me permission to be myself. Sprinkle, of Sprinkle Emporium, saw something in me that she wanted in her runway, and encouraged me to do my thing. Hers was the third of four collections I was walking for and was by far my favourite. I had been terrified on my first two trips down the runway, but something changed in me by the time I was ready to walk for Sprinkle, I'm not sure if it was because of how beautiful I felt in her designs or the penny just dropped, but the moment I stepped out on that runway I was on fire. I felt like I had the attention of every single person in the room and I was LIVING for it!! The energy in the room exploded and suddenly it sounded like we were at a rock concert, people were screaming and cheering and I was milking it for everything it was worth.
The show was in July of 2016, and I did not know Suzanne would be there. There were lots of photographs from lots of different photographers to look at after that event, and I was instantly in love with the ones taken by Suzanne. I knew right then that I was on to something with this desire of mine to help others be kinder to their bodies, and I decided the only way to get that message across was to lead by example.
The next time I saw Suzanne, was actually the first time we properly met and spoke in person! We had spoken on facebook quite a bit after the runway pictures were released, but never actually met in real life until the following year when we all came together again for Hear No Evil Feast 2017.
I was so thrilled to finally meet this person that had SEEN me, I was excited to hug her and thank her in person for the beautiful art she creates.
My life had changed a lot in the 12 months since the last show, and I was quietly working on myself around the clock. I'd just finished another round of fertility treatment with devastating results, and knew in my heart that big change needed to occur in my world. I knew at the time what the change needed to be, and was working myself up to it. My marriage was stagnant, and as much as I wanted to make it work, I had made the promise to myself to be firm about what I needed from it, and if those needs weren't met, that it was time to let it go.
The performance from the Hear No Evil cast that year was SHATTERING. I knew in that moment that I needed to be creating more. I wanted to be creating art like this, and promised myself that I would. Little did I know at the time, that the following year, I would join the cast.
This particular evening was a really reflective one for me. Life changing realizations occurred like fireworks in my mind throughout the evening, and it seems that Suzanne was there to capture all of them.
After that night, I promised myself to stop diluting myself for the comfort of those around me. In particular, my husband at the time. The work I had put in with my relationship with my body had well and truly paid off and I was loving the shit out of myself. I was confident. I knew exactly what I wanted out of life. I also knew exactly what was standing in my way of getting it.
My brother Anthony, fronted a rock band called He Cries Diamonds and their next gig was in July of 2017. My husband never attended events with me that my brother performed at, but being that this was a live band upstairs at the Tote, I persuaded him to join me by way of our shared passion for rock'n'roll. I invited my youngest brother and his partner as well, and along with my mum we made a fun family night of it.
The outfit I had decided to wear that night was a different choice for me. I'd not usually been comfortable enough to show off so much of my body in public, but like I said, I'd done the work and it paid off. It seems like a silly thing to bring up, but the challenge for me was not in the outfit choice itself, but my husbands reaction to it. He was outwardly unimpressed with my decision to wear short shorts in public, and I was so aware of it. He would never say directly, but had ways of letting me know of his disapproval. In the past, those ways were effective in that I would have doubted myself and changed instantly, but not on this night. I knew what I wanted to wear. I knew I looked hot. I knew he wasn't happy about it. I DIDN'T FUCKING CARE.
I partied that night, I drank more than I needed to and was loud and raucous as Suzanne described. I rocked out to my little brothers band, and I DID NOT want to go home.
The pictures Suzanne made of me that night, are of my first steps to getting the life I wanted. A life free of disapproval and control.
In October of 2017 I hosted a fundraiser for Beyond Blue. I called it JESSIPALOOZA and called on the generosity and talent of the many musos I'm fortunate to know. My marriage had ended a month or so before the event, and I distracted myself from the sadness I was feeling about that with producing this show.
Suzanne had never seen me perform before that night. Other than the runway the previous year which was totally out of my element at the time, she'd never seen me do my thing.
