Cancer survivor, entrepreneur and accidental influencer Jess Quinn on health, wealth & self-love

16 March 2019
By Fashion Quarterly


The gym-junkie, model, brand ambassador and third-place getter of Dancing with the Stars, Jess Quinn is an unstoppable force gracing the globe with her biggest asset: her mindset.

Jess Quinn’s story is pretty well-known at this point, but a quick recap:
At nine years old, Jess Quinn broke her right femur playing soccer. When it failed to heal, doctors discovered a large tumour and diagnosed Jess with Osteosarcoma — a form of bone cancer. In the nine months that followed, she underwent 16 rounds of chemotherapy and countless procedures, none of which shrunk the cancer. With her young life in the balance, amputation was Jess’ only shot at survival — a rare kind called rotationplasty, which saw the lower part of her amputated limb rotated 180 degrees and reattached at her hip, effectively making her foot and heel her new ‘knee’. The surgery took 14 hours. Four hours out of theatre, Jess managed to move her new ‘knee’, demonstrating from the outset the grit and determination that would get her through a long and painful journey of physical and mental rehabilitation.

Jess Quinn on ‘Dancing with the Stars’

She’s a gym-junkie, model, brand ambassador, and third-place getter of the 2018’s season of Dancing with the Stars NZ (DWTS). “I initially said no,” she laughs. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to learn how to dance in front of a million people. I couldn’t even see how it was physically possible. It’s one thing to dance in a club — I can boogie — but ballroom requires speed and balance and stability and all these things I don’t naturally have. Plus, I knew I couldn’t wear high heels in my prosthetic leg!”

Let’s rewind a bit. A year after her surgery, Jess was fitted with her first prosthetic leg, and had to learn to walk again — literally one foot in front of the other. Today, the prosthetic is her “everyday leg”, worn about 70 percent of the time. It doesn’t allow for much ankle flexion or movement, but it’s easy and it keeps her stable. What more do you need? Agility. Enter the blade, which viewers of DWTS will be familiar with. It’s not something she’d wear to brunch, but it’s ideal for running, boxing, and, turns out, dancing.

Then there’s her pole leg, which has the same capabilities as the prosthetic but isn’t as precious. “I can swim in it and just generally thrash it a bit more”.

Swimming, dancing, boxing, running… if you’re never short of an excuse not to exercise, meeting Jess will make you feel two things: guilty, then motivated. “I was always super sporty but throughout my rehabilitation, I rekindled my love of fitness, because I’d be at the gym and all of a sudden do a pull-up and people — myself included — were amazed. I got addicted to the feeling of being ‘able’. Having grown up not knowing what my capabilities would be, I quickly realised that, bar a few things that were literally not an option, my fate was in my own hands.” Today, Jess’ main motivation is being able to do normal, social activities — walk up a hill; go on an adventure with her friends. Things most of us take for granted, she has to continuously put in work to achieve. Understandably, she’s pretty damn proud of her body and herself.

“My experience has taught me that our bodies are so much more than just what they look like,” she says. “I appreciate how much mine went through, how much it’s capable of, what it does for me on the daily…so I’m not about to tear it apart for not having a thigh-gap.”

Jess Quinn on body image

Speaking out on the subject of body image is a passion project of Jess’. “I don’t want to call it a movement, because I hope it’s not a movement, but all this talk of body image in the media has made me reflect and realise ‘Oh yeah, I went through that’. I struggled massively with body image as a teenager, I just didn’t know I was struggling at the time.”

Already delivering motivational talks to corporate audiences on the regular, Jess has plans for a national school tour, speaking to adolescents about body image issues, adversity, and how to understand and cope with the pressures and pitfalls of social media.

Until then, she has numerous other projects on the go, including ‘Be Your Label’ — a soon-to-launch clothing brand built upon the premise of making women feel confident in their own skin. “I studied fashion at university, so it’s been cool drawing upon that,” says Jess. She’s also about to take her modelling career to the next level, moving to LA where international agency Natural Models has brands already lining up to work with her. “I hate bringing diversity into it because everyone’s diverse, but for so long there’s been this rigid idea of what a model should look like, and just now people are starting to think differently. I want to be a part of breaking that chain.”

