At 48, former nursery teacher Rachel Peru is breaking barriers as a successful model, working with JD Williams and Davina McCall. She talks to Stephanie Smith about how it all happened, plus advice on how to become a model.
When she gets a moment, Rachel Peru sometimes wonders what she would be doing now if she hadn’t decided to let her hair turn its natural grey. Not, she suspects, jetting off to the Bahamas to model swimwear, or joining Davina McCall on an activewear shoot.
“I’d been dyeing it for 30 years,” she says. “I just woke up one morning and thought, I don’t want to do this any more. It’s my selling point. It’s what makes me stand out. If my hair had been brunette, would I be doing this now? I don’t know.”
If Rachel looks familiar, it might be because she is starring on TV in the I Am autumn campaign commercial for JD Williams. The day before our interview, she was in London, demonstrating with placards on Oxford Street alongside fellow models of all ages and shapes, as part of a JD Williams-backed campaign about the lack of diversity in fashion. She will also feature in the brand’s Christmas TV commercial, shot in Blackpool.
Rachel hasn’t always been a model, far from it. Now 48, she was born and raised in Ilkley, where she still lives with her husband Mark, who works in banking. She has three children aged 20, 18 and 16. When Rachel’s youngest started school, she began working as a nursery assistant. At 39, she did a degree in Education Studies, after which she worked as a nursery teacher, until two years ago, when she changed careers and became a professional model.
It was a natural, gradual process, she says. “I’ve been doing the local Macmillan fashion show in Ilkley for 10 years, and every year, my confidence has grown. People would say to me, you’re really photogenic.”
Four years ago, Rachel finally let her hair go grey. “That was the turning point,” she says. “I suddenly felt like me, and I really embraced it. I was happy with my body, which I had struggled with when I was younger, so then I thought, yeah, why not go for it. Now is the right time for me.”
Rachel sent off photos to model agencies, and soon found work. At 5ft 7in and a size 16, then aged 46, she was not a conventional fashion model, but she hit the ground at a time when diversity was becoming more desirable.
In her first year she did test shoots to build her portfolio with the help of Yorkshire stylist Trudy Fielding, of retro boutique Vintage-Beau. Rachel loves vintage clothes and used to have her own vintage business. She and Trudy recently worked together on a photo shoot combining fashion and theatre at the Playhouse in Bradford.
At first, Rachel modelled for leisure and lifestyle adverts and catalogues. However, within a year, she was in the Bahamas, modelling swimwear for Ashley Graham’s range. Then came a shoot with Davina McCall for her Tesco Active wear range. In February, she signed up with London-based Bridge Models.
“When I was younger, I would have been a size 12, and even then, that was big for modelling, so I don’t think I would ever have considered that I could have done it. Whereas now, especially for this age group, there is a demand.
“I love what I’m doing and I also want to be able to represent our age group. What I hate about High Street fashion is they tend to do that over-45 thing where it’s all a bit mumsy and staid. I’m not like that at all.”
Social media, especially Instagram, has been a useful promotional tool, she says, although one she found difficult at first. “You are constantly having to post pictures of yourself so, on the one hand, it felt a bit vain. I also see it as, I’m making myself a brand so I can put what I believe out there, and I am quite outspoken about the things that I am passionate about.”
There’s a long way to go before fashion is truly diverse, Rachel says, and some retailers choose to feature an older model as part of a campaign, but it’s a token gesture, not translated into stores. Nonetheless, she is meeting more and more older models.
Mark and all her family are proud and supportive of Rachel’s new and burgeoning career, although she suspects her 18-year-old son does not necessarily want to see mum’s lingerie and swimwear photos on social media.
Meanwhile, she is off to New York for a magazine shoot, and to Sweden for another campaign, so it’s all go. “I’m quite happy,” she says. “I’ve got lumps and bumps and cellulite, but it doesn’t bother me now. She no longer worries about model castings either. “This is me,” she says. “I go in now thinking, well, you’ll either like me or you won’t like me. But I’m not going to change.”
THINK YOU COULD BE A MODEL?
Rachel’s agency, Bridge Models, is always on the lookout for the next exciting model. “Being a good model is not just about being attractive. Being photogenic and relaxed in front of the camera is very important,” says its director, Beth Willis.
Knowing how to take care of yourself is also important, Beth adds. “People don’t realise how physically demanding it can be and you have to be prepared to work hard and put in long hours on your feet.
“You also need a thick skin and to realise that it’s not personal when you don’t book a job.”
Bridge represents around 60 women and almost as many men. Sizes are 10-plus (XL-plus for men). “We start where the standard agencies stop,” says Beth. “We pride ourselves in not only having a broad selection of sizes but also represent models of different ethnicities. Models of colour, especially women, are massively underrepresented in this industry still. Recently we have started to push boundaries with a range of ages, too. We feel that is another area that should see real growth as brands recognise that their customers want to be represented at any age, colour or size.
“Signing Rachel was a delight. She is a perfect example of a beautiful older model that exudes confidence and sensuality. Models can be aspirational at any age.
“Older women are often treated as if they are invisible or at least not worthy of representation. So much of our fashion is decided by men and we are constantly working against design for the male gaze. I do get a sense that women are pulling together more, that there is a realisation that we are stronger together, that we can open those doors faster as a collective.”
For more information visit www.bridgemodels.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Rachel is launching a new fortnightly podcast on the 29th October called ‘Out Of The Bubble’ where she will interview women over 40 who are embracing life. It will be available on Apple podcast and anchor.fm
* Instagram is rachelperu1
* There’s more fashion and beauty on https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/lifestyle/fashion