I had fronted rock bands for the past 15 years of my life, and this one gig was like a highlights reel of that career. I produced and organised the entire event myself at the same time that my marriage of nearly 10 years ended. It was a lot. But I was so certain of who I was in that time that nothing seemed like too much. Nothing was too overwhelming, I had no fear of failing, I had no fear PERIOD.
From that gig, I continued to kick goals.
In December of 2017 I launched a campaign on my Instagram called #besomebodyyouwishsomeonewasforyou
The concept was to encourage people to break the cycle in the negative thought processes they were raised with. My example, was that if I had seen images of a woman like myself when I was growing up, how different my life would have turned out!! Every day for the month of December, I posted images of myself and my body, and talked about the things we are conditioned to think in society, vs how I feel about it in reality. I discussed the importance of being kinder to ourselves so that the children in our lives don't grow up with the same negative thought processes that we did, and urged people to join the revolution and post pictures and stories of their own.
I decided that I wanted the final image to be powerful. I wanted to collaborate with someone that believed in the message I was trying to send. I also wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone, and the only person I felt safe to do that with was Suzanne.
The day we shot these images was the day we became friends for life. In fact, it was when we shifted from friends, to family. We spoke of our life experiences, and learned many things about one another. We saw and heard each other, and through that soul connection, we created art.
Suzanne is the mastermind behind the project "What Does International Women's Day Mean To You?"
She began in 2012, and I had been well aware of this work for the last couple of years. In 2018, Suzanne emailed me and asked if I would be interested in being involved, and my honest reply was that I thought she'd emailed me by mistake! I genuinely believed that she'd sent me the email by accident, intended for someone else, and when I finally absorbed what she was asking me to be a part of I was elated!
OF COURSE I wanted to be involved!!! The project required me to make a portrait with Suzanne, and to answer the question "What Does International Women's Day Mean To Me?" My answer?? "Teaching our daughters to expect more from life than we did. Teaching our sons to encourage that. Openly showing love for a body society has conditioned me to hate. Visibly being comfortable in my difference. Unashamedly living my best life."
We took the shots in a back alley car park behind Smith st in Collingwood. I didn't put together a LOOK as I ordinarily would have, just a very casual skirt and tank top, and I remember wearing no underwear. I was in the strongest place I have ever been. I was untouchable. I didn't feel the need to hide behind anything and wanted my portrait to just be of me. I love these pictures. The genuine happiness in every shot brings back wonderful memories.
I'm fairly sure the shot Suzanne used was the first one we took......regardless we snapped for not even 5 minutes, I was silly, funny, content, and Suzanne had what she needed.
In June of 2018 I lived my dream of joining the cast of Hear No Evil Feast.
This was next level for me. In the space of 12 months I had identified what I wanted out of life, put in the work to achieve it, removed the things in my life that were standing in my way and here I was holding the hands of performers I WORSHIPPED as a member of their cast.
I was newly, madly, and incredibly in love. It was unexpected and it was WONDERFUL. I felt like I had everything I wanted in that moment.
I pushed my boundaries and stepped out of my comfort zone with my performance. I didn't go as far I wanted to but I was well on my way.
Soon after Hear No Evil I was asked to join the cast of Seen and Heard. I was THRILLED and incredibly excited to work with these beautiful humans. The line up was my brother Agent Cleave and I, along with angels Dandrogyny, Pancetta Love, absolute GODDESS Frankie Valentine along side and under the direction of the beautiful Becky Lou. I had not ever worked with Becky before but was a HUGE fan of hers, and was so excited to have the opportunity to work with her on this project.
I wanted to use this opportunity to tell a part of my story that I'd not spoken much about. I stripped back the funny showgirl and told the story of how I built the relationship I had with myself and my body, and the things I had to sacrifice in order to achieve that.
