By Jenni Sellen  | @jennisellan

Model: Chaye Hartwell | @chayehartwell


In her mind, she has always been.

In his mind she always was.

Her actualized experience just two years young. Her charm and girlish enthusiasm fused with wisdom and resolve, reflecting an intense, often confronting and deeply personal journey.

This is the beginning, the unfolding of a girl who is pursuing an intentional and determined life. This is Chaye Hartwell.
 
As a 27-year-old woman of transgender experience, there is a sense that Chaye is experiencing life for the very first time.  Finally Chaye is aligned; spiritually, physically & mentally. 

When you have the opportunity to spend time with Chaye, you cannot help but notice what can only be described as spontaneous moments of wonder and awakening, a sense that something brand new has been experienced; a moment in time that can be felt and seen in her expression. With each new moment her entire being just lights up that little bit more. It’s infectious.

But don’t mistake her newfound enthusiasm for life as one that has come without complication. The reinvention of self is no small thing, and for a young man from New South Wales, it seemed like the impossible choice.

A rural upbringing in NSW, boarding school, academic success, sporting prowess, and a university business degree were the external components that served as the perfect cover-up for the internal battle known only within.

Next came the corporate roles with big 4 accounting firms, entrepreneurial pursuits, and adventures and a significant, long-term relationship. In short, kicking all the goals and ticking all the boxes, but through the building of an external persona based on the ‘should’s and ‘should not’s.’ There was an awakening that emerged from a truth that sat deep below the surface.

A young woman, trapped in a man’s body.

The season that followed was perhaps the most honest and vulnerable yet. At 25, Chaye’s transformation began, and at 27 her reassignment surgery was complete. It was during this time that Chaye developed a strong interest in fashion and in particular, modeling. 

 Initially, the pursuit of fashion served as a way of building confidence as a woman, but it soon found itself with a stronger purpose. Together, with the desire to create and live a holistic, multidimensional life, wellness coaching and nutrition are all now an important part of the story unfolding. With the commencement of an Honours degree in Dietetics, several photo-shoots under her belt and a soon to be released autobiography, the course has been set. 

We sat down with Chaye to delve a little deeper into her journey; the constants in her life, the complexities and challenges, the losses and her determination to reignite Fashion’s diversity conversation. Because if you’ve been tuned in over the past couple of years, there’s a strong chance you’ve noticed the conversation has been diluted. Some may even argue that it has disappeared altogether amidst the current political climate, the focus on sustainability and what that means for the industry globally as it enters into a new decade of doing business. 

Incredibly focused and determined, if anyone can awaken this sleeping giant, it’s a girl who has created possibility out of what at first positioned itself as the unattainable dream.

Chaye’s message is a simple one, permeated with layers of complexity. It’s one that we all need to be willing to confront and find the answers to if we are to live our most meaningful lives. In her own words, “We must be, who we want to be.” More than a ‘mantra’ or ‘life hack’, Chaye considers this both her personal responsibility and the marker that will frame the decisions and opportunities that cross her path. 

Prepared to break some rules and ambitiously challenge the status quo, Chaye is 110% invested (and then some), so watch this space because no limits apply here. 

Who has been the most significant influence in your life and to date your greatest cheerleader?

The answer to both is my Mum, Alaia.

Regardless of my life choices, she has supported me in ways unimaginable.  She has been there for me emotionally, physically (as a former registered nurse), and financially, funding my survival when my father refused, supporting me during my transition, and now by helping me build and carve out my career.

I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for her generosity and loving heart. There are times where she believes in what I am doing more than myself.

What have been the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your transition? 

Challenging – Letting go of previous relationships with those that knew me before I transitioned and waiting patiently for physical changes to occur to my body. 

Rewarding – Seeing myself grow and morph into the person I always felt I was and the new relationships that have formed as a result. 

Were there or are there any aspects of your previous life that you have grieved, or that you miss?

The relationship I had with my last intimate partner who I was with when I started my transition. We were together for 3 years and broke up mutually a few months into me beginning hormone replacement therapy. We tried to stay platonic friends for a little while, but things just drifted further apart over time. 

You have had offers from law school, fashion design courses, psychology and more. What is it specifically about the fashion and wellbeing industries that you feel most drawn to?

At the heart of both the fashion and wellbeing industries is a message of self-love and acceptance. Unfortunately, both industries can also discourage this core philosophy through commercialism and misleading marketing. However, the majority of the people that are drawn to working in the fields of self-care are genuinely there because they want to motivate people to feel their best while embracing the beauty of life. 

I think being surrounded by others who do what engenders joy each day is infectious and inspires me to continue doing what I love, which is embracing my body’s innate intelligence, and being continually amazed by this transformative journey it has achieved.  

I love to keep discovering who I am, the way I function, and ultimately sharing with others what I’ve learnt along my journey. Studying holistic well-being and especially plant-based nutrition has been pivotal to my own understanding of how I can contribute to living a meaningful and fulfilling life.

Fashion, beauty, and modeling are the icing on the cake and is where I get to see the wholehearted transformation of who I have become, livened in the most empowering creative ways possible. Both are integral to my enjoyment in this life. 

What does diversity and inclusion within the fashion industry mean to you?

We are all unique and deserve to see an accurate representation of that statement across the fashion industry. When we see people of different sizes, shapes, ages, sex, race, backgrounds, and more, promoting a message of genuine self-acceptance and love, we feel empowered to stop feeling ashamed of who we are and want to be. Seeing diversity and inclusion in fashion gives the rest of us permission to be our unique selves. It’s the first step towards embracing our differences and living our life, not someone else’s. 

How would you like to influence the industry?

I want to be a role model for people young and old, by standing up for our personal right to be our unique, differentiated selves. It’s okay to be different and stand out from the crowd if that’s who we are. 

Tell us about what it means to be ‘who you want to be? 

In life we’re drawn towards different careers, places, people, and events for inexplicable reasons. We feel called and pulled toward them, leaving us with two choices; we can either go in the direction we want or deny our desires. If we refuse who we want to be because we’re afraid of what others will think, we will never be genuinely fulfilled. Nor will we form honest and authentic connections with those around us.  

Life is about accepting what we want to become and going with our desires, no matter how others will see us. Failure to allow ourselves to embrace what we came here to be can only ever result in pain. 

Being who we want to be is about embracing what we are drawn towards, welcoming our bodies’ intelligence, and following our innate guidance towards living life the way we uniquely want. 

What is your long-term vision? 

To be honest I don’t know what my long-term vision is just yet. My aim this year is to publish my autobiography, study nutrition and dietetics at university, continue working as a fashion model, and be open to the opportunities that come my way. 

Who I will be in another fifteen years time is anyone’s guess. I know that I will continue to learn about what interests me, and share my wisdom with others. I’m only at the beginning of discovering who I am both as a woman and as an agent for change. 

What message do you have for anyone who might be facing what he or she perceives to be insurmountable challenges on the pathway to discovering who it is they want to be? 

Start paying attention to what you are already drawn towards. Accept that your body is the vehicle that drives you around, and it knows where it is going. You do not need to judge where you want your life to go next. Start by noticing and embracing what you want that single next step to be. Don’t ask your mind, head, or even others for the answers, honesty won’t be there. Only your body can make an unbiased decision for you. Please pay attention and let your life unfold as it’s needed.