Model Deborah Chambers Credit: Anthony Friend

“Becoming a model rebuilt my confidence after divorce”

The breakup of her marriage left Deborah Chambers questioning her relevance and her identity. She tells us how she found a new passion – and a new perspective on divorce.

I sat on my single bed in a tiny room in a bed and breakfast in Belgrano, Buenos Aires, and cried.   

It was two years since my divorce. I was nearly 50, and I was feeling very low. After the breakup, I’d decided to take a three-month solo trip to South America to learn Spanish, have an adventure and find myself again. But instead, here I was, crying because I felt so lost and alone.   

Looking back, I can see that I was still grieving my marriage. It was disorientating to be without the person who’d been at my side for almost 25 years. 

I met my husband when I was 20, and we had one daughter, Alexandra, together. But for much of that time, my husband was working very hard on his business.  

It’s a cliché, but in our case it’s true – we just drifted apart.  

There was no huge drama but after years of passing one another like ships in the night, our marriage collapsed.   

Deborah Chambers on her wedding day
Deborah on her wedding day in 1981

Past my ‘sell-by date’?

After my sabbatical in Argentina, I went back to the job where I had been working as an IT technical writer. We were in the office when a young male colleague made a throwaway comment about me being ‘past my sell-by date’.  

I was too shocked to respond at the time – and perhaps on some level, I believed him.  

I don’t think he meant to be unkind, but his comment really knocked my confidence.  

In the days and weeks afterwards, it ate away at me, leaving me feeling very gloomy about where I was in life. 

But then, just before my 50th birthday, my younger sister died suddenly at 37, and within two weeks, my very dear friend Karen died at 53.  

I was devastated, but it also made me realise how lucky I was to be healthy and well.  

I’d never been particularly active, but it prompted me to go on a fitness kick, and I took up walking and cycling.  

Next came my hair.  

I’d been colouring my hair since my teens so my greys had never stood out. I’d absorbed my mother’s belief that grey hair and roots were dreadful – a sign of ageing, something to be resisted. 

But when I went to the hairdresser shortly after my 50th birthday for my usual highlights, I realised I had so many more greys than blondes. Looking at my reflection, I made the spontaneous decision to go natural and to go short.  

It didn’t feel like a big decision at the time, but looking back, it was like a switch had flicked inside me – I wanted to draw a line under the past and embrace a new beginning. 

I started with a short pixie cut, and then over time, I grew more adventurous, letting my hair get taller and taller.  

My style started to attract lots of attention – people would even stop me in the street and want to take photos. I felt more like myself than I had in years. 

‘You should be a model’

A friend suggested I try modelling, and at first I dismissed it. ‘Don’t be daft,’ I thought. ‘Who would want photos of me?’  

But it must have planted a seed.   

I always say you should never leave a granny alone with an internet connection unsupervised, because one evening, on a whim, I sent some snapshots to a local model agent. She phoned me back immediately and signed me up.  

Another friend encouraged me to start my own Instagram page. I didn’t even know what Instagram was but I had a look, uploaded some pictures of myself, and slowly started to attract followers.   

Deborah Chambers modelling in a warehouseCredit: Anthony Friend
Deborah was immediately snapped up by a model agent

I can still remember the day I was sitting at work, marvelling at having 396 followers. My office friends started ringing round and asking their friends to follow me, and when I hit 400, we had a mini celebration.  

The first modelling job I was booked for was for a deodorant. I was 53 and I’d never been near a modelling shoot, let alone the subject of one.  

I arrived on set but didn’t know what to do or where to stand. It was quite a big production with people buzzing around everywhere, doing lighting, sound, makeup and wardrobe.  

I remember sitting in the makeup artist’s chair and telling her this was my first commercial – inside I was terrified.  

When my name was called, I took a deep breath and walked onto set. It was nerve-wracking but I guess I ended up channelling my inner child – as a kid, I loved dressing up and showing off. Everyone was very helpful – guiding me through my ‘performance’ – and by the end of the shoot, I was loving it. 