It was raw, it was honest, and I admitted some things that evening that I had never spoken of to anyone. I shared my deepest darkest secrets to a room full of strangers. I remember being quite sad that none of my friends had come to see that show. The content I created was so important to me, and I was so proud of what we had created collectively that I really wanted the people I care about to be in the audience.
Suzanne sat in the front row, and captured it all. My nervous energy, my hesitation to share my secrets, my will to overcome that hesitation and most importantly for me, the special relationship I have with my brother. I'd always been aware of the adoration I have for him, but on this evening, Suzanne captured the playfulness we share and the adoration he has for me, which was an incredible turning point for me in our relationship. Among those magical shots, was the shot she entered to be a part of Loud and Luminous, which led us to here.
Hear No Evil BBQ was an interesting one. The cracks in my romantic relationship were well and truly visible, and as a result cracks in my relationship with myself had well and truly started to show. I was struggling with the concept of knowing who I was and where I fit in in the world, and was grateful for the opportunity to create with artists I so respected.
I wanted to do more than sing. I felt I had so many important things to say, and the desire to say them at Hear No Evil BBQ was strong.
I knew that I wanted to push my boundaries with my body because I had started to hate it again, and I made the decision to strip nude in my performance. This was a first time for me, having never even taken a class in burlesque, but I was adamant it was what I needed to feel confident about my body. I wanted my performance to be about consent, and safety and that it is every woman's birthright to have both, so I combined what I know- my voice, with the unknown - stripping, to create a piece that communicated that.
In Melbourne, two days before the show, we had just experienced yet another woman murdered in the streets and I was RAGING. I was so ANGRY that this had happened again. The night before the show during our dress rehearsal, I was approached by 3 men as I was loading a crate of equipment into my car. They saw me cross the street alone and approached me in the dark. I was aware of their presence before they were aware of me, and knew to get inside safely I would need to be charming. I flirted with them long enough to get safely behind the gate, and once they realised I no longer wished to converse with them, their energy changed to aggression and I went inside. They yelled at me as I walked away that they knew which car was mine, and proceeded to do to it what I suspect they wanted to do to me.......kick the shit out of it.
I was FURIOUS. FURIOUS that I couldn't cross a road by myself at night without experiencing that behavior from a man. I decided then and there to channel that fury. To use the anger from the couple of days before and pour it into my performance.
As I waited in the wings for my cue to begin, I realised that the lead gutarist for my number was not on stage. Goddess Lillikoi Kaos was left to rot on stage after a particularly raw performance, as her cue to leave and mine to begin were in the hands of the same person, and he disrespected both of us by not showing up.
After what seemed like 20 minutes, he arrived onstage and the show continued. I was so enraged that my performance felt like it was over in 5 seconds. I used that rage, that anger, that fury to demand respect. I used my voice and wailed. I used my body to command. I stood defiant, naked and exhausted.
After that performance, I had so much more to say.
Suzanne was deservedly growing momentum with her WDIWDMTY project, and had asked me to MC the event that was surrounding the launch of the 2019 portraits. I of course was THRILLED to be involved again, and saw the event as the perfect opportunity to speak about the things I felt so passionately towards.
I was so nervous. So frightened of doing the wrong thing. My confidence had deteriorated at this point so much that I questioned absolutely everything about myself. I knew that I believed the things I wanted to say, but was unsure if I was the right person to say them. I was a shell of the person I had been 12 months earlier and so desperately wanted to find my way back.
My love for Suzanne, and my respect for her work was enough for me to follow through though, and I closed my speech with my boobs out and a mic drop.
These are the only photographs NOT taken by Suzanne in this story. They are courtesy of Matto Lucas.
It takes a skilled photographer to take a great photograph, but it takes a deep connection, trust and understanding between two humans to create art. Suzanne and I have that and I am enamored of her ability to capture the soul behind the star. I am grateful for the body of work we have created together, and excited for the art we will make together in the future, but mostly, I am grateful for the relationship we have built to be able to make such magic together.
Read Suzannes original photo story here