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Essay

by Phoebe Frangoul .

Role models have an effect on us not because they’re perfect, but the opposite - they’re imperfect, just like us. Our role models have to be flawed so that we can feel connected to and invested in them.

Role models, ‘icons’ (style and otherwise), heroes, heroines, idols  –  who are they to us, why do we need them, what do they represent?

When you’re a child they can be cartoons (She-Ra! Spiderman!) or characters in books – Roald Dahl’s feisty, magical Matilda or Anne of Green Gables smashing her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head for calling her 'carrots'. They inspired us to be brave, to stand up for what we believe in and know to be right, to follow our dreams.

Role models have this effect on us not because they’re perfect, but the opposite - they’re imperfect, just like us. Our role models have to be flawed so that we can feel connected to and invested in them – we recognise common traits that we share, see something of ourselves in them, but bigger, bolder, brighter, like a mirror reflecting back an idealised version of ourselves.

As we grow and change, so do our role models – they’re only human, after all. They serve various purposes at different stages in our lives, and so when it came to making a film for International Women’s Day with Selfridges, filmmaker Kathryn Ferguson knew she needed a diverse group of women to feature, representing different ages, professions and backgrounds.
 
So we have Zaha Hadid –  one of the few (only?) female architects whose name is globally recognised - who was educated by nuns in Iraq. Then there's Sharmadean Reid, founder of WAH Nails, a Wolverhampton native with a 'downtown girl' attitude. Then Caryn Franklin, TV presenter and co-founder of the All Walks Beyond the Catwalk initiative and, finally, fashion designer Bella Freud of the legendary Freud dynasty to complete the quartet.

An eclectic mixture of experiences and opinions guaranteed we could expect some interesting answers from the questions we were going to put to them. By asking the four women identical questions, we hoped a common thread would emerge that linked them all, even in their diversity.

Asking our women to reflect on their lives, careers and experiences with their own role models forced them to confront their own success and achievements – a state that sat more comfortably with some than with others. Recognising that you are an inspiration to others is a responsibility, even a burden at times, and one that our women do not take lightly.
That respect for a role they haven’t chosen sometimes grows with time, as Zaha Hadid acknowledged; she admitted that she had resisted the label ‘woman architect’ for a long time, preferring to simply be known as an architect, her gender not figuring in the discussion at all.

Eventually she realised that younger women in the field were looking up to her, depending on her as proof that it is possible to succeed in this notoriously tough profession, and she realised that her owning that title mattered so much to them that she had a duty to carry it with pride, for their sake. This confident, successful woman seemed humbled by their faith in her and honoured to be their role model.

Sharmadean Reid was the happiest of the four to talk about the moment she knew she was good at what she did; it might be bragging, she said, but she’d known she would go on to be successful and make a difference in the world since she was 12 years old. Sharmadean was very aware of the duality of her position – she had role models herself (Oprah in particular) and still does, and so understands what her duties are.

She appreciates the importance of replying to an email from a young girl asking advice, even if she can only manage to write a couple of lines and she has to do it at midnight before going to sleep – that girl doesn’t know how busy she’s been with work that day or looking after her baby.

Sharmadean gets it because she wrote letters to her idols when she was younger and never got a reply. She’s an engaged role model, the best she can be.

We coaxed the women into describing the objects that are precious to them (Zaha’s early drawings, the blue wellington boots that Caryn’s daughters wore when they were little, Bella’s sparkling engagement ring and Sharmadean? 'Nah mate, you can’t take it with you!').

As well as being role models in terms of their careers and professional achievements, all four of our women have distinctive, instantly recognisable looks. From Zaha, swathed in Issey Miyake pleats or sporting an iridescent, swirling metal ring that she designed herself, to Bella, louche and androgynous in a slouchy cream suit, Sharmadean fierce with her blonde curtains of hair and statuesque wedges and Caryn’s distinctive silver-grey hair, each has a signature style which they own.

Bella described her love of clothes for their ability to act as armour, or a disguise – that idea of 'faking it ‘til you make it' – wear the clothes of the woman you want to be, inhabit her skin, and soon enough you’ll actually become her. With their ability to command their clothes, subjugate them and force them to serve a purpose in helping them construct an image to present to the world, our role models understand the power and purpose of fashion.

Sitting, standing, or reclining in a simple set, dressed in bespoke tailoring from Selfridges, they relaxed into the rhythmic process of question and answer. The repetition seemed to have a soothing effect, helping the women delve deeper into their memories and share more profound insights.

It was an affecting, poignant process for everyone involved – several times, members of the crew confessed to feeling moved to tears as one of the woman’s words resonated with them particularly. The lights dimmed and rose, creating an intimate atmosphere for each woman to reveal something personal to her.

Are role models even more vital for women? Absolutely. You don’t have to label yourself a feminist to recognise that millions of women around the world are facing an uphill struggle for basic, fundamental human rights like education, healthcare, freedom from rape and violence and autonomy over their own bodies. Seeing successful women working within their chosen industries to change the status quo, whether that’s in subtle, imperceptible ways or strident leaps forward, is empowering for all women.

Whether your role model is Aung San Suu Kyi or Beyonce, Ellie Simmonds or Zadie Smith – or any of the women in this film, looking up to someone who you admire and relate to is powerful relationship. Our role models may have come from different backgrounds and faced different challenges to our own, but if we see something in them that we recognise as a common quality, a spark of ambition, their achievements will spur us on, give us strength to try.

At the end of the day’s filming, when our four subjects had returned to their ‘real’ lives, work and families, the crew sat and looked at each other, slightly stunned by having been in the presence of such power. Each one was a force to be reckoned with – so much strength, energy and confidence exuding from them, whether they realised it or not. And then we realised that the group of women surrounding the table who had produced the film – hair stylist, make-up artist, those in charge of the cameras, lights, words and visuals – were role models too.

Oh and in case you were wondering who my role model is? She’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.