While the titles fashion blogger, Instagram pioneer, even new-gen model have been bandied around to describe Warne Shadbolt over the years, she just laughs when I ask what she writes in the ‘profession’ box on airport immigration forms. “I really struggle with this,” she admits. “I say influencer, but it’s such a generalisation because everyone has a very different skill set and very different businesses. I worked as a digital consultant with Qantas for three years and put together their Influencer program, but then on the other side of that, I did a video series for their in-flight entertainment that was a five-part episode we shot with talent around the world. My team did all of the production and the casting, all of the post-production. We even helped with the press strategy. The part that many people, including myself, struggle with is the [notion] that influencers are just vain people who love to take photos of themselves. People will always try to discredit your hard work or intelligence or resilience.”
Though academic, Warne—who was so bright she skipped two grades of primary school—knew from her teens that she wanted her future swathed in fabulous clothes. “I started as an intern in the fashion cupboard at Harper’s Bazaar and Grazia when I was 19, the lowest of the fashion magazine food chain, but I loved it.” It was her first overseas holiday, to Japan, a year later with her now-husband, Luke Shadbolt, that served as the catalyst for Gary Pepper Vintage. “I came back from our trip and was like, ‘If those girls can walk around in Harajuku dressed up like dolls and they don’t care what people think, I can model some clothes and put them on eBay. What’s the worst that can happen?’” Today, she fronts global fashion magazines and sits front row at Paris Fashion Week alongside A-list editors and celebrities.
“I’ve had my fair share of surreal moments,” she concedes of her work being a world away from low-key Avoca. “I remember walking into the Dior show alongside Rihanna once, and experiencing a glimmer of what it was like to be the real her. We were in this tiny corridor and she turned around and said to her best friend who was with her, “Girl, you look so fine.” It was genuine love and friendship. Then we got seated, all the cameras arrived, and she just turned that celebrity button on. It was crazy.”
Comfortable as she is with being one of the most recognised influencers in the world, Warne Shadbolt is the first to admit the journey’s not always been easy, especially during high school. “We moved from Western Australia to the Central Coast to be near Mum’s family and my school was not multicultural in the slightest—I was one of four Asians. As crazy as it sounds, until I was bullied in high school, I had no idea that being Asian meant that you looked different,” she says. “I really developed this complex about having small, slanted eyes, so I started drawing this winged eye that accentuated my whole face. Eventually it became this thing people knew me for. [The dramatic eye make-up look went on to become Warne Shadbolt’s global signature.] At the time I thought, ‘I just love this look’, but on reflection, I realise it was a mask for my insecurities.
“I was five months old when I was adopted [from South Korea in 1989]. It’s always been a very open discussion in my family, but it wasn’t until I was older that I realised the negative connotations. I guess adoption just runs in our family—my sister and cousins are of Asian descent—but the rest of my family is white. [Warne Shadbolt also has an older brother, Ryan, 37, her parent’s biological son, plus a younger sister, Caitlin, 27, also from South Korea, and cousins adopted from Thailand and the Philippines.] I remember going through the process of tracking down my original birth certificate to get my US work visa a few years ago. They sent what had passed as a Korean birth certificate at the time, but these days it would not be recognised. I remember reading where it said, ‘Approximate date of birth’ and having this identity crisis thinking, ‘What? Am I not an Aquarius?’”
The confusion, stigma and sometimes awkward sympathy she experienced around her unique heritage is what urged Warne Shadbolt to become an ambassador for Adopt Change, Deborra-Lee Furness’ Australian charity that advocates for displaced children (either through being orphans, abandoned or placed in foster care) and lobbies government to change its archaic, underfunded adoption laws and fostering processes. “Adopt Change is helping create open discussion so adoption’s not so taboo anymore. People now feel like they can ask me questions, whereas before they might just say, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry’ or ask ‘So, do you want to meet your real parents?’ Today, as an adult, I’m confident enough to answer, ‘Well I know who my real parents are, but if you mean my biological parents, then no.’
“Deborra-Lee is such a powerhouse, you can see the shifts happening,” she says of Furness who—like Warne Shadbolt and her photo-artist husband Luke—lives in New York with her husband Hugh Jackman and their two children. “She meets with politicians, she goes to Parliament House, she was in [Washington] DC and she just spoke at the United Nations. But the statistics here in Australia are still crazy. There are more than 45,000 children living out of home in foster care now who need permanent placement, but in 2017, when the last statistics were released, only 315 children were adopted. The legislation and adoption policies in Australia are so difficult; a lot of people give up or adopt outside Australia because the timeline’s shorter—one to three years instead of up to 10.” It’s heartbreaking and complex, she says, but there are simple ways we can all help, too. “When kids are in foster care, they might wake up the next morning and be told they’re getting moved without any warning. They have to pack up their stuff, usually in a plastic bag, and end up feeling very displaced. Adopt Change’s MyPack initiative provides them with a backpack full of possessions they can carry from house to house—a toothbrush, pyjamas, colouring-in books, a T-shirt, maybe a hat. You can either donate money, the backpack itself, or the physical items. Every little bit helps. You have no idea how much a $10 blanket from Kmart can help a child.”
While she’s always been passionate about supporting children, the topic of cultivating loving family units has never felt closer to home. Warne Shadbolt was carrying a very special secret with her at the time of InStyle’s cover shoot—literally. “I can’t hide it anymore,” laughs the mum-to-be several weeks later as she hits the halfway pregnancy mark. “We wanted to keep it intimate to savour that moment. Also, because I’m adopted and don’t know my genetic background, I feared something was going to go wrong, so I had an extra layer of stress. But everything is fine and I’ve been very lucky so far—no sickness at all. We actually felt the baby move for the first time a few days ago, so that was a good reminder to slow down a little.” The expectant parents will extend their annual Christmas trip home to their beautiful North Avoca abode until after the baby’s born. “We’re completely biased but we think it’s the best place in the world to raise a family. We also want to raise our kids in Japan for a few years to instil that culture in them: being considerate and thoughtful, respecting humans and nature. I’m half Japanese, so I’m very passionate about it.”
While she can’t say where her family will be living in 10 years’ time, she does know she won’t be jetting around the globe constantly for work, as she does now. “The more kids I have, the more work will shift,” she explains. “There’s a loose plan that we’ll live between the two places [New York and North Avoca], but we’ll be guided by the baby, obviously. You get to a point in your life where you’ve got a routine, you’ve got everything in order, but then you’re thrown into the abyss with kids. I’m so excited and ready for the challenge.”
The February issue of InStyle is on sale from January 9.