Model and middle-aged mum Jo Gear is not just a pretty face. She is a women with a voice who is determined to make a difference as she told NARELLE COULTER.
When Berwick mum and self-described “middle-aged model“ Jo Gear signed up for the Maxim Cover Girl competition at the end of last year she vowed that she wouldn’t look at the pictures and profiles of other competitors.
At 44, Jo knew she would be the “oldest by far“ in the competition, which rewarded the winner with a photo shoot with a top fashion photographer, $10,000 cash and coverage in the Australian and US editions of the magazine.
“That lasted two days,“ said Jo, with a rueful laugh, admitting that after looking at the other girls she “ended up in tears“.
“It wasn’t that I felt they were better than me, I just felt ‘I don’t belong here’. I was looking at all these photos of beautiful young girls, with perfect bodies, not a stretch mark or a thigh dimple in sight. I thought ‘this isn’t my place’ and I had a bit of a cry.
“Then Daisy, my 10 year old daughter, came in and said ’Mum, what are you crying about? Don’t you dare compare yourself to anyone else. You are just as worthy of being in this competition as they are’. They were words of reason when I needed them. It has been an emotional rollercoaster in that sense.“
Jo is tall, graceful and thin with long blonde hair and wide blue eyes. She is dressed in black stilettos, skinny jeans and a black blazer over a t-shirt. Diamonds sparkle on her wrist.
Jo describes her personal style as rock ‘n’ roll.
“I’m a heavy metal fan and I like to mix rock ‘n’ roll with classic pieces. I embrace all fashion. I like to mix fast trends and get on that for a bit of fun or sometimes I like to look really, really polished and go all out lady,” she said, laughing.
“I am super attracted to sequins. Every time I buy something with sequins I think ’where am I going to wear this?’ because clearly it’s not going to be for school pick up. I have a wardrobe that really does not reflect my lifestyle as I spend five days out of seven in active wear like most mums.”
Jo came close to achieving her aim of becoming a Maxim cover girl, being knocked out in the semi-finals. Sixteen hundred women entered the competition. Jo survived to the last 32.
However, winning was never the main game. Jo’s aim was to use the competition as a platform to speak out about the invisibility of middle-aged women in the fashion and advertising industries.
Jo grew up in Adelaide. An early career in fashion was followed by modelling opportunities when she was in her 30s.
After putting her career on hold to marry and have children, the stay-at-home mum decided to get back into modelling in her 40s hoping to pick up “one or two regular jobs” to “break up the routine and get me out talking to adults“.
She was quickly signed by Giant Management in 2018, but is yet to be booked for any assignments.
Jo feels her struggle to resume her career in middle-age is indicative of a wider issue – the lack of representation of women in their 40s and 50s in the fashion and advertising industries.
As she started to reacquaint herself with the industry, one question occurred again and again – where were all the middle aged women?
“We are just not represented, whether it is by fashion brands, even though we are their target market, or whether it is fashion festivals or just in general advertising,“ Jo said.
“There may be a token older woman in ads for things like funeral planning insurance or incontinence products, but we are not quite at that age either.“
She says women have huge control over family spending from purchasing gifts for the whole family and planning family holidays but inverse to their spending power is their invisibility in advertising, in political discourse and in fashion.
“Women in their 40s, once they have had children, start to feel invisible in society. I think that can definitely be related to our lack of representation in media advertising. When really we should feel like we are in the prime of our lives.
“We are so much more empowered and have the self-confidence that we didn’t necessarily have in our teens, 20s and 30s. Now we feel in charge of our lives and the decisions we make but I still find a lot of women shrinking back.
“We’ve got the life experience, the wisdom and the knowledge. Our opinions should count.”
Jo is angry that at the same time as excluding women from the mainstream, the advertising industry also preys on their insecurities.
“They are preying on all our insecurities and vanities selling us anti-aging products, telling us to wear a certain make up to look younger. They are not building us up.”
To promote her run at the cover girl title, Jo started an Instagram feed: @the_middleaged_model
She has been heartened by much of the comment her feed has attracted.
Typical is Judyjones who posted “You are incredible. I am grateful for you representing us middle-aged women and using your platform to show that we too are still beautiful, sexy and vibrant. You’ve inspired me immensely”.
“Complete strangers have bought me votes, and people send me constant messages of encouragement. It has been amazing,“ Jo said.
Jo feels the time is right for attitudes to change towards middle-aged women. She points to a recent edition of British Vogue which was dedicated to women over 50. Jane Fonda, 81, graced the cover.
Among the ranks of older women Jo admires are Meryl Streep, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren. On the Australian fashion scene she admires Carla Zampatti and in politics, Julie Bishop.
Jo said putting herself on display in such a public way to be judged on her beauty has been confronting and pushed her to uncomfortable places.
“What I have done with Maxim is possibly quite polarising. Once you put yourself out there you have to take the good and the bad.“
However, the motivation has been powerful and very close to home – her two girls.
“I took my eldest, Daisy, to the first photo shoot. At the end of the shoot she said to me ‘Mum, I’m so proud of you. You never give up on your dreams’. That gave me goose bumps. All they see is pretty pictures of their mum. Society hasn’t filled their heads with any sexualised connotations. At the end of the day it’s just me in underwear. You see more skin on a hot day at your local shopping centre.”
Jo is determined to use the momentum from the Maxim competition to continue to speak out about issues facing middle-aged women and not “succumb to the pull of my comfort zone“.
“There have been so many times I’ve thought ’Why am I doing this?’ But it comes back to the more important message.
“If I can inspire anyone or empower anyone to believe that they have every right to feel powerful and sexy and beautiful no matter how old they are, then I’ve done a great thing.“