Winning The Block might have propelled Knowles to household-name status, but long before television came calling she’d chalked up 15 years of modelling, including campaigns for Billabong, served as an ambassador for sporting events such as the Australian Grand Prix and Longines Golden Slipper (the latter alongside actor Rachel Griffiths) and fronted international charity WaterAid—a cause focused on providing clean water in developing countries that’s still very close to her heart.
There was plenty of impetus away from the spotlight, too. Aware she might need a fall-back career, Knowles studied fashion design and merchandising at the Kangan Institute TAFE, started then eventually closed her own fashion label Evrryday, and renovated a home with partner Josh Barker—a precursor to their lucrative TV series win—but all roads led back to modelling for the relatable, motorbike-riding, passionate animal lover.
Anyone who’s watched Knowles on television will know that she laughs a lot while she talks and often uses an endearing, colloquial verbal shorthand that sees her start a new sentence before finishing the last. The fact that her brand is intrinsically pegged to her bubbly, likeable, girl-next-door persona isn’t lost on her either. Given she rarely drinks alcohol and considers Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups one of her guiltiest pleasures, the idea of her being caught in any kind of tabloid scandal is implausible, if not laughable. Still, the pressure to live up to her perpetually cheery image can be exhausting at times and it takes its toll, particularly since she admits to caring deeply about being liked.
“I have quite thick skin and I always have, but some things do get to me. I don’t like anyone to think anything negative about me because I always try my best in my job and to be the nicest person possible. If someone is just trying to make a story out of nothing or make up a lie, that really annoys the shit out of me. Still, I was brought up to know that if someone wants to do something nasty, be bigger and better than them. Don’t let them get to you.”
That idyllic upbringing is something Knowles references repeatedly throughout our conversation. Her family clearly means the world to her and their values have helped form hers. The eldest of three siblings, Knowles studied at Melbourne’s Eltham High School, which has a reputation for being a no-frills education option thanks to its uniform-free policy. “It suited us Knowles kids because we were very down to earth and didn’t really care what we looked like,” the model explains somewhat ironically given her current career revolves around clothes and aesthetics.
“We just wanted to play sport and do art and have fun.” Family holidays, she recalls, were equally low fuss: camping in central Victoria or road trips to Fraser Island in Queensland, stopping along the way at sleepy coastal towns. “We didn’t go on aeroplanes as kids growing up. Instead, we were brought up packing the speedboat to take to the river, digging holes, making a fire, surviving for ourselves, skiing and wakeboarding and having fun. That’s still my absolute favourite holiday and nothing will ever beat it. One day I’ll make my kids do it as well.”
The urban-bohemian tones of Knowles’ upbringing, combined with the love she shares with Barker for sunshine, surfing and sustainable living, mean it’s little surprise the couple migrated their home renovation business J&E Projects earlier this year from Melbourne to hipster haven Byron Bay. The place also has sentimental meaning for the duo given it’s where they first met.
“Byron has gotten busier over the years, but it’s also gained a lot of entrepreneurial, business-focused people. I’m learning so much every single day there,” she tells me, adding that J&E Projects is “going great guns” as Barker works incredibly long hours, often starting his day at 4am. “It’s stressful but we’re trying to work really, really hard now to set ourselves up for later, so we can have our family up there in a nice home that we’ll be able to build for ourselves.”
She already feels right at home in a sartorial sense though.
“My style has changed since we moved. I still like to have a chic element but in all-natural linens, textures and tones, styled up with a nice belt or chic bag. In Melbourne I’d feel weird getting into a flowy, white peasant dress but in Byron I get to be myself.”
That said, there are still plenty of big fashion moments in store for Knowles before Christmas, starting with a high-stakes trip to the Singapore Grand Prix alongside fellow TAG Heuer global ambassador and Byron Shire resident Chris Hemsworth.
(As soon as it’s over, though, she’ll be on the first plane home to Barker and their two beloved Weimaraner dogs, Isla and Harlow, to recharge her batteries.)
“There was a stage where I thought I wanted to live overseas and do the whole America thing. I had managers telling me ‘you won’t make it as a model here in Australia if you don’t’. But when I was overseas I cried every day and wanted to come home—I hated it. I’m not one for going out to clubs and socialising with my bookers because they’re going to get me work. I don’t have to be a drunk model sucking up to get a good job. I want to get a job because I am who I am.”
Perhaps that’s why, despite working for almost 17 years in an industry rife with #MeToo horror stories, Knowles says the worst situations she’s weathered have been disappointments and extremely poor manners—like the time she flew across the world at 48-hours’ notice for a major international modelling opportunity, and then the casting boss did a no-show.
For now though, she’s determined to enjoy the successes she’s worked so relentlessly for, and bask in the idyllic life she and Barker value above fame.
“I’m pretty content with my decision now that Australia is my home and it’s where I want to be,” she concludes. “This is what I dreamed of when I was younger. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”