Challenging stereotypes 

More work came off the back of that, and with each booking, I felt my confidence grow. I absorbed so much from being on set around creative people and I learnt to focus solely on the camera. Once I was able to forget all the other people in the room, I felt a lot less self-conscious. 

Some things don’t get easier; I’m still attacked by nerves beforehand, and I always worry about whether I’ve done a good job when it’s over. But while the camera’s on me, I feel relaxed. And I’ve realised that confidence is about trying something, even when it makes you feel nervous.  

Deborah Chambers modelling at the beachCredit: Ramzi Mansour

Since that first commercial, I’ve gradually built a full-time career as a model and influencer, mostly making content about beauty and skincare for brands like Clarins and Estée Lauder.  

I go to castings for adverts throughout the year so I’ve had to get comfortable with rejection. That’s not always easy but if you don’t fit what the client is looking for, there simply isn’t much you can do. I seem to book around three a year, which I’m told is a reasonable hit rate. 

Beyond that, I have 110,000 followers on Instagram and an inbox full of messages from women all over the world, telling me how my posts have inspired them to do something bold with their hair, get a new job or leave a toxic relationship.  

It can be very moving to hear from other women who are rewriting the script on their own lives, like I have.  

People often tell me that I’m challenging stereotypes around ageing – I didn’t really set out to do that but I guess it’s true. I’m certainly a believer in ageing naturally, and I think that if I were to go down the path of having surgery or ‘tweakments’, I’d be sending out the wrong message. I’m happy that my daughter, who’s now 35, is embracing going grey like me.  

Deborah Chambers model shotCredit: Justin Munitz

A new perspective

Right now, life is good. I’m 61 and very fortunate to have a career that comes with lots of ‘pinch me’ moments.  

In my everyday life, I’ve made a promise to live by Eleanor Roosevelt’s mantra – to do something that scares me every day.  

It doesn’t have to be a big thing – sometimes it might just be going to an event on my own and striking up conversation with a stranger.  

It’s not always easy to be brave but if you start with just one small step, it gets you moving in the right direction and might even kick off a serendipitous chain of events.  

If there’s something you’re interested in, subscribe to a newsletter on that topic or follow people on social media who do something similar.  

Likewise, if you want to be bolder with your style, do one small thing and build on it: start with wearing those big, bold earrings, or pop a denim or leather jacket over an evening dress to go to the supermarket.

People will judge us anyway so we may as well give them something to talk about. 

Black and white photograph of Deborah ChambersCredit: Anthony Friend

I now have a completely different perspective on my marriage, too.  

That sense of failure that I had initially, has completely changed. I now see my marriage as a success – for a long time it worked very well, and it gave us our beautiful daughter. My ex and I have stayed friends and we still go for dinner together.  

People often say to me proudly: “My parents have been together for 60 years.” And I think to myself: “But your parents can’t stand each other! All they do is bicker.” 

If a marriage is no longer working, I think it’s far healthier to split graciously and move on.  

I have a lovely boyfriend now called Wilfred.  

Until Covid, we lived 200 metres apart from one another in separate houses. We give each other freedom and space to lead the lives we want – he doesn’t try to control me or our life together. He just supports me.   

To anyone reading this who’s in the throes of a separation and finding it tough, they have my sympathy. It’s undeniably hard to imagine life without the partner you’ve experienced so much with.  

For a long time, I couldn’t believe that divorce had happened to us. But it is possible to move forward and create an entirely new, happy and fulfilling life at any age.  

There are so many adventures to be had.  You can fall in love, travel, change career, learn new skills, try new things… 

And once you find something that lights you up again, life is truly wonderful.  

Deborah is writing the foreword to a new book about women’s wisdom post-50

Find out more about Deborah here.

Written by Deborah Chambers