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Updated: Feb 21, 2019

Chelsea Bonner

Thrivher Achievement:

Founder and Director of Bella Management- the forefront of the changing face of fashion by introducing the industry to a more holistic and healthy approach to model representation.


Can’t start the day without? Coffee. Absolutely coffee.

Most inspirational read of all time? I love “Thrive” by Arianna Huffington. It really helped me regain a healthier balance in my life, at a time when I really needed it.

Most motivating music track? I have a really eclectic taste in music, I love Jazz but my favourite to run to is Daft Punk.

Non-negotiable thing that regularly block out time for? My rescue dog, Billy. Every afternoon she gets her walks and cuddles, it’s such a happy part of my day.

Most afraid of? Once I would have said failure, but now I would say not trying. Not giving it a go.

Go-to for fun, to let your hair down? That would have to be fishing, swimming, having a drink and dancing, it’s so much fun


Can you tell us about your first steps into the world of modelling?

Well I guess it started when I was working as a junior agent in Melbourne and I began doing some plus sized modeling. At the time, there were only three in the whole country and they were all in their mid-thirties, brunette and had a matronly style, whereas I was only twenty and blonde and very into fashion! My boss at the agency agreed to put me on the books just to see if I could get any work. Neither of us had any idea that it would take off the way it did, but it got to a point about a year later, where I had to make a decision whether I wanted to be a model-agent or a model. I spoke to my parents about it and they felt that I should seize the opportunity. In the modelling and entertainment industries those sorts of opportunities often don’t come around again, so I went for it.

How did your career evolve once you started modelling?

It was so much fun and it just kept growing and growing. Initially I was based in Melbourne but I kept getting flown out to Sydney for work. Then I got the opportunity to go to New York, which was a fantastic experience.

Plus size modelling is a much bigger business over there and although there is still a lot of prejudice, the plus size models are taken more seriously than they are in Australia. I then returned to Australia and was faced with all the prejudices again - no one was taking us seriously. I was also working as an agent and by that time I was working with some of the top photographers, make-up artists and models in the country. I was doing some amazing work and I absolutely loved it – the fashion, the creativity, the whole business. However, I hated the way things were done and the lengths that the young models had to go to in order to get into the business and to stay in the business. I witnessed the physical and emotional struggles of so many friends who were mainstream models – it’s the most horrible thing to see. They just end up hating themselves and becoming totally obsessed with every single centimeter of their body, often ending up with long term health or mental health problems that they just never recover from. There was a lot about the industry that I wanted to change.

I hated the way things were done and the lengths that the young models had to go to in order to get into the business and to stay in the business.

How did you endeavour to do things differently?

At Bella, we have always been so open about health and well-being. Models and their parents felt safe being represented by us, because they knew we weren’t going to push anyone into an eating disorder and clients felt safe booking with us, because they knew they weren’t going to end up booking a model with an eating disorder. I began running an agency alongside Bella, called Lifestyle Models, but more and more work was being generated, so one day I just decided I had to bring everything under one umbrella.

In 2015, I merged the two agencies and relaunched Bella Models and Bella Management. We now have male and female models of all sizes, from size 6 up to size 18/20.

How did YOU go about getting Bella off the ground?

Bella started in my bedroom in Rose Bay! I couldn’t afford to quit my job as I had just come back from New York and had spent all of my money. I was working for my old boss for about two years whilst establishing Bella. I worked all night and during any breaks whilst working at my other job. It was absolutely hectic. I made a deal with myself that once I was bringing in 500 dollars a week, I would be able to live on that and work the business full time, if I was careful. So that’s what I did! I held on to that job as long as I possibly could and then I started working on Bella full time.

Over the next five years, I still had to take jobs on the side and work weekends in shops. I just managed. I sold some jewelry. I did whatever I could just to keep going. It was so hard at one point I even ended up taking a job in real estate and hiring a girl to come in and work from my home office whilst I went out and worked real estate during the day!

Were there any times you thought it might not take off?

I was going through a particularly tough time, struggling to make ends meet and although I wasn’t ready to pack it in, an amazing opportunity came up to do a modelling job which was almost the reason that Bella was able to get of the ground.

I had always said I would never model again because being a model whilst running a modelling agency is frowned upon in the industry. However, it was a former client of mine who had asked their top 100 customers to talk about their favourite campaigns and models over the years and incredibly, they had all wanted me! So they asked if I could go back and model again for them. Without that job, I don’t know if I would have been able to keep Bella going.

It ended up being a really good partnership because the client benefitted from it and I benefitted from it – and they have continued to book models exclusively from me ever since!

It sounds like you really gave it everything to make sure the business, vision and mission for the modelling industry survive!

Yes. Every single cent I earned outside the agency and within the agency went back into the agency - until about five years ago. I had nothing. I earned nothing. I just put everything I earned straight back in - for the staff, or into marketing or media or building relationships with clients, traveling etc. Actually I probably would have kept doing that if it weren’t for my financial controller who told me it was time I bought a house and start living normally! So for the first eleven years I put everything back into the business.

I had nothing. I earned nothing. I just put everything I earned straight back in - for the staff, or into marketing or media or building relationships with clients, traveling etc.

