It was a few weeks ago that the lovely Grace Stratton PM’d Miss FQ’s Skye Ross on Facebook, saying she’d be interested in being interviewed for Girl You Need To Know
This is the first time someone has put themself out there for our weekly GYNTK series, the first time a story hasn’t come to us by way of recommendation or via a PR. 17-year-old Grace told me she has a story to tell, that she uses a wheelchair and is passionate about working in media to challenge stereotypes and bring light to a more diverse fashion industry. So, without knowing much about her, but eager to learn more I interviewed Grace. She’s since left me feeling incredibly inspired and uplifted, and will surely do the same for you.
Skye Ross: What’s your story?
Grace: I was born in 1999 in Auckland. I was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at one year old, this has meant the use of a wheelchair to get around day-to-day. As Cerebral Palsy has always been a part of my life, I learned to adapt to physically challenging situations quite quickly and now, at almost 18, harnessing adaption in order to succeed is a part of my DNA. My ‘story’ is most definitely in its development stages still, I grow everyday and write about it which I love. I am incredibly proud of where I have got toand what I have learned thus far – both through my career journey and in life generally. Being in a wheelchair has given me some of the most challenging but also the most rewarding experiences. I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t very difficult at times, but I hope to turn those difficulties into tools or stories which can help others. I found the internet and the social influencer industry in 2015; when I started out all I knew was that I had a story to tell. I started a blog to help me get through the rehabilitation of a surgery, this rehabilitation was extremely challenging and I knew that I needed something productive to do, so I blogged – that blog served me well for a little while but I felt like I needed to follow my heart toward something new, as I am beginning university next year and my rehabilitation had finished. I am entering a new phase of life and so I wanted a platform which would follow me through to that new phase and help me future proof for my career in both literature and social influencing. Luckily for me it has been the best choice I ever made which just shows that even when it seems scary, you should always follow your heart – it works.
You launched the new blog gracegeorgia.co.nz two months ago. Can you tell me about why you decided to start this?
I decided to start Grace Georgia because, as I said, I was entering a phase of my life [university and evolving in my career]. I started the blog because I didn’t hear a voice like mine in the media and I was tired of waiting for it to come about, so I decided to be that voice. I think that often disability is marginalised because people don’t understand what it means – having a disability (in the sense of wheelchair usage because that’s all I can speak to) is not something to be fixed or something to be afraid of. I often felt like wider society treated disability/disabled people like they were broken people crying in their homes and waiting for science to evolve enough to ‘cure them’ – but that’s not true at all. I started my blog to bring disability into the mainstream, disability is not the focus of my blog, it is an aspect of all the content I create: I want to show people that disability is/can be a part of the culture of fashion, advocacy, lifestyle and motivation.
The truth is that people and businesses want diversity, they want individuals who bring something different to the table (or the internet). Jessica Quinn and Margaret Zhang are prime examples of this – they’re both creators, who create differently and are successful because of that. If we can teach people that being different is a super power rather than something to be afraid of then the world will eventually be entirely different. Thankfully for us, people are learning this all the time, but there is always work to be done. Someone’s just got to be brave enough to break down those walls, and I am more than brave enough. I want to be a person who’s created a place which breaks down barriers for individuals and allows people to realise their potential. I was raised without role models who had disabilities and lucky for me my parents, and those who did role model for me, helped me find my way but if I can give one person a role model that’s like them and help them because of that, then that is a wonderful thing – I am all about individual impact, giving each individual who reads something unique to take away from my content that they can then apply to their own lives – that is my why.
What have you learned from the blog?
In running the blog and being in business as a freelancer and influencer I have learned that those who succeed do not people please. I think an important thing to remember is to know that you are your own compass, and you don’t need to apologise for thinking of yourself in business at times.
What do you hope to achieve with your blog?
I want to craft a story that excites people, makes them think, but equally makes them squirm in their seat a bit. In my own way, I want to be like Hunter S Thompson and Melissa Broder – the great writers who are unmatched. You read a piece by them and you know it’s their voice – and because of its distinctness you listen with intent, and learn, even if you disagree with what they have to say. That’s what I want to be. I want to give people the opportunity to enter a story crafted with them in mind, because I believe that in some aspects on the internet we’ve lost integrity and and that will not do, I want to give that.
Other than that, I want to push boundaries until they collapse, I want to give people power through my words and content, I want them to face the day stronger because they feel empowered by my content.
I’d also really like to work with Nike or a big sportswear brand to break barriers for adaptive fitness.
You’re incredibly passionate about challenging stereotypes in the media industry and bringing diversity in fashion to light. Can you tell me about your own experiences with stereotypes because you use a wheelchair?