In case this doesn’t sound like enough to keep one person busy, there’s talk of a book, and a podcast, too. Before I ruined it with my last-minute Sunday morning interview, Jess was in the midst of taking a desperately needed weekend off.

“For the past two years I’ve been going non-stop,” she says. “Even when I feel like I’m not working, I’m constantly sharing my story or being this positive person for other people, and it gets draining. I want to do it, but I need to remember to take time for myself.”

Jess Quinn on giving back

Cooking is something she does for her. “I can’t just mooch around and watch a movie — I need to keep busy. Cooking as an activity requires focus, because you’re trying to not burn the house down, but it’s also therapeutic in its mindlessness. Yesterday I needed that really badly so I baked a whole lot of stuff that I didn’t even plan on eating. I went and gave it to a bunch of friends.”

Jess’ generosity extends well beyond batches of kumara brownies gifted to her mates. On her Instagram, where she has over 180k followers, she regularly receives messages from strangers all around the world, in all sorts of predicaments. They see in her an inspiration, an ally, someone to talk to. And rarely are they disappointed.

“I try to reply to every message. Often it’s a teenage girl with body image issues, or a guy who’s struggling to find motivation to go to the gym. It escalated dramatically when I was on Dancing with the Stars. I had parents reach out to me, including a mum whose boy was really shy and insecure. By watching me on TV he found the confidence to go out and be himself. You forget that guys go through this stuff as well, so I really loved that.”

Other highlights include hearing of a young New Zealand girl going through chemo, who upon hearing Jess’ story worked up the courage to cut off her last remaining strands of hair. “Another time I received a message from someone in the US Marine Corps who’d found my image online and wanted me to know I’d inspired him to keep doing what he was doing. The Marine Corps! Someone that I would look up to!”


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A post shared by 👊🏼 Jess Quinn (@jessicaemilyquinn) on

Jess Quinn on being an accidental influencer

On a platform that could be said to bring out the best and the worst of humanity, Jess says that without a doubt, she’s encountered a whole lot more of the former. When the latter does come knocking, she isn’t afraid to use her influence to shut it down. “I spoke out about something recently and a follower messaged me saying, ‘Oh, I wish I could do what you do and stand up for others but I’ve only got a couple of thousand followers.’ And I just thought, you could have one follower and still have an influence. I don’t know,” she says. “In this era of ‘influencers’, I think we’ve lost the meaning of influence.”

Jess’ own ‘influencer’ status came about kind of by accident. In 2016, back when her follower count was closer to 1000, she Instagrammed a photo of herself wearing the blade, taken by Auckland-based photographer and friend, Jono Parker. It went viral, and she amassed around 10,000 followers overnight. “I’d been hanging out with a friend and we just so happened to have been having a conversation about buying followers — I didn’t even know that was a thing, that’s how green I was. We went to dinner and I got back and my phone was blowing up and I was like, “You dick!” I thought he’d bought followers behind my back as a joke.”


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A post shared by 👊🏼 Jess Quinn (@jessicaemilyquinn) on

No amount of money could buy Jess the loyal fan base she’s grown simply by being herself. And she knows for a fact that it can’t buy her good health, or the family — blood and non-blood related — who to this day have her back when the going gets tough. “In terms of what I value most in the world, those two things are really important. That’s my currency I guess. I would be literally broke without either of them.”

As for her greatest asset?

“I think my mindset. Growing up, people always told me I was inspiring, and I thought it was because I had cancer and lost my leg and I’m still standing. But I’ve realised recently, that’s not what’s inspiring. The inspiring part is how I’ve handled it and how I’ve pushed on with my life in spite of what I went through.”

It’s a mindset that she was forced to adopt quickly, but that doesn’t mean it was fully developed overnight, and Jess tries to remind others of this.

“When people reach out to me, frustrated with where they’re at on their journey, I always tell them to be patient with themselves,” she says. “I’m 17 years down my path, and progress for me has happened in stages.” Having come to terms with her progress to date, Jess is still surprised almost every single day by what her body can achieve — this being, short answer, just about anything.

Bring on the next stage.

Words: Phoebe Watt
Photos: Michael James Rooke, Instagram

WATCH: Miss FQ Girl Talk with Model and Champion of Body Diversity Jess Quinn

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