Do you feel that 2018 is an exciting year for women?

Oh yes, I love it. I’ve always been a massive feminist and I’ve always been incredibly independent. So I love that women are using their voice now and being brave enough to tell the truth and sharing that with other women.

In the last couple of years, we’ve seen a couple of high-profile women admit to that and it has started a bit of a chain-reaction and the same thing has happened with body image issues and diversity – gender, age, ethnicity, all sorts. It’s like everyone’s finding their voice now and I love that. You’ve got to listen to all voices. I think my oldest staff member is in their sixties and my youngest is not even quite twenty - but it’s an open conversation. I don’t make decisions without input. Of course, sometimes not everyone agrees with me and I’ll make a decision anyway, but that’s being a boss, I always evaluate all the input before making a decision and I think that’s really important.

I love that women are using their voice now and being brave enough to tell the truth and sharing that with other women.

What have been the most significant moments during the growth of Bella over the past ten years?

I think the advent of social media definitely changed the game because customers have now got direct access to the retailer, which is something they never had before. Suddenly they have been given a voice. So real people are actually influencing advertising and marketing, which is awesome. That’s been a massive shift. Also, the other side of it is that the models now have a platform where they can speak directly to their fan base and have also been given a voice.

There is of course a dangerous side to that as well, which we all know. It does scare me that there are so many parents and so many young people, who just don’t understand the analytics of social media. I mean, it’s just a fact - all of our models know it and most of them hate it – if they post a photo that shows skin out, it’ll get three times as many likes as a photo that doesn’t. That worries me. How do you show body positivity without showing your body? It’s hard to find that balance.

Do you have a top “pinch me now” moment in your life to date?

I’ve had a few, I’m lucky to say. I honestly never thought I would be able to get so much change to happen in my lifetime. That is something that I’m so proud to have been a part of and that gives me “pinch me” moments every day. Just seeing the success - we’ve got Bree (one of our size 14 models) on the cover of Women’s Health magazine this month which is incredible. It’s amazing and it’s never been done before. Also, seeing model Robyn on her first cover of Italian Vogue was a “pinch me” moment. Every client that’s ever vowed they’d never use a plus-size model that now use plus-size models regularly - all of those little wins, not just those big ones, are amazing because they really drive change.

I honestly never thought I would be able to get so much change to happen in my lifetime.

What have you had to say no to in order to support your mission driving forward?

Everything! I’ve had to say no to almost every single thing you can think of at one point or another. I’ve missed birthdays and friends’ weddings. I haven’t yet missed the birth of any of my nieces or nephews, but it’s been close. Just a lot of personal stuff I think - socializing, my hobbies - I used to do long-distance road biking which takes hours and hours and I just haven’t had the time to do those types of activities, which I do miss. But hopefully in the next couple of years the success I’ve had will get to a point where I will then have time to do it again.


What career or life advice do you wish you’d been given in your twenties?

I think I got the best career and life advice from my dad in my twenties. A big telephone company tried to head-hunt me. They wanted some cool fashion industry/media people for their brand, to work in their sales and marketing department. They offered me so much money for my age, it was ridiculous. I remember feeling so conflicted about what to do, so I rang my dad and he said, “Chelsea, you would kill yourself if you had to go into a fluorescent-lit office every day. You would jump off the building. Just do what you love. Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about money, don’t worry about anything. Just do what you love and work hard”. And that’s what I did.

Just do what you love and work hard.

When I built Bella, I didn’t open posh offices and spend a lot of money on superficial things. I ran it from my spare bedroom at home. I kept all my costs really minimal. I had one really good outfit; I had one really good handbag. I’d wear that to every meeting. I just kept it simple and let it grow organically. And it’s so lucky I did that because if I had put myself in a lot of debt, I would never have made it through. The only thing that saved me was that I had no debt to start out with.

The thing I think I would say to anyone starting a business at any stage in life is make sure you’ve got enough capital to see you through at least the first three years, even if it’s bare-bones capital, because otherwise it’s just so incredibly difficult. It can be great to get investors, but one of the things I’m most proud of is that I stuck it out. I didn’t borrow money, I didn’t get investors, and now I own 100% of my business and I’m debt-free.

For women who want to make a positive change in their life but don’t know where to start, what advice would you give them?

When I was a child, my Nana would often say to me, “When you don’t know what to do, do nothing. Just keep doing what you’re doing now and keep thinking about what it is you want to do next until that is clear and then go do that.” I always thought that was the most boringly sensible piece of advice, but I still apply it today! I don’t rush decisions. I let them sit with me. I always move from my gut instinct. I’ve found the times in my life where I’ve overridden my gut, it’s been a complete disaster. So I just sit now. I think about the worst-case scenario and decide whether that’s something I could live with.

I think about the worst-case scenario and decide whether that’s something I could live with.

When I started Bella, my theory was that I could always just go back if it didn’t work out. If everything fell apart, I could still get another job. At times when I was really broke, I would tell myself, the worst case scenario is that I would live in my car with my dog and that would still be fine for me!

Check out Chelsea’s book, ‘Body Image Warrior’. Part memoir and part positive body image manifesto, this is an insider's perspective on the industry and how the images the world gets to see are only part of the story.



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