I was raised in a family that gave me no free pass because of disability and because of that I don’t see my disability as an obstacle, I never have and I never will. I said to my CrossFit Trainer yesterday that I want to be certain all my successes are attributed to my work in industry, not due to disability. So, it’s not that my disability gives me the ability to work in this industry of fashion and influence – it is first that I have a larger story to tell and a love of the craft, but I then use my disability as the cherry on top something to set me apart and allow me to enter these industries – the reason why that’s important is because disability is seen as an obstacle by some. I try to surround myself with people who don’t share this ideal, most of my friends (who are ‘able bodied’) see me as Grace and know that my wheelchair is just my transportation and that I might need some help sometimes, but I know in my head that most places I go I will be the only one in a chair and this is difficult to know, because you know that you’ll stick out.
What has been the most difficult part about living with a disability?
I think the most difficult/hurtful thing for me is that I am almost never asked by people who I have just met what I do for work. I don’t know why that is, I hope it’s not because they doubt my ability to work and be successful in industry – but it feels like that might be the reason and I hate that, but I don’t let that change the way I go about things. I do my best to show people my person and hopefully my bad jokes and smile make them comfortable enough to stay around for a bit and see that I am just a person at the end of the day – with very little limits and a lot to give.
Why do you think this disability stereotype exists?
I think that stereotypes exist because of a lack of education so instead of fighting against the stereotype of disability I have decided to educate people and show them how that stereotype is wrong, if they choose to listen that’s great – if not that is fine too – but at the end of the day my wheelchair usage is one aspect of my life – it is only one thing and it holds no bearing on my ability as a person.
How do you rise above people judging you before they know you?
I rise above by knowing that what people think about me, is not a reflection of me, it is on them as long as I move forward knowing who I am, who is in my circle and believing in what I have done for both myself and others – then that’s enough. If all of those things don’t work and I really feel like I am being judged, I’ll go and watch a Lily Singh video – because those always make me feel empowered. In times of judgement when we need to rise above, my greatest piece of advice would be to think outside of yourself, watch a video, read a book, do something not about you – until you feel ready to re-enter this world.
What have been the highlights of your blogging experience so far?
I have a few highlights, my most recent highlight has to be talking a person by the name of Dean, he works in PR and gave me some advice that has made me super excited for my future and given me some really beneficial resources to look to in order to be motivated in my hustle. I really recommend looking up the blogger Seth Godin, Dean introduced me to his content and reading it everyday has seriously helped me navigate my way through each day and think about ways to improve my business sense and online skills.
Another highlight has to be getting a few messages from people recently, who all said that my content has helped them in some way – including one woman who reads my blog and her grandson now uses a wheelchair – so to be able to equip her with some knowledge about disability in some small way is what I live for.
My other highlights have to be working with Trelise Cooper on a shoot for Winter/Fall this year. That really made me feel like I had the backing of the fashion community and I am inspired to do more because of that, I also met Samantha Connon one of the TC PR girls because of this shoot and I am really honoured to know her, it just shows that when you work hard your circle of friends and supporters (and critics because we need those to push us to be better) comes to you.
Also it was super cool to make content with Jesse James and Logan Dodds, our video got shared by GoPro and we got so many comments that were from people who were inspired to live life to the fullest because of our video – I think that’s amazing to be able to give people that sense.
Where do you hope to be in five years’ time?
I hope to still be running my platform, with the same ideals and craft – just evolved and improved from where I am now. I also hope that my degree will be finished. I hope that I have developed plans for some form of start up company for tangible content and creations. I hope to also go to the Kings Arms a few times and organise some music events for young people, because I want to make sure all young people have a safe place.
In five years’ time, I also plan to hang out a bit more at Zeal New Zealand and continue working with CAYAD. I want to keep making content for people, but also keep acting in the real world – to improve my close and afar community.
I would also like to have plans to spend some time in New York, I’d like to chase my creative dreams in the most creative place on earth. I like to think I can run after my dreams as fast as the next person.
There might be a boyfriend at some point – but as Gloria Steinem says “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” – meaning you don’t actually need a significant other to get anywhere. I think young adult women and men need to hear that more, it’s okay to focus on you first. Set goals and set them high and then work hard, you can move at your own pace – I hope to be independent, physically and in my career that’s my goal first and once I’ve done that, we’ll see.
What does being a millennial mean to you?
I think it means multi-tasking and network forming – my friends and I are fans of the side project. I have a friend who is the head boy of his High School at Massey and we’re always talking about what we have going on and usually all of this stuff whether it be online work, community work, meeting engagements or events is on top of the standard work for a young person – I live for the side project and when I feel like giving up, I have a network of fellow millennials who push me forwards. That’s what I think a millennial is, a hustler, a multitasker, a network former. You know you’re in good company when everyone offers to pay for the coffee – because of the business